Wilmington, NC Warmup

How to pack coastal family fun into three gorgeous days in Wilmington, North Carolina

By Elizabeth Shugg

Coastal destinations are often at the top of the list when it comes to spring and summer getaways, and for good reason. But what happens when the family wants to also explore beyond the beach?

When the daily grind of deadlines, school and work pushes my family to the brink, we rejuvenate in Wilmington – a city that boasts historic attractions, culinary delights, a revitalizing riverfront and three nearby beaches. There’s nothing we love more than a getaway in this coastal destination to reconnect and enjoy quality family time together.

Here’s how we recently spent our visit, just as coastal temperatures were starting to warm up.

Garden Views and a Sunset Tour

We drove down Interstate 40 from Raleigh one morning with a full day of fun ahead of us before checking into Marriott’s Towneplace Suites of Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach. We usually choose a beach house for our vacation rental but decided to go with a hotel for this visit. We chose this one because it offers free breakfast, a location between historic downtown Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, and because Marriott’s Commitment to Clean program made us feel confident that our accommodations would be sanitized, helping us remain healthy during our stay. 

The Marriott’s two-bedroom suite with a sofa bed worked out perfectly for my husband and I, our two college-age sons and our teen daughter. The one-queen studio was just right for my mother and 6-year-old niece, who accompanied us on our trip.

Since the azaleas were blooming at Airlie Gardens, just three miles away from our hotel, we seized the opportunity to check this gem off our Wilmington bucket list. With plenty of curiosity and energy, we set out to explore its 67 acres, brimming with wildlife and 75,000 resplendent azaleas. We also got to meet Reilly, Airlie Garden’s goose-herding Border Collie who helps manage a resident flock of Canada Geese who like to visit the gardens a little too much. We also heard a new exhibit featuring oversized rabbit sculptures is coming soon. We ended our visit by taking a family picture under the Airlie Oak – which dates back to 1545 and is more than 128 feet tall. It also provided the perfect shady spot to rest our legs. Admission was reasonable: $9 for 13 and older, and $3 for children 4-12.

By 1 p.m. everyone was ready for lunch, so we headed downtown to the Copper Penny, where South Philly sports decor, a gleaming copper bar and copper finish on the ceiling greeted us. I ordered the Crab Cake Sandwich, and my husband went straight for Wilmington’s “Best Wings,” named so by Encore Magazine. The kids’ menu offered plenty of options for my niece, who ended up choosing the Shrimp Basket.

After enjoying our lunch, we stopped by the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, a Smithsonian Affiliate less than a mile away. My husband lingered over the “Michael Jordan: Achieving Success” exhibit, while my sons spent most of their time in “Space Place,” an interactive experience modeled after the International Space Station that was designed, in part, by GE employees. My niece marveled at the 20-foot-tall giant ground sloth skeleton replica. Admission is $8 for those 18 and older, $5 for children 6-17, $7 for seniors, and free for children 5 and younger.

After hearing great things about the new U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) sculpture exhibit at Cameron Art Museum, we decided to make a stop. The sculpture “Boundless” honors the USCT who fought for their freedom on the site of the museum’s grounds during the Civil War. Not only is the creation profoundly moving but also the anticipated focal point for the North Carolina’s first USCT Park expected to open on the museum’s grounds in the fall.

We made our way to Carolina Beach, where we had reserved seats on a sunset cruise with Salty Ventures. Comfortably seated, sipping beverages and witnessing the “Golden Hour” on the Cape Fear River was amazing. The whole family enjoyed it, and the fun conversation with the husband and wife operators made it all that more fun. For a total of $225, it was worth every penny.

We decided to check into our hotel to rest and refresh before returning downtown. A stroll along the Wilmington Riverwalk took us past eclectic boutiques, shops and galleries on our way to Steam Restaurant & Bar, located on the second floor of the Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront Hotel. Captivated by the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling views of the Cape Fear River, we shared steamed North Carolina clams and Pimento Fundido while waiting for Pan-Seared Diver Scallops, Sweet Heat Pork Tenderloins and Hand-Battered Buffalo Chicken.

