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A Perfect Summer Blend

Wilmington, North Carolina, offers sugary sand beaches and a city packed with history and sophistication.

By Larissa and Michael Milne

The pelican was preening in the late afternoon summer sun. Either that or he was as lulled by the motion of the waves as we were. Perched on the Kure Beach fishing pier, which juts out more than 700 feet from the shoreline, we had a pelican’s-eye view of the Atlantic Ocean as it caressed the pristine sand dunes just south of Wilmington, North Carolina.

We had first visited Wilmington in search of history. The city’s location at the junction of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean has made it an important Southeastern port for more than 250 years. This strategic setting during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, along with a rich shipping heritage, attracted a level of wealth and sophistication that’s comparable with such prosperous port cities as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

Wilmington, North Carolina
Historic downtown Wilmington, North Carolina
Photo courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

What we discovered during our visit, though, was that in addition to its storied history, the city was also a perfect beach destination. Wilmington’s island beaches—Kure, Carolina and Wrightsville—are about a 15- to 20-minute drive from the center of town, ideal for folks who like to mix a little culture with their summer sun.

Three Beaches: Three Personalities
To us, beach time means chill time, so we selected a vacation rental in Kure (pronounced cure-ee) Beach, the southernmost of Wilmington’s island beaches, near the tip of the Cape Fear peninsula; it is literally a one-stoplight town. The fishing pier anchors the commercial district which, in keeping with the relaxing vibe, is just a half-block strip consisting of a burger shack, a T-shirt shop and a few restaurants, including longtime staple Freddie’s, known for serving Flintstones-sized pork chops. Kure Beach’s atmosphere is mellow, perfect for reading a summer page-turner, dangling a line in search of a fresh catch for dinner or bobbing in the waves.


Despite its laid-back atmosphere, the area offers activities for both history and nature lovers. History buffs will enjoy exploring the remains of the Civil War-era Fort Fisher. Positioned at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River, the fort protected Wilmington from Union forces, making it the last Confederate port to fall in 1865. While much of the once-massive earthen-work fort has been reclaimed by the ocean, enough remains, along with a visitor center, to tell the story of its final fateful battle.

The barrier island fort is at the northern end of a recreation area that offers protected marsh and dunes for nature lovers hoping to spot rare birds, such as the piping plover, or perhaps loggerhead turtles nesting near the shore. A half-mile south of the fort, the North Carolina Aquarium provides a peek at the hidden world beneath the waves, with large tanks of local sea life, including triggerfish, jellyfish and stingrays. Kids love the up-close displays where docents handle live horseshoe crabs.

Wilmington, North Carolina
Lionfish at the North Carolina Aquarium
Photo by Michael Milne

Carolina Beach, just north of Kure, reminds us of the small beach towns in New Jersey or Cape Cod we visited as kids: still pretty easygoing but with just enough activities to keep youngsters busy. The heart of Carolina Beach is its boardwalk area, which is slightly different from North Carolina beach communities farther north along the Outer Banks. There is, indeed, a boardwalk, but it is a noncommercial 250-yard promenade that skims the dunes while providing gazebos, benches and ramps to the beach.

Carolina Beach Boardwalk
Carolina Beach Boardwalk
Photo courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

Just inland from the boardwalk is a two-block-long cluster of businesses with traditional beach amenities: mini-golf, video arcades and shops selling beach paraphernalia. Pizza, burger and ice cream stands are wedged in between, along with nationally famous Britt’s Donut Shop. The shop, which operates from April to September, is technically open until 5 p.m., but locals know to arrive by early afternoon, as Britt’s closes as soon as the light-as-air glazed donuts are sold out.

No boardwalk experience would be complete without freshly made fudge, and the Fudge Boat takes this mandate to a new level. In addition to its signature fudge made on-site using fresh cream and butter, the Fudge Boat serves the best hot-fudge sundae ever: house-made ice cream is topped with the fudge of your choice heated to order. We chose salted caramel ice cream topped with melted dark chocolate fudge—wow! We might have never discovered this must-have treat without taking a food tour from A Taste of History. The tour presented us with a variety of food options, ranging from the Veggie Wagon gourmet deli to Surf House Oyster Bar and Surf Camp, a hip restaurant serving such “new Southern” cuisine as the Redneck Picnic: a platter of house-made salumi, pimento cheese, deviled eggs and the best cheddar biscuits we’ve ever tasted.

Wilmington, North Carolina
Hot fudge sundae from the Fudge Boat in Carolina Beach
Photo by Larissa Milne

Those in search of a hip beach vibe can find it at Wrightsville Beach, just nine miles east of central Wilmington. It was here that the sport of surfing was first introduced to the state in the early 1900s; today, it’s still regarded as one of the best surfing beaches on the East Coast. Along with surfing, Wrightsville is terrific for sailing and stand-up paddle boarding; schools such as Indo Jax Surf School and Cape Fear Paddleboarding will have newbies riding the waves in no time.

Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington, North Carolina
to surf at Wrightsville Beach
Photo courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

In keeping with our chill beach mood, we were content to be spectators. Nestled in the comfy outdoor sofas at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, we nibbled a cheese platter appetizer as we watched would-be surfers learn how to hang ten.

A Culture-Rich City With Southern Charm
There comes a time in a beach vacation when you just need a break from the sun, and with downtown Wilmington’s proximity to its beaches, it offers the perfect diversion. If Wilmington’s charming early 20th-century downtown looks like a filming location, it’s not by accident; the city served as the setting for the TV show One Tree Hill. Millennials seeking memories of the show still browse the shops in search of Karen’s Café (in reality, the Outdoor Equipped store) and other familiar spots. Historic Thalian Hall, a performing arts venue dating to 1868, served as the steps of the fictional town hall.

Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington, NC
Civil War-era Bellamy Mansion
Photo courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

We indulged our love of history by strolling the brick-paved streets in the residential district, lined with historic homes, some dating to the Colonial era. A few, such as the Bellamy Mansion, Latimer House and Burgwin-Wright House (the latter built atop a Colonial-era jail), are open for tours. Along the riverfront, the Wilmington Railroad Museum will intrigue train enthusiasts of all ages, and climbing up and down gangways while exploring the Battleship North Carolina will fascinate World War II buffs.

Battleship North Carolina
Battleship North Carolina
Photo by Michael Milne

The city is also steeped in culinary traditions and delights. A tour with Tasting Carolina food tours gave us a primer on the diversity of Wilmington’s gastronomic offerings. We were so taken with the seared tuna tostada at Savorez, for example, that we returned to the Latin-fusion spot to sample Chef Sam Cahoon’s Green Eggs and Ham brunch, which featured chimichurri scrambled eggs with crispy pork belly and black-bean bacon purée.

Pinpoint serves an ever-changing menu of locally sourced ingredients; we loved the North Carolina catfish with green tomato slaw. Those craving Neapolitan pizza or risotto can indulge at Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, owned by James Beard Award-winner Vivian Howard, creator of the popular PBS series A Chef’s Life. Finish off a meal with dessert from The Peppered Cupcake; we couldn’t resist the berry cream pie, a vanilla cupcake filled to order with warm berry compote, and then topped with vanilla buttercream and more berries.

Tuna Tostada
The popular tuna tostada at Savorez
Photo by Larissa Milne

Back on the Kure Beach pier, our pelican friend finished his sunset doze and flew off in search of supper. We strolled back to our rental to do the same: After a few days of mindless chilling at the beach, we were craving a bit of cultural activity. Some tuna tostadas at Savorez, followed by a showing of Oscar-nominated short films at historic Thalian Hall, sounded like just the ticket.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.

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