By SAM BOYKIN
Posted: Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2012
Youve got to love a place where, from your balcony, you can watch a guy cruise up to the shore on a stand up paddleboard, drop off his passengera shaggy golden retrievergive a friendly wave and then paddle back out into the sound, past the colorful yachts and sailboats moored in the serene water.
Such is the vibe and tempo of daily life at Wrightsville Beach, a laidback coastal destination thats only about a four-hour drive from Lake Norman. And August is a great time to go as the summer crowds have thinned out, and bargains can be found at vacation rentals, including Summer Sands Suites, where we spent a couple of idyllic days.
There are certainly fancier places with more amenities, but Summer Sands is a great getaway for budget-minded travelers, with rates starting at $179 per night during the week and $239 per night on the weekend. All the one-bedroom suites in the four-story hotel have private balconies overlooking the sound and harbor, pullout queen beds in the living room, as well as kitchens and dining areas. Theres also a private pool and sundeck.
Summer Sands is centrally located just past the Intracoastal Waterway drawbridge next to Wynn Plaza, a small waterfront park with public docks. And best of all, its within easy walking distance to a number of restaurants, bars and shops, and the beach is just across the street.
During our stay we took full advantage of our convenient location. South Beach Grill is literally a stones throw from Summer Sands, and we enjoyed several meals there on the outside patio overlooking the sound, dining alongside everyone from sharp-dressed couples to surfers wearing boardshorts and T-shirts.
The menu is creative and eclectic, with an emphasis on fresh local seafood. I particularly liked the shrimp and grits, and my wife loved the calamari, which was served with spicy plum tomato marinara and shaved asiago cheese. We also couldnt resist ordering a nice greasy batch of fried pickles, which we dipped in ranch dressing and washed down with the restaurants trademark fruit sangria. Not exactly health food, but hey, we were on vacation.
Next door to South Beach Grill are a great little ice cream shop, a hotdog and hamburger stand, a boutique called Hallelu that sells womens fashions, as well as a big Wings retail store which carries pretty much every conceivable item you could possibly want during a beach vacation. And when we needed to stock up on groceries there was Roberts Market, which sells everything from fresh fruit, veggies, steaks, beer and wine.
My wife and I had our 2-year-old daughter with us, so hitting the bars wasnt exactly on our to-do list, but there are plenty of options for those looking to enjoy the local nightlife. Café Del Mar is a laid-back watering hole favored by the locals, and King Neptune, in addition to a spacious dining room, also has a cozy lounge and bar.
During our stay we spent most of our time on the beach, and while our daughter was content with playing in the waves and digging in the sand, theres plenty to do for those looking for more adventurous fun.
Wrightsville Beach is popular among surfers, and if youre a newbie there are several places to help get you started, including WB Surf Camp, which offers private and group lessons for kids and adults. Theres also Aussie Island Surf Shop across the street from Summer Sands, where you can rent or buy gear and equipment. If boating is more your style, give Wrightsville Kayak Company a call, and theyll deliver a kayak or stand up paddle board to your location and pick it up when you're done.
During our stay we also visited historic downtown Wilmington, which is about a 10-minute drive from Wrightsville Beach. The bustling port citya popular location to film movies, including the upcoming Iron Man 3is renowned for its scenic Riverwalk area, which its many shops, bars, museums and restaurants.
A great way to see downtown Wilmington is on a horsedrawn carriage tour. Springbrook Farms offers fully narrated tours through the areas vibrant commercial district and historic neighborhoods, which are known for their cobblestone streets and beautiful homes.
To get a better view of the Caper Fear waterway, reserve a spot with Wilmington Water Tours and go for a cruise along the downtown riverfront, or travel further up the river to remote, unspoiled areas where youre likely to see everything from deer, wild turkey and maybe even an alligator along the cypress-lined banks.
If you have kids, a must-see attraction in downtown Wilmington is The Childrens Museum. We spent the better part of the afternoon there as our daughter explored the many different interactive exhibits, including a pirate ship with slides and ladders and an outside courtyard with a climbing wall and giant Lego set.
Another popular downtown attraction is the