The Bogue Banks
Atlantic Beach is the oldest of the resorts on the 28-mile stretch of barrier island known as the Bogue Banks, which includes the vacation centers directly south, Pine Knoll Shores, Salter Path, Indian Beach, and Emerald Isle. The area is also being positioned by tourism officials as "The Crystal Coast" (encompassing Beaufort and Morehead City to the north). Whatever its moniker, the long, thin island was relatively undeveloped until 1927, when the first bridge was built across Bogue Sound to Morehead City. It's now one of the state's most popular coastal areas, with fishing festivals and tournaments held in early spring and late fall. A south-facing exposure makes the island's weather less volatile and temperatures milder than those found on the northern Outer Banks, and it's virtually a year-round resort. When you begin to feel waterlogged, plenty of sightseeing is within easy reach.
For sightseeing and accommodations information, contact the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority (tel. 877/206-0929 or 252/726-8148; www.crystalcoastnc.org).
At the tip of Bogue Island sits Fort Macon (tel. 252/726-3775; www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/foma/main.php), a restored Civil War landmark that's open to the public at no charge. The jetties (designed by Gen. Robert E. Lee), moats, gun emplacements, and dungeons make it worth the trip. The museum displays weapons, tools, and artifacts. The public beach has bathhouses, a snack bar, and lifeguards. Fort Macon lies 2 miles east of Atlantic Beach off N.C. 58 and is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm. Free guided tours of the fort are offered only in summer at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. The museum is open in summer from 9am to 5:30pm.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores has undergone a $24-million expansion and reopened in early spring 2006 (tel. 800/832-FISH  or 252/247-4003; www.ncaquariums.com). It is three times larger, with a 300,000-gallon Living Shipwreck Ocean Tank featuring the wreckage of a German sub U-352 and a big collection of marine life.
Along the coast southwest of Morehead City, the historic waterfront town of Swansboro (www.tourswansboro.com), bordering the White Oak River across from Cape Carteret, is a diminutive charmer, with shops in renovated centuries-old structures and shrimp boats along the harbor. The Mullet Festival, held here every fall, draws huge crowds from around the Southeast.
A Real-Life Deserted Island
For those who really want to get away from it all, head to Bear Island by taking Hammocks Beach Road (State Rd. 1511) off Hwy. 24 in Swansboro to a passenger ferry. You can reach this uninhabited barrier island, where the pristine beaches are strewn with little more than snow-white sand dollars and the delicate tracings of bird feet, only by private boat or by seasonal ferry -- and visitation is limited to how many people can cross on the ferry, so you really do feel as if the island is your own. Bear Island is the island portion of Hammocks Beach State Park, 1572 Hammocks Beach Rd. (park office tel. 910/326-4881; www.ncparks.gov), a 3-mile-long barrier island dominated by high sand dunes, a maritime forest, and unspoiled beach. Primitive camping is allowed here year-round -- except for 3 nights each month during the summer nesting season of endangered loggerhead sea turtles, which come here under the full moon to lay their eggs. The ferry leaves from the Hammocks Beach Road park entrance on the hour on Monday and Tuesday Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on the half-hour Wednesday to Sunday. The fare is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. Call to confirm ferry hours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.