North Carolina's coast features bays, sounds, swamp lands, barrier islands and crystal clear beaches. Essentially, the eastern end of this southern state offers anything a beachgoer could want, from the wild beaches of the Outer Banks to the white sands of the Crystal Coast. Perhaps the real gems of North Carolina's shore region are the small towns throughout the area. These towns offer some of the best scenery and plenty of opportunity to mix with locals, exploring the way of life in these towns near the sea.
Southport lies at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and about 45 minutes north of the South Carolina state line. After arriving, head over to the visitor center (no website; 113 W. Moore St, Southport; 910-457-7927). The center will provide maps for self-guided walking tours and information on area amenities. Next to the center, explore Keziah Memorial Park (no website; E. Moore Street, Southport), home to the Indian Trail Tree, an 800-year-old tree originally twisted by the Native Americans to mark trails to favored fishing spots. Originally established by settlers in 1729 as a shipping town, Southport still centers around its picturesque harbor. For views of the harbor, head to Waterfront Park (no website; E. Bay Street and S. Howe Street). Watch ships cruise up the Cape Fear River and peer across the water to get a glimpse of lighthouses on the Outer Banks.
Rated as one of North Carolina's best small towns by Frommer's, Edenton sits on the Albemarle Sound and Edenton Bay, about 70 miles south of Norfolk, Virginia. Established in 1722, this town still echos the original clapboard-style architecture indicative of colonial seaports. The town's rich history and beautiful streets lined with pecan and magnolia trees attract visitors, and the docks and marinas offer plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. The majority of Edenton's quaint shops and restaurants are within walking distance of the docks, according to North Carolina's official tourism website, VisitNC.com. History buffs will find plenty of colonial-era architecture to explore, including a courthouse built in 1767, the oldest homes and churches in the state and a historic baseball field.
Another small coastal town worth exploring is Elizabeth City. Situated where the Pasquotank River widens into the Albermarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina, Elizabeth City has earned the nickname as “Harbor of Hospitality.” Established in 1793, Elizabeth City became an important shipping channel with the completion of the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1805. Today, this town attracts boaters using the canal to access the Intercoastal Waterway. Anyone interested in maritime activities and the history of shipping in the Albermarle region should visit to Elizabeth City. The restored docks now house the Museum of the Albermarle (museumofthealbemarle.com). Exhibits preserve the history of the region and include quilts, historical artifacts and a discovery center for children. Elizabeth City also is an active Coast Guard town, with a training and rescue facility.
Home to about 900 people, Columbia is a pretty coastal town on the Scuppermong River. Originally called Elizabeth Town, the town changed its name to Columbia in 1810 after being confused with Elizabethtown and Elizabeth City. Today, Columbia offers thousands of acres of maritime forests and wetlands known as the Palmetto Pear Tree Preserve (palmettopeartree.org). Take a kayak or a canoe through the preserve, looking for bald eagles, ospreys, red wolves and other wildlife along the shores. The town also features a picture-perfect downtown region and docks stocked with charter boats waiting to take guests out on the water.