Darwin Brandis/Getty Images

This leg of our yearlong journey from Key West to Norfolk captures North Carolina coastal magic: a string of sleepy little fishing and boating towns, from Beaufort to Oriental and Belhaven. (Look out; you may decide to stay forever.) Meanwhile, just offshore lies the wild and windswept Cape Lookout National Seashore, with its breathtaking views, wild horses, and untrammeled shorelines.

By Jani Parker

All year, we're collaborating with Waterway Guide Media to bring you the best segments of the 1,243-mile-long Intracoastal Waterway on a journey from Key West, Florida, to Norfolk, Virginia, at the end of the (watery) trail. This month: enjoying the pleasures of towns large and small along the Atlantic coast. See previous parts of the trip:

Leg one: Key West to Key Largo, Florida
Leg two: Stuart to Port Canaveral, Florida

Leg three: Titusville to St. Augustine, Florida
Leg four: Fernandina Beach, Florida, to St. Simons Island, Georgia
Leg five: Savannah, Georgia, to Charleston, South Carolina
Leg six: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Topsail Island, North Carolina

Mile 229 | Swansboro: Mullet Mania

We're talking fish, not hairstyles. Plan your cruise to line up with this friendly little city's annual festival (the second weekend in October this year) named for the local catch. Raft up with friends and dinghy in for mullet served fried, broiled, grilled, smoked, and stewed. Admission is free.

RELATED: The Best Beaches in North Carolina

Courtesy of Scott Kilgore

Mile 202 | Beaufort: Wooden-Boat Wonders

Get to know the state's rich wooden-boatbuilding heritage at the North Carolina Maritime Museum's Watercraft Center. Watch shipwrights at work as boats take shape and consider staying for the center's one- and two-day boatbuilding courses. TIE UP: Dockage rates at Beaufort Docks Marina start at $1.95 per foot per day.

Jimmy Williams

Mile 202 (+ 10 Nautical Miles Southwest) | Cape Lookout: Shell-Seeking + Wild Horses

Anchor for up to 14 days within the boundaries of Cape Lookout National Seashore, watching the wild horses, fishing, and looking for shells. For a grand view, climb to the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (open through late September).

RELATED: The Best Seafood Dives in North Carolina

Will Conkwright

Mile 182 | Oriental: Waterways

Overnight in the "sailing capital of North Carolina" on the broad Neuse River. Rent bikes to pedal past historic homes or kayaks to explore the five creeks that converge here. TIE UP: Dockage rates at Oriental Marina & Inn start at $1.90 per foot per day.

Courtesy of Dana Jo Photography

Mile 136 | Belhaven: Birthplace of the Intracoastal

The waterway's final connections were completed here, and the nearby River Forest Manor is a landmark for all ICW cruisers. Toast that history at Spoon River Artworks & Market, an acclaimed farm-to-fork restaurant in town. TIE UP: Dockage rates at River Forest Manor & Marina start at $1.50 per foot per day.

READY TO SET SAIL? To order guidebooks and begin planning your boating adventures, visit waterwayguide.com.

NO BOAT (YET)? Oriental's School of Sailing offers, in addition to lessons, access to the vast Pamlico Sound aboard one of its two 24-foot bareboat charter sailboats.

WATCH: Perfect Weekend in the Outer Banks, North Carolina:

BY THE NUMBERS:

93 Miles sailed
1.25 Million pounds of striped mullet caught in North Carolina in 2015
110 to 130 Wild horses at Cape Lookout National Seashore
5k Seashells on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum
89 Years since the ICW was completed at Belhaven