Cape Lookout National Seashore
If you like the look of Cape Hatteras but want to avoid the crowds, plan a visit to the much wilder Cape Lookout National Seashore, another series of barrier islands, which stretch for 56 miles from Ocracoke to the south near Beaufort. It’s accessible only by boat (except for two sections that are accessible by car), and there are few roads or services once you’re here, but it’s a lovely place to hike or camp, collect seashells, or just wander along the peaceful shore, exploring the historic Portsmouth Village. Day trips to Point Lookout leave from Beaufort, or you can usually arrange a charter from Ocracoke.
Known as Fishtown until it was renamed in 1722, the charming 18th-century town of Beaufort (pop. 4,039) has quiet streets lined with churches, cemeteries filled with weather-stained monuments, and whitewashed houses with narrow porches. The nautical-themed shops and restaurants along the water on busy Front Street, three blocks south of US-70, attract tourists and boaters traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway. The spacious North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front St., 252/728-7317, daily, free) features many informative exhibits on the region’s nautical and natural history. The museum also sponsors an annual Wooden Boat Show, held the first weekend in May.
If you’re looking for a meal in Beaufort, try Clawson’s (425 Front St., 252/728-2133), serving reliably great burgers, local seafood, and craft beers in an old grocery store that’s been in business since 1905.
Inland from Front Street and the museum, a trio of historic churches surround the atmospheric Old Burying Ground, where grave markers track the town’s residents from the 1700s to the early 1900s.
While Beaufort may be prettier, you’ll find the best food in burly Morehead City, three miles west of Beaufort and across the bridge. Try the homemade seafood cocktail sauce and Tar Heel hushpuppies at the Sanitary Fish Market and Restaurant (501 Evans St., 252/247-3111), a local institution since 1938 and easy to find amid the sportfishing boats a block off US-70. For even more famous burgers (and shrimp burgers, and onion rings, and milk shakes, and more), head along to El’s Drive-In (3706 Arendall St., 252/726-3002), open since 1959 on US-70, a mile west of the bridge to Atlantic Beach.