photos and text ©2008
From fine dining to dives, from centuries-old towns to the pastel seaside mansions of Bogue Banks, North Carolina’s Crystal Coast offers the epicurean traveler a sea-to-table experience, with plenty of activities available to burn off the calories after feasting on the local fare.
The outerbanks (long, low sand islands) stretch south from Virginia Beach to Cape Hatteras, then bend southwest to Cape Lookout, before turning west along the southern outerbanks for about 30 miles, ending in a bridge to the mainland. This southern stretch is sometimes referred to as The Crystal Coast, a moniker invented to entice people to visit Carteret County. It’s easier to remember and catchier than Carteret, and it aptly describes the clear waters of this fisherman’s paradise.
We stayed in tony Emerald Isle on the western end of Bogue Banks, a town of colorful wood-frame beach cottages and mansions, most of which are intended as second homes and rentals. The rates run as cheap as $600 a week for a simple cottage in the off-season, to as high as $10,000 a week for a three-story beachside mansion with pool in the high-season.
The beach is fine sand, about 75-yards wide, with summertime water temperatures in the 70s. Here it’s possible to watch the shrimp boats trawling up and down the coast in the morning, and taste their catch at the local restaurants by evening.
Whether you choose to stay on Bogue Banks, or on the mainland side of Bogue Sound, you’ll have fun sampling the local seafood, which forms the basis for everything from fast food to elegant dining.
One of our self-appointed tasks was to find the best seafood burger/sandwich for a quick and inexpensive lunch. The local joints all offer shrimp burgers, scallop burgers, oyster burgers, and crab cake sandwiches. Invariably they’re served up on a typical white bread burger bun, more’s the pity. We tried them at Big Oak Drive-in, and Crab Shack Restaurant in Salter Path.
Big Oak Drive-in, which has an award winning shrimp burger, is just a walk-up window at the end of a parking lot. It’s nothing to look at, but for take-out food it beats McDonald’s. The shrimp and scallop burgers are good and inexpensive. They also cater.
If you’d rather sit down for lunch, you can go across the road to the Crab Shack that sits on the edge of Bogue Sound. “We started steaming crab like they do in Maryland,” says owner Vernon Guthrie, whose family has lived in the area for generations. Guthrie also owns a couple of
shrimp boats that tie up to the dock at the back of the restaurant. “There are three kinds of shrimp off this coast,” Guthrie explained. “Spotted shrimp in the spring, then in June or July you start catching what you call white shrimp, and in September you start getting green shrimp. Spotted shrimp is tougher than the green tail. The white shrimp is the most tender. A lot of people boil shrimp until they’re tough. What you want to do is just bring the water to a boil, where it’s just bubbling around the edge of the pot, and the shrimp has just turned pink. Then you take it out.” On the menu you’ll find boiled, butter sautéed and fried shrimp. The restaurant seats 150. Focused as we were on the burger/sandwiches, we tried the shrimp burger, scallop burger and crab cake sandwich. The latter was my favorite, and don’t miss the hush puppies.
Despite it’s small size, Salter Path also has a fine dining restaurant, Carltons’ Fine Dining at the Beach. Owner and Executive Chef Patrick Hogan cooks with a French flair. Be sure to order the Lump Crab Cakes. If you’re staying at a beach rental on Bogue Banks, Carltons’ will also cater your dinner.
Eating isn’t everything, and there is plenty to do on Bogue Banks. Besides a 21 mile stretch of beach, Bogue Banks has two attractions worth noting: the pre-civil war era Fort Macon and the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. You can easily visit both in one day. Save Fort Macon, at the tip of Bogue Banks, for the afternoon. It’s a fascinating look at U.S. military history and the life of the common soldier in the 19th century.
On the way back from Fort Macon, you’ll want to stop at Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant and Bar in Atlantic Beach. It’s a bit pricey for the area, but CIA trained Chef Hallock Howard and co-Executive Chef Richard Alexander borrow from a number of different cuisines to make things interesting. She cooks Asian and he cooks New Orleans/Cajun style, so any one ingredient may be presented in a number of different ways. For instance, you could choose from fried shrimp, coconut shrimp, a quesadilla with blackened shrimp and andouille sausage, shrimp Creole, shrimp and grits, or shrimp and scallop Alfredo. Hallock’s pecan crusted trigger fish with a mushroom-sherry cream sauce is worth a special trip.
MAINLAND CARTERET COUNTY
Across Bogue Sound on the mainland we checked out El’s Drive-in, in Morehead City, aided inour search for best seafood burger by a recommendation from Emerald Isle mayor Art Schools, who noted that it’s a favorite spot for high school reunions and homecomings. Like Big Oak Drive-in, El’s is just a shack on the edge of an unmarked parking lot, though they do have a couple of tree-shaded picnic tables. Founded by Elvin Franks in 1959, his son Mark Franks has run it for 30 some years, and Mark’s son is waiting in the wings. They must treat their employees well, as two waitresses spent their entire careers there before retiring, and that says a lot about how they treat their customers, as well. El’s serves about 300 cars during the day, 100 at night. Mark Frank says the locals like coleslaw in their shrimp burgers. Of all of their seafood burgers, I preferred the oyster burger. The prices seem out of another time — the shrimp and oyster burgers are just $2.60, the Super sized burgers just $3.90!
A short ways down the street from El’s we stopped at Cox Family Restaurant, a casual sit-down restaurant that proved to have the best scallop burger we came across (the sweet potato sticks weren’t bad either).
The town’s best restaurant, however, is Bistro-by-the-Sea, a dimly lit, plushly appointed restaurant which features an excellent She Crab Bisque, fresh seafood specials and pasta, though you can also find beef and chicken dishes on the menu. The wine list is broad and eclectic. Bistro-by-the-Sea is one of nine restaurants in the area supporting CarteretCatch, an initiative committed to sustaining the Carteret County fishing industry, so you’ll always be assured of having the freshest fish from the local waters.
If I had to recommend only one place to stay and visit in Carteret County it would have to be historic Beaufort (pronounced bo-furt), a charming town with history, quaint shops, a marina, a first-class museum and a number of good restaurants. A small town with less than 4,000 inhabitants, Beaufort was founded in 1709. Beaufort Historic Site, is a collection of six restored homes and buildings that you can tour, depicting life in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the whole town is filled with restored homes from past centuries; there are over 100 homes over a century old. They can be viewed, with commentary, from the top of an English double-decker bus that boards in front of Beaufort Historic Site. Ten historic homes have been turned into bed-and-breakfast inns.
Front Street, along the waterfront, is the vibrant heart of Beaufort, with quaint shops,
restaurants, art galleries and the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Across the street from the museum The Watercraft Center offers wooden boat-building classes throughout the year. My favorite shop is Scuttlebutt Nautical Books, with books, charts and nautical gifts (I bought a tide clock). Front Street is also the location of my favorite restaurant in Carteret County, Sharpies Grill and Bar, an elegant restaurant with nautical décor, excellent service and the freshest seafood. Sharpies is another supporter of CarteretCatch seafood, and uses produce from local farms, as well. Executive Chef Jerry Frivance is a Carteret County native whose dishes run the gamut from the restrained simplicity of Pan Seared Scallops, to the fanciful and surprising Coconut Encrusted Shrimp with Siracha Ice Cream. Sharpies features 75 wines from small producers.
Epicurean travelers should note that the Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend takes place at the end of April. The five-day event raises money for the historical association, the maritime museum, and the Carteret County Community College Culinary School.
For Crystal Coast Recipes, click here.
DAY TRIPS & THINGS TO DO ON THE CRYSTAL COAST
Cape Lookout light is worth a half-day side-trip by ferry or catamaran. The lighthouse sits near the end of an undeveloped island with 56 miles of shoreline. There are mule train tours of the end of the island, and locals and visitors alike enjoy surf fishing and shelling around the
distinctive lighthouse. The 169-foot tall Cape Lookout light, built in 1859, is distinctively painted with black-and-white diamonds, the black diamonds visible from the north and south, the white diamonds visible from east and west. Man’s mark on the land is limited to the dock, a boardwalk that crosses the narrow dunes, the lighthouse, and a small visitor’s center to explain the local flora and fauna and the history of the light.
If you come by ferry, bring a picnic lunch, because no food is sold on the island. Or take Steve Bishop’s 45-foot catamaran that leaves Beaufort at noon for the trip to the lighthouse, which includes a lunch from Beaufort Grocery Restaurant. The 6-hour tour takes about an hour’s sail in each direction, with four hours left to roam about the island.
On the way to and from the lighthouse you’ll sail past Shackleford Banks, uninhabited except for a herd of just over 100 ponies, thought to be descendents of ponies that swam ashore from a Spanish shipwreck three centuries ago, not unlike the ponies of Connemara, Ireland. In the 19th century the island had more vegetation and even a few towns, including Diamond City, a whaling port, but two hurricanes washed away the towns and by 1902 it was left to the ponies. The vegetation is sparse and brackish, and the only water must be pawed out of the ground, but these hearty animals have adapted and survived.
If you’re intent on working off some of the pounds you’ve gained at the local restaurants, you might want to spend a morning kayaking. Lamar Hudgens of Barrier Island Kayaks leads kayakers on an informative tour of the marshes and estuaries within Bogue Sound.
Whether you already know how to surf or would like to learn how, you can find rentals and instruction in Emerald Isle at Hot Wax Surf Shop & Camp.
Hot Wax Surf Shop
Mile marker 20 1/2, 200 Mallard Dr.
Emerald Isle, N.C.
For a fascinating overview of the county you might consider Crystal Coast Air Tours. The Cape Look Tour, which takes about half an hour, runs $100 for up to three people. The Beaches and Banks Tour is 45 minutes and costs $125.
Crystal Coast Air Tours
150 Airport Rd.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
Scuttlebutt Nautical Books
433 Front St.
Beaufort, NC 28516
Beaufort Historic Site
130 Turner St.
Beaufort, NC 28516
Beaufort Historic District Bus Tour
Tours April through October, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
11 AM to 1:30 PM
|WHERE TO EAT ON THE CRYSTAL COAST|
Bistro by the Sea
4031 Arendell St.
Morehead City, NC
Cox Family Restaurant
Morehead City, NC
3706 Arendell St.
Morehead City, NC
Sharpies Grill & Bar
521 Front St.
Beaufort, NC 28516
703 East Fort Macon Road
Atlantic Beach, NC
Carlton’s Fine Dining at the Beach
Salter Path, NC
Hwy. 58 (behind the Methodist Church)
Salter Path, NC
Big Oak Drive-in & Bar-B-Que
1167 Salter Path Rd.
Salter Path, NC
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