Whether you’re looking for sandy trails to hike along, still-warm salt water to swim in or old school, family oriented fun, Carolina Beach is at its peak in the late summer and fall. In addition to the sunny weather and low humidity, this time of year is perfect for dodging crowds and taking advantage of off-season fares.
The beach town of two-and-a-half square miles and roughly 5,000 residents is sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River, about 15 miles south of Wilmington. It’s certainly tiny, but what it lacks in size, the town more than makes up for in natural beauty and vintage charm.
Once home to a pocket of Tuscarora Indians, Carolina Beach and nearby Fort Fisher became important outposts for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And while Wilmington, the port city metro, has grown rapidly over the years, Carolina Beach has retained its small-town feel. Foodies and families, as well history and nature buffs, don’t have to look hard to find an intriguing building, business or beachy park to explore.
There’s no shortage of excitement to take in year-round, but a word of advice: many iconic Carolina Beach establishments, including the seaside amusement rides at the Boardwalk, close for the season after Labor Day. Don’t let that put you off, though; the sunsets are always beautiful, the seafood is fresh, and the locals are friendly.
It’s located on the Boardwalk and home to Dr. Watson, a rat terrier, and a Chihuahua named Stella. Needless to say, the Carolina Beach Inn is pet (and kid) friendly.
If your main concern is a no-frills place to crash, this on-the-water motel is your go-to.
For a more intimate experience, rent one of these B’n’B cottages, or go for a private cottage or short-term rental.
Dine indoors or out at this 100-year-old beach house-turned-restaurant for a polished but casual dinner or Sunday brunch. Fresh island seafood dishes featured include classics such as crab cakes and Cha-Cha salmon, seared tuna and shrimp cocktail, and a seasonal catch of the day. Non-seafood options are available, too.
Nestled among the sand dunes next to the Golden Sands hotel, Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar is the perfect spot to take in views of the Atlantic Ocean. Dine out on the pier and enjoy the eatery’s expansive seafood selection, comprehensive beer list, and laid-back vibe.
Surf House is family-friendly restaurant with a modern aesthetic and a farm-to-table approach to providing sustainably caught seafood and locally-sourced, small-menu offerings from farm, river and sea. Enjoy craft cooking, small-batch spirits and craft beer and an extensive wine and cocktail list.
Gone are the days when you have to haul around your own delicious coffee and beer. Crush and Grind, a Wilmington-based bottle shop and cafe, serves handcrafted, cold brew coffee from a secret recipe. Come 5 o’clock (or whenever, really, because you’re on vacation), choose from an impressive selection of local wine and beer.
The owners of this small-batch craft brewery endeavor to make their beers as unique as the place they call home. Drink one at high tide or at low tide, sunrise or sunset—you’ll taste the beach vibe in each flavor and aroma.
Post up on the beach and swim in the ocean for hours, or take a surf, paddleboard or kayak lesson. Professional surfer and Olympic Gold Medalist Tony Silvagni owns a surf school that’s open year-round. Staffers at the school offer lessons, tours, camps and equipment rentals to families, groups and individuals.
This 761-acre park offers 7
miles of hiking trails, a diverse ecosystem, including the elusive Venus Flytrap, and some of the best fishing spots on the North Carolina coast. Rent a kayak by appointment, bring your own boat to dock in the park’s marina, or rent a paddleboat at the Carolina Beach Lake Park. If you’re extra outdoorsy, camp out at the park beneath soaring trees.
If you’re looking for the perfect souvenir or just a sweet treat, Squigley’s has you covered. Choose from more than 4,000 flavors of ice-cream in a historical building that once served as a donut shop and a guest house for World War II soldiers visiting home on leave. Squigley’s Gift Gallery, located in the upstairs part of the 1930’s-era house, sells one-of-a-kind gifts, home decor and jewelry.
If you’re traveling with kids, you can’t go wrong with a visit to North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, just a 10-minute drive south of Carolina Beach. The world-class aquarium offers tours for all ages, including fishing, crabbing and canoeing classes, as well as opportunities to help feed and care for the aquarium’s animals. For the youngest fish-lovers, check out Adventure Reef, an interactive outdoor play area and fossil dig site. During the summer season, check out the area’s namesake, a vast Confederate-era fort and history museum.