Swim and sand time top the list of family fun at beaches near Wilmington, North Carolina. But Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure Beach have lots to do even when you aren’t splashing in the Atlantic Ocean surf.
TravelingMom writer Deb Steenhagen experienced the NC beaches with her kids while Sarah Ricks explored a botanical garden, enjoyed an exhilarating sailboat ride, and visited the ruins of a Civil War-era fort. They both have recommendations for the best beaches, great ocean views and for relaxing with family on a beach vacation.
Enjoying Wrightsville Beach
Deb spent an afternoon at Wrightsville Beach with her three kids, then aged 11, 9 and 6. Her oldest was able to take a surfing lesson and loved learning the basics. She was able to get up on her knees on the board a few times and with some added confidence could have been riding a few small waves. While Abbi was learning to surf, Deb and the two younger girls played in the water.
Wrightsville Beach was so much fun – it helped that it was a lot less windy so they could relax and not worry about all of their stuff blowing away. It was also nice that this family-friendly beach had a sandbar that kept the bigger waves out further so Becca could splash around and collect shells without having to worry about being knocked over all the time. Once the tide started coming in though, the sandbar disappeared and the wind picked up a bit. But they still had a great time!
Deb and the girls stopped for a treat at SurfBerry afterward and enjoyed some delicious shave ice. It was the perfect way to cool off after a day at the beach.
Read More: Best Wilmington NC restaurants for families
Family fun at NC beaches, includes the 67-acre Airlie Gardens. I was especially taken by the majesty of its 450-year-old oak tree. Each of the branches is the size of a big tree. We didn’t have kids with us at Airlie Gardens, but my kids would have enjoyed the butterfly house when they were little.
Given the serene walking paths through the gardens, I was surprised to stumble on the playful and eccentric beauty of The Bottle Chapel. This is a room-sized sculpture made of concrete and wine bottles. Looking carefully, we saw the bottles formed fantastical creatures and goofy faces. The Bottle Chapel is a tribute to a self-taught artist who worked as a ticket taker at Airlie Gardens for many years. It is a delight.
TravelingMom Tip: The gate to Airlie Gardens shuts a half-hour before closing time.
Wrightsville Beach Museum of History
We visited this museum to see its collection of notes left by anonymous people in a mailbox on the beach, an eccentric collection that reminded me of the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia. While that was the draw, we also enjoyed learning local history.
Walking on the Beach
Nothing beats sea air, the sound of surf, and barefoot walking in the sand. On Wrightsville Beach, a wooden fishing pier stretches into the waves like a giant elegant sculpture. We could see the pier from a mile away as we walked along the sand to Oceanic restaurant, located on the pier. Standing underneath the pier, watching the waves roll in, was mesmerizing.
Sailing – Ride or Learn
I have no idea how to sail. But I was happy to be a passenger for an exhilarating 2-hour sail with Wrightsville Performance Sailing. The talented Dustin skippered the elegant 26-foot racing sailboat. We skimmed across the waves at what felt like a 45-degree angle – exciting! My husband and I perched on the higher side of the boat. Periodically, Dustin warned my husband and me to switch our weight to the other side of the boat. Kids are welcome if they can quickly follow directions and switch sides as the boat tilts.
We enjoyed the view from the water and felt perfectly safe because Dustin was in control. Under Dustin’s expert guidance, I even got to take over steering the boat for a few thrilling minutes. But if you’re more intrepid than me, Wrightsville Performance Sailing also offers sailing lessons.
TravelingMom Tip: One of our favorite things to do when taking a beach vacation is to hire a photographer for family photos. This is a special gift and souvenir that we cherish. We use Flytographer to book a local photographer located in the area that we're traveling to. Use this link and you will get $25 off your photo session.
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Fun Activities at Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach is on the northern end of Pleasure Island, south of Wilmington proper. It’s a really cute little beach town with lots of things to do, including beachy shops along the boardwalk area, restaurants, and even an amusement park.
Deb’s girls were all over that – although it wasn’t open in the afternoon while they were at the beach. Parking was an interesting challenge since most of what’s available is specified for guests of the various oceanfront vacation rentals, hotels and resorts – but they found a 2-hour space that gave them a chance to walk past some of the shops on the way down to the beach.
“It’s so much different from the Lake Michigan beaches that they’re used to – bigger, wavier, and at least today, windier,” Deb says. “The wind was crazy, but it made for some very cool waves to splash in. Hannah and Becca had fun getting knocked down over and over, while Abbi let the waves chase her back up the beach and never really did get fully immersed.”
This area is known for outdoor family-friendly activities such as hiking or camping at the nearby Carolina Beach State Park. There is also live music every weekend during the summer months.
Read More: Fun Things to Do in Wilmington NC with Kids
Fort Fisher State Historic Site in Kure Beach
During the Civil War, Union forces blockaded the port of Wilmington. Confederate soldiers at Fort Fisher tried to keep the path to the port free of Union ships, to allow Confederates to get supplies into Wilmington.
Today, the remains of the Fort are part of a park with wooden walking paths, spooky trees, and lovely views of the marsh. Fort Fisher does not look like a traditional fort. Instead, the ruins of this Civil War fort look like mounds of grass-covered earth. The on-site museum about Fort Fisher was interesting, and a good option for a rainy day.
There is plenty of family fun at beaches near Wilmington, North Carolina, but one of the best things is that they are all an easy drive from Wilmington along the Atlantic coast. We combined our beach area getaway with time in downtown Wilmington, a lively small city with an historic downtown, a beautiful riverfront, antebellum houses, African-American history, and lots more.
Where is your favorite family fun at beaches near Wilmington, North Carolina? Tell us about it in the comments.