My personal favorite would be Beaufort to the east or perhaps Southport to the south. I am no expert on Southport, but I know it has changed a lot since we visited in 2004..
Your trip to Beaufort from the south or west would take you through Swansboro. It takes about 1.5 hours to get from Wilmington to Swansboro. There you will cross the White Oak River on two bridges which are within sight of the Intracoastal Waterway.
We live about three miles up the White Oak River on the Carteret County side. The White Oak where we live is nearly two miles wide. Between those bridges in Swansboro you will see Clyde Phillip's Seafood where you can get shrimp and fish that have just come off one of the boats tied up to the dock behind the fish house.
You can also stop in Cedar Point and rent a kayak to explore the White Oak or Bogue Sound. The kayak rental is near the Waterway Inn.
In the next half mile after the Waterway, you will pass Captain Sam's. Their house is on the Intracoastal, and their shrimp boat is tied up behind the house much of the year when it isn't over on Pamlico Sound shrimping.
As you continue you will be driving through Cedar Point, where small businesses are the rule. We also have two farmers' markets in that same stretch (Winberry's is my favorite) along with most of the services you could ever need. Highway 24 where you will be riding is full of small shops and service. The real main street of the area is the ICW, and the beautiful homes back farther from the road which you see when boating along the Intracoastal Waterway.
After three or four miles on Hwy 24 you will come to a large intersection with Highway 58. If you take a right on that, you will head across the bridge to Emerald Isle and the strand of beaches which stretch up to Atlantic Beach and make up the heart of the Crystal Coast.
A left turn will take you north up Hwy 58 through the edge of the 158,000 acres of the Croatan National Forest. There are some great trails just off the road not far up 58.
Going straight on 24 through the intersection is the quickest way to Morehead City and then Beaufort. It would be about 35 minutes from Swansboro to Beaufort by Hwy 24, or it would take approximately 50 minutes by Hwy 58, the beach Hwy. The beach route which goes over the bridge to Emerald Isle and up the island is much more scenic. Following it lets you stop and dip your toes in the area's beautiful saltwater. The saltwater is pretty hard to describe with just words so I prefer to use pictures when I can.
This is my map of the area near the intersection of Highways 24 & 58 with a few of my current favorite restaurants in the Cape Carteret-Emerald Isle area. McDonald's is there strictly as an easy to find landmark.
One way or the other you will pass through Morehead City (MHC) which is where we find everything that isn't in the Cape Carteret-Cedar Point-Emerald Isle-Swansboro area. If you go by route 24 to MHC, you will pass our shopping center area at the intersection of Hwys 24 & 70. There is where you find Belks, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Panera Bread, Outback Steakhouse and everything you need but a Target which is located in Jacksonville.
If you follow Hwy 58 up the beaches it will eventually take you to the Atlantic Beach Bridge to MHC which dumps you in the heart of MHC. Morehead City is a small town with lots of fishermen surround by water. It is the gateway to the far eastern part of North Carolina. The railroad runs down the middle of the main street in MHC. It has a substantial port and our closest hospital which is less than 30 minutes from Cape Carteret. MHC was home base for my visits to the Crystal Coast as a teenager in the sixties.
Beaufort is only a few miles from MHC. While there are some nice restaurants in MHC, there are a few to avoid so ask a local before you eat or better yet, travel on to Beaufort and have a meal at one of the many fine restaurants there. I have enjoyed fine meals at the Nethouse, Spouters, Front Street, Clawson's, Blue Moon Bistro, and Beaufort Grocery.
You can read my travel guides for Beaufort, Swansboro, and Emerald Isle. You can also check out my restaurant guide which has some more area dining information from our visits and the first year or so we lived here. You can find more current restaurant information at this page.
After enjoying Beaufort, you can take a drive through Down East. Going "Down East" in NC might seem strange if you are from Maine, but it is one or our unique places, and the name fits. Harkers Island is the first stop on a Down East tour. It is easy to take a trip over to Cape Lookout from there.
If you follow Highway 70 east from Beaufort, you will eventually run into NC's famous Route 12 which takes you to the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal where you can take a ferry lasting something over two hours to Ocracoke Island which has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and what I would call a very unique island atmosphere.
From the village of Ocracoke, you can drive the 13 miles or so to the other end of the island and take another much shorter ferry to Hatteras Island. From Hatteras Island is around sixty miles up to the Nags Head area where you will find a couple of my favorite restaurants the Lone Cedar which is located on the causeway to Manteo and Sam & Omie's which is near the causeway.
If you a looking for a vacation out of the ordinary, this is one where you can have fun and see some of the most unique scenery on the east coast. This is a great area to visit. You have to watch because a visit can be the first step to changing your residency. I brought my wife to Beaufort to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We just celebrated our 37th and have been living here in the Cape Carteret area in Bluewater Cove for the last four years.
I find Carteret County a great place to live. I have lived in a lot of places, including north of Fredericton, New Brunswick for 11 years so I know what kind of winter weather people from the northern areas are trying to escape. Our youngest daughter was born in January 1982 when we were living on our cattle farm in Tay Creek, NB. The temperature was minus 40 degrees for a couple of days after a massive blizzard that dumped nearly three feet of snow on us.
You can check out my blog for people thinking about living here and my site with lots of information and pictures of the area.
Make sure you take a boat ride somewhere. If you don't get in a boat, you will have missed the essence of Carteret County which by the way is over 50% water. You can only truly appreciate the area from the water.
If for some reason you miss a boat ride, try my Mackerel Morning trip or my trip behind Hammocks Beach-Bear Island which is another great place you can grab an inexpensive ferry ride over to one of our outer beaches.
You can also take a virtual trip down the beaches and back down Hwy 24.
I like to say this area is a special place which stretches your mind. It is a wonderful spot for an active life style on the water whether you love kayaking or riding around in a skiff.
Hope you have a great visit and decide to come live in our little piece of paradise.