Imagine springtime in the American southeast. Brilliant azalea and camellia blooms. Moss-draped trees. Oodles of history and charm. How about cool breezes on miles of uninhabited islands dotting the Atlantic Ocean? And wild horses roaming there?
You’ll discover this and more near Beaufort, North Carolina’s fourth-oldest community founded in 1709. Ranked as "America's Coolest Small Town" by readers of Budget Travel Magazine in 2012, it's still very cool!
Less than a three-hour drive from our home near Raleigh, Hub and I love visiting, especially in off-season, when crowds are gone and the sub-tropical climate dials back.
Join me in a photo walk to Beaufort to explore this gem for yourself.
Psst...know before you go
Get your Beaufort straight and pronounce it right!
We’re talking Beaufort (BOE-furt), North Carolina, here.
Not to be confused with South Carolina’s historic Beaufort (bYOU-furt).
Use that South Carolina pronunciation on Front Street,
and locals know you’re a tourist.
But since you're in the South, they'll be too polite to correct you -:D.
Where in the world ...
Beaufort, NC, stretches along Taylor’s Creek, a stone's throw across the channel from tiny, uninhabited Carrot Island. The town nestles near other such small land masses that make up a spiderweb of “inner barrier islands." They drape along one side of the Intercoastal Waterway that bumps into the Outer Banks, a 200-mile/320km string of larger barrier islands, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
History and Architecture
Walking through Beaufort is like living through three centuries of maritime history. A good place to start is the Old Burying Ground. Spread under stately trees between the Methodist and Baptist churches, the cemetery is a National Historic Landmark that pays tribute to the town’s earliest residents.
Take a quiet stroll on your own. or download an audio or printed tour, for a deep sense of time and place. You'll pass Revolutionary and Civil War veterans resting among too many children who died so young. We found fresh flowers resting on some graves and liked to think they were placed by today's 21st-century descendants who remembered their ancestors still.
Historian Hub and I are in our element meandering through Beaufort's 12-block historic district.
Three centuries of homes and quaint gardens radiate out from Taylor's Creek on Front Street. The eclectic mix of architectural styles showcases then-current trends when houses were first built and reflects Beaufort’s growth since the 1700s.
1900s - Modest cottages and arts-and-crafts bungalows
1800s -Glorious ginger-breaded, multi-porched Victorian
Elegant “Gone with the Wind”/Tara-style Greek revivals
command the waterfront
1700s - West Indian-style
Built by seafaring merchants and mariners as ‘temporary’ quarters between voyages,
these homes, still flanked by towering live oak and camellia, rest near smaller homes also constructed more than 300 years ago.
It’s not a straight shot by car to the Atlantic Ocean, but it's fun!
Skirt three bridges.
Cross small inlets.
Zoom over the huge Intercoastal Waterway.
Wind through Morehead City, a neighboring shipping port.
In 15 minutes, you'll reach the the town of Atlantic Beach on the eastern tip our Crystal Coast, another barrier island that stretches for 85mi/137km.
It can be COLD on the Crystal Coast as when we visited in late winter.
That wind off the sea sets your teeth chattering! Bundle up and brave the windswept boardwalk. It’s worth the chill to leave footprints in the sand and watch wintry clouds dance over the waves.
No worries. It doesn't stay cold for long in this sub-tropical climate.
A few days later, we bask in 70F/21C temps at Pine Knoll Shores, five miles farther down the Crystal Coast. How about that Carolina-blue sky!
Aquariums and Wild Horses and Light Stations – Oh my!
Pine Knoll Shores is also home to one of three North awesome Carolina State Aquariums. It's a must-see if you have the kids along.
We enjoyed our last visit there in 2017 doing sea turtle research for my chapter book, Sweet T and the TurtleTeam.
You'll also want to venture beyond Beaufort in the other direction to Harkers Island. As the crow flies, Harker’s Island is 8 miles northeast of Beaufort. But in this coastal region sprinkled with a gazillion waterway barriers, it’s a 30-mile trip by car.
Head to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center and (of course) cross more bridges of all shapes and sizes. The Visitor Center houses exhibits that tell of Core Sound and the National Seashore across that waterway.
It’s also home to the sole means of public transportation to the uninhabited park. There are no paved roads at the National Seashore. Leave your car in the lot and hop on one of the small, open-air ferries to visit.
These vessels seat about 50 people on their short ride to the famed Diamond Lady, the Cape Lookout Light Station, on Cape Lookout National Seashore. Spend a few hours there before boarding the ferry back to your car. (btw ... the NPS maintains a small visitor center, so you'll have snacks, water and restrooms at the Diamond Lady. Whew!)
If you have time, board another ferry to Shackleford Banks on the southern tip of Cape Lookout. If you're lucky, you'll glimpse some of the herd of more than 100 wild horses there.
According to the NPS, we don’t know for sure how the horses got to this barrier island. Legends about horses swimming ashore from sinking ships are not proven. However, there were shipwrecks along the coast and the horses are recognized as Colonial Spanish. Early European explorers also brought horses and colonists/settlers bred horses. Earliest recorded events link horses to our barrier islands in 1585.
Photos: NPS, Cape Lookout National Seashore
Score at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
While you're on Harker's Island, don't miss the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum located adjacent to the NPS parking lot. This free museum, recently re-opened after two years of renovation from a hit by Hurricane Florence, offers interactive displays about the culture and history of Harkers Island.
The museum also houses a dream-come-true library for lovers of waterfowl life and wooden seabird carvings. Over the centuries, decoys created by Island residents have evolved from utilitarian hunting aids for keeping food on the table to stunning folk art.
You can take the elevator, but we opted to walk up to museum’s third-floor observation deck. Its killer 180-views of Core Sound and distant barrier islands will knock your socks off!
What’s a trip to Beaufort (or anywhere!) without trying local food? During our weeklong stay, we swooned over tasty pulled pork and juicy fried shrimp plates from Roland’s BBQ.
Gotta add yummy Southern sides: mac-n-cheese, hush puppies, slaw, butter beans and, of course, iced tea (unsweet, with lots of ice and lemon, please!).
Sure, you can spend the day
on the water
and hit the bustling downtown
for shopping, dinner or nightlife.
But we love
visiting Beaufort off-season
Hub and I can’t wait to return!
What’s your favorite small town to visit? If you’ve been to Beaufort, what else did you enjoy there? Please share in the comments, so we can virtual visit there, too.
Photos by Cat Michaels except where noted
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