Wilmington, North Carolina, is located on the banks of the Cape Fear River in the southeast corner of the state. That it’s a short distance to the coast means there are excellent local beaches to explore nearby and beyond.
What criteria make a great beach? Just like beauty it really does lie in the eyes of the beholder. Some people like throngs of people with busy active beaches while others like a quieter beach. One thing I do know is everyone loves good sand, clean water, and a safe place to enjoy a day at the beach.
Note: Thank you to Wilmington, NC River District, and Island Beaches for hosting me on a press trip. All opinions are my own.
Kure Beach is the place to visit if you love a quiet family-friendly environment. It has a charming small town atmosphere. The town was incorporated in 1947 and the Kure Beach Fishing Pier is the oldest fishing pier on the east coast. The pier is free to explore but there are fees if you plan to fish. There is a cute little business district near the pier with restaurants and shops. There is parking in this area, but it is limited to two hours so park along the beach if you are planning on spending the day.
The largest green space in town is Ocean Front Park and is located adjacent to the iconic fishing pier. The park has a wooden boardwalk and is lined with old-fashioned swings similar to a front porch swing. When I photographed a swing a man said, “That is my mother’s swing.” I had a moment of confusion until I realized that there are dedications on the swings. There are genuinely nice public restrooms available. The open-air pavilion offers special events throughout the year including free concerts.
This beach was my favorite. I loved just how peaceful it was. I visited early in the morning to have breakfast at the Kure Beach Diner. After breakfast, strolling around, I practically had the whole beach to myself which was unexpected on a Saturday in the summer.
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
Although technically the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is in the town of Kure Beach, the beach is a separate area that is part of the North Carolina State Park system. The park includes about 5 miles of pristine beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The only development is the visitor center, boardwalks to access the beach and restrooms. There is plenty of parking and once you head out to the long beach you can walk the beach to find a secluded area. The beach here is a protected shoreline favored by loggerhead sea turtles and piping plovers who nest here throughout the year.
This is a great destination to spend the day. In addition to the beach, you can access the Basin Trail which is just 1.1 miles in length and although it is rated easy it can be challenging due to the sand surface. The trail weaves through a coastal marsh to the sound side of the park. Also within the recreation area is the Fort Fisher State Historic Area which is a Civil War-era historic section containing the ruins of Fort Fisher. To learn more about sea life visit North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher which has exhibits on coastal habitats and animals native to North Carolina as well as exhibits from around the world.
ProTip: Begin or end your day with a trip on the Fort Fisher-Southport ferry. The ferry landing is located at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and gives you lovely views of the Cape Fear River and you will have glimpses of the Bald Head Island Natural Area and Zeke’s Island Reserve. A carload is only $7. In the summer months check the schedule and arrive early, there are no ferry reservations.
This is the beach for lots of activity and people. The Carolina Beach boardwalk provides that vintage beach experience with rides, shops, food including the iconic Britt’s Donuts, a boardwalk staple since 1939. The boardwalk also has a section along the beach with wooden walkways with places to sit and a covered area with outdoor showers to rinse off the sand. Carolina Beach is a great location for multigenerational travel with a good mix of activities to please everyone in your group.
If you want beach nightlife, visit the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar which was named one of “America’s Best Beach Bars” by Thrillist. The Tiki Bar is on a pier out into the Atlantic Ocean. For a totally unique experience, check out the Fat Pelican which is the definition of a dive bar. It is known for its walk-in refrigerator case where you choose your beverage of choice from canned beer and other canned alcoholic drinks. I checked it out during the day when it wasn’t busy. I can imagine it gets wild at night. Tasting History Tours offers a History in a Glass tour that takes you to 4-5 locals spots where you will learn some history and sample a variety of beer, wine, and distilled spirits.
Wrightsville Beach is known as a premier watersports destination and was the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina. This is the beach for an active vacation. It was named as one of the “Best Beaches in the U.S.” by MSN.com and you can see why it gets so many repeat visitors. The town has a small village feel and the Historic Square is worth a visit to see the buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1934 that destroyed so many of the island homes. Make sure to check out “The Loop.” This is a 2.45-mile fitness trail that has 25 unique signs posted along the route. The Interpretive signs have vintage photographs paired with historical tidbits.
For reasonably priced tours, try Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. Its Shelling Tour is $45 per person and takes you out to the pristine Masonboro Island located just south of Wrightsville Beach. This long barrier island has miles of unspoiled beaches and can only be reached by boat. On this guided tour, a Cape Fear naturalist will give you tips on finding the perfect shells — among them the Scotch Bonnet, the state shell of North Carolina, and many more. The InShore Bottom Feeding Tour is a bargain at $45. I don’t know anywhere you can take a fishing trip for that cost. Rod, tackle, bait, and a license are included as well as a knowledgeable guide. Try your hand in Masonboro Sound which is known for flounder, bluefish, and sea bass.
Topsail Beach and Surf City are a little north of Wilmington. This beautiful island beach is home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, one of the largest on the east coast. Learn about the island’s fascinating World War II history at the Missiles and More Museum.
Bald Head Island
South of Wilmington you will find Bald Head Island, a subtropical island you can only reach by ferry or boat and there are no cars. It is located where the Cape Fear River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The island is 12,000 acres and 10,000 are pristine beach, marsh, and maritime forest preserves. It is also the site of the state’s oldest standing lighthouse, “Old Baldy,” which was built circa 1817. You can rent golf carts to navigate the island and it is a great location to get away from it all.
Almost to the South Carolina border, Sunset Beach is the southernmost Brunswick Islands beach and made National Geographic’s list of “21 Best Beaches in the World.” There are no boardwalks or highrise condominiums, just endless sand, and peaceful views. On an interesting note, with the way the island is situated in the winter months, you can watch the sun rise and set over the water.
A short drive away is the town of Calabash which is known as the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Calabash is also a style of cooking seafood. The seafood is lightly breaded and quickly deep fried. You’ll find shrimp, clams, fish, and oysters cooked Calabash style in many of the local restaurants. Well worth a side trip.
There is nothing like a beach trip as a perfect getaway to relax. With many of the beaches around Wilmington showing up on “Best Beach” lists, the area beaches might just become your new favorite.
Pro Tip: Rent a vacation home and enjoy all the area has to offer. It is nice to have more space, especially at the beach due to sand and your beach gear as well as having a kitchen in case you want to eat in. There is something about being on the water that makes everyone hungry. I always rent from local vacation rental businesses versus AirBnB. The business examines each home and has on-call people for any maintenance issues.
North Carolina’s rich coastline has a number of great beach getaways: