Wrightsville Beach is a classic North Carolina beach town: Sparkling, warm water, delicious seafood, mini golf, and beach naps are all you need to start relaxing—take it from someone who’s been enjoying this stretch of coast since she learned to walk!
By Christine Watridge
I am not one to push for beach vacations over adventure vacations. I prefer to plan trips that are active, especially to places I’ve never been. However, there is one extra-special exception to this rule: Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. This East Coast beach town holds a special place in my heart since I’ve been spending summers (and even a few Halloweens and Thanksgivings—and one family wedding!!) here since I was born. And I’ll tell you why I love this place so much, so you can enjoy it just as much as I do.
Before my grandparents passed, they lived in a small house along the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile channel that runs from Boston to the southern tip of Texas and right through the town of Wrightsville Beach, where my family would visit every year. From family barbecues to cousin romps, from jet ski trips off the dock to watching early evening thunderstorms from the rickety old porch, we made this run-down beach cottage a place to call home. And that’s exactly what Wrightsville Beach is to me—not only my Nana and Poppop’s home but an extension of my own.
Wrightsville Beach is an incredibly friendly and accessible vacation spot for families. Compared to the Outer Banks in the northern part of the state, there is little to no traffic along the roads, loads of restaurants and ice cream shacks to choose from, and plenty of options to stay either along the channel or the beachfront. The beach is near enough to the larger town of Wilmington, where the airport is located, and where family members who might need a break from the sun can shop, dine, watch movies, and explore.
After a long summer last year, when the pandemic was hitting the United States hard, we didn’t make our annual pilgrimage, and we missed it. So in May, when my parents booked a suite for a week in late July, I knew I had to fly from my college town to meet them, no matter what my schedule was. And after a few unfortunate weather delays (thanks to the wacky Midwest storms), I made it to the beach with a smile on my face, itching to jump in the waves! Ahhh … now I could relax.
My family stays at the Surf Suites, a beachside motel away from the larger crowd of resorts near the south end of the island, where the Banks Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean. The suites come with a kitchen (including a dishwasher and an oven and stove top!), a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and small deck. We usually eat dinners out, but the kitchen is really nice to have for breakfasts and lunches.
The view of the beach and pier from our third-floor suite was absolutely stunning, and sitting outside on the deck when you’ve had a bit too much sand time is perfect. If you’re lucky (and if you’re all packed up from the beach—otherwise I would call it unlucky), you’ll get to sit and watch a late afternoon storm hit over the water. Watching the lightning strikes is one of my favorite summer pastimes in Wrightsville, not only because it reminds me of my grandparents, but because I’ve managed to get some pretty breathtaking photos out of it.
If you’re looking for more of an upscale resort, the Blockade Runner is less than half a mile from the Surf Suites, and features various resort packages and family activities. I’ve also stayed at a few different beachfront house rentals with extended family, and those have been a blast, too. Really, there’s no shortage of options for staying on the beach or the channel, so pick what works for you and go for it.
Now that I’ve given you a little background on the area, I’ll share some recommendations about where to eat and what to do if you, like me, go a little stir-crazy after sitting on the beach all afternoon. (Though that’s also a perfectly valid choice.)
WHAT TO DO
Grab some island time Masonboro Island is an absolute must-see, especially if you’re in Wrightsville Beach for more than a few days. It’s a secluded nature preserve where visitors can park their boats on the channel side and walk to the island’s ocean side. It’s almost always close to empty, making a very nice change from the usual beach brigade.
Since I was a child, Masonboro has been the thing I look forward to the most, and this year was no exception. Looking for shells along either side is fantastic (as evidenced by my collection), and getting to relax and swim to the sandbars leaves me smiling and happy every time.
If you don’t have your own boat or don’t want to rent one for the day, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! This year, my mom and I secured afternoon spots on Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours’ boat to Masonboro. The two guys who took us and the other groups were so nice, fun, and knowledgeable, and the ride took us around the waterways all the way to the end of the island. We got to explore and hang out for two hours before hopping on the boat and cruising back.
Kayak the channel For all the times I’ve swam, boated, and even sailed through the Banks Channel, it wasn’t until this summer that I actually got to kayak! While there are multiple places to rent equipment, we rented ours from the Blockade Runner, and spent two hours in the sound exploring the calm, early morning marshes. We saw beautiful wildlife and parked on a private beach to walk the shore for a bit, all while getting in a little bit of exercise. It was a great way to break up beach time and to get me out of bed before 10 a.m.
Ride the rapids Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park is less than a 10-minute drive from the beach and it’s heaven for the kids—I would know, I used to adore coming here when I was younger, and would beg my parents to let me play the arcade games. Jungle Rapids has a variety of different activities, from a waterpark and an arcade to go-karts and minigolf. Our family tradition is to play a raging game of minigolf at least once per vacation, and I can tell you, it gets heated (figuratively and literally—bring sunscreen and bug spray, because the farther away you go from the beach, the more humid and buggy it gets)! There’s something for every kid to enjoy here, and even the parents.
