Emerald Isle with Kids | North Carolina Family Vacation Guide

by Shelly Rivoli
View from Cape Lookout Lighthouse, North Carolina

NORTH CAROLINA FAMILY VACATIONS, Emerald Isle with Kids – South of the summer crowds collecting on North Carolina’s better-known Outer Banks lies an 85-mile stretch of lesser-known shoreline that’s making a name for itself—a new name in fact.

The 411 on North Carolina's Crystal Coast with Kids

No longer satisfied to simply be dismissed as “the Southern Outer Banks,” the Crystal Coast is indeed a world unto itself. Here you’ll find 56 miles of protected National Seashore, barrier islands where wild horses roam free, its own postcard-worthy Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and pristine waters lapping at wide sand beaches.

With beautiful Emerald Isle at its center, home to charming historic towns like Beaufort, recently named America’s No. 1 Small Town by Travel + Leisure and America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel, isn’t hurting anything.

There is a lot to like about North Carolina’s Emerald Isle on the Crystal Coast, especially for families. If you’d like to get acquainted with the region, here are my top recommended activities for an Emerald Isle vacation with kids.

1. Ferry Over to Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout Lighthouse with its black and white diamonds is also known as, "The Diamond Lady" of North Carolina's Crystal Coast.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse with its black and white diamonds is also known as, “The Diamond Lady” of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.

There’s no better way to see the barrier islands of the Crystal Coast than by boat. And the passenger ferry ride from historic Beaufort to Cape Lookout will give you the chance to cruise right through them, most likely with sightings of the wild horses of Shackleford Banks along the way, and possibly dolphins and sea turtles, too.

Once you land at at Cape Lookout, you’ll have the opportunity to climb the 207-step “Diamond Lady” for dazzling views of Cape Lookout National Seashore’s white sand beaches and sailboat-dotted waters (that’s the view from the top in the lead photo). The climb begins with a safety talk, and large purses and backpacks must be left below with the ranger. But don’t worry too much–the climb may be easier than you think (see my videos below for the full scoop).

After your climb, reward your troop with a hearty picnic and refreshing cold drinks on the beach. Bring sand toys, sunscreen, a small ice chest, and your usual beach favorites. There is a potable water bottle refill station at the restrooms, too, so bring your favorite reusables along for the ride. Find out more: http://www.islandexpressferryservices.com/

Click on the videos to see for yourself–and be sure to click “unmute” in the bottom right corner of the screen.

Tip: Shelling enthusiasts will find some great treasures here, but they may also want to catch the island shuttle to “the best shelling beach” there–ask your Park Ranger for details and departure times. 

2. Visit the aquarium

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Who would have guessed that North Carolina’s single largest aquarium is located on its petite Emerald Isle? The 306,000-gallon “living shipwreck” tank with its spectacular sharks and educational dive shows is a delight to watch in its own right (check schedule for daily dive program & feedings). Yet petting the sting rays in their touch pond and watching the jellyfish dance is not to be missed. And there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes here that may be of interest, too.

As one of North Carolina’s four non-profit aquariums dedicated to protecting the coast’s most vulnerable creatures, the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores helps educate visitors about and tell the stories of many creatures they rescue and rehabilitate right there. In fact, the aquarium’s sea turtle nursery helps nurture roughly 200 struggling hatchlings each year and cares for them until they are ready for release.

If your children are especially keen on marine life and marine biology, be sure to check out the aquarium’s behind-the-scenes tours for kids 5 years and older, and even an “Aquarist Apprentice” opportunity for kids 13 years and older. Find out more: See my friend Debbra Dunning Brouillette’s feature and additional photos of the aquarium and visit the official site at www.ncaquariums.com/pine-knoll-shores

3. Kayak or SUP the Sound

Kayaks on Bogue Sound on North Carolina's Crystal Coast.
Kayaks on Bogue Sound on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.

