It seems Carolina Beach, just minutes from Wilmington on North Carolina’s coast, was tailor-made for a big family reunion—or at least my family’s annual get-together. There’s plenty of room to spread out on the sand, tons of sun to go around, and those big beach houses with perfect chair-lined decks overlooking it all can’t be beat. With plenty of fishing, surfing, sunning, strolling, touring, cooking and going out, Carolina Beach has more things to do than my family can accomplish in a month, much less a week, and that’s why we keep coming back every spring.
Most holidays we’re packed into someone’s home, dragging out card tables and picnic tables and spilling onto the deck and into the yard to make room for everyone. Not here. At Carolina Beach, we don’t worry one bit about space. Renting a pair of beach houses and having room to spread out is bliss.
When we travel as a group, we forego the hotel rooms and go big. Beach house big. At Carolina Beach, we shoot for oceanfront homes with huge windows and even bigger views; kitchens large enough to feed our clan, but still cozy enough to feel like home. The first time we visited we saw the signs—Intracoastal Vacation Rentals, Network Real Estate, Bryant Real Estate—and decided this was the place for our future reunions; we’ve been rotating our rentals ever since.
My family is very active, so we’re outdoors every chance we get. My uncle and cousins are anglers extraordinaire, so we always charter a boat for a day of deep sea fishing or a morning (or two) of inshore. Another favorite activity? Piling into a 4x4 to head to Freeman Park where we off-road it on the sand for a day of surf fishing and pretending we’re castaways.
We’ve tried standup paddleboarding and kayaking trips and lessons, but occasionally others have wanted a little more adventure. For that there’s Tony Silvagni Surf School. I took lessons with a dozen or so cousins, aunts and uncles—the instructors had their work cut out for them with our bunch—and we still laugh when we remember the wipeouts.
The youngest members of the family (and even the teens and tweens) love the nationally recognized Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Between Britt’s Donuts Shop, souvenir shopping, restaurants and the amusement rides open in summer, they’re enthralled and would spend all their time here if not for Carolina Beach State Park. We hit the trails at least twice when we visit, and on days we don’t hike, we rent bikes from Wheel Fun Rentals and pedal the length of the island. The most adventurous of us head to Fort Fisher or even the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where we catch up with the rest of our group who decided to visit in cars. At Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, we’ll take a break for an impromptu picnic under the oaks; make a lap around the earthenworks, all that remains from the Civil War fortifications, on a self-guided tour; or hop on one of the organized tours like “Ready, Aim, Fire!”, which is directed more toward students but gives everyone an idea of a soldier’s life here.
Since only a couple of us are experienced golfers, we go for golf of the miniature or disc variety instead. Between the 9-hole disc golf course at Good Hops Brewing and 18 holes at Joe Eakes Park, we get our fill on the links.
A few of us are foodies and fans of craft beer, so we usually hit up our three favorites—Good Hops Brewing, The Fat Pelican and Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar—for some cold drinks and hot music. This year we’re taking a Tasting History Tour and stopping by Surf House, The Dive and The Veggie Wagon for a bite.
Dinner can be an event when our crew gets hungry. Between the anglers in our group and the local fish markets, we end up cooking at home a time or two, but most of the week we dine out. Fortunately for us, several restaurants can accommodate a big group, no problem. Bowman’s Seafood Restaurant is a favorite of ours because it delivers that seafood feast we want when we get to the beach. With a little notice, they’re always happy to get our tribe seated together, no matter how many we are. At Havana’s, we’ve taken over a pair of big tables. Or, when our group is larger, we’ve taken it to the next level and set up our own buffet banquet in a private dining room. The food’s always great and it’s easier for everyone, both the servers and us, when we’re contained. We also make it a point to get to Michael’s Seafood Restaurant where the chowder is outstanding and the seating plentiful; this year we plan on getting a few steamer pots to go so we can add to our cook-at-home seafood feasts.
Our reunion is always in the spring, so over the years we've been to the early April Pleasure Island Chowder Cook-off, which usually inspires a cook-off of its own back at our houses. This year we'll experience the late-April Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues & Jazz Festival that delivers everything we want: good food, good music, great peopleusually it takes place in the fall, so we're looking forward to checking it out. But there's plenty happening in the summer months, too, so we may need to start planning for a visit so we can experience the annual Carolina Beach Music Festival (in 2017 it's on June 3), catch free concerts and fireworks on the boardwalk, or enjoy free outdoor movies at Carolina Beach Lake Park. Whether it's our usual spring travel or summertime, our tribe loves Carolina Beach for good reason.
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