Float a boat One of the best ways to see the area is, of course, by water. While renting a boat is expensive, it really is an activity that’s hard to pass up. Families can innertube in the Banks Channel, check out the Intracoastal Waterway, and even boat into the ocean. You can even dock your boat to head to one of the many restaurants along the waterway. Rent a boat on Boatsetter, the Airbnb of boats, or at one of the many shops nearby such as Nauti Times Boat Rentals or Sea Gate Boating.
Take a hike My mom used to have to drag me along this bridge-to-bridge walk, but I’ve grown fond of it. It’s about a 3-mile loop from the Causeway Drive bridge to the West Salisbury Street bridge and back, and all along the way you get views of sparkling water, cute houses, and the town.
Another option if you’re looking to stay moving is walking on the actual beach. Johnny Mercer’s pier and Crystal Pier are a little more than 1.5 miles apart, and it’s an especially gorgeous stroll at sunrise. The beach does get a little uneven and sideways, depending on the tides, so if you’re more of a walk-on-a-concrete-path type, then you might be a little put off, but I promise it’s worth it, especially around dawn and dusk when the beach is more empty.
Watch a movie If you need a break from dealing with your kids, or dealing with the heat and humidity, going to the Mayfaire mall in Wilmington to watch a movie is the perfect getaway. Sit down for two hours and let the AC calm your nerves, then grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants nearby.
Explore Wilmington Downtown Wilmington is about a 30-minute drive from the beach. If you’re looking to experience a small, historical East Coast town, I would highly recommend taking this little side trip. There is a lovely river walk, multiple boutiques, and a bunch of cafes and restaurants.
(Pro tip: Get there in time to enjoy a donut from Wake N Bake).
Shop local There are a number of cute stores near the ocean, especially if you need beach togs! Kids will enjoy running around everything-for-the-beach store Wings. (My mom actually let me and my sister buy pet hermit crabs there one summer, which we freed at the end of our stay.)
Ride a wave You don’t have to be a wavemaster to try out surfing. Whether you want to rent a board at South End Surf Shop or Aussie Island, take a private lesson, or send your kids to surf camp, Wrightsville Beach has it all.
Fish! I am far from an expert on fishing, but I have been known to catch a fish or two … And it’s fun!
There are a few stores that sell fishing gear, but if you don’t want to commit to a whole setup—and still want to fish—try chartering a boat. Feel Good Fishing offers family-friendly options where your kids can learn to throw a net or bait a hook, as well as deep-sea fishing trips for the more experienced.
WHERE TO EAT
I’m mainly going to list my family’s favorites down below, without too much description, but just know that we’ve been scouting out these places for years now, so trust us!
An obvious recommendation is seafood because … duh, you’re on the ocean! Our favorite seafood restaurants include the Oceanic (located on Crystal Pier and a 1-minute walk from the Surf Suites), South Beach Grill, Bluewater, which is on the channel (get a waterfront table), and The Bridge Tender (actually a steakhouse, but with great seafood as well), located near Bluewater along the waterway.
Some of our classic pit stops that we hit every time we get to town are: Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill, Trolly Stop (it’s a hot dog stand located in an old trolley stop), and Boombalatti’s Homemade Ice Cream. Boombalatti’s is the ultimate Wrightsville Beach-Wilmington foodie stop. I can safely say that it is my favorite ice cream store, period. They have an overwhelming amount of delicious flavors, and lots of sizes to choose from. (I usually get the four mini scoops, so I can try as many different flavors as possible.) My cousin even got Boombalatti’s to cater her wedding! If that’s not a glowing review, I don’t know what is.
If you’re looking for a morning coffee or breakfast, try SUNdays, which is just across the street from the Surf Suites. Their acai bowls are huge—and yummy! A newly discovered favorite for breakfast is Spoonfed Kitchen & Bake Shop. My green goddess sandwich was an amazing vegetarian option, and the specialty iced latte was *chef’s kiss* so refreshing.
Star of the show Ceviche’s was recommended by my aunt and uncle. We visited for the first time this summer, and we were blown away! Quite possibly, Ceviche could be our new favorite dinner spot. The Panama-inspired menu showcases a variety of delicious options, including seafood, meat, and vegetarian choices, and we went a little overboard ordering appetizers and entrees—and dessert. So good.
Christine Watridge – August 2021
Christine is a college student from the Bay Area who dreams of backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail and visiting all 63 National Parks (15 down!). If she’s not outside, you can find her illustrating, writing, reading a good book, or baking focaccia bread.
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