When I first moved to the USA in 2004, I taught fifth grade in Johnston County. I knew about Wrightsville Beach thanks to all the movies and TV shows filmed in nearby Wilmington – like One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek.
It was my students who told me about the beach just south of Wilmington that I just HAD to visit. They would gush over their family vacations and all the fun things to do in Carolina Beach: the colorful boardwalk, the donuts, the camping at Carolina State Park, and so forth.
Finally, 17 years later, we took a trip to Carolina Beach to experience it properly. It was part of our recent NC beach fall road trip.
We’ve visited Carolina Beach before on a quick stop in for donuts and to visit friends, but this time we planned two nights in a cute cottage across from the beach and set out to explore the top Carolina Beach attractions.
There are so many more things to do in Carolina Beach we’re yet to do, but since we now permanently live just over two hours away in Raleigh, we can easily return and dive deeper another time.
Where is Carolina Beach NC?
Did you know that Carolina Beach is on an island? Just one of the many barrier islands that make up the NC coast.
It’s called Pleasure Island and its located just south of Masonboro Island and Wilmington, and just north of the Brunswick Islands region, which we visited the week before.
Not only will this post share with you what Carolina beach is known for, but also a few hidden secrets only a local (i.e. good friends of ours) would know.
The one thing that will stand out when you drive into Carolina Beach is color. This beach town pops with it either through the murals that are ever expanding, the boardwalk buildings, the beach shacks, or turquoise colors of the sea and sky.
While you’re roaming about town (it is walk-able) look out for the vibrant murals showcasing the Carolina Beach artistic vibe. It’s a welcome modern trend.
Carolina Beach: A Destination to Watch
My prediction – based on an inner sense developed from over 24 years of global travel – this is a region on the move.
It’s always been a fan favorite of those living in North Carolina for it’s raw, coastal Carolina charm.
But I can see an emergence of that glitzy Wrightsville only 40-minutes north seeping into Carolina Beach – not enough to swallow up its identity – but enough to give it a little more of a modern edge that says “we’re moving with modern times but at our own pace and style.”
With is wooden beachside boardwalk, craft coffees and cocktails, luxury rentals, Instagram worthy décor, and restaurants and tiki bars capitalizing on all those miles of blue, this is a Destination to Watch.
In this Carolina Beach guide we’re breaking our recommendations into what to do, where to eat and drink, and where to stay.
What to do in Carolina Beach
Pleasure Island Beaches
Let’s start with the obvious, the Pleasure Island beaches.
We had a storm come in during our stay which limited our beach time, but that did not stop us from taking every dry, sunny moment to dive in.
As the fall temperatures were cooling down, we knew it might be the last beach swim we’d have in a while, so we were taking advantage. The water was still so warm and refreshing. (Y’all, Fall is such a wonderful time to visit the NC Beaches.)
Another reason we love these small NC beach communities is that many of them are bike-able! So, bring your own or rent some, park the car, and enjoy the freedom of peddling from place to place.
Carolina Beach offers miles of shoreline with gentle waves and plenty of beach activities that include surfing, shelling, and fishing (especially off the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier).
There are scores of access points and lifeguard towers for your protection. Head to the piece of sand closest to your accommodation!
The north end of the beach (more local) has less beach and a rock wall protecting the homes from washing away. It’s a great place to escape the crowds when the tide is lower.
Nearby Wrightsville Beach is known as the place where surfing started in North Carolina, but Carolina Beach is also a popular place to catch some waves. For those interested in lessons, the Tony Silvagni Surf School comes highly recommended.
Freeman Recreation Area
On the other side of the pier here is Freeman Park Recreation Area where you can drive onto the beach with your four-wheel-drive. Permits required.
It’s popular for swimming, surf fishing, crabbing and beach camping – permits and reservations also required.
The southern end of Pleasure Island is where you’ll find a local’s favorite: Kure Beach and Fort Fisher Recreation Area (see more down below about that).
