Situated on a barrier reef, Atlantic Beach is part of what's known as the Crystal Coast, an 85-mile stretch of North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks that abounds with crystal clear blue waters and miles of white sandy beaches. This beautiful city is on the island Bogue Banks. The calm waters of the Bogue Sound are on its inland side, and the Atlantic Ocean is on the other.
Atlantic Beach is best known for its abundance of public beaches and friendly people. It has an irresistible small-resort-town vibe with activities, on and off the water, to fit everyone's taste. From spending lazy days on the beach and shell hunting to scuba diving and sailing plus everything in between -- Atlantic Beach has it all.
Atlantic Beach is less than two hours from Wilmington and just over two and a half hours from the capital of Raleigh, making it the perfect choice for a weekend getaway or an even longer beach vacation. Here are my top choices for the best things to do on an adventurous vacation in Atlantic Beach.
Explore By Foot Or Bicycle
I think the best way to explore any place is by walking or biking around, especially on a nice, sunny day. Atlantic Beach has laid out designated walking paths to encourage people to get some exercise and see the sights at the same time. You can bring your own bicycle, or you can rent one for a few hours or your entire stay. Beachside Bikes is very reasonable, and they rent scooters, too.
Walk around on your own or follow one of the towns' loops. Visit Pelican Park and Pier, the beachfront boardwalk, and the Circle. Explore the cottage district and the sound-side marinas and shops. Even though it's not an official loop, it's under 4 miles to Fort Macon from the center of town.
Pro Tip: Another fun way to explore the area is in a street-legal golf cart. The prices are very reasonable at 70 East Custom Carts.
Hit The Beach
Most people visit the beach for, well … the beach. There is nothing like waking up just steps from the surf and the sand. If you are not staying directly on the beach or are visiting just for the day, there are plenty of choices for public beach access.
In the center of town, at the end of the Causeway is Circle Regional Access, with 64 parking spaces, bathroom facilities, picnic tables, and outside showers. The beach at the Circle also has volleyball courts, lifeguard stands, and a swing set. This beach is the site for many of the town's planned summer activities.
The Les and Sally Moore Public Beach Access on New Bern Street is less than one mile from the Circle. It has 50 parking spaces, bathrooms, picnic tables, and outside showers. A little further east is Tom Doe Memorial Beach Access on Ocean Boulevard. It offers outdoor showers, restrooms, handicap parking and ramp, and a beach playground. More beach access points are available at Fort Macon.
Play On The Water
If you are like me, you may not be content just laying on the beach all day. My favorite thing to do is to actually get out on the water. Whether you enjoy boating, sportfishing, surfing, paddling, snorkeling, or scuba diving, Atlantic Beach is a water sports lover’s paradise.
There are numerous places to rent boards, kayaks, and boats. Jet skis are popular too. AB Watersports offers a Cape Lookout jet ski tour. This incredible 2.5-hour guided tour takes visitors past Shackleford Banks, where you can see wild horses roaming free, to Cape Lookout, where you can explore the island, hunt for seashells, or climb the diamond lighthouse.
North Carolina Aquarium
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is one of four North Carolina Aquariums. It's a five-minute drive from the center of Atlantic Beach.
Exhibits include Loggerhead Odyssey, where visitors can follow the journey of the loggerhead turtle from the day they're hatched on the beach. The Living Shipwreck is a 306,000-gallon ocean habitat featuring a replica of the U-352 German submarine that was sunk off the coast in World War II. It is one of three replica wreck habitats at the aquarium.
Parking is free. Accessible spaces are located near the entrance. The aquarium is wheelchair accessible.
Pro Tip: Weekend and rainy days tend to see a higher rate of visitors. Plan to visit on a sunny day when everyone else is at the beach. Most visitors tour the aquarium in about two hours.
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park is at the eastern tip of Bogue Banks. The 424-acre park features a perfectly restored Civil War-era fort. Visitors can explore the five-sided, brick-and-stone fort on their own or join a guided tour. Indoors there is a museum-quality coastal education center and gift shop.
