Last spring, my husband and I ambitiously planned a summer Disney vacation. Our oldest daughter was 5 years old and at Peak Princess Obsession and we thought it was as good a time as any to take advantage of that fleeting stage and drag everyone to Disney World. In July.
We booked with the travel agent, dutifully made plans and arrangements, and then in late May, we went to the National Zoo, where our toddler refused to ride in a stroller, or walk, or be toted around by anyone but me. For the whole day. My husband and I looked at one another once back in the car and realized there was no way, no how Disney was happening that year. In hindsight, I don’t really know what we were thinking in ever assuming a trip to Orlando in July with a young toddler was going to be a fun family vacation. I once saw an episode of Dr. Phil where Dr. Phil said “Sometimes teenagers behave as if part of their brains fell out.” Sometimes adults behave like that too. Bless our hearts?
The day after our zoo trip I called our Disney travel agent, apologetically canceled our Disney vacation, and then set about finding a place on a beach that wasn’t already rented out for the entire season. Everyone knows that the Outer Banks is the vacation enclave of the DC Metro area. It’s essentially the DC Metro area transported to the beach. Everyone goes there, which means everything was already booked up. So I set my sights further south and ended up at Carolina Beach, which not only had rentals still available, but had cheap rentals still available. Cheap rentals that were right on the ocean!
Within a day I had booked our replacement, not-Disney vacation for the week of the 4th of July. We’d never been to Carolina Beach, but crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We figured even worst-case scenario, it still wasn’t Disney, and that was enough for us.
So imagine our surprise when we arrived at Carolina Beach on July 4th and fell in love with the place. In fact, we loved it so much, I broke my cardinal rule of vacations and just booked our vacation there again this year. In typical circumstances, I am vehemently opposed to revisiting a previous vacation spot because it necessarily means that the trade-off is the loss of exploring a new place. However, I am also practical and realize that with a 2 year old, the more adventurous, far-flung vacation destinations that include airpline rides, ziplines and vaccinations must needs wait and if we can find a relaxing vacation desination within driving distance that’s enjoyable for everyone, we need to take it. So we’re headed back to Carolina Beach again at the end of June and couldn’t be more excited about it.
Come with me and I’ll convince you why Carolina Beach is the best spot for your family vacation this summer- not Disney and not the crowded, yet simultaneously isolated Outer Banks that all your neighbors will be visiting. This is your own private Carolina. Carolina Beach has everything, including:
Inexpensive real estate
Booking so late in the season, we fully expected to pay a premium for whatever rental would still be available. Instead, we found an oceanfront 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo with private parking and beach access for the low price of $1250 for the week. At the height of vacation season, with the stay encompassing the 4th of July. You’re not renting a Ski-doo on the Outer Banks for $1250 (slight exaggeration). We used Bryant Real Estate, who were friendly, easy to work with via phone and email, and provided a lovely, clean, charming condo for the week of our stay. (We booked our exact same condo this year knowing how reliable Bryant Real Estate is.) Each morning was spent with coffee on the balcony watching the sun come up over a quiet and still Carolina Beach.
Can you see the sunshine? Can you just feel the moonshine? (My apologies to James Taylor.)
Blissfully empty beaches
The beaches aren’t totally empty- there’s going to be plenty of friendly faces nearby to chat with while you sit on the beach, but Carolina Beach is wonderfully free of the teeming masses of humanity seen on Jersey Shore beaches during the summer season. You’re not elbowing for space or staring out at a sea of multicolored umbrellas on Carolina Beach. Each morning we walked out, selected our spot for the day, and had an unobstructed view of the ocean as long as we were out there with plenty of space to stretch out, scatter toys, and even set up a plastic swimming pool with water in it so our toddler could stay cool up on the sand. I know you. You’re a Griswold family like mine is. You’ve got a beach wagon, an umbrella, 52 towels, two coolers, a radio, a few beach blankets, 16 beach chairs, 22,000 beach toys, a plastic baby pool, and four beach bags stuffed with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, coverups and swim diapers. You’re going to need the space.