Whereas Carolina Beach has a vibrant and bold personality, Kure Beach is of the more soft, pastel kind. It’s where you want to come for a more relaxed, beach vibe where the natural features are the center of attention.
The Kure Beach Fishing Pier is one of the oldest on the Atlantic Coast.
I loved Kure Beach. It reminded me of Tybee Island in South Carolina. Although much smaller, it had a similar friendly and chilled tropical vibe.
Note from a local: Kure is pronounced in a way that sounds very similar to Cur-ee, some people pronounce it like Curry. It’s named after the local Kure family (cur-ee).
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
Fort Fisher Recreation Area wraps around the southern end of Pleasure Island, hugging the Atlantic Ocean from Kure Beach over to the Cape Fear River.
There are six miles of pristine shoreline here offering sun and surf-seekers plenty of fun. Loggerhead turtles also love laying their eggs. You can drive your 4WD along the beaches here. Permit required.
Apart from the beaches, two of North Carolina’s most visited tourist attractions are also in this area: The North Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
This area made our top things to do on the North Carolina beaches post.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
Fort Fisher protected the trading routes of Wilmington during the American Civil War until its capture by the Union in 1865.
Today, 10% of the original fortress remains which you can tour on a beautiful scenic trail. It’s shaded by gnarly live oaks and winds past the earthworks to fort remains.
There is a Visitor’s Center here with exhibits, artifacts and videos to learn more about the history of Fort Fisher.
In the Fort Fisher Recreation Area there are further trails through the marshes that lead to other Civil War monuments and a WWII bunker that was built to be the primary firing range for nearby Camp David during the Second World War.
North Carolina Aquarium
The North Carolina Aquarium is a favorite for those traveling to Carolina Beach with kids. It showcases the marine life of the region’s aquatic life in interactive exhibits and live program helping to make connections with wildlife such as stingrays, eels, sharks and baby sea turtles.
Due to COVID advance reservations are required (so don’t be like us and miss your chance to visit).
Want a day trip from Carolina Beach?
You can catch the car ferry from the Fort Recreation Area over to Southport – a small coastal town on the mouth of the Cape Fear River that we discovered on our Brunswick Islands vacation the week before. It’s DEFINITELY a North Carolina small town worth experiencing.
Hike in Carolina Beach State Park
One of the highlights of a trip to Carolina beach is the 761-acre Carolina Beach State Park, where you’ll find nine miles of hiking trails (including NC Birding Trail sites).
It’s located on the Cape Fear River side of the island and incorporates the marina, giving you access to some of hot best fishing spots. Campers will love the secluded campsites are available beneath towering trees. Reserve well in advance.
The Sugarloaf trail encompasses most of the different habitats of the state park.
It’s just over a 3-mile loop coastal evergreen forest, coastal fringe sandhill forest, tidal cypress-gum swamp, and longleaf pine savanna on your way to the Sugarloaf Dune with views of the Cape Fear River.
This 50-foot sand dune was where over 5,000 troops camped during the Civil War.
The beginning sandy part of the trial will take you to a secluded white sandy beach and beautiful views of the Cape Fear River.
Venus Flytrap Trail
The Flytrap trail is a 0.5-mile loop through pocosin wetlands and longleaf pine and wiregrass savanna communities.
The highlight of this trail is the Venus Flytraps which are native to North and South Carolina and only found in the wild within seventy miles of Wilmington.
Spying these small carnivorous plants along the edges of the shrub is a unique thing to do in North Carolina. Stay on the trail and boardwalk so you don’t disturb them!
Kayak or Paddleboard Snow Cuts
Navigating the coastal waters on a paddle board is one of our favorite adventures on the North Carolina Beaches.
So, we asked our friends where we should launch. They took us to Snow’s Cut, a man-made canal connecting Myrtle Grove Sound to the Cape Fear River. It’s what separates Pleasure Island from the mainland.
You can paddle in three different directions here: under the bridge towards the Cape Fear River, up the Intracoastal Waterway to and to the ocean (south of Masonboro Island), or down the much calmer inlet towards a small marsh island and the town.
We headed in that direction, and with the wind making a statement, we had to paddle on our knees to get back.
For more paddling options (kayak or paddle board) check out Carolina Beach Lake Park, or head onto the Atlantic Ocean and master the art of balance on the ocean swell.
Carolina Beach Boardwalk
The vintage Carolina Beach Boardwalk has been the place of family fun since the 1930s.
What will grab your attention first is the beautiful, new wooden boardwalk built with fantastic amenities like showers you won’t be afraid to stand under, pagodas, and swinging chairs.
If you’re lucky you can find one with views of the ocean, most are just of the high sand dunes – which for me is still perfect as it’s a reminder that nature needs to take precedence over our demands for the best views.
Behind the wooden boardwalk and beach is the rainbow-colored Carolina Boardwalk lined with local stores, restaurants, ice cream, and arcade parlors.
The boardwalk is small but encapsulates the Carolina Beach spirit. During the summer season they have free concert series, amusement rides – including a Ferris Wheel – and weekly fireworks!
We loved the store Fuzz Love that has a laid back boho vibe with a cool selection of clothes, tapestries, carved wooden animals, and other fun stuff from Asia and Africa.
Sourced by a surfer who loves to travel the world and in doing so helps support the artisans and makers of the community. I loved the paintings of the giraffes on the wall and a dream catcher and sign that I bought as a souvenir
Where to Eat and Drink in Carolina Beach
Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar
Similar to our favorite Fish Heads Bar & Grill discovery in Nags Head, Outer Banks, the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar is the hidden local gem you always hope to find when you travel.
While we trusted our friend’s recommendation, we weren’t too sure what we were going to find on the other end of the non-descript hotel we just cycled up to.
But once we stepped inside and the view opened up to the Tiki Hut on the pier at the edge of the ocean, we knew we had found IT.
The Tiki Bar is built on the ruins of Center Pier, destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996. It serves a limited menu, but it’s really the outstanding views and atmosphere that you come here for.
The service was excellent and by the number of people who stopped to talk to the people with the funny accent, I could name this The Friendliest Beach Bar in the USA. You’ll find live music at sunset during the season.
Of course, we had a body bash swim here in the wild warm waters after. It was a moment!
Small personal thrill: While here I was pulled aside by a mother and daughter having the most wonderful time together. They recognized me from This is Raleigh and told me our blog helps them have amazing getaways from Raleigh just like they were doing now.
THIS IS WHY I DO WHAT I DO. Not just to show people really cool things to do, but to create the special moments with those they love, so their stories together can be eternal.
Donut taste testing
One of the most famous things to do in Carolina Beach is to eat warm, fresh glazed donut from Britts Donuts on the Carolina Boardwalk.
Started by the Britts and Wrights in 1939, the donut shop has long been the cornerstone of the Boardwalk area and has drawn crowds from near and far.
They only make glazed or unglazed donuts, guaranteed to melt in your mouth, and at only $2 you have an easy excuse to overindulge.
But wait. Britts has a more modern donut competition now with Wake n Bake Donuts who make more Voodoo Doughnut style with gourmet fillings and unusual flavors. They also have a gluten-free donut, which wasn’t too bad.
Britts is still obviously way out in front as a Carolina Beach favorite treat. They do that much business during the summer months – think daily lines that queue up and around the boardwalk – but unfortunately they close for the winter months and we missed out!
That meant the girls did not get their Britts donut on this Carolina Beach family vacation – you could hear their stomping on the board walk for miles.
Luckily, they had tried them before. And even while the memory of that was fading, they still gave Britts Donuts the Winner stamp.
Britts or Wake n Bake? Let us know in the comments what wins for you?
Coast Craft Cocktails and Calabash
Everything about Coast Craft Cocktails & Calabash speaks beach vacation.
From the small, intimate atmosphere with blue and white striped umbrellas hanging upside down from the roof to the huge black and white photograph of The Pass in Byron Bay Australia (No. Not Carolina Beach. But happy vibes to this Aussie who knew upon first glance that it was a beach from home.)
