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The Crystal Coast is an 85-mile stretch of coastline in North Carolina that extends from the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which includes 56 miles of protected beaches, westward to the New River. It is also known as the Southern Outer Banks (SOBX) and is a popular area with tourists and second-home owners in the summer. The absolute boundaries of this coast are often disputed, but the main area includes all the major Carteret County beaches (those on Bogue Banks, which face south). It also includes eastern portions of Carteret County, such as Harkers Island, Down East and Shackleford Banks, as well as the northern Onslow County beaches (Bear Island/Hammock's Beach), and a few ports along the Intracoastal Waterway.
The very name Crystal Coast was coined as part of a tourism campaign by the Carteret County Tourism Development Authority, which exists to serve visitors and residents of the Crystal Coast. It is also known as the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority. There are more than 100 restaurants in the area and many hotels, including the Sheraton Atlantic Beach, the largest full service hotel on the coast of North Carolina. Beach cottages, which are often rented out for a week during the summer, are also popular here, especially in Emerald Isle. Several of the properties in the area, especially Atlantic Beach, are second homes of people from the interior part of the state, including those from cities such as Kinston, Goldsboro and the capital city of Raleigh. There is also public access to the beach in many areas, with one of the most popular being an area known as "The Circle" in central Atlantic Beach. It is a collection of shops, houses and amusement rides along the ocean at the end of the causeway from the bridge to Morehead City. The Circle is undergoing a redevelopment, replacing the rides that were in the center of the area, which is actually more triangular, with high-rise apartments, as well as new restaurants and shops.
In addition to the beaches, two other major activities that draw visitors to the Crystal Coast are diving and fishing. It is one of the two spots in North America where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream approach the coastline, creating a “wreck diver’s dream” with near-perfect conditions, according to Scuba Diving magazine. Known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” there are more than 2,000 vessels that have sunk along the North Carolina coast. During World War II, German U-boats frequently targeted merchant vessels sending them to their final resting places 100 feet beneath the sea, viewable by divers thanks to the clear, warm waters with average temperatures around 80 degrees Fahrenheit and more than 75 feet of visibility. More recently, a new mystery discovered on the Crystal Coast is the Lionfish, a rare but poisonous species with sharp spiny fins and brick red bands covering its body. Lionfish were previously thought to only inhabit the tropical and subtropical waters of the South Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Other diving activities include underwater photography clinics as well as shark and spear fishing dives.
The proximity of the Gulf Stream also makes the Crystal Coast a popular fishing destination. The warm waters provide the Crystal Coast with the longest fishing season on the Atlantic coast. The area is home to one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, based out of Morehead City. Other fish caught along the Crystal Coast include bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, red drum, false albacore, sea trout, striped bass, cobia, sailfish, dolphin and wahoo. There are several private chartered fishing excursions or the more affordable, family friendly, headboat fishing trips that can take up to 100 people.
Other attractions to the area include the North Carolina Seafood Festival, one of the largest festivals in the state, which has been held in Morehead City for nearly 20 years, as well as one of two state ports in North Carolina, the other being in Wilmington.
In Atlantic Beach, Fort Macon is a major draw for its Civil War history, making it the second most visited state park in North Carolina. During the war, the fort changed hands several times between Union and Confederate forces, eventually fell into disrepair and was finally restored as a part of the state park system in 1934. The fort was taken over by the federal government once again during World War II and used to protect a number of important nearby facilities. Now the state park is home to a protected beach. One of three North Carolina Aquariums is at Pine Knoll Shores, with the other two in Manteo and Fort Fisher. All three have been recently renovated, with the Pine Knoll Shores location the latest, making it three times larger than before. The “Living Shipwreck” features a life-sized replica of a German U-352 submarine and Blackbeard’s infamous ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, which was found nearby off the coast a decade ago.
Historic Beaufort and Down East Carteret County are known for their history and culture. Beaufort (pronounced "Bo-furt") is the third oldest town in North Carolina, after Bath and New Bern. It is also the home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which is the official repository for all of the artifacts discovered on the Queen Anne’s Revenge. There is also a display of seashells from around the world with 5,000 specimens from more than 100 countries. At the museum's Watercraft Center, volunteers actively build and restore boats in an effort to preserve the Crystal Coast’s tradition of “backyard boat-building.”
On nearby Harkers Island, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum was built as a tribute to the history and heritage of the residents to preserve the island's practice of decoy carving, a popular pastime of the area that involves skilled artisans carving a perfect replica of a duck from a block of wood. The ducks were literally used as decoys during duck hunting season. Trips to visit the black-and-white diamond pattern lighthouse at Cape Lookout can also be made from Beaufort and Harker's Island. Nearby Shackleford Banks is home to herds of feral horses called Bankers.
The Core Sound shoreline communities east of Beaufort are known as the "Down East" area of North Carolina, but since they are in Carteret County, they are technically part of the Crystal Coast. The beaches north of here, starting with Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke are known as the Outer Banks. South of the Crystal Coast is an undeveloped stretch of coast around the mouth of the New River that is part of the Camp Lejeune military base near Jacksonville. The next developed area to the south is Topsail Island in Onslow County.
The following highways are major arterial roads in the Crystal Coast area: