Considering that the Crystal Coast has centuries of history as well as one of the most unique environments along the North Carolina coastline, it should come as no surprise that the region is home to an array of fascinating and thoroughly engaging museums.
For a fun and educational rainy day activity, (or just a little excuse to get out of the sun), be sure you check out these “must see” museums that are found throughout the Crystal Coast.
Head “Down East” to the heart of Harkers Island to discover this hidden gem museum that shines a spotlight on the rich fishing and hunting history of the Crystal Coast at its most pure. This corner of the region is famed for its generations of artisans who produce intricate and amazing decoys, and artists are often found within the museum, perfecting their work. In addition to the live demonstrations, the museum also boasts a wealth of historic duck decoys, photographs and publications, personal heirlooms from residents all around the area, and other local artifacts that shed light on the story behind the centuries-old Down East culture.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort is one of three maritime museums found all along coastal North Carolina that pay homage to the region’s roots and deep ties with the water. An enticing sight in the center of the downtown area, the Beaufort maritime museum has a wealth of awe-worthy exhibits and attractions which includes historic boats and ship models, a Fresnel lens from the region’s original lighthouses, canons and other artifacts from the Civil War, and lots of information on the local pirates. The Beaufort museum is especially distinctive as the home to a detailed exhibit on the Queen Anne’s Revenge – Blackbeard the Pirate’s favorite ship. The vessel was recovered not long ago from the surrounding area, and visitors can view relics from this infamous pirate ships up close and personal. Though modestly sized, the nautical layout of the museum and the treasure trove of exhibits and interactive displays makes this Beaufort landmark a must-see destination.
Located in the heart of Morehead City, and boasting an enticing exterior that resembles an old fashioned train depot, The History Place is home to more than 12,000 square feet of exhibits, meeting space, and archives, ensuing that every aspect of Carteret County’s rich history is covered in grand detail. While the site is a popular venue for community and school presentations or programs, everyday visitors can pop in to explore the range of exhibits as well, which highlight different eras and area talents. The Rodney B. Kemp Gallery is a showcase for modern artists to display their work, while the on-site Jack Spencer Goodwin Research Library is home to more than 10,000 publications, photographs, books, and other memorabilia that adds a personalized layer to the area’s centuries of history. A café is also located on the premises for visitors who want to linger, and friendly staff are on hand to answer questions or point researchers in the right direction. Encompassing all areas of Carteret County culture, The History Place is an excellent first stop to learn all about the Crystal Coast in its entirety.
The Beaufort Historic Site is more than just a single museum – it’s actually a collection of historic buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries which have been perfectly renovated to emulate this historic town of centuries past. Beaufort is the third oldest town in the state of North Carolina, and the downtown streets are filled with historic homes and buildings that date back hundreds of years. On this two acre site, visitors can explore roughly 10 of these distinctive historical structures while taking a step back in time to Beaufort’s earliest roots. The site is home to famed residences and buildings including the 1778 Leffers Cottage, the 1825 John C. Manson House, the 1859 Apothecary Shop and Doctor's Office, the 1928 Old Jail, (which remained in operation until 1954), and the 1796 Carteret County Courthouse which is the oldest wood-framed courthouse in North Carolina. Visiting all the sites and grounds – which includes an authentic herb garden by the apothecary shop as well as the nearby Old Burying Ground – is a fun afternoon exploration that leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the original way of life in Old Beaufort.
Visitors to the Crystal Coast’s barrier island beaches can learn all about the sea life that surrounds them with a visit to the in-depth and always engaging North Carolina Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. This extensive aquarium is home to more than 50 exhibits and 4,000 different animals, which hail from all regions of North Carolina, from the mountains to the sea. Highlights within the museum include river otters at play, touch tanks with manta rays and other local critters, one of the largest saltwater tanks in the state with massive gliding sharks, and everyday live feedings and demonstrations. From exhibits on the local environments to a wide variety of creatures, the North Carolina Aquarium is certainly a crowd pleaser for visitors of all ages.
The history buffs in your crew will love visiting Fort Macon State Park – an incredibly restored Civil War-era fort that’s found just east of the town of Atlantic Beach. Built in the 1820s and 1830s, and esteemed as the first state park to open in the state of North Carolina in 1936, the site is home the incredible fort itself – which was originally a project spearheaded by Robert E Lee as a young army engineer – as well as a museum-quality education center for school groups and special programs, and a pretty outlying shoreline. Guided tours of the brick and earthen fort are available regularly for visitors, and the site also hosts regular cannon firings, musket demonstrations, and even occasional reenactments that bring the history of the coastal region’s role in the Civil War to life.
Tips for Visiting the local Crystal Coast Museums
Once you’re earmarked the museums you want to see during your upcoming Crystal Coast vacation, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the most out of your upcoming expeditions.
- Rainy days are generally when museum traffic is at its highest – especially in the summer months, and especially at beachside attractions like the North Carolina Aquarium. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan a sunny day expedition.
- All of the aforementioned museums and sites are open year round! The Crystal Coast is stunning in the fall, winter, and spring months, (and the museums and area beaches are completely uncrowded), so if you want to delve deep into the area’s museums, think about planning an off-season getaway.
- Several of the museums and sites listed above have nature trails that border the premises. The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum has a stunning setting that’s steps away from the water, while the North Carolina Aquarium borders the 265 acre Theodore Roosevelt State Natural Area, which boasts several nature observation points and hiking trails.
- Reserve a little time to visit the gift shops! The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum has an incredible gift shop that’s stocked with local guide books and cookbooks, while the Beaufort Historic Site is home to the renowned Mattie King Davis Art Gallery, which highlights artworks by the most acclaimed artists in the region. For one-of-a-kind souvenirs and treasures, the local museum gift shops are certainly hard to beat.
- Be sure and check out the local events calendars. All of the aforementioned museums and sites feature regular special events that may coincide with an upcoming vacation. For example, the Beaufort Historic Site offers area tours on an authentic English double decker bus, while the North Carolina Maritime Museum has “Build a Boat in a Day” classes throughout the year. To delve deeper into the local culture, be sure and see what programs are available, and plan your visit accordingly.
- Most museums charge a nominal entrance fee, but special discounts generally apply for children, active or retired military members, large groups, students, and / or senior citizens. Check in advance for any discount on admission tickets.
From local history to present day wildlife, there’s a lot of stories to uncover on the Crystal Coast. Thankfully, with a roster of museums that target different aspects of coastal living, visitors can explore everything there is to know about this famed North Carolina vacation destination.