Laid back and relaxed. That’s what I think of when I want a beach vacation. Carolina Beach, voted by Trip Advisor as an “Affordable Winter Hidden Gem,” is such a place. It oozes character and charm. Nestled on the North Carolina coast about twenty minutes from Wilmington, this is the perfect spot for a romantic weekend, a girlfriend’s getaway or a family vacation. You’ll find plenty of ideas in our Travel Guide to Carolina Beach, North Carolina for exploring or relaxing.
Travel Guide to Carolina Beach
History of Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach wasn’t always the vacation paradise it is today! First inhabited by the Tuscarora Indians, it was discovered by explorers in the early 1700’s. While nearby Wilmington, a port city, thrived, Carolina Beach remained mostly uninhabited. When the Civil War began in 1861, the population was only 72. After the war, as interest in the area began to grow, a fishing club and hotel were added. While growth was small but steady, the area saw new life in the forties as big bands came to play and a fishing pier was built. The area continued to expand and in the 1990’s saw an upswing in growth with the arrival of new businesses and an updated boardwalk. Today, the community is hopping and the Boardwalk has received the honor of being “one of the top five boardwalks in the US” by USA Today’s Readers Choice Awards.
Whether you crave adventure or peace and quiet, Carolina Beach has something for everyone. You can’t go wrong with any of these activities.
Carolina Beach State Park– is a great place to spend the day with the family. Containing a unique eco-system only found within a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina, you can explore the calm waters, fish, ride bikes or hike. Note: The waters are brackish.
Paddle NC– Located in Carolina Beach State Park, Paddle NC offers bike rentals, Kayak and stand up paddle board rentals, instructional classes and tours. We took the “introduction to kayaking Eco-Tour,” which is perfect for beginning kayakers. This guided tour discovers the saltwater marsh ecosystem while navigating through sheltered waters. The tours are small and personalized to individual interests. On the day of our tour, Joshua, our guide, calmed the fears of the two young boys in our group and asked what we were interested in learning during our trip. Joshua took our skill levels into consideration and gave us a thorough lesson before we began and instructed us as we sailed. He pointed out various aquatic birds and plant life and took us to (?) island for exploration and swimming. He was so personable and entertaining that the boys on our trip, who had been nervous before we began, exclaimed, “I’m sad this is over!” Tours are held at 9:00 AM and 2 PM and participants must be fifteen or over for a single kayak. Younger participants can be seated with an accompanying adult in a tandem kayak. Reservations are required.
Paddle NC also offers SUP and Kayak classes, SUP, Kayak and bike rentals, and other tours including a Sunset Kayaking tour and a SUP tour. If you book online you can take $5 per person off the cost of Eco-tours, Sunset tours and SUP tours.
Carolina Beach Boardwalk -Voted one of the top five boardwalks in the US by readers of USA Today, you can find plenty of activities for everyone. Ride one of the carnival rides, walk along the beach overlook, or enjoy a light meal or snack. Stop by Britt’s Doughnuts for a tasty treat. They’ve been in business since 1939 and have been voted one of America’s 12 Best Doughnuts by USA Today. Note: They only accept cash. There’s plenty of events happening along the boardwalk too. Every Thursday at 9:00 PM from Memorial Day to Labor Day enjoy the fireworks show on the beach. Fall activities include Christmas by the Sea and the Island of Lights Festival.
Wheel Fun Rentals While you are exploring the boardwalk, stop by Wheel Fun Rentals for a different way to see the island- by bike! They rent single and tandem bikes along with my personal favorite, Single and Double Surrey bikes. The Single Surrey bike can hold three adults and two small children in the front basket. Surrey Bikes are ridden on the island roads. I suggest riding on some of the side roads with less traffic if you are a slow peddler like our family. All rentals come with a bike lock, a basket or bag to hold belongings and helmets. Wheel Fun Rentals also rents beach equipment.
