Best of the Carolina Coast

The Best of the Carolina Coast from Historic Riverfront to Oceanfront

By Melissa Corbin

From the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington, North Carolina, and its island beaches is one of those destinations you can’t help but fall in love with. You can “do it downtown” by exploring more than 230 blocks of historic significance, peppered with plenty of hotspots and cultural interests throughout. And, the three distinctly different island beach communities are ready to welcome you with way more than just time on the sand. (Though, you’ll suffer some serious FOMO if you don’t make time to do just that.) Whether you’re traveling with family, your besties, or even solo, choosing which shade of red to paint the town is totally up to you.

Three Island Beaches

From downtown Wilmington, you’ll head east about 15 minutes where a vacation filled with adventure awaits in Wrightsville Beach. Or, head south about 30 minutes to complete your trifecta of island bliss at Carolina and Kure Beaches. Beachcombers can get their fix in Carolina Beach by giving RentABeachChair a shout. But, don’t get too comfy, because the nearby historic Carolina Beach Boardwalk is one of the last remaining East Coast boardwalks. From gazing at the ocean blue atop a Ferris wheel during the summer to dancing the night away, you’ll savor the moment along one of “the most awesome boardwalks in America'' according to Budget Travel. Over in Wrightsville Beach, Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier was North Carolina’s first concrete fishing pier and extends 1,200 feet into the Atlantic. Whether you care to fish or stroll, grab a beer from the pier house and savor the views. While the 700-foot-long Kure Beach Fishing Pier doesn’t permit alcohol, there’s some mighty fine ice cream served up in the arcade the whole family will devour. Coupled with the fact that fishing permits aren’t required, this one’s perfect for giving the little ones a reel chance at the day’s catch.

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Watersports and Activities

For those seeking more active adventures on the Atlantic Ocean, Tony Silvagni Surf School, Odysea Surf School, Wrightsville SUP and Blockade Runner Surf to Sound Adventures (one of the few ASA Certified Sailing Schools in North Carolina) are great choices for gear rental and professional instruction in all types of watersports for adults and children alike. Still, sailing the ocean blue has its own style of adventure with Wrightsville Performance Sailing. Dive deep into your ocean feat with Carolina Beach Scuba, Aquatic Safaris and WB Diving, where underwater sites and historic shipwrecks such as North Carolina’s first heritage dive site, The Condor, await.

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Get Outdoors

Beach life isn’t the only way to experience the great outdoors in Wilmington and its island beaches. Hike or bike the miles of trails through 50-foot sand dunes and past patches of carnivorous Venus flytraps before finding some of the best fishing spots on the coast at Carolina Beach State Park. Just two miles west of Wrightsville Beach, the Airlie Oak dating back to 1545 stands on the expansive grounds of Airlie Gardens along with more than 75,000 azaleas, a butterfly house and other seasonal beauties. At the New Hanover County Arboretum, you’ll find an authentic tea house surrounded by Japanese maples with a contemplation garden paying homage to all five branches of the United States military nearby.

And, where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean at Kure Beach, 6 miles of protected shoreline defines Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. The dog-friendly beach seasonally allows four-wheel drive vehicles with the required permits, and you’re sure to spot loggerhead turtles and piping plovers during nesting season. Explore the site of the Civil War’s largest amphibious battle at Fort Fisher State Historic Site, which offers indoor and outdoor exhibits that help you explore the fort’s earthworks – one of the South’s largest. The whole family will be intrigued by the fully functional replica of a seacoast cannon and underground bunkers along the .25-mile walking loop that encircles the loop.

An attraction coming to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in 2022 will feature a mega-sized jellyfish exhibit, and the Adventure Reef playground – which the kids will adore – are just a couple of the aquarium’s numerous ways to connect with marine life. And, for an up close look at marine life in the wild, make your way from Wrightsville Beach via Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours and Cruises, or the Carolina Runner with Blockade Runner Surf to Sound Adventures, to southern North Carolina’s longest undisturbed barrier island ecosystem, Masonboro Island Reserve, which is over 8 miles long. Home to birds, fish, invertebrates and sea turtles, the salt marshes and tidal creeks are just the beginning for exploring the island’s ecosystem. The adventure continues by taking a Pirate cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, which puts stories of pirates front and center where the bootie of treasured memories will last a lifetime for the entire family.

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Tours and Cruises

Yet another great steward of Wilmington is Springbrook Farms, which has rescued and cared for Percheron draft horses for over thirty years. Join them for a guided horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown Wilmington to learn of the town’s history and admire the stately mansions along the way. Cape Fear Riverboats leaves its downtown dock daily for sightseeing cruises. Or, explore the convergence of the river with the Atlantic Ocean aboard a cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours.

Movie buffs will recognize Wilmington in many of their favorite films and TV shows such as One Tree Hill featuring an all-star cast. It, among more than 400 other movies and television shows shot on location, has earned Wilmington the nickname “Hollywood East.” Check out some of your favorite’s with this printable guide. While you’re at it, walk through downtown admiring 10 blocks of outdoor public art from North Fourth Street to the Riverwalk. And, less than three miles from downtown, Cameron Art Museum boasts up to eight rotating exhibits each year, including outdoor works such as the new United States Colored Troops Sculpture honoring the USCT soldiers who fought for their freedom in the Civil War.

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Food and Drink

And, if you crave the best bites and sips around, you’ve come to the right place. With over 40 locally owned restaurants in the River District alone, and more than 1,100 food establishments county-wide, the area is literally your oyster with treasured restaurants like EAST Oceanfront Dining, manna ave. 123, and Seabird wowing guests with field-to-sea freshness. Wilmington’s international cuisine is on point too, with bursts of Latin flavor at Savorez, almost too pretty to eat (but, you’ll manage), and Caribbean- and Polynesian-inspired cuisine at Salt Fish Restaurant and Bar in Carolina Beach. Pull up a seat on the dog-friendly riverside patio at Anne Bonny’s Bar and Grill where frozen cocktails are a thing, as is the Little Pirates menu for the kiddos.  Another great place to enjoy Cape Fear River views is at Elijah’s Restaurant where oysters on the half for half the price have become a Wednesday happy hour staple within an old maritime museum turned American grill and oyster bar. There is also a kids menu and seasonal live music outside.

Home to more than a dozen craft breweries, Front Street Brewery, Waterline Brewing Co., Good Hops Brewing and Wrightsville Beach Brewery head up the list of local favorites, along with the newest addition, Hi-Wire Brewing. Still, if you’re thirsty for a little something extra, Bottles not only taps eight rotating draft beers, but also uncorks a curated list of natural, organic wines. Get into the spirit in Wilmington’s trendy Cargo District with End of Days Distillery – specializing in white spirits – the distillery and tasting room are located within a refurbished 1940’s Quonset hut. And, to round out the area’s libation offerings, cocktails crafted by Wilmington’s finest can be found at the Prohibition-style speakeasy, The Blind Elephant, or Earnest Money & Sons where the Southern speakeasy membership fee assures this a special occasion sip or three. Finally, drink up beautiful views of the Cape Fear River at the Embassy Suites’ rooftop bar, Cloud 9, aView Rooftop Bistro atop the new Aloft Hotel, or at Reel Café overlooking downtown Wilmington. 

As you probably can guess, Wilmington and its beaches are forever evolving to the shades of red you’re looking for. So, make sure to hit up the “What’s New” page of the website for updates on where to play, where to stay, and definitely where to savor the bounty of what makes Wilmington, well, Wilmington. 

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