Charming beach town Boardwalk
The Carolina Beach Boardwalk is a very special boardwalk- small, old fashioned, it’s a holdout from the past, a throwback to the 1950s beach vacation. There’s a small midway with carnival rides for kids, a few ice cream shops, several restaurants and bars, and the requisite tshirt shops, but it’s so much less gaudy and frenetic than the gargantuan boardwalks in major beach towns. Relatively crowd-free, family friendly, and adorable. We went there almost every day we were on vacation- to grab a meal, or an ice cream cone, or to take a walk on the wooden walkway spanning that stretch of beach, to let the kids ride a few rides.
We didn’t have a single bad meal the entire time we were in Carolina Beach. In fact, the least impressive meal we had was also the most expensive, proving that good beach food doesn’t have to be fancy.
There are two donut shops in Carolina Beach: Britt’s Donut, right on the Boardwalk, and Wake n Bake Donuts, near the bridge. You may try both. You may like both. But only one of these can be declared The Best Donuts in Carolina Beach. Your family may go to battle over this.
Britt’s Donuts has been on the Boardwalk for over 75 years and their menu is wonderfully simple: donuts. Just one kind- a fried, glazed, melt-in-your-mouth donut that is somehow crispy and airy all at once. It’s Krispy Kreme compounded. It’s heaven in your mouth.
Britt’s Donuts come fresh and hot in a brown paper sack, and they must be eaten right away, on a bench in the middle of the Boardwalk, for maximum enjoyment. The line at Britt’s can get particularly long, so we took advantage of a relatively short wait time and had our first Britt’s Donut at 9:30 pm one night. No regrets. The donuts are legendary for a reason. We had them maybe 18 more times while we were there.
For breakfast one morning on our way to Wilmington, we stopped in at Wake n Bake, which features a huge selection of fanciful donuts with interesting toppings. These are glamorous, fancy donuts. Whether they’re better than a simple Britt’s Donut is a matter of personal taste.
Other favorite places we ate while in Carolina Beach: Island Hots, with some of the best hot dogs we’ve ever tried, and Gibby’s Dock and Dine, where we went for dinner several times just because we loved the waterfront deck and the food. As charter boats come trundling in from a long day out at sea, you can sit on the deck at Gibby’s and wave hello. One boat held up their dog and made him wave at us with his paw, which counts as dinner and entertainment in my book. At the end of a long day on the beach, it was so pleasant to sit with a glass of wine on the deck at Gibby’s to watch pelicans swoop and boats come in and eat plates of grouper and shrimp that were so fresh, I’m convinced they were still swimming an hour or two before they ended up on my dinner table.
And because it was summer, we ate ice cream nearly every day. We had ice cream on the boardwalk, ice cream in the car (in the form of shakes from North Carolina-based chain Cook-Out), and ice cream in the form of a Squigley, which is an ice cream concoction from local ice cream shop Squigley’s that earns you a sticker proclaiming YOU WERE SQUIGGLED if you order it.
You bet your bottom dollar I was Squiggled. When else are you going to get Squiggled if not on vacation? Get Squiggled, often. And wear the sticker to prove it.
SO MUCH STUFF TO DO
As much as I love the beach, I like to get out and explore other stuff too, so we settled into a nice routine of spending the morning on the beach and eating lunch, then heading off on some new adventure in the afternoon, or doing our adventuring in the morning and spending the rest of the day on the beach. My mother was appalled, but that is because he idea of a beach vacation is sitting on the beach for literally 9 hours straight, curing her skin. If it’s true that we all descended from creatures who emerged from the ocean billions of years ago, my ancestors are the ones who made it up onto the beach and thought, “Yep, looks good, we’ll just stay here.”