Tony Silvagni Surf School is owned by Olympic medal winning surfer, Tony Silvagni. Offering private and group surf lessons, private and group SUP lessons, and Yoga & Surf lessons, these are custom designed to meet individual skill levels. Our instructor, Ryan, took into account our beginner status and gave a detailed lesson on how to paddle and how to stand on the board. He offered encouragement and support throughout our lesson, offering tips whenever needed. I was impressed with his patience and commitment as I slowly made my way back to the shore. This lesson was perfect for beginners. Note: The SUP lessons are in brackish waters. Avoid the oyster beds. They also offer Surf Parties, Paddleboard Parties, and Kayak tours. Reservations are required and participants should meet 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Carolina Beach Fishing Pier – is the perfect place for the angler. Relax and fish or just enjoy the sunset and the waves with the family. Carolina Beach Lake Park – is a great place for picnics, walks, or bike rides. . There’s also a playground for the kids. Summer brings plenty of free activities at the lake, including free outdoor movies each Sunday night and a farmer’s market on Saturday. Bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a girl’s day out! Note: Most of the Public Parking on the island requires a parking fee.
Where to Eat:
Surf House is the place to go for an upscale meal experience at Carolina Beach. The decor is pristine white with Coastal touches. Once inside the door, you’ll be greeted with friendly and knowledgeable staff who ensure you have a memorable dining experience. I was impressed with how our waiter handled glutenfree requests with no problems, ensuring a pleasant meal. The menu is compact and often changes, depending on the offerings of local farms, sustainable regional seafood, and small-batch beer and spirits.
We tried the Double Cheeseburger-both gluten free and regular- and agreed it was the best burger we’ve ever had. Made with Piney Woods Farm grass-fed Angus beef, and Ashe Company cheddar, the burger is cooked to order and topped with Sriracha and Benton’s bacon jam. The jam elevates an already wonderful burger to new heights. The burger is served with tender fries. For dessert, we tried the Chocolate Bar; a flourless torte served with caramel, bourbon sugar, and vanilla ice cream. We also tried the Pecan Pie served with ice cream. The Pecan Pie is an upscale twist on a Southern classic with graham crumbs, brittle, caramel, and ice cream. You can’t go wrong with either of these desserts so be sure to save room for dessert! Or eat dessert first. After all, it is vacation! Surf House is open from 5:00 PM to 9 PM for dinner Wednesday through Saturday and for Brunch Sunday from 10 AM until 1 PM.
Granny’s Country Kitchen is a small, cozy restaurant. There are only eight tables inside and the decor is nothing fancy. What brings locals and visitors into the restaurant is the food and the service. It’s classic comfort food served with a smile. Granny’s only serves breakfast and lunch; opening at 6:00 AM and closing at 2:00 PM. The fare is hearty but delicious. We tried the breakfast and the lunch. I tried the “juju chicken wrap,” a hearty combination of grilled chicken, onions, peppers, tomatoes and lettuce served with “juju sauce,” something sort of like a sweet and sour sauce. It was served with my choice of side. I went with the grape salad, a sweet mixture of grapes in a creamy sauce. The breakfast choices in our group, a veggie omelet, and the egg plate, served with bacon and a choice of bread, were quickly devoured. The portions are large and the prices are reasonable. Tip: Outside seating is available, but parking is limited.
Where to Stay:
Courtyard Marriot Carolina Beach Oceanfront promises beautiful views and the relaxing sounds of waves because every room is oceanfront! It’s earned the distinction of being the only oceanfront North Carolina Marriott hotel. Each room comes with a furnished balcony that’s just the right spot for watching the weekly summer fireworks show on the beach. The rooms are large and comfortably furnished and during our stay, we didn’t notice any noise. It’s located directly beside the Carolina Beach Boardwalk with easy access to shops and restaurants.
An outdoor pool is available in-season, while an indoor pool and hot tub are available year round. A fitness center and business center was also available. Some of my favorite features were the complimentary wi-fi and their free parking. I liked the convenience of being able to park in front of the hotel, easily navigate the parking lot, or be able to leave my car parked and walk to nearby attractions. Note: Parking is free with hotel stay, but you must have a parking pass (issued by the hotel) in your car at all times during your stay.