Protected by Bogue Banks and other barrier islands, Bogue Sound offers up its sheltered waters as a haven for bird lovers and boaters alike. Whether you want a guided ECO tour by paddle board and/or kayak or a kayak fishing tour through the area–or if you prefer a self-guided SUP or kayak tour at your own pace, Hot Wax Surf Shop can help you plan and enjoy a great paddle with your family.

Rent on an hourly basis, by the half day, or with multi-day packages. Delivery is also available. Interested in SUP or surfing lessons? They’ve got you covered there, too, with group lessons for those 7 years through adult, private lessons for those who prefer (including kids younger than 7), and surfing camps for kids. Find out more: www.hotwaxsurf.com

Tip: Because oyster beds are found throughout Bogue Sound, water shoes or sport sandals are recommended for paddling activities. Come prepared!

4. Hit the Beach

The wide beach near Bogue Inlet Pier on Emerald Isle of the Southern Outer Banks or Crystal Coast.
The wide beach near Bogue Sound Pier on Emerald Isle of the Southern Outer Banks.

With so many other fun activities, don’t forget to carve out several healthy doses of beach time for your visit. The 86-mile stretch of “Crystal Coast” has lovely, uncrowded sand beaches–and loads of sea-shelling hot spots–throughout.

And along Bogue Banks, at the heart of the Crystal Coast, the Atlantic beaches face south for marvelous sunrises at one end of the beach and sunsets at the other. If you find yourself in the Emerald Isle neighborhood, don’t miss your chance to stroll the landmark Bogue Inlet Pier shown above.

Where to Eat on on Emerald Isle with Kids? Amos Mosquito’s.

Get a serious seafood fix at Amos Mosquito's family-friendly restaurant on Emerald Isle.
Get a serious seafood fix at Amos Mosquito’s family-friendly restaurant on Emerald Isle.

The one problem with Amos Mosquito’s? Way too many good sounding seafood dishes to choose from–especially with a southern twist. Bring your appetite–and a trustworthy friend to choose for you if needed.

Start with the warm-and-cheesy lobster dip, baked oysters, or seared local yellow fin tuna. Tough decision? It won’t be any easier to choose your entree to follow. But with kids in tow, you’re likely to land upon a dessert course decision with ease: s’mores roasted right at your table.

If seafood isn’t everyone’s thing, not to worry. There are other temptations on both adult and kid menus (you can view both online). Amos Mosquito’s opens for dinner at 5 p.m. seven nights a week. Find out more: www.amosmosquitos.com

Family-friendly vacation rental (great for multiple families) on Emerald Isle: Dune View

The multi-gen friendly enormous beach house by Bluewater Vacation Rentals.
The multi-gen-friendly enormous Emerald Isle beach house by BlueWater Vacation Rentals.

If you’re at all interested in renting a beach house or condo on the Crystal Coast, take a look at those offered by Bluewater Vacation Rentals. They manage roughly 900 vacation rentals from Beaufort and on through Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach.

Planning a big multi-family get-together or reunion? Be sure to take a look at “Dune View” on Emerald Isle near Bogue Inlet Pier. This 8-bedroom, 10.5-bathroom beachfront home and found plenty of space for multiple families to sprawl, yet maintain some privacy. Better still, there’s also a swimming pool with poolside tiki bar and hot tub. And for good measure, find a game room with pool table and extra kitchen in the basement.

best travel strollers

If I’ve done my math right, it sleeps up to 18 people in beds, plus an available crib. There is even an elevator to accommodate those who don’t do stairs, those who do use strollers, and those who just want to make good use of it for getting the luggage to the upper levels. 😉

You can walk through Dune View with me in my video below. (Don’t forget to click “unmute” in the bottom right corner of the screen.) You can see rates on this and other vacation rentals on their site. Find out more: http://www.bluewaternc.com

Thanks to the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority for hosting my stay on Emerald Isle. For more help planning your own visit to the Crystal Coast with kids, visit www.crystalcoastnc.org. For more North Carolina family travel recommendations click here.

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