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North Carolina’s Bear Island

Hike with sea turtles, watch the dolphins play, and share the beach with ghost crabs.

Little-Known Fact: The notorious Blackbeard was among the many pirates who frequented the Bear Island area.

When you stand on the edge of Bear Island and stare out into the Atlantic Ocean, contemplating this world of water, sand, sky, and little else, it’s hard to imagine that a mere 20 miles to the north sits Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, famed for tacky tourism, fast food, plastic, and neon.

Here at Hammocks Beach State Park, a 25-minute ferry ride from Swansboro, your world is a pristine barrier island free from crowds and condos. Here, you can truly enjoy some quiet time at the beach, and all the simple pleasures that come with an uninhabited shoreline: surf-casting, kite-flying, swimming, tracking ghost crabs, or just digging your toes in the sand and scanning the waves for dolphins.

A North Carolina State Park since 1961, Bear Island is bordered on the southeast by the Atlantic and on the northwest by a vast salt marsh, tidal estuarine creeks, and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

Along with a rich wildlife and plantlife, the island also has a rich history. In the 1700s, it served as a hideout for the Neuse and Coree Indians during the Tuscaroan Wars. Later, the island was a haven for pirates, and then for Spanish privateers. It was a military station during the Civil War and World War II. Dr. William Sharpe, a New York neurosurgeon, bought the island in the early 1900s. The land ultimately was given to the state of North Carolina as a park, opened to the public in 1964. Bear Island may be a bit too much trouble to get to for some beachgoers, and the strict camping regulations can make park officials seem like reluctant hosts. But those who crave an unspoiled beach won’t mind the inconveniences.

Despite the restrictions, Bear Island is difficult to leave behind. Even as you’re trudging through the sand back to the ferry landing after a sun-drenched weekend, chances are you’ll be plotting a return trip to the clearest coast in North Carolina.

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