June is here, the sun is out, and in case you haven’t noticed, North Carolina is a coastal state. Though Charlotte itself boasts only lakes and rivers in its midst, the truth of the matter is that we Charlotteans are a spoiled bunch. With a handful of beaches only a few hours away, we have our pick of the litter when it comes to choosing the vacation spot of our choice.
Below are some fast facts and other tidbits about some of my personal faves sprinkled along the NC coast. Should you find yourself with a free weekend this summer, I hope you’ll have a chance to enjoy a taste of our state’s eastern shoreline.
Sunset Beach: “The Quiet Family Beach”
Time: 3 hours, 18 minutes
The southern-most North Carolina beach, Sunset Beach is small and old-school in all the best ways. In fact, it was only a few short years ago that the original pontoon bridge was replaced with a fancy new overpass bringing visitors to the the island without the hassle of stand-still traffic in the last half-mile. Otherwise, not much has changed on the island. With only one small strip of realtors, restaurants, and a catch-all beach mart, a trip to Sunset Beach is like a trip down memory lane. In fact, my hubby and his family have been spending a week at Sunset for just over a quarter of a century, and their memories of this quaint island are rich and fun-filled. A quiet beach, ideal for families young and old, one of the attractions to Sunset Beach is its slow pace and quiet nights. Evenings spent on a rocking chair on the porch with a cold drink, taking in the scenery is the embodiment of Sunset. A bonus feature of Sunset is its close proximity to BOTH the Wilmington and Myrtle Beach airports, so if you’re planning to host visitors coming from out-of-state, they can choose the cheapest, most convenient to fly into, and Carolinians offering to pick them up won’t have to drive more than 45 minutes to an hour to do so.
Can’t miss visit: Though the address for this ice cream shop is technically Ocean Isle, its location just a mile or two up the road from Sunset makes this an annual stop for my husband’s family. And who doesn’t love ice cream in the summertime, anyway?
Ocean Isle Beach: “The Everybody’s Happy Beach”
Time: 3 hours, 22 minutes
A short trip up the coast from Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle is a slightly bigger island boasting a handful of lively restaurants with local fare and local music. An ideal mixture of quiet, family-oriented neighborhoods and more boisterous, hoppin’, Friday night fun crowds, Ocean Isle is sure to be a hit with visitors of all ages. For youngsters there’s a small museum filled with engaging exhibits about ocean life to help make rainy days fun and fascinating, and for the older crowd there are just enough restaurants and bars to make any vacation a celebration. Similar to Sunset, Ocean Isle is situated between Myrtle Beach and Wilmington with proximity to nearby airports making this an easy-to-get-to locale for visitors from near and far.
Can’t miss visit: If you’ve got kids on board, or you’re young at heart, a stop into the Museum of Coastal Carolina is a must-do. With exhibits and galleries that explore the history of the island, visitors to this local attraction will find much to enjoy in this unique educational adventure.
Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach: “The Big City Beach”
Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes/3 hours, 32 minutes
The powerhouse Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach area is by far the most activity-rich of the beach areas within a few hours of Charlotte. Though Wilmington, itself, is not an ocean-front destination, its neighbor, Wrightsville Beach is only a short trip over the bridge. Wilmington is the place to be, however, for restaurants rich in local fare, from classic deep fried seafood to gourmet fine dining. Visitors to Wilmington and/or Wrightsville can choose to stay on the beach and drive into Wilmington for daytime shopping or nights out on the town, or stay within walking distance of the fine dining and take day trips to the beach. Either way, you can’t lose. If you’re traveling with a crowd, particularly one with members of all ages, this may be the quickest way to please the most people. Youngsters will enjoy the many activities offered, both on sea and land, and adults will enjoy the wide array of shops and restaurants sprinkled throughout the area. One bonus feature of this destination is its proximity to the Wilmington airport. Though not necessary for those travelling from Charlotte, if you plan to include non-Carolinians in your party, this is an easy way to get them in with little or no hassle.
Can’t miss visit: A Wrightsville Beach tradition, Trolley Stop hot dogs are as good as they come. The original location is located here, on Wrightsville, and locals and visitors alike love the walk-up, standing-room-only vibe inside this legendary joint.
Topsail Beach: “The Family Reunion Beach”
Time: 4 hours, 1 minutes
Ok, I’m not gonna lie. I’m partial to Topsail Beach, and though it may be one of the farthest from Charlotte, my family grew up going to Topsail, and there will always be a soft spot in my heart for this old-school beach that is as family-friendly as they come. If you’ve ever seen the movie Shag, you’re sure to have an idea of just what to expect from a trip to Topsail. With only one or two restaurants on North Topsail, the smaller end of the island, most folks spend their nights cooking in or grilling out, with perhaps a fancy night or two out in nearby Wilmington. Days can be spent soaking up rays, enjoying a classic game of putt-putt, or fishing off the pier. Life is slow and sweet at Topsail, and for those lucky enough to spend a weekend or week on the island each year, there’s just something magical about it.
Can’t miss visit: Since eating out isn’t a priority with my family while visiting Topsail, I recommend a fishing expedition on the one and only Jolly Roger Pier. Whether you rent or own your fishing gear, there’s just nothing like an afternoon spent on the pier catching whatever the sea has to offer.
Bald Head Island: “The Golf Cart Beach”
Time: 4 hours, 22 minutes (including a short ferry ride)
The ritziest of the North Carolina beaches, Bald Head Island boasts a rich history and an exclusive club feel. By boarding the ferry to Bald Head, visitors leave their cars and worries behind, and commit to a golf-cart community lifestyle that operates on island time only. Some of the highlights of the island include a world-class golf course, pristine beaches, and a lush island forest. Having attended a beautiful wedding here several years ago, I see this nantucket-style island as ideal for couples and families looking to truly get off the grid and escape the fast-paced outside world. Gorgeous homes make daily golf-cart rides into home tours of inspiration. This island is a true diamond in the rough and worth at least a day trip, if not a longer stay.
Can’t miss visit: With something for everyone, the Bald Head Island Club boasts a premier golf course, tennis courts, a pool, and dining to meet everyone’s needs as well. For whatever you’re family needs, this is the place to be.