And to the Wednesday evening $7 margarita and $9 fish and chip special, my heart clapped when I saw it was a gluten-free fish fry! Thank you. It’s been so long. (there were ample gluten-free options).
The ever-changing menu features sustainable regional seafood from the best of local farms and rivers. Rest assured, you’ll always have a catch of the day, oysters, and what southern restaurant wouldn’t dish up a serve of hush puppies (they even do them gluten-free!)
As our friend’s said,
“This place has the best signature cocktails” Look out for seasonal signatures like the Fall flavors of the “Grande, No Whip Black” (spiced rum, pumpkin spice, coconut, toasted marshmallow), or the “Ruby Soho” (Vodka, pomegranate, ginger, rosemary, lime, cava).
Southern Biscuit and Pie
Grabbing a quick breakfast of biscuits and grits at The Southerly upon arrival to Pleasure Island gave me the wonderful introduction of, “Oh wow. Carolina Beach is affordable.”
You won’t find a better breakfast in Carolina Beach than $2 fluffy buttermilk biscuits. Up the flavor profile with brisket and slaw, sausage and cheddar, or fried chicken for only $6. (More options available).
Craig says his brisket was the best biscuit he’s had. Gluten-free me opted for the very filling $6 sausage & bacon over cheddar grits, which was delicious!
They also have variety of whole pies, oatmeal cream pies and seasonal cookie selections.
Coffee: Malama Cafe
My mornings on our beach vacation were spent taking a short 5-minute stroll along the boardwalk to Malama Café for a bullet proof coffee.
Here’s where you’ll find some healthy fuel to start your day with smashed avo toast, smoothie bowls, and breakfast burritos. You’ll love the happy beach decor of Malama.
Head to the rooftop for amazing beach views and some comforting Southern BBQ.
Carolina Smokehouse has been featured on PBS and the Food Network for its BBQ recipes and homemade tomato-based barbecue sauce (spicy and nice). They specialize in hardwood-smoked brisket, pork, ribs, and chicken.
Soul Flavor Kitchen & Bar
While we did not eat in house at Soul Flavor, we did order take out to enjoy in the coziness of a beach house with friends.
They have a diverse menu from fresh catches to ribs, seafood, pho, and more, including gluten free and vegan options.The Nana Maria Paella is their signature dish.
If you’re dining in, they’re also known for their neighborhood-gathering bar for a favored sangria and cocktails with friends.
Other places to eat in Carolina Beach (on our list for our return visit)
Below are other places to eat we wish we had time for. We can’t vouch for the flavors at these Carolina beach restaurants, but our well-trained eye can definitely pick out an experience.
And with these rooftop decks, stylish patios, and modern deco, they offer a lot of promise – for at least an enjoyable time!
- Hurricane Alley’s is a favorite for live music on its rooftop deck overlooking the ocean.
- Nauti Dog has creative gourmet hot dogs which sounded like a cool Carolina Beach addition. Sadly it was closed for a private event when we attempted to go.
- SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar was right near our cottage and we heard the fun on offer there with live music. They have an outside deck built around lush palm trees. It’s a famous Carolina Beach bar.
- Good Hops Brewing has small batch rotating seasonal beers and is the only brewery in Carolina Beach. Enjoy it in their beer garden with giant Jenga and corn hole.
- The Fat Pelican was voted best dive bar in North Carolina and top 25 in the nation. It’s a self-professed dive bar with a beach trailer park chi with the belief that “beer is love.”
Where to stay in Carolina Beach
There’s no better place to stay on a Carolina Beach vacation than at your own beachfront vacation rental.
As it’s a slow, relaxing getaway, you’ll appreciate having your own space for long lingering morning coffees and evening wine unwinds. Plus, easy access to the beach saves so much hassle in carrying all your gear, fighting for parking spaces, and a longer commute to that beautiful early morning sunrise.
These cute cottages only a block back from the beach and the Carolina Boardwalk give you incredible walking access to everywhere you want to be in Carolina Beach.
Where else should we go on our next visit to Carolina Beach?