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Beach Day and Treasure Hunt

Saturday morning was devoted to dipping our toes into Wrightsville Beach’s ocean waters and building a massive sandcastle. Around noon, my husband, kids and niece walked up the coastline to Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier for lunch at the snack bar, while my mom and I escaped to Ceviche’s, a nearby Panamanian restaurant and bar in a cute yellow bungalow at the corner of Wrightsville and Eastwood roads. We highly recommend the Sancocho and Blackened Corvina Tacos.

Next, we dropped my husband and the older kids off at Mahanaim Adventures for a three-hour kayaking excursion that took them to Shark’s Tooth Island, where they searched for prehistoric shark’s teeth and fossils. A four-person adventure costs $220 – no price can compare to the memories and treasures made.

Meanwhile, my mom, niece and I explored the Children's Museum of Wilmington, where the “Community Market” and “Imagination Playground” dominated my niece’s attention, until she discovered “Ahoy! Wilmington,” which allowed her to dig in the sand for treasures of her own. Admission costs $9.75 for children and adults.

With about an hour to kill before the kayaking adventure was expected to end, we drove to nearby Arrowhead Park and discovered a retro reminder of past playgrounds: a classic Gaga Ball pit. This was a fun place for my niece to play while my mom and I relaxed and took pictures of her having fun to text to her mom.

After picking up the kayakers and getting cleaned up, we made our way toward the Riverwalk for dinner at Marina Grill. We started our meal with spicy Crab Dip, then dove into our entrees: Baby Back Ribs, Jerk Chicken, Lobster Mac N Cheese and BBQ Chicken & Pineapple Flatbread, just to name a few. The lively atmosphere and waterfront view was the perfect backdrop as the entire family cleaned our plates.

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Spirits, Seafood and Seascapes

We checked out of our hotel Sunday morning and kicked off our final day in Wilmington with a self-guided tour of the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. This refurbished memorial for the 11,000 North Carolinians who died in World War II features nine levels of living spaces, mess decks, gun turrets and more. Having recently watched a “Ghost Adventures” investigation of the spirit activity on Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, I was particularly fascinated with the story of a blind crewman’s spirit, who is believed to still roam the ship. Naturally, we kept our eyes — and ears — open for ghostly activity during the tour. I suspect with Wilmington being the first city in the country to be designated as a WWII Heritage City, due to its preservation of WWII history sites, there could be many more ghostly encounters around us! Admission is $14 for ages 12 and up, $6 for children 6-11, and $10 for seniors 65 and older. Children 5 and younger are free.

With time to kill before heading to Wilmington Water Tours, where we planned to take a 50-minute eco-history tour, we drove south along the Cape Fear River to Smoke on the Water, where seafood meets barbecue with a New Orleans flair. The Baja Shrimp Tacos, Texas Brisket Sandwich and SOTW Burger were my family’s favorites, while my mom – always the oyster fan among us – devoured the Fried Oyster Poboy.

After lunch, we drove over to Wilmington Water Tours for our Eagle Island Cruise, reasonably priced at $15 for ages 13 and older, $7 for ages 4-12, and free for children 3 and younger. Our intimately sized catamaran headed north along the historic downtown area, offering views of shipwrecks and the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA we had toured earlier that day. Our guide educated us on regional plants and the bygone days of rice plantations in the area. An hour later, we were back on land, preparing for the drive home.

We already have a checklist ready for our next trip to Wilmington, when we plan to spend some quality time at Carolina and Kure beaches, and visit some of the places we didn’t have time for during this trip: Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park, that’s open year-round; Waterpark open May through August, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, Wilmington Railroad Museum and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, that’s debuting three new exhibits: a Caribbean Corals habitat, a mega-sized jellyfish exhibit and a new habitat for two rescued owls. We can’t wait to explore more!   

Wilmington is much more than a coastal destination. It offers just the right amount of history, amusement and culinary variety to delight family members of all ages. Experience Wilmington together or divide and conquer, like we did. You’ll return home feeling refreshed, re-energized and rejuvenated.

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