Here’s where we went and things we saw while in Carolina Beach:
Airlie Gardens, Wilmington
Created in 1901 as an example of the perfect Southern garden, Airlie Gardens is the most beautiful public garden I have ever been to. It is perfectly maintained and curated, and full of lush Southern flora that made me homesick for the deep South. The sunflower stalks were taller than my 6’2 husband, the azalea bushes were as big as mid-sized cars, and the crowning glory of the garden, the 400 year old Airlie Oak, made me silent with awe. How temporary and small I felt under that majestic tree. How tiny, how ephemeral.
The Airlie Oak is everything a live oak should be- stately and confident, wide armed, dripping in Spanish moss, full of shade. My wedding invitation suite had a letterpressed live oak; my wedding portraits feature us standing newlywed under a lane enrobed in them. They are the South to me. (The blue figure to the bottom right of this photo is a grown human man. For scaling purposes.) As far as I’m concerned, the Airlie Oak is the king of them all, a wonder of the natural world.
The Guardians of the Garden exhibit was on display while we were there, featuring whimsical sculptures scattered around the gardens which children were given a scavenger hunt sheet full of clues to find. A praying mantis, a flock of hummingbirds, gargoyles, a perched owl. All of the sculptures enhanced the natural beauty of the garden and made the trip much more fun for my kids.
The USS North Carolina, a battleship that served in the Pacific during WWII, is docked in Wilmington and accessible for tours- even below deck!
I once heard battleships described as “floating cities” and this hulking behemoth certainly was. You cannot imagine the warren of rooms and hallways and compartments that lie decks and decks below the main outdoor deck. I am highly claustrophobic and found each descent in a lower deck a bit anxiety-inducing, but I channeled that into an appreciation for how these men lived and worked on these things for months at a time. My own grandfather served on a battleship in the Korean War (the Oriskany, since sunk to be an artificial reef) and I felt a connection to him that I had never had before. Here’s how he lived. This is what he went through. It’s a fascinating and tangible way to feel connected to WWII and those who fought, and I can’t recommend it enough.
History (and architecture) lover that I am, I sneaked away one afternoon to take a solo tour of the Bellamy Mansion, one of the best-known historical homes in Wilmington (which has one of the most impressive promenade of homes I’ve ever seen- every time we drove through I wanted to get out and talk a walk through the neighborhoods just to stare at the houses).
Could you just stare at it forever? What a house! What a porch!
The Bellamy Mansion was owned by the Bellamy family but during the Civil War was overtaken and used as Union Headquarters. Still standing out back is one of the few remaining original slave quarters in the United States, which was a remarkable glimpse into how slaves lived during that time. The house is a masterpiece of ingenious design and antebellum grandeur. The tour was so informative, telling the history of the house and elucidating visitors on some of the secrets of the house. I loved every minute of it. There are still to this day tobacco stains on the marble mantels in the sitting room where Union generals put out their cigars and it might have been these tobacco stains that touched me the most. What a small thing to endure. I ran my fingers along those tobacco stains and thought that maybe it is the messes we leave behind that are the truest markers of our existence. We are all capable of some destruction. It is simply a matter of which.
I brought the girls here one morning while my husband was on a kayak tour through the swamp and couldn’t believe how much we loved it. It is totally free and run by a co-op of gardeners who keep the garden in immaculate condition. Each section of the garden has a different theme and my daughters loved fully exploring each one and then going back and spending more time in the ones they loved the most. I can’t recommend a visit here enough- you’ll feel like you discovered something totally secret.
We came here several times, to walk around and see the boats at dock, and to catch a sunset over the water. I love activities like this that aren’t necessarily flashy or exciting, but are a peek into the spirit of a place, a reminder that everywhere you go can be special if you find what is unique about that place. Sometimes a walk on a dock is all you need to take in a Carolina afternoon.
