Across the Bridge, On Island Time in Wrightsville Beach

A savvy local shares his favorite spring activities and hot spots for friends and family in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

By Zach Hanner

My wife and I have lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, on and off, for the past 26 years. We’ve spent a lot of time exploring the gorgeous natural wonders that surround us, especially in Wrightsville Beach. So, when my college roommate Dave came for a visit this past spring with his wife Ashley and their three kids, we set out to show them the best Wrightsville Beach has to offer.

Fresh Catch and Fresh Air

Dave and his family arrived Saturday afternoon, and after checking into The Holiday Inn Resort Wrightsville Beach, rather than hit up a local restaurant for their first meal, we stopped by Motts Channel Seafood, a great place to pick up fresh fish and seafood to take home or back to your vacation rental. We bought fresh oysters to steam over the fire in our backyard, and a few flounder filets that we sizzled up on the grill. Cooking for a crowd is labor intensive, so we planned on dining out with our friends during the rest of their stay to showcase the Wrightsville Beach culinary scene.


Surfing, Fresh-to-Table Dining and Scenic Gardens

We started the day with a walk around The Loop to get fresh air and exercise while taking in the views of the island. Then we headed to the ocean, where the kids loved beach combing for shells. I suggested we grab brunch at The Oceanic, where we enjoyed an amazing meal – Dave loved their shrimp and grits while the ladies enjoyed the Oceanic Benny, made with crab instead of ham or Canadian bacon. They even have a kids' menu for the little ones. We all agreed the ocean view from the pier that extends from the restaurant, and the jazz trio playing in the background, were blissful additions to the meal.

After brunch, it was time for surf lessons! I previously taught for Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp, so I called and scheduled lessons for everyone. The kids had a blast, and Dave and Ashley even managed to get on their feet! The waves at Wrightsville Beach are great to learn on, and surf companies like Crystal South Surf Camp, Indojax Surf School and Sean’s Private Surf Instruction teach hundreds of people of all abilities every year. Wrightsville Beach is the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina, which means many people are inspired to learn and experience surfing right here on the island. 

That evening, we left the kids with our sitter, and my wife and I treated Dave and Ashley to dinner at Portside Bistro at 22 North, one of the more intimate restaurants in the heart of the island. The menu features farm-to-table ingredients and the finest locally sourced seafood and microbrews. My wife’s favorite is the she-crab soup; Dave went for the bacon-wrapped scallops, while Ashley loved their lobster mac and cheese.

The next day, we took our visitors just a short drive over the bridge to Airlie Gardens, a stunning example of what an outstanding historic public garden can be. With a gorgeous, ancient oak standing guard over the grounds, Airlie echoes the Roaring Twenties of its heyday while maintaining the modern accessibility of today. We enjoyed a self-guided tour of the 67-acre gardens and were awed by the amazing spectacle this special place offers. The kids loved the butterfly house and never once complained they were bored! Our guests even hinted they might come back for the annual holiday light show, Enchanted Airlie.


Dogs, Dunes and Deserted Islands

We headed to the beach and ordered a full picnic basket of hot dogs from The Trolly Stop. Located at the old terminus of the Shell Road Trolley, which ferried beach goers over to Wrightsville Beach before cars became commonplace, this legendary hot dog shop often has a line out the door during busy summers. I insisted our guests experience this iconic slice of Wrightsville’s colorful culinary history that has been in operation since 1975. My typical order is a Surfer Dog (mustard, melted cheese and bacon bits), while my son likes the German (deli mustard and sauerkraut). Our guests went old school with some classic North Carolina dogs (Deli mustard, chili and slaw). The Trolly Stop even offers vegetarian options, which are equally as delicious!

With lunch in hand, we made our way to make a reservation with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. They offer birding tours, history cruises and, my favorite, the Masonboro Island Shuttle. Captain Joe and his crew took us out to the 8.5-mile, undeveloped barrier island, where we enjoyed a gorgeous afternoon on a private beach. The kids found tons of gorgeous shells, and we enjoyed our picnic with the breaking waves as our entertainment.

Scenic Intracoastal Waterway views and excellent food made Bluewater Waterfront Grill an easy choice for dinner. We sat outside and enjoyed watching the boats float by as the kids dove into the mouthwatering coconut shrimp. I ordered my favorite – baby back ribs – while Ashley and Dave enjoyed more fresh seafood with the blackened Mahi tacos and my wife enjoyed her favorite, the flounder piccata.


Native Plants and Southern Seafood

We met our friends at their resort and headed to The Fred and Alice Stanback Coastal Education Center. In association with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the facility offers educational programs on water quality and restoring coastal habitats while also organizing local cleanup efforts and sea life experiences for local schools. The friendly staff there gave us a tour of the grounds, showed us some native plants and told us about the work they were doing to protect the ocean and water quality.

That afternoon, we took a stroll on Johnnie Mercers Pier and, afterward, walked over to Shark Bar & Kitchen, where they have great food and fantastic house cocktails. I ordered my favorite, a cucumber martini made with mint and simple syrup, a slightly sweeter gin cocktail than your typical version. The kids loved sitting upstairs on the Admiral’s Deck and enjoyed some tasty burgers while the adults dug into the fresh shellfish. The locally sourced Stump Sound Oysters were served with a tangy cocktail sauce and a sumptuous Anaheim jalapeño mignonette, which really brought the oysters’ flavor to life.

On the last morning of their trip, the whole group headed out for a stand-up paddleboarding lesson with Wrightsville Beach SUP, one of several outfitters on the island that offers rentals and lessons. We paddled out on the peaceful waters of the Intracoastal Waterway and soaked in the beauty all around us.

For lunch, we hit up one of my favorite spots to dine outside and people watch, South Beach Grill. Its unique take on Southern cuisine is inspiring with selections like Southern Fried Black-Eyed Peas, a sea-cuterie board, crab and seafood nachos, and little Southern touches like the Bless Your Heart salad and Cheerwine BBQ sauce. Our table shared a delicious order of Southern fried pickles, my North Carolina pork belly Reuben was amazing and Dave loved the fried oyster tacos. They even have a kids’ menu that includes a kid’s quesadilla, pasta with marina sauce or butter, burger, grilled cheese and chicken fingers.


Everything Under the Sun for Vacations and Staycations Alike

We dropped our friends back at their resort, with plans to meet up that evening at Ceviche's, a fantastic spot that offers delicious variations on its namesake dish. My favorite dish is the Mixto: shrimp, calamari and bay scallops with a spicy citrus horseradish sauce. Dave enjoyed the traditional Panamanian-style ropa vieja-braised flank steak, while our wives shared the Panamanian paella, a seafood standout that had their taste buds singing.

As we said farewell to our friends that night, we all felt relaxed and recharged after their vacation – and our staycation – in Wrightsville Beach. They returned to their inland home rejuvenated by their time on the coast. That invigorating quality is one of the many reasons we love where we live and enjoy sharing it with those who visit.

Plan Your Getaway to Wrightsville Beach.