Destination: Beaufort, NC

Yachting's 2012 Best Town, North Carolina's Crystal Coast wins hearts by staying true to tradition. Story and photography by Daniel Harding, Jr.

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Weathered gray paint on the façade, weed-filled flower boxes and a locked front door make me think I should walk away. Instead, I peek around to an inconspicuous side door and step into a room flooded with light, a space where the specks of sawdust almost glisten in the air between the worn wooden floors and the oak rafters.
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I hear the whine of a dulled table-saw blade tearing through a slab of spruce, and I see four men meandering around the cluttered space, searching for a misplaced tool. A gray wooden boat rests at center stage, and it’s the only thing sitting idle in this marine carpentry shop.
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Just past the rope gate and down a few steps stands an older gentleman with a long, gray beard and glasses. I notice not just his age, but also the way he carries himself and the way others in the shop keep glancing over at him as they work. This is the man in charge.
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“He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but he’s the best,” somebody warns as I approach and extend a hand to Craig Wright, one of only two full-time employees at the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center in Beaufort, North Carolina. The center, associated with the North Carolina Maritime Museum across the street, is an active boat shop and an educational facility where Wright dutifully fields tourists’ questions about everything from classic boatbuilding to the old wooden hull in the center of the room.
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“This here is a World War II motor whaleboat and actually isn’t that old,” Wright tells me as his eyes light up. This replica was built in the 1990s at a Washington, D.C., naval shipyard — part of an at-risk-youth project that got canceled after Sept. 11, 2001, when the base closed. “She sat out in the weather for nine years, and then we got her and let her sit for a few more years,” Wright says. “Everyone here wanted to have a bonfire with her.”
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But they didn't. They couldn't. Beaufort is a place where just about everybody shares a love for boats and a passion for being out on the water. Those craftsmen replaced the rotten keel, did some recaulking and now have the boat on schedule for delivery to the USS Stewart near Galveston, Texas, later this year. It's the kind of work that has taken place in Beaufort pretty much since the town was founded in 1709 — work based on a respect for boating — that helped this spot best 49 other salty towns to claim the reader-voted title of Yachting's 2012 Best Town.
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One of Wright’s favorite programs at the center lets visitors build a boat in a day, through a class that brings four to six families at a time into the shop to create small wooden boats. “They’re simple, but the idea is they have something to take home with them that they can paint and work on as a family,” Wright says. He tries to leave them with a small boat that just may begin a lifetime of enjoyment on the water, not just at Beaufort but along the entire 85-mile Crystal Coast of North Carolina.
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This area has everything a cruising yachtsman could want, from first-class marinas to white sandy beaches, but the biggest attraction that readers mentioned in their letters to Yachting is the fishing. Beaufort and its environs have options for every level of angler, from casting off the dock for trout and bluefish to big-game fishing tournaments, such as the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City and the Barta Boys and Girls Club Billfish Tournament in Beaufort.
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“The bottom line is that the Crystal Coast has world-class inshore and offshore fishing,” says charter captain Dale Britt, a 13-year veteran of the local hunt. “Inshore, we have estuaries that have trout, flounder, bluefish, mackerel, albacore, amberjacks. ... Besides that, you’ve got the Gulf Stream, which is just 35 miles southeast of us, which has everything: [blue] marlin, white marlin, sailfish, mahimahi, yellowfin tuna, blackfin tuna, bluefin tuna, wahoo. It’s a mecca for sport fishermen.”
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I spent a half-day out on the water with Britt, and the experience only made me want to see more of what these waters offer. Luckily, I also had time for a stop at the North Carolina Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores, just outside Beaufort. The aquarium is a must-see attraction for anyone exploring the Crystal Coast with children, or for anyone like me, who is still a kid at heart. It’s the site of the largest saltwater tank in the state, and there are exhibits about river otters, sharks and sea turtles that take the better part of a day to experience. I envied the young visitors who got to wear white lab coats at the hands-on Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit, which encourages them to act like aquarium employees. Each child carried a plastic turtle that barely fit in his arms, taking it from one computer station to the next to diagnose, treat and then “release” the patient.
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It’s true that my visit to the museum made me want to skip the turtle soup, but I did have a hankering for seafood after a day of learning about all there is in and around Beaufort. I had my choice of countless waterfront restaurants along the Crystal Coast, all of them benefiting from fresh, off-the-boat deliveries. Clawson’s 1905 Restaurant in the center of Beaufort is a popular choice, and it’s as fun as its food is tasty, with artifacts lining the walls from the days when the building was a grocery store and bakery. I followed the staff recommendation of shrimp and grits, and it was hard to beat the combo, especially when it was paired with live music.
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The sun sank down and the street lamps popped on as I walked off my hearty meal along Front Street. More storefronts that looked like they were from the early 1900s created a scene unlike those in most waterfront towns, and kids sitting in front of the General Store made me feel like I’d traveled back through time. Beaufort, in many ways, is much like a built-in-a-day boat. Both have a way of hooking you for a lifetime.