Families all along the East Coast know that North Carolina boasts nearly endless miles of beautiful beaches. But did you know that the city of Wilmington, located on the state’s southern coast, offers visitors a unique variety of coastal treasures with its Historic River District and its three island beaches? With a slew of fun, active, historical and educational activities, Wilmington’s Historic River District and 31 miles of shoreline on its Island Beaches are perfect for a family vacation.
Wrightsville Beach – Watersports Paradise
Wrightsville Beach, the most accessible beach from Downtown Wilmington and Interstate 40, evokes a village-like atmosphere –- very casual and family-friendly. Wrightsville offers a few full-service hotels and resorts, such as the Holiday Inn Resort and the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, both of which have great kids’ camps. Sandcampers Kids’ Club at the Blockade Runner was recently featured by USA Today as one of the best resort kids’ clubs in the country. This beach town is not overwhelmed with large hotels; so a friendly, comfortable atmosphere is maintained with plenty of attractive vacation rentals.
Wrightsville Beach is a watersports paradise because of its variety of waterways and conditions ranging from open ocean to the protected waters of the Intracoastal Waterway. Surfing, standup paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking, sailing, and kite boarding are extremely popular. There are plenty of places to rent equipment and take lessons with certified instructors, as well as a number of surf camps for a more intensive surfing experience. Wrightsville Beach, previously dubbed one of the top surfing towns in the world by National Geographic, was also recently recognized as a “Pioneer in East Coast” surfing. Men’s Journal called it North Carolina’s “most naturally gifted watersports hub.”
Families will find it easy to get out on the water for some fishing or sightseeing with a variety of boating tours, including special kids’ cruises and a pirate adventure cruise, offered by Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours.
Stay Dry (Sort of) Family Activities
Active families will enjoy walking, running, or biking The Loop, a 2.5-mile fitness trail that circles the island. We got bikes from Aussie Island Surf Shop, and spent a couple of hours riding The Loop and exploring the rest of Wrightsville Beach. Aussie Island rents more than just bikes and can outfit all your family’s watersports needs.
Kids will love “Touch Tank Tuesdays” at the Coastal Educational Center. Check the center’s website for a variety of educational programs and boat cruises focusing on the coastal environment. Families may also want to spend a few hours away from the beach strolling, the beautiful post-Victorian European-style gardens at Airlie Gardens. At the start of each summer the gardens showcase a new artist’s whimsical sculptures placed throughout the grounds. Kids love the amusing scavenger hunts that are created for these playful sculptures. Currently exhibiting until this fall is the popular “Ribbit The Exhibit,” a collection of 20 larger than life, whimsical copper frog sculptures.
Carolina Beach – a Family Town with a Little Bit of Soul
About a 30-minute drive from Wilmington, Carolina Beach is another family-friendly beach community with just a slightly different vibe than Wrightsville Beach. Its nationally recognized seaside boardwalk, amusements, and special events like fireworks by the sea, outdoor film series, and summer concert series put a little more “edge” to family fun at the beach. A very popular spot is Carolina Beach State Park, which offers secluded camping, a marina providing access to great fishing, more than 6 miles of hiking trails, and some great kayaking or SUP tours and rentals from Paddle NC.
The park is also one of the only places in the world indigenous to the Venus flytrap. Take a ranger-led hike to view this intriguing plant, as they are hard to spot on your own.
Carolina Beach, like Wrightsville, has a long fishing pier (fee charged), plenty of watersports, and is the home of the Tony Silvagni Surf School, a highly popular surf school owned and managed by professional surfer and Olympic Gold Medalist Tony Silvagni.
Kure Beach for History and Natural Beauty
Just a few minutes drive south from Carolina Beach takes you to Kure Beach -– a beach community completely different than Wrightsville or Carolina. Offering a naturally beautiful setting in a peaceful, small-town atmosphere, Kure Beach is home to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area known for its 6-mile stretch of undeveloped beach. Each fall brings numerous visitors to witness the hatching of the many Loggerhead sea turtle nests scattered along the beach.
Even if not staying in Kure Beach, families will want to visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher – recently named a “Top 20 Aquarium in the U.S.” by Trip Advisor –- and Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Museum, a Confederate fort and site of the largest land-sea battle of the Civil War. Kure Beach’s small-town feel is epitomized by its Ocean Front Park, which features a boardwalk, a playground for small children, swings, rain gardens, oceanfront benches, and an open-air pavilion used for concerts and special events.
The City of Wilmington – Hip, Historic and Fun
A great thing about a family vacation in the Wilmington area is, well, Wilmington. Historic Wilmington, featuring its award-winning Riverwalk, is charming and quaint, yet hip and fun at the same time. The 230-block National Register Historic District can be explored by walking tour, riverboat cruise, Segway tour, horse-drawn carriage or trolley tour. Great shopping and dining can be found along The Riverwalk and Front Street.
Some Wilmington attractions in addition to The Riverwalk that families may want to experience are the Cape Fear Museum (the exhibit “Starring Cape Fear!” which runs until February 2017, is fun and interesting to TV and film buffs), the Wilmington Railroad Museum (offering some fun scavenger hunts for kids and a weekly story time), and one of the state’s most popular attractions, Battleship North Carolina (one of the most highly decorated ships of World War II). Other family-themed attractions include Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park and the Children’s Museum of Wilmington.
So whether you want your family vacation to be city-style or coastal-style -– or perhaps both -– Historic Wilmington and its Beaches could be just what you’re looking for.
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