The Wilmington area is made up of the city of Wilmington and several surrounding beach towns. We visited Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach. Each area has its own personality and each offers family friendly activities and fun.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a great destination. The Aquarium is small enough that it won’t eat up a full day but engaging enough that your family will love every minute that they are there. A few of the must see items at the aquarium include the giant megladon jaw, the albino alligator, shark touch tank and the endangered loggerhead turtle (it’s totally worth waiting around to see him come up for air!). If you are so inclined, the Lorikeet feeding area is super fun! A couple of tips, buy the nectar, one cup will be enough for each kiddo, and be ready to have birds land all over you. They lorikeets are not shy and they will land on your arms, back, shoulder and head to get a bite to eat. The lorikeets rest from 12:30-1:30 daily so plan accordingly. Tickets for the aquarium are $8.95 for children and $10.95 for adults. The lorikeets exhibit is an additional $3 per person and each cup of nectar is $1.
The Aquarium is located in historic Fort Fisher, a fort that protected trading routes to Wilmington during the Civil War. There are several fortifications that you can still explore, in addition visitors can explore the area via free guided tours that are offered daily. Fort Fisher has several picnic areas so plan to pack a lunch and eat while you are there. You can also catch the $5 ferry at Fort Fisher and head to Southport for the day. Southport is a super cute seaside town that has been used in the filming of several Nicholas Sparks films.
Where to stay:
Courtyard Marriott at Carolina Beach offers several oceanfront rooms and ones which are large enough to accommodate large families. We stayed in a suite that had a living room with a pull out sofa and bedroom with 2 queen beds. There was also a fridge, microwave and sink. It’s enough space to make a cold breakfast (bagels, cereal, fruit, juice, etc) in the room before you head out for the day, which is a great money saver. I would suggest hitting a grocery store before you get to the hotel, there is only one grocery store on the island and prices can be higher because of that. The hotel does have a small restaurant that offers food throughout the day. I found the pricing to be fair, a kids meal was $4.95 and includes a drink and a side. The indoor pool is heated and serves its purpose if it’s too cold to be outside or if the weather is bad.
The Courtyard Marriott is adjacent to the recently refurbished Carolina Beach Boardwalk. The boardwalk offers tons of family friendly activities most of which are free. Starting May 16 you can check out the following activities:
- Tuesday’s Free Kids Activities
- Wednesday Bingo
- Thursday Fireworks
- Friday Live Music
There is also a carnival that sets up adjacent to the boardwalk, offering rides, food and kids activities for a cost. While on the boardwalk do not miss Britt’s Donuts. A local institution, Britt’s has been a favorite of visitors and locals since 1939! They are not open year round so if you are in town off-season you will have to catch them on the weekend. In addition to restaurants you will want to make a stop at the Fudgeboat, seriously don’t miss the Fudgeboat. The boardwalk in Carolina Beach has a great small town feel to it. With benches and swings lining the length of the boardwalk there is plenty of space to slow down and watch the ocean.
Where to eat in Carolina Beach?
Kate’s Pancake House: not only will you encounter some of the most amazing pancake concoctions you have ever seen (think Oreo, Death by Chocolate, Boston Cream and more) Kate’s raises money to pay for beach vacations for families impacted by cancer. You can round your bill up to the nearest $1 to donate. Last year they raised over $4000 to help families impacted by cancer.
Wake and Bake: if you can’t get to Britt’s word on the street is they make a pretty killer doughnut also!
Lunch (good luck picking just one!)
Shuckin Shack: if you’re looking for great seafood and a casual setting this is your place! It’s very small so go for an early lunch or dinner. Don’t miss the fried jalapeños!
Gibby’s Dock and Dine: a great local place with a great view. Gibby’s sits right on the Intracostal Waterway and it’s super fun to watch the boats pass by. If you’re lucky and a fishing boat passes by you may catch a glimpse of dolphins! Don’t miss the fish tacos, really, don’t miss them, they are amazing!
Seawitch: has great seafood and local ambience. We didn’t get a chance to eat there but friends who vacation in the area told us it’s one of their favorite places to eat!
Michael’s: owned by a local family, Michael’s offers a full kids menu (even includes crab legs which is a lifesaver if you have a little one who likes crab!), excellent options and deserts from a neighboring bakery. If you do eat at Michael’s don’t miss the clam chowder! I am a little bit of a snob about my crab cakes and chowder (Northern girl) and had pretty much sworn off a good chowder below the Mason Dixon but Michael’s changed my mind!
Jack Mackerel’s: If you’re looking for a casual place that is super kid friendly this is a good pick. They have a good kids menu and fun island ambience.
If you have one splurge on your trip this should be it! Tony Silvagni Surf School is so much fun and Tony is just an amazing person to know. Our kids took paddle-boarding lessons with Tony. He has an amazing amount of patience with the kids, is able to connect with them to give them the confidence to try something new and turn them onto a new sport. He is so passionate about surfing, paddle boarding and the local community you are going to love meeting his team! Paddle boarding was a great introductory water sport for our kids, the water is placid and the boards sturdy so they can get up and moving with very few directions and in no time they are paddle boarding. My oldest loved it so much; he said it was relaxing an asked for a paddleboard as soon as we got in the car.
Most of us don’t think to go on a nature walk when on a beach vacation but this is a must do! Carolina State Beach Park offers free walks on the Fly Trap Trail. This trail is one of the only places in the world; yes the world, where you can see a Venus flytrap in the wild. The carnivorous plants on this trail are fascinating and the kids loved it, check out this cool video of the flytrap closing. The park also offers camping (for $20 a night), they have a marina and an RV hook up so if you’re an RV family this is a great place to camp. They have 6 miles of trails and a really cool ecosystem to check out. On the same hike you can see desert and swamp plants. It’s worth the time to take a break from the beach and check out this state park.
One of the most beautiful little beach towns I have seen, this cute little town is dotted with brightly colored houses and great little shops. Parking in Wrightsville is challenging, you have to pay for parking everywhere you go. The main mode of payment is via a phone system that you have to set up from your phone (takes about 10 minutes to set up the first time) and they you call in your spot when you park to charge your credit card. There is a .35 cent convince fee each time you call and you do get a text when your time is about to expire so you can add to it. While in Wrightsville we recommend you take one of the Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. They offer pirate cruises, eco-scavenger hunts and more. We checked out the eco-scavenger hunt, the cruise takes you to Masonboro Island. The beaches were pristine and gave the kids had miles of unspoiled beach to explore. They found tons of shells and one of my kiddos found a whole sand dollar. If you do take the cruise plan to bring a bucket and shovel for the kids and a bag to put the shells in. It can be cool on the boat in the spring so plan to bring a sweatshirt.
Wrightsville is filled with cute local places to eat, while we did not get a chance to eat there here are a few places that were suggested to us by some of the locals we met;
The Trolly Stop: some great twists on the hot dog
Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill: The place to go for fish tacos
Kohl’s Ice Cream: Custard style ice cream. They also offer pizza, burgers etc
Most of these smaller locally owned places do not take credit cards so make sure you have some cash with you.