At the end of Pleasure Island is the Fort Fisher branch of the North Carolina Aquarium, a wonderful aquarium full of creatures found in Carolina waters and beyond. This was a great way to enjoy some air conditioning on a hot day. There was a new exhibit at the aquarium when we were there called Lorikeet Landing, and for a few dollars extra, you were allowed inside a tent to feed nectar to lorikeets. It was very exciting and one of my favorite things at the aquarium. I loved watching my kids muster up the guts to let a lorikeet eat from their hand, and seeing of the more daring lorikeets land on people’s shoulders to better commandeer the nectar cup. This happened to my husband and he was a good sport about it despite generally finding birds no better than flying rodents.
From the aquarium we hopped on the Southport Ferry to cross THE MIGHTY CAPE FEAR RIVER (you have to say it that way, you can’t just call it the Cape Fear) to the town of Southport, where we had lunch and visited Bullfrog Corner, which is basically the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of toys stores, filled to bursting with approximately 1 billion different toys. Way better than your standard junky beach shop, though don’t be mistaken, we visited those as well.
A few miles down from Carolina Beach, past Kure Beach, lies Fort Fisher, a historical Civil War site. It is here that the gateway to Wilmington eventually fell to Union forces and in some ways, directly led to the inevitable end of the Civil War, featuring the South’s ignominious loss. Once Fort Fisher fell, Wilmington fell, and once Wilmington fell, it was all over. Now silent and bucolic, it’s hard to imagine the fierce grappling and fighting that ever occurred here, but so goes the passage of time. What was noisy becomes quiet, edges are softened and rounded, etc. etc.
As you can see, we had a wonderful mix of downtime relaxing and playing on the beach, and squeezing in lots of new memories while in Carolina Beach. We can’t wait to go back this summer, find new things to see, and revisit some of our favorites from last year. You’ll find me on the deck at Gibby’s Dock and Dine, Sauvignon blanc in one hand, the other casually waving at boats as they come in from the day.
Other tips and resources:
-Carolina Beach is about a 6 hour drive from Northern Virginia, a fairly straight shot down I-95. We chose to break the drive up last year to give our toddler a break and drove to Raleigh where we spent the night, visited Marbles Kids Museum and the Raleigh Flea Market and had dinner at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, all A+ decisions and a nice little detour on a long drive. This year we’ll probably make the 6 hour stretch all in one go, but if you have very little ones who need a bit of a break, a side scoot to Raleigh offers plenty to do.
-When going on a trip, I like to bring along a small notebook that I write about each day in, just so the small details of the trip don’t get forgotten down the road. I dug up my Carolina Beach notebook and was able to remember much more of the trip to write about thanks to the notes I took last July.
Other activities of note:
-Every Thursday evening throughout summer, there’s a fireworks show at the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. If you’re there for the 4th of July, the town doesn’t do a separate fireworks show for that, so you may need to travel to Wilmington to see 4th of July Fireworks (though we could see them from our condo balcony).
-The Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington is supposedly very well done, but we didn’t manage to squeeze it in last year, so we’ll make sure to visit it this year. It’s North Carolina’s largest lizard and reptile zoo so if you have to a reptile lover, be sure to bring them by.
-My husband took a 5 mile kayak tour through a cypress swamp with Lighthouse Watersports and had a great time (he also had sore arms the next day). Had my daughters been old enough to go along we’d have all gone, but this is something that will have to wait til they’re older. The excursion took about half the day but was well worth it according to my husband.
Carolina Beach/Wilmington social accounts:
Though I normally dictate we branch out for each vacation and try somewhere new, I’m excited to get back to Carolina Beach, dig a little deeper, and find more things to love. There’s plenty of time for new adventures as the kids get a little older, but I treasure the memories we’ll have of the summers we spent at Carolina Beach- the most perfect little beach vacation for a family who wants to go and see and do, but also sit and relax on the beach. It’s nothing like Disney, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s one of the best vacations you’ll ever take.