As winter draws to a close, a change of scenery can be more needed than ever. Whether you’ve got Cabin Fever, Spring Fever, or Summer Friday Syndrome — all valid reasons to call in sick, really — the best remedy just might be a trip to Wilmington and Beaches, on the North Carolina coast.
With endless greenspaces to explore at your pace; sunset sails, surf lessons, and riverboat tours to fill the hours; and fantastic waterside restaurants fit for foodies or the whole family, that much-needed breath of fresh air is carried on the sea breeze around Wilmington. Here’s where to enjoy it.
Gardens, greenways, and flower power
Throughout spring and summer, Wilmington is a riot of color, its azaleas putting on the showiest of shows. Time your trip for when the blooms are at their most colorful at Airlie Gardens. Some 75,000 azaleas and tulips pop up, complementing a massive live oak tree more than 475 years old and paths that transport you past ponds, creeks, and the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel.
Then there’s the New Hanover County Arboretum, seven acres of gardens for families to traverse year round. The seasonal gardens come themed, like the whimsical butterfly garden and the Japanese garden, complete with a koi pond and Japanese maples. For an experience you’ll get nowhere else, keep an eye out for the meat-eating plants that grow natively in only one place on Earth: right here around Wilmington. Find loads of Venus flytraps and other carnivorous flora at the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden and on the Flytrap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park, too.
Speaking of trails: Go for a walk, jog, or ride among more pitcher plants and azaleas at Greenfield Park; along the River to the Sea Bikeway, stretching for 11 miles from the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach; the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail; and Carolina Beach’s Island Greenway, part of the East Coast Greenway. Families with thrashers can bring their skateboards and grind their wheels at the skate parks at Greenfield Lake and Ogden Park, the latter spanning 10,000 square feet of bowls and rails. Or keep things waterside by heading further down the island, where Kure Beach and Fort Fisher await.
At Kure Beach, you can spend the day searching for shells and fossils (at low tide) or even hike out to a World War II bunker — find it along the Basin Trail at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. With the right permit, four-wheel-drive vehicles are welcome to drive right on the beach. Set up some fishing poles or a seaside picnic and keep an eye out for loggerhead sea turtles, piping plover, and more wildlife. (For a guaranteed wildlife sighting, check out the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where you’ll see a rescued bald eagle, an albino alligator, and more aquatic creatures than you can count.)
Just up the road, Sugarloaf Trail (and aforementioned Flytrap Trail) at Carolina Beach State Park will keep you exploring the wild side of town. If you’ve got kids in tow, the playgrounds at Carolina Beach Lake Park and Kure Beach Ocean Front Park & Pavilion put you within walking distance of some nice lunch spots as well as the rustic beauty of the wooden Kure Beach Fishing Pier. If you’re more central in town, the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail is a gentle hike that takes you through neighborhoods and past tranquil ponds, creeks, and the UNC Wilmington campus.
Tours, cruises, and wild Wilmington
Birders and wildlife lovers have plenty of reasons to get excited about the area. The North Carolina Birding Trail connects more than a dozen great birdwatching spots in the area, where you might glimpse anything from painted buntings to brown pelicans to bald eagles and osprey while you’re out and about. Zeke’s Island, just south of Fort Fisher, and Masonboro Island, accessible only by water, are both hotspots for bird activity. Spy on plenty of our feathered friends anywhere around Wilmington and take in the breezy coastal sights and sounds on a guided tour or cruise:
- Traverse marsh creeks by kayak with Cape Fear Adventure Company, Mahanaim Adventures, or Kayak Carolina.
- Uninhabited islands can be your destination on a cruise or sailing charter with Blockade Runner Surf to Sound Adventures, an outfitter that also rents kayaks, paddleboards, and other gear and offers lessons in how to use them.
- Give the folks at Epic Excursions a call and they’ll take you on a tour of whatever you want, from explorations of shores and creeks, to sunset cruises, to trips to secret surf spots.
- Kids love the Pirate Island Treasure Hunt and the Eco-Scavenger Hunt from Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. Or hunt for shells and shark teeth with Island Time Water Tours.
- Explore the waters of the Cape Fear River — and take your pick of river cruises, fishing charters, and classic riverboat excursions — with Wilmington Water Tours and Cape Fear Riverboats, Inc.
To put your skills to the test, try your hand at sailing with Shamrock Sailing Adventures or Blockade Runner Sailing School. Or go underwater with a dive from Aquatic Safaris, WB Diving, or Carolina Beach Scuba. You’ll visit shipwrecks — so many shipwrecks — and shoals in the warm waters that lap the shores of Wilmington’s island beaches.
For something lower key, try standup paddleboarding with Wrightsville SUP, Paddle NC, or Cape Fear Paddleboarding; they’ll help you perfect your technique or get you paddling for the first time. Of course, you could just take in the scenery from a hundred feet in the air with Wrightsville Parasailing Company — sitting there comfy-cozy in your harness, you’ll have the view of a lifetime. Large groups and families of up to 20 will enjoy booking a private boat tour and shore excursion from Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours & Water Taxi.
A waterfront meal to remember
After all that exploring, treat yourself to the region’s standout cuisine — smoky barbecue and seafood, of course — with a water view. Here’s where to go:
- You’re in for a treat when Chef Cabo cooks up something special using ingredients from the seaside garden at EAST Oceanfront Dining at the Blockade Runner. Down the street at Oceanic Restaurant, you’ll find a kid-friendly menu and al fresco seating in their pier-side dining area.
- In Carolina Beach, there’s seaside dining at Carolina Smokehouse, The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar (come back during the fall and try their chowder; it’s worth the trip), and the casual Hurricane Alley’s.
- Plenty of tables treat you to a view of the Cape Fear River, too. Along downtown Wilmington’s Riverwalk, Elijah’s Restaurant, Pilot House Restaurant, and The George on the Riverwalk all have scenery as tasty as the food.
- In Wrightsville Beach, you’ll get your fill of sights and bites at The Fish House Grill, Bluewater Waterfront Grill, and Dockside Restaurant, all on the busy banks of the Intracoastal and serving up everything from burgers and fries to fine steaks and seafood platters.
There are so many more spots — South Beach Grill for daily chalkboard specials sourced from land and sea, along with great cocktails; Stoked Restaurant, at the Carolina Beach Marina, for locally caught seafood; Smoke on the Water for a taste of Carolina-meets-Texas ‘cue and killer sunset views. So, question: How long can you stay?