The wonders of the Crystal Coast's shoulder seasons
While summer may be the peak tourist season in Carteret County, the shoulder seasons -- stretching from late fall to early spring -- offer a wealth of events, attractions and allure.Posted — Updated
Lounging on the sand, listening to the crash of the waves as the warm sun beats down on the shore — summer is no doubt peak beach season. For oceanfront locations like the Crystal Coast, summer also means peak tourist season. While it's true the months between May and October are often filled with extra traffic, for those who live in these coastal towns and cities, life doesn't stop when the beach chairs are packed up and summer ends.
In fact, in Carteret County — home to the Crystal Coast waterfront municipalities of Morehead City, Beaufort, Cape Carteret, Cedar Point, and the beach towns of Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, Indian Beach and Emerald Isle — activity in the shoulder seasons gives the summer a run for its money.
"The Crystal Coast has incredible beaches in the summer that are always very busy, and many visitors believe our season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Our traditional shoulder seasons are mid-March through mid-May in the spring and mid-September through November, basically because school's back in session and it's a little bit more difficult for families to travel," said Jim Browder, executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority. "But really, it's a year-round destination. The majority of our restaurants, shops and attractions are open on a year-round basis, so it's not a seasonal beach town where it closes down after the tourist season wraps."
Some communities around Carteret County weren't always so lively in the past — but now, businesses that used to operate on a seasonal schedule have found year-round success, thanks in large part to the active lifestyles of residents, as well as visitors who have discovered the Crystal Coast’s varied year-round attributes.
Aside from shops and restaurants, many events around the Crystal Coast happen in the shoulder seasons, giving locals a jam-packed schedule and tourists and part-time residents a reason to visit even when temperatures cool.
COVID-19 has made this year's events schedule a little more unpredictable, but locals still look forward to the time when they can celebrate again.
"Our organization does so many events in the shoulder seasons, including Small Business Saturday and the art walk. We combine the Saturday after Thanksgiving into a big event with Small Business Saturday, and then our local arts council helps us with an art walk in the downtown area," explained Lisa Rueh, executive director of Downtown Morehead City. "That leads into the very next weekend of December, when the town hosts a Christmas celebration. During the celebration, Morehead City teams up with Beaufort for a Christmas Flotilla, where we have boats that are all decorated for Christmas and work their way from Morehead over to Beaufort. That's a big treat for people who are visiting over the holidays, and our residents really love to get their boats all decorated."
Aside from the Christmas Flotilla, downtown Morehead City also hosts a number of other winter holiday events, including a Christmas parade, breakfast with Santa, and Chowder and Cheer — a celebration where ticket-holding attendees have the opportunity to visit different establishments downtown and vote on their favorite chowder or soup variety. Often, downtown Morehead City brings in businesses that are located outside of the downtown district, highlighting town businesses that may not get the exposure downtown businesses receive.
Finally, the year ends with Downtown Countdown, the New Year's Eve celebration that features a crab pot drop — an appropriate Morehead City spin on the traditional midnight ball drop.
While Morehead City is the largest municipality in the county, it's far from the only center of activity. Up and down the 90 miles of the Crystal Coast, residents and tourists enjoy festivals, fine dining, and outdoor recreation all year, and some of the biggest and best are saved for the shoulder seasons.
"The Seafood Festival in Morehead City is always a major event, although this year it's going to be modified because of COVID. But, there are so many things to do outside — we like going out to the beach for the annual Kite Festival, there's a great oyster festival in Morehead City, and there are numerous fishing tournaments in the fall throughout the county," Browder said. "Especially in the shoulder seasons, it's almost like you can't figure out what you want to do because there are so many activities going on. Even if you want to be sedentary, you can go to the beach, or hop on your boat and cruise around for awhile. But, the festivals are really what makes this place special, and it's not just for tourists — they're actually all designed around residents, but the tourists are welcome and are able to enjoy them as well."
While the events are the bread and butter of the Crystal Coast, they're just one piece of life during the shoulder seasons. The county is home to over 100 independent restaurants — an impressive number for a county of 70,000 permanent residents — and many restaurants feature local art and live music.
And of course, while it may not be prime lounging weather, the county's location along the water still provides residents with unique opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.
"We love to get in our boat and explore, because there are so many neat places and beautiful wildlife around — the birds, the fish, the dolphins. The water is just so clear in the fall; it's so pretty," said Rueh. "If we want to stick around downtown, Morehead City has multiple walks. The fish walk features statues built by local artists of 16 different species of fish that are local — ones that you catch when you come here to our waters."
"We like to find things off the beaten path like that, just to explore our area," she finished. "Carteret County is so big and so long, so there's much to discover."
Rueh is right — with 90 miles of coastline and many unique communities to explore, residents of Carteret County find plenty of ways to fill their time during the shoulder seasons, even if they prefer just to sit back and enjoy the natural beauty of the county.
"It's a very fun and relaxed atmosphere here. Carteret County includes 11 very unique towns and many more unincorporated communities, and the beauty of it is all the communities get along great. They all respect that each one wants to have its own feel, so you have all these different cultures around here and there's no single dominant city," Browder said. "Morehead City is the largest city based on permanent population. It's got a quaintness about it and a great sense of place — that's why my wife and I enjoy living here. But all of the other towns offer unique advantages and attributes too.
“Whether you want to participate in all the festivals or, quite frankly, do nothing at all, it's the perfect place because there's a lot of great places to do nothing around here."
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