By Liz Biro
Fall in Wilmington and its island beaches brings clear blue-sky days and milder temperatures. The ocean waves are refreshing, the air and water still warm. Sunsets cast an impossible color spectrum: pink, lavender, orange, raspberry, gold and periwinkle all at the same time.
Locals like me will tell you that fall is their summer. We think it’s the best time of year to be in Wilmington and the surrounding beaches – Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville. The season is more laid back, with fewer crowds and perfect for friends and family driving in for a few days or longer.
Start your weekend with an early evening walk along the Basin Trail at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. The trail skirts marsh, travels through maritime forest and past an old military bunker in a single mile. An observation deck at the end is a sweet reward. Gliding white egrets and great blue herons lull me into relaxation. At nearby Carolina Beach State Park, Sugarloaf Trail crosses a 50-foot-high sand dune forested in live oaks and Spanish moss. The selfie-worthy view at the top is where seafarers as far back as the early 1700s got their bearings.
Changing leaves cast fall color on the 67-acre Airlie Gardens, near Wrightsville Beach. A popular place to see the azaleas bloom in spring, autumn brings its own quiet beauty to the gardens, with late-blooming flowers alongside the fountains and graceful majestic live oaks.
In downtown Wilmington, the 250-acre Greenfield Lake Park & Gardens offers kayak and paddleboat rentals for a scenic paddle – or pedal – among the Cypress trees and a chance to view turtles, egrets, Great Blue Herons and more.
When we were kids, my brother and I used to marvel over insect-eating pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. Wilmington is one of the few places in the world where Venus flytraps grow wild. At the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, discover the unexpected beauty of these fascinating plants.
Locals pride themselves on spending nearly every minute of fall days outside. All ages and abilities are welcome at morning Beach Yoga on The Crystal Pier, which runs through September. Find your center as you Warrior I over the Atlantic.
Get your steps running or speed walking the 2½-mile Wrightsville Beach Loop, while the kids ride their bikes on the bike path that runs alongside. Pause to ponder vintage photos on 25 historical markers placed along the trail during certain times of year, or stop by the museum for a printed self-guided tour when the markers aren’t out.
Cycle 11 miles of old beach car line between downtown Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach on the River to Sea Bikeway, or head to the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail for 15 miles of mostly off-road fun through three city parks, and the drawbridge, with a lookout station for a scenic view of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Book a tee time at the affordable, championship Wilmington Municipal Golf Course, or the rolling, woodsy Beau Rivage Golf & Resort, with comfortable, two-room suites with private balconies overlooking the greens where you can unwind.
Water experiences abound in Wilmington and the surrounding beaches. Take a kayak, canoe or paddleboard excursion with Wrightsville SUP, Paddle NC or Blockade Runner Surf to Sound Adventures. Learn to surf at WB Surf Camp. Take in the hues on a sunset sail, or learn to man the skiff yourself in the Blockade Runner Sailing School.
End the day with a golden happy hour and dinner and drinks with a view. Fish House Grill’s patio overlooks dream yachts on the Intracoastal Waterway in Wrightsville Beach. Or take in the hues atop a cityscape at downtown Wilmington’s Cloud 9 open-air rooftop bar. Nine stories up, it offers a striking view of the Cape Fear River and a jumbo shrimp pizza with pimento cheese sauce that pairs well with the Wonderwall, a tequila Aperol spritzer. Walk up from the beach to Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar in Carolina Beach. Dine on fresh seafood and barbecue served up with spectacular sunsets on the deck at Smoke on the Water. Hoist a pint on the patio at ship-themed Edward Teach Brewing, named for North Carolina’s most famous pirate, Blackbeard. It’s one of a half dozen downtown Wilmington breweries located within walking distance, part of the Wilmington Ale Trail. Sip a craft brew, kombucha or soda on the dog-friendly patio at Flytrap Brewing. Try a refreshing Belgian Blonde or citrus and black pepper Saison or extend your summer with a Blood Orange Gose.
With so much to see and do in Wilmington and the surrounding beaches, summer doesn’t have to end come fall.