North Carolina’s coastline runs for over 300 miles, from the Outer Banks, where wild horses still roam, to 45 miles of south-facing beaches on the Brunswick Islands. In between, there are vintage boardwalks, pirate legends, 4×4 adventures, classic fishing piers, grand lighthouses, and dunes where the Wright Brothers first mastered powered flight.
It’s a captivating stretch of the Atlantic for family holidays, and incredibly easy to reach: direct UK flights year round to Raleigh take less than nine hours.
But where do you begin if it’s your first time? Visit North Carolina are local experts on every inch of the coast, so who better to guide you to the best of the best beaches?
1/7 Corolla Beach – where the wild horses roam
The northernmost beaches of the Outer Banks are white sand for mile after mile. One beach seems to sift into another, and they’re all enormous, so there are no crowds, ever. They’re also the stomping ground of wild Bankers horses, descended from the Spanish mustangs which crossed the Atlantic with 16th century explorers.
Corolla Beach, is particularly stunning, easily reached from Corolla village, and a good place for spotting wild horses.
What families love about Corolla Beach
- Wild Bankers Horses, and Wild Horse Adventure Tours in Currituck Banks Reserve.
- The Wild Horse Museum, and surfing lessons at Corolla Surf Shop.
- Views from the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
- Parasailing, SUP, tubing or kayaking.
- Cycling round historic Corolla village.
Where to stay: The Inn at Corolla Light. Family suite, sleeps four, from £114 per night.
How to get there: Corolla Beach is four hours drive east of the Raleigh Airport (RDU)
Find out more about Corolla Beach in North Carolina
2/7 Kill Devil Hills Beach – get ready for take-off!
Kill Devil Hills is the area where the Wright Brothers launched the world’s first, successful, manned flight in 1903. But, even if it wasn’t the most historic runway on earth, the area has a perfect family beach, from the colourful wooden beach houses to its graceful dunes, acres of smooth sand, water sports, and fun kids’ activities, on and off the sand.
What families love about Kill Devil Hills
- Standing on the ‘take off’ spot at the Wright Brothers National Monument Memorial.
- Learning to soar at Kitty Hawk Kites: the world’s largest hang-gliding school.
- Sand dunes at Jockey Ridge State Park: tallest in the Eastern US.
- Sea kayaking, boogie boarding, surfing and SUP.
- Biking round local villages like Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills.
Where to stay: Hilton Garden Inn, Kitty Hawk. Family room, sleeps four, from £187 per night.
How to get there: Kill Devil Hills is three hours, 17 minutes drive east of The Raleigh Airport (RDU).
Find out more about the Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina
3/7 Ocracoke Island – historic haven of Blackbeard the pirate
Families feel instantly at home on Okracoke. From its historic village and quaint harbour to 16 unbroken miles of pristine ocean beach, this unique island at the northern end of the Outer Banks couldn’t be more welcoming.
And you’re not the first to be charmed. Back in the day, Ocracoke was a haven for none other than Blackbeard, and it was here the legendary pirate of the Caribbean fought his final battle in 1718.
What families love about Ocracoke Island
- Dolphin spotting on the ferry crossing from Hatteras Island.
- Ocracoke Beach on Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Dr Beach’s #1 US Getaway Beach.
- Pirate legends at Teach’s Hole Blackbeard shop and exhibition.
- Adventuring round the island on family golf carts or bikes.
Where to stay: Ocracoke Harbour Inn. Family rooms, suites and cottages, from £97 per night.
How to get there: Hatteras Island is four hours, 40 minutes drive east of The Raleigh Airport (RDU). The ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke is free, and the crossing takes an hour.
Find out more about Ocracoke Island in North Carolina
4/7 Atlantic Beach – the classic Crystal Coast family resort
Atlantic Beach is one of the Crystal Coast’s most popular resorts, and its long, ocean beach is one of Coastal Living Magazine’s ’21 Best US Beaches’. Teens love the classic wooden boardwalk, and enormous fishing pier (1000ft to be exact). The sea’s water sport heaven, and calm enough for safe paddling. And, as an added bonus, Fort Macon State Park, the most visited in North Carolina, sits on the eastern end of the sands here.
What families love about Atlantic Beach
- Oceanana fishing pier and tours of Fort Macon State Park.
- Cycling along the classic seaside boardwalk.
- North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
- North Carolina Maritime Museum in nearby Beaufort.
- Sailing from Beaufort to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Where to stay: Double Tree by Hilton. Family room with ocean view, sleeps four, from £136 per night.
How to get there: Atlantic Beach is two hours, 40 minutes drive east of The Raleigh Airport (RDU).
Find out more about Atlantic Beach on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast
5/7 Topsail Beach – where loggerhead turtles come to nest
Teenagers might find Topsail too tranquil: although the city of Wilmington is less than an hour’s drive away. Younger kids, on the other hand, love the freedom of enormous Topsail Beach (stretching almost the entire length of the island). Spotting nesting sea turtles at the right time of year is magical, and visits to the local sea turtle sanctuary are just as enchanting.
What families love about Topsail Beach
- Guided tours of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.
- Kayaking and canoeing on the Intracoastal Waterway.
- Freshly caught seafood in restaurants along Topsail Beach.
- Friendly local festivals throughout the summer months.
- South facing Topsail Beach for sunrises, and sunsets, over the Atlantic.
Where to stay: Breezeway Cottage by the Bay, Topsail Beach. Sleeps six from £645 per week.
How to get there: Topsail Beach is two hours, 20 minutes drive east of The Raleigh Airport (RDU).
Find out more about Topsail Island in North Carolina
6/7 Carolina Beach – vintage North Carolina by the sea
Tucked between Cape Fear River and the Atlantic, Carolina Beach has the state’s oldest and liveliest boardwalk, along with classic funfairs, and acres of sunny sands. North Carolina families have holidayed here for generations, attracted by traditions like Britt’s Donuts, cycling on the boardwalk, live music, fresh seafood, and vintage seaside character.
Some of the best things about Carolina Beach
- Food & Wine Magazine rate Carolina Beach boardwalk as one of the US Top Ten.
- Learning to surf, SUP, kayak, sail or surf fish off the enormous beach.
- Days adventuring round 11-acre Carolina Beach Lake Park.
- Cape Fear Serpentarium, and North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
- Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park, and touring Battleship North Carolina
Where to stay: Hampton Inn & Suites. Family room, sleeps four, from £163 per night.
How to get here: Carolina Beach is two hours, 15 minutes’ drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
Find out more about Carolina Beach in Wilmington on the North Carolina coast
7/7 Sunset Beach – National Geographic’s 5th-Best Beach in the World
Sunset Beach is a miracle of white sands and blue seas, south facing for the finest sunrises and sunsets, serene enough to be chosen by Loggerheads during nesting season, and still manages to be fantastically exciting for families too.
What families love about Sunset Beach
- Walking over to Bird Island and leaving messages in the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
- Fishing on Sunset Beach Pier: the most southerly in North Carolina.
- Ziplining and eco-cruising at The Swamp Park on Shallotte River.
- Visiting the Museum of Coastal Carolina & Ingram Planetarium.
- Kayaking the Intracoastal Waterway at Sunset Beach Town Park.
Where to stay: Sea Trail Resort, Sunset Beach. Champion Mini-Suite, sleeps four, from £99 per night
How to get here: Sunset Beach is two hours, 40 minutes’ drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).