Nearly surrounded by water, the park also offers undisturbed coastal beauty, an unspoiled shoreline for sunbathing, beachcombing, swimming, fishing, and an abundance of other outdoor recreation, including picnicking, bird watching, and hiking.
The grounds, fort, museum, and restrooms are wheelchair accessible. There is a bathhouse and beach-side area accessible as well. Visitors can spend all day or just a few hours.
Pro Tip: There is no charge to visit Fort Macon (or its beaches), but there is a donation jar for the site's upkeep.
Hiking On The Coast
There are 15 designated hiking trails in Carteret County, four of which are in or very near Atlantic Beach. All four are easy hikes and less than 1.25 miles (one way). Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail is the closest, near the center of town. The trailhead is on Highway 58 across from Town Park. There is ample parking just next door in the Food Lion shopping center.
For more extensive trails that are easy to more strenuous in places, there's Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, which has five trails totaling 16 miles, and the 11-mile Weetock Trail in New Bern. Find the Carteret County Trail Guide here (PDF). Also, Fort Macon has a moderate 3.2-mile loop trail from the fort and through marshes, forests, and dunes.
Atlantic Beach Town Park
When you need a break from the beach but still want to be outdoors, visit Atlantic Beach Town Park. With green grass and large trees, there are shaded picnic tables, an 18-hole miniature golf course, a splash pad, a skate park, a playground, restrooms, and a concession stand. During summer months, there are concerts and movie nights in the park.
Pro Tip: The park is free and open to the public year round. The concessions and mini-golf are seasonal (summer months only) and require an extra fee.
Oceanana Pier And Pier House
The Oceanana Pier stretches 1,000 feet out over the Atlantic. With its built-in benches and gazebo, the iconic boardwalk is a great place for a lazy stroll or people-watching. With miles of wide-open views, the pier is the perfect spot to catch an amazing sunrise or sunset. It is the only ocean fishing pier in Atlantic Beach and offers fishermen a plethora of fish to catch.
The family-owned and operated Oceanana Pier House Restaurant is a local and visitor's favorite spot. The grill, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offers delicious beach food and a view. The Pier House has rod and reel rentals, fishing tackle, and bait. They also have a great selection of souvenirs.
Fishing in and around Atlantic Beach is a truly unique experience, and there are many opportunities, depending on your preferences. You can catch the “big one” on a half- or whole-day trip with one of the more than a dozen charters. Stake your claim to the perfect spot on the Oceanana Pier, or head to the ocean's edge to try your hand at surf fishing. However you choose, remember the old saying, “The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.”
Scenic Day Trips
If you are looking to go for a drive to see more of what North Carolina's Crystal Coast has to offer, there are several great day trips from Atlantic Beach. Spend the day exploring the other cities and beaches on the 21-mile barrier reef island – Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach, Salter Path, and Emerald Isle.
Seven miles north is quaint and picturesque Beaufort. One of the oldest towns in North Carolina, Beaufort has loads of history and charm. You can spend the day shopping, sightseeing, and eating at award-winning restaurants. No Atlantic Beach vacation is complete without spending at least one day in Beaufort.
From Beaufort, visitors can take a ferry boat to see the wild horses on Shackleford Banks or the lighthouse on Cape Lookout. Island Express Ferry offers rides, cruises, and tours to both islands.
Be sure to check ferry schedules. On the day we went to take the Beaufort ferry to Cape Lookout, it was only open for Shackleford Banks. We decided to drive another 19 miles to the Harker's Island ferry landing to make the crossing. It was a beautiful drive with plenty to see along the way. It makes for a fantastic day drive all by itself.
In Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, you won't find high-rise hotels and rows of condos along the beach. What you will find are smaller hotels, seaside motels, and summer cottages. Here's a list compiled by the city to get you started. Likewise with the local restaurants. Oh, you'll find a few of your chain favorites, but the majority of AB's restaurants are locally owned and operated. With such names as Island Grille, Crab's Claw, and Amos Mosquito's, how can you go wrong? Are you ready to start planning your Atlantic Beach vacation?