The long barrier island that borders central North Carolina is known by a wide range of nicknames, including the "Crystal Coast," "Bogue Banks," and "Emerald Isle." This last moniker, which is probably most of the most frequent terms for the stretch of coastline from Atlantic Beach to the western edge of the island, just happens to share its name with the island's westernmost town, Emerald Isle.
A picturesque 5 square mile town with just under 4,000 year-round residents, the community is nonetheless a popular destination for beach lovers and vacationers from all across the East Coast. Home to a number of incredible accommodations, restaurants, and those gem-colored ocean beaches which gave the region its name, the town of Emerald Isle is a favorite vacation spot along the Crystal Coast, and lives up to its name as a true jewel of the southern Outer Banks.
Unlike Morehead City and Atlantic Beach, which began building a reputation as a vacation destination in the early 20th century, Emerald Isle began as a small fishing community populated by a handful of whalers and fishermen that took up residence during the colonial era. In 1951, noticing the attention that the eastern regions of Atlantic Beach and Morehead City were receiving by summertime vacationers, a group of investors purchased a 12 mile stretch of this relatively empty expanse of the island from sole owner Anita Maulick, for the whopping purchase price of $350,000 - a Carteret County record at the time.
The town was deemed "Emerald Isle" by a consultant from Florida who was helping the group launch this new region as a vacation destination, and who, during an aerial tour of the island, noticed that the region looked like a solid green gem. Local legend has it that the consultant, admiring the view and the dark green patches of maritime forest coupled with the turquoise hues of the oceanfront beaches, told the investors "This Place Shall be Known as Emerald Isle."
The town was subsequently divided into 54 blocks, from ocean to sound, to make room for mobile homes and beach cottages, (and prevent any large-scale or high rise hotels from interfering with the natural backdrop), and in 1960, a ferry service was initiated to provide easier access to this stretch of the Bogue Banks. By the time the Cameron Langston Bridge was opened in 1971 to provide access from Cedar Point to the western edge of Emerald Island and the Crystal Coast Beaches, the town was a summertime success, with seasonal owners and vacationers alike eager to find a spot of the gem-like shoreline to enjoy for themselves.
Today, the town certainly fits the original concept of a picturesque, but not too developed summertime beach town. While the town feels sparse, there are ample services throughout the community, including "Emerald Plantation," a shopping center that includes a large chain grocery store, a movie theater, and several other shops for visitors to uncover. Shopping fans can also check out the Bell Cove Village, a new plaza that's close to the bridge's entrance and features several gift stores, an ice cream shop, and an Italian restaurant, as well as Veranda Square, a centrally located shopping center with clothing and accessories boutiques, a tanning salon, and other small local finds. The town is also home to several surf shops, beach supply stores, and watersports equipment rentals so visitors can load up on everything they need to enjoy a full vacation along the town's renowned beaches.
The region is also home to a wide variety of restaurants, ranging from ice cream stores to Chinese food and martini bars and bistros. With over a dozen eateries to choose from, visitors can please a new craving during every day of their vacation, from fresh brick-oven fired pizza to Mexican fare that uses fresh seafood to perfect its specialty dishes. While there are certainly countless additional restaurant options located inland, in neighboring Swansboro and Morehead City, most Emerald Isle visitors find they never have to leave the island for a full week's worth of tasty, varied, and mouth-watering meals.
As for entertainment, the town of Emerald Isle, unsurprisingly, revolves around the beach, and visitors will find miles of shoreline to enjoy at their leisure. Several fishing charter businesses launch from the inlet and soundside marinas, and anglers can always head to the Bogue Island Fishing Pier, a fantastic fishing pier that's nearly as old as the town itself, and which boasts some of the best big saltwater catches along the East Coast.
The beaches are generally uncrowded, with wide stretches of shoreline and a gently sloping ocean floor that lends itself well to swimming, body boarding, and shelling. Small finds wash up on a regular basis, especially periwinkles, moon snails, augers, scallops, and sand dollars, making this uncrowded stretch of sand a beachcomber's paradise. The town is also open to beach driving, generally from September until March or April, and permits can be purchased and applied for online at http://www.emeraldisle-nc.org/beachdrivingpage.htm.
The town is also known for its large population of nesting sea turtles, and in the late summer months and early fall season, many loggerhead and green sea turtles shimmy up to Emerald Isle's shoreline to lay their eggs on the shore. Though protected, seasonal visitors can spot these nests, carefully outlined with temporary barriers to protect them from beach traffic, and admire the long winding turtle tracks that trickle from the ocean wash to well above the high tide line.
Emerald Isle has a big community spirit as well, and visitors of all seasons will be treated to a number of town-wide events, including an incredible Independence Day Fireworks display that launches annually off the Bogue Island Fishing Pier, and a Christmas Parade that brings out the best of all the local businesses and residents. With seasonal 5Ks and charity races, biking tours, Friday Flicks, and varying festivals throughout the year, (which includes a St. Patrick's Day Festival and the renowned Seafood Festival), visitors will find no shortage of things to do. A complete list of special events can be found on the official Town of Emerald Isle's website, which is updated throughout the year.
Visitors will find a bevy of vacation rentals and condominium complexes to enjoy, but no major high rise hotels or national chains, and honestly, for most seasoned Emerald Isle vacationers, this is part of the town's charm. Distinct from other beach vacation destinations, Emerald Isle, though a relatively new Carolina vacation destination, is proud of its informal reputation as a small beach town with a lot of amenities, a big community spirit, and miles of those emerald green beaches.
Visitors who want a family vacation to revolve around the beach will feel right at home in Emerald Isle. Small but accommodating, this town is one of the Crystal Coast's best gems, and is an idyllic vacation destination for anyone whose idea of paradise is sea-green ocean waves, dense patches of native landscape, and miles of waterfront views in every direction.