Exploring Wilmington, North Carolina

By Rebecca Plaisance June 9, 2015
Wilmington, North Carolina, is a beautiful port city. Steeped in history and pride, this mecca of the film industry in the south makes a perfect family vacation. Surrounded by beautiful beaches and quiet little towns, families will find plenty to do and there are lots of ways to do it on the cheap!

Picking a beach...
Carolina Beach offers family friendly entertainment and a great boardwalk with free activities almost every night of the week. You can rent a house or save money by looking into a hotel that has a kitchenette or that offers free breakfast. Many chains also offer manager’s receptions where you can have a snack and a drink on the house. Mac Kid Tip: Grab your supplies before you arrive, there is only one supermarket on Carolina Beach so prices can be steeper. If you’re driving, load up at home or in Wilmington before you cross the bridge.

While here, decide on what your splurge will be — will you eat out for dinner every night and save by having breakfast in the room and packing PB&J for the beach? Here are a few ideas we think are worth the splurge on Carolina Beach:
  • Tony Silvagni Surf School: 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 and is able to connect with them to give them the confidence to try something new. He is so passionate about surfing, paddle boarding and the local community — you will love meeting his team.
  • Michael’s Ice Cream from Swizzled: This local ice cream shop is like nothing you have ever seen! While they do offer a variety of flavors of traditional ice cream, you’ll want to start with vanilla base, choose your toppings and send your creation off to the swizzle machine. You’ll be in ice cream heaven. Mac Kid Tip: They are cash only, so plan ahead.

Free and Cheap Ideas for Fun Beyond the Beach:

Carolina State Beach Park

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 Flytrap 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 my kids loved it. The park also offers camping for $20 a night, a marina, and an RV hook up. They also have 6 miles of trails and a really cool ecosystem to explore. 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.

The Boardwalk
The boardwalk offers tons of family friendly activities, most of which are free, such as:
  • Tuesday’s Free Kids Activities
  • Wednesday Bingo
  • Thursday Fireworks
  • Friday Live Music
I recommend checking out the chamber’s website for all of the events and activities. There is also a carnival that sets up adjacent to the boardwalk. The carnival offers rides, food and kids activities for a cost. While on the boardwalk do not miss Britt’s Doughnuts, 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 giving you plenty of space to slow down and watch the ocean. Parks and playgrounds also abound in the area — find one and have some fun!

The Aquarium
You can make a full day of Fort Fisher, and while the aquarium is not free, parking is free, and there is a huge fort to explore for free when you are done at the Aquarium. Pack snacks and lunch — there are plenty of picnic tables! You can also catch the ferry from Fort Fisher for $5, and head to Oak Island or South Port and explore a different area for the day!

South Port
If you head to South Port, don’t miss a trip to the Colonial era site of Brunswick and Civil War era Fort Anderson. Settled in the early 1700’s, Brunswick was burned to the ground by the British in 1776 and never rebuilt. Later, Fort Anderson was built on the site to serve as an outpost to block Union armies from getting up the Cape Fear. You can check out the mounds that were built during the Civil War, see several remains of homesteads from the original settlement and take in amazing views of the Cape Fear River. This park is free and will give the kids a nice open area to run around with stockades to explore.

Wrightsville Beach
If you’re looking for a more laid back beach experience check out Wrightsville Beach, while it is a little more expensive (and you do have to pay for parking just about every place you go), Wrightsville offers a quiet beach vacation. While there, 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 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 bring a sweatshirt if you are there during that season.

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.

Exploring Wilmington
If you’re more of a city mouse and want to stay in Wilmington there are tons of hotel options. If you stay a little outside of the downtown area you can take advantage of the Towne Suites which offers a full kitchen in their rooms, as well as a free breakfast. This is a great way to save some cash on your trip!

There is plenty to see just by walking the historic district. You can spend hours wandering past old houses and reading the plaques on the homes. You can see one of the oldest synagogues in the south and the childhood home of Woodrow Wilson. If you’re not into walking or your kids are young, check out the trolley tours of Wilmington. This is a great way to get an overview of the city, the ride is not too long, and the drivers are engaging.

At the Riverwalk, you can stroll next to the Cape Fear and get a great view of the U.S.S. North Carolina, explore shops and watch ships come in and out of the port.

If you want to get closer to the action you can check out a riverboat cruise on the Henrietta III. The riverboat is a fun way to see the city from the Cape Fear. The cruise offers a deli lunch and takes about 2 hours total.

When in Wilmington don’t miss these attractions:
  • Serpentarium: This is a not-to-be missed museum. If you have kids who love snakes (or even if they don’t, they will be mesmerized) the Serpentarium is the place to be! With over 40 different types of venomous snakes, an alligator turtle, a 12-foot saltwater alligator and more. The Serpentarium is open 11-5 during the summer but hours can vary in the winter, so call ahead before visiting. We were able to tour the museum in about 40 minutes. They only accept cash, so plan ahead.
  • Children’s Museum of Wilmington: Geared more towards younger children, the Children’s Museum offers 3 floors of fun for your kids. We hit the museum on one of the rainy days we had in town. While my kids are a little older then the museum is geared towards, they still had a blast. We spent about an hour in the museum.
  • U.S.S. North Carolina: This is sure to be a hit if you are in Wilmington. Commissioned in 1941, the U.S.S. North Carolina was considered the greatest sea weapon of her time. This battleship saw every major naval battle in the Pacific during WWII and is one of the highest decorated battleships from that time. The ship does involve a lot of walking and climbing but is worth every narrow set of stairs you go on. The ship has been restored perfectly; kids will love checking out the machinery, being able to sit upon the gunnery seats, visiting the mess hall and more. Allow for at least 2 hours when you visit.

Wilmington, the surrounding beaches and local attractions offer families a variety of activities and price points in which to enjoy this southern gem.