Sunny Carolina Beach is a favorite beachside destination for day-tripping Wilmington residents and weekly vacationers from all over the East Coast. A perfect combination of attractions, restaurants, and miles of uncrowded shorelines, this coastal community is rapidly becoming one of the most popular barrier island vacation spots along the southern NC Coast.
Carolina Beach is the northernmost town of "Pleasure Island," a small barrier island that's separated from the mainland by the Cape Fear River. The island was formed in 1930 when "Snow's Cut" was dredged, creating a new channel for shipping vessels, and separating the small coastal communities of the region from neighboring Wilmington.
In the years since, the towns of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach to the south have thrived as fun family vacation destinations that feel like they're miles away from the mainland, but are easy to get to with a location that's just a 10 minute drive from the heart of Wilmington. Carolina Beach has a fairly hardy year round population of nearly 6,000 residents or so, (mainly Wilmington professionals who crave the ocean), however the summertime population really swells with fishermen, families, beach lovers, night owls, and a variety of vacationers who take advantage of everything that this town, and Pleasure Island in general, has to offer.
The town has a thriving dining and nightlife scene, featuring over 60 restaurants that range from seafood shacks and diners to waterfront bistros or oceanside grills. There are several national fast food chains in the region, but visitors are advised to forego the staples and dive into the fresh seafood and surfer-inspired menus that are abundant in this area. Southern fried seafood baskets, fish tacos, and fresh sushi are local favorites, and with so many eateries to choose from, visitors never have to worry about going hungry.
There are also plenty of bars that stay open late, and feature local and regional musicians on weekends to the delight of local night owls. From dive bars where the locals hang out to grills and restaurants that stay open late to cater to the after-dinner crowd, there's always fun to be had in Carolina Beach, both day and night.
Despite this seemingly busy atmosphere, Carolina Beach is nevertheless a small coastal town at heart, and beach fans will find plenty of stretches of uncrowded shoreline to enjoy. Just north of Carolina Beach, visitors can head to Freeman Park, an undeveloped parcel of island that borders the Carolina Beach Inlet. Freeman Park boasts fantastic fishing and shelling conditions, and even allows beach driving with a permit, which can be purchased on site or at local bait and tackle stores.
Other natural attractions include the Carolina Beach State Park, an expansive park which borders the Cape Fear River and features miles of hiking and walking trails that meander through a sample of varying coastal ecosystems. The significantly smaller Joe Eakes Park in Kure Beach is nonetheless a fantastic destination for outdoors lovers, with a nationally-renowned disc golf course and an extensive dog park where the furry members of your vacation group can stretch their legs and have some fun.
On Pleasure Island, the further south you go, the more uncrowded and isolated the beaches become, and the tail end of the island is home to the sprawling Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. This gorgeous stretch of beach, accessible by route 421 south from Carolina Beach or the Fort Fisher / Southport ferry, is a favorite destination among beach purists, and features miles of empty, undeveloped shorelines, bordered only by the NC Underwater Archaeology Center and the Fort Fisher Historic Site, a renowned attraction for Civil War history buffs.
Anglers consider Pleasure Island a paradise for its miles of beaches, as well as the two piers that are located along the 10 miles of coastline: namely the Carolina Beach Pier, the oldest fishing pier on the East Coast, and the Kure Beach Fishing Pier, a popular fishing destination that hosts a number of pier fishing tournaments throughout the year.
Off the beach, visitors will find plenty of things to do as well, starting with the nationally acclaimed North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Home to rare albino alligators, and bamboo sharks that patrons can pet, the aquarium is easily one of the most popular sites for visitors of all ages. Families will also find a summertime arcade located along the boardwalk, numerous boat rentals and surf schools, and even an oceanfront pavilion which hosts free weekend concerts and weekday open air markets in the summer season.
There are also a number of galleries, boutiques and souvenir stores located throughout the town, and Carolina Beach is well-known for its ample supply of surf shops, which feature everything from new and used surfboards to stylish summer shorts and board shorts to at least look the part.
A Carolina Beach visitor will clearly find no shortage of things to do, and the town is also accommodating when it comes to places to stay, with a wide range of lodgings that range from rustic campsites to luxury vacation rental homes. Campers can opt to stay at a local RV Park, and camping is available at the Carolina Beach Family Campground and Carolina Beach State Park for budget-friendly stays that take advantage of the cool sea breezes and warm climate.
The area also features a number of locally-run motels and hotels, as well as high rise condo complexes and resorts with all the amenities that a fun family vacation requires, including community pools, fitness centers, beach access, and even on-site restaurants or club rooms. In addition to the condos and motels, guests can opt to stay at one of Carolina Beaches' and Kure Beaches' hundreds of vacation rental homes, which range from the classic 2-3 bedroom beach cottages to opulent 6-8 bedroom vacation homes with private pools, game rooms, hot tubs, and all the amenities of a world-class resort. (Please note that most vacation rentals can only be booked on a weekly basis, and can be rented by one of Pleasure Island or Wilmington's vacation rental property management companies.)
In short, regardless of where a traveler decides to stay, there are plenty of options in this relatively small, but perfectly accommodating coastal community.
Carolina Beach has gained accolades for its uncrowded beaches, world of dining and entertainment, and family-friendly atmosphere that can nevertheless please the beach bums, nightlife lovers, and history buffs in any vacationing group. With an eclectic Pleasure Island setting that combines natural shorelines with the typical commercial lures of a good beach destination, Carolina Beach is a great retreat for families who want to dive right into a vacation that's close to the mainland, but miles away from the ordinary.