By Katie McKy
Due to its unique geography, North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is a smorgasbord of aquatic possibilities. Its skinny, sandy barrier islands, which lie a mile to thirty miles offshore, were created by just the right ratios of sand to wind to waves. Between them and the mainland is a sound, a calm and often shallow lagoon. On the far side of the barrier islands, the Atlantic is frisky as ever. So, if you want calm, shallow water to master kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, or kiteboarding, you’ve got it. If you want ocean waves for surf and play, you’ve got that too. And the two worlds are mere yards away, for the barrier islands are reed thin.
It isn’t just geography that dishes up the aquatic fun. History also contributes, from feral horses to pirate ships to merchant vessels sunk by Nazi subs. Natural beauty abounds as well. The Crystal Coast’s crystal clear water explains its name, however the water manages to be colorful too, ranging from cyan by day to a glittering gold as the sun sets.
People have played their part in creating this aquatic smorgasbord, including George Washington, who surveyed canals that beguile stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers. There are also spoil islands between the barrier islands and the mainland, which were created by digging the Intracoastal Waterway. The spoil islands work like a comely maze, with pristine places to picnic, sunbathe, and beachcomb. If you want even cozier confines, mosey up the streams that meander through marshes. SUPs are perfect for those marshes.
“On a standup paddleboard, you can see over top of the marshes,” says Rod Hoell, owner of Beaufort Paddle. “You can see more of what’s in the water and beyond too.”
And what’s in the water?
“You’ll see a lot of birds, such as snowy egrets, cranes, and marsh hens,” Hoell says.
The snowy egret is a compact heron with feathers as white as a wedding dress and a plume once prized for woman’s hats. Protected today, it thrives in the Crystal Coast, as do other birds, with over 200 species of birds having been spotted at the Rachel Carson Reserve.
Mammals also thrive.
“You’ll see an occasional fox or raccoon. In the water, you’ll see dolphins, but more in the spring and fall as they seek cooler water in the summer,” Hoell says. “Paddling inland, you might see deer and bear.”
If you want hooved mammals, there are bankers, the feral horses whose ancestors survived 17th century shipwrecks, and adapted to the barrier islands, living off the native grasses and digging for freshwater on Shackleford Banks.
“There are so many places to explore and we have SUP paddling for all levels,” Hoell says, adding that he can teach anyone to paddle. “If you can rise from your knees to a standing position, I can teach you. Crystal Coast is a great place to learn because we have protected waters with beautiful marsh that the creeks wind through. You could spend a summer here and not see a tenth of what there is to see.”
However, Hoell does have some favorites.
“The Rachel Carson Reserve is the best place. It’s beautiful and protected. Even at the busiest time of year, there aren’t that many people,” he says.
If you crave dunes and a diamond-painted lighthouse (the Diamond Lady), there’s Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Cape Lookout National Seashore includes more than 56 miles of natural barrier islands. It’s absolutely pristine coastline, and you can’t drive there. Access is by passenger ferry or small boat—including kayaks and SUPs. “This place is as pristine and natural a piece of coastline as you will see anywhere in the country, as 70 percent of the barrier islands are uninhabited,” Hoell says.
The weather is fine as well, with the warm water paddling season extending from May through October. Most folks come in summer, though the shoulder seasons have their own charm. In the spring, crowds are rare and there are lots of new shells to find on the beaches. The Fall is also great, with days that often reach 80 degrees.
The Crystal Coast is a great destination for anglers as well. Many fish from kayaks, catching flounder, sea trout, bluefish, red drum, Spanish mackerel. If you want someone else to catch your fish, there’s a program called Carteret Catch, where local chefs partner with local fisherfolks to put the freshest possible seafood of your plates.
“There’s an abundance of seafood, fresh and locally caught, served by smiling, friendly people,” Hoell says. “There really is such a thing as good old southern hospitality.”
Crystal Coast also has perfect conditions for kiteboarding. It’s the perfect place to learn, as the water between the barrier islands and the mainland is often shallow, often warm, and protected enough to lubricate learning.
Michael Schrems, owner of Blown Kiteboarding (blownkiteboarding.com), takes beginners out in a pontoon to Bogue Sound on the leeward side of the Southern Outer Banks. “That’s a really good spot for beginners because the water is consistently shallow; it’s about waist deep, so you can stand up and get your bearings,” he says.
Of course, calm water is near to surf, thanks to the Barrier Islands.
“There are other spots like Coast Guard Point in the Emerald Isle, which is the western end of Bogue Bank,” Schrems says. “That’s a great spot because it offers a variety of conditions. You can have flatwater if you want that. There’s a sandbar that goes off the tip of the island quite a ways out and knocks down the waves and makes it pretty flat. You can also walk over to the wild side if you want more extreme kiteboarding. That’s for more advanced people because you’ll be dealing with waves, currents, and shore breaks.”
The western end of Bogue Bank delivers room to spare.
“There’s also about 20 miles of accessible beach that’s open to kiteboarding with no restrictions,” Schrems says, adding that the degree of challenge is also determined by the season.
“A novice would want to come down May 1st when the water is nice and warm. The water remains warm all the way through October, but the winds can stiffen then. However, that won’t be every day. Rarely would you see a full week of 35 knots, but a Nor’easter in November can deliver that. Most of our strongest winds are September, October, and November.”
Wind speed also depends upon the time of day.
“We get relatively strong winds most early afternoons, from May through July. August is a little bit light due to the heat.”
A kayaker can experience dramatic wind and water differences at Cape Lookout.
“Cape Lookout is narrow, so you can walk from the sound side to the ocean and experience two different climates. You’ll walk from calm to wind and breaking waves. There are trails everywhere and you can go everywhere and wherever you go, it’s rustic and beautiful,” Schrems says.
Crystal Coast’s beauty is even witnessed on its bridges.Wherever you drive, there are high rise bridges with beautiful panoramas. It’s amazingly beautiful everywhere you look.
Looking underwater also rewards, as Crystal Coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. During WWII, Nazi subs waited offshore for their prey, so many merchant ships lie in a mere 100 feet of water. That’s crystal clear water with 75 feet of visibility, which makes for prime viewing. If you want to see something older, and without strapping on the SCUBA gear, there’s the North Carolina Maritime Museum where the artifacts of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge are on display. There are also 5,000 seashells from around the world, a collection besting what’s in Grandma’s plastic bucket.
So, with so much to see and do, what’s a good basecamp?
Hoell says, “I’m partial to Beaufort, unless you want to be on the oceanfront, where you could rent a condo. Beaufort was voted the coolest small town in America. It’s eclectic, artsy, and sits right on the water. It’s a lot of fun with many historic homes turned into B&Bs.”
Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach are also popular with paddlers. Explore lodging options at CrystalCoastNC.org. Wherever you stay along this 85-mile stretch of soft sand, the Crystal Coast will beguile.