Situated at the southern end of the Cape Cod National Sea Shore, Atlantic Beach is part of a nearly east-to-west horizontal barrier island on North Carolina’s central coast. Bordering the Croatan National Forest on the south, with Shackleford Banks’ wild horses to the east, it’s close to a lot of nature…and a lot of good food with a great beach that’s dog friendly.
Where to Stay in Atlantic Beach
One of our friends has been staying at the Atlantis since she was a kid, so this year our families gathered for a short vacation there. In what’s become a bit of a tradition, our group beach week was preceded with a few of the fathers and sons riding bikes from Greensboro to the coast over three days. More on that later, it’s a story unto itself, but after three ~80 mile days, pulling into the Atlantis and diving into the tree-shaded pool was quite welcome.
There are a number of hotels along the beach, but the family-owned Atlantis offers more than just rooms. It’s pet friendly, and they go overboard to make it easy for dog lovers to bring their furry friends. There’s human showers and hoses at the boardwalk to the beach, and there’s a dog wash with soap and shampoo, too.
The rooms are… cozy, ideally set up for just two people. We crammed four of us in one, using the couch and an air mattress. In hindsight, we should have splurged for one of the larger corner rooms, which have a bigger kitchen and two beds plus living space. Regardless, there’s better spots to be than in your room.
They have rocking chairs facing the beach, comfy outdoor furniture with grills and swinging chairs under their main deck, and an attendant will set up lounge chairs and umbrellas for you on the beach every day. There’s corn hole, giant Jenga (that’s giant loud), loaner body boards, sea kayaks, and fishing rods, too. BYO boards if you want to surf or paddle.
At night, pull the chairs into a circle for stargazing and you’ll almost assuredly spot satellites flying far overhead.
Where to Eat in Atlantic Beach
So, “Atlantic Beach” is small, so everything here is adjacent, but close. Skip the chains and tourist traps, here are the real deal local foods you need to try:
Big Oak Drive-In & BBQ: Don’t let the name fool you, their signature item is the Shrimpburger. The pulled pork is good, too, but the Shrimpburger comes with slaw and mayo (and ketchup if you want it) and is a gloriously beachy lunch. Add some hush puppies and a sweet tea to make it a meal.
Crystal Coast Brewing: After lunch, swing by Crystal Coast for a wide variety of beers. They have their staples, including a couple of great sours to refresh on a hot summer day, plus a regular rotation of seasonals and experiments ranging from lagers to IPAs to porters and more. They’ll let you taste them before committing, and we’d recommend trying a few to find something you like because the pours are generously large pints. As in, they’re actual pints, not the 12oz “pints” that most breweries pass off these days. Have one, then grab some cans to enjoy back at the beach.
Blue Ocean Market: Grab ‘n’ go pre-made smoked salmon dip (they smoke the salmon in house and make the dip fresh throughout the day, but it still sells out quickly) and Wahoo Salad (think tuna salad, except with big chunks of wahoo) are the easy entry point, but for a real taste of NC Seafood, grab a fresh catch directly off the boat, then check their blog for recipes from Chef Jeremiah. So good.
Social Q Smokehouse: On the way out of town, grab an early lunch (early, because their daily specials and burnt ends sell out quickly!) at Social Q. Above, we got the last two Armadillo Eggs, and it was only 12:20pm. They’re cream cheese mixed with sausage, stuffed into a jalapeño, wrapped in meat, then wrapped in bacon, then smoked, then glazed with a peach BBQ sauce. Amazing. As was everything else we ordered, especially the Smoked House Sausage, slaw, and mac & cheese.
What else is there to do in Atlantic Beach?
We rode our bikes there, so there’s riding, with a 9-mile bike path that starts just a bit west of the Atlantis. But you can kayak, canoe, and standup paddleboard the Bogue Sound (the water between the barrier island and Morehead City on the mainland).
Or just walk on the beach or try surfing…the breaks were a little weird, but rideable at times. Fishing charters are offered, though we didn’t try one this time around. And next time, we really want to try lessons at Blown Kiteboarding.
Friends recommend taking a day trip to Shackleford Banks to see the wild horses, it’s a short ferry ride from Cape Lookout National Seashore. And Croatan National Forest has rivers and swamps for canoeing and fishing, trails for hiking, and even camping spots, though we’d recommend late fall and winter as it can get a bit buggy in the spring and summer.
Why we liked this place
Honestly, it’s a little weird being at the beach and not having the sun rise or set directly in front of you. With its east-west layout, Atlantic Beach sees the sun rise on the left when you’re sitting on the beach, so you’ll miss out on those types of photos and have some weird light for portraits with ocean backdrops. But there’s still a short golden hour for evening photos, but the light does go quick.
Sunrises and photo lighting aside, it’s far less touristy than most beach towns. You can find that crap if you want, but bring enough food for breakfasts and to grill out a few times, and you can limit trips to just hit those restaurants worth eating at, then grab some fresh seafood and dips on the way back to the lodge.
We rode our bikes there and ended up just leaving them outside our place, along with our paddleboards, and never once felt concern about their safety. The pool is great, there are big lawn areas for games or picnics, and the staff is attentive. The rooms are a bit small for families, but we didn’t spend much time indoors, so it wasn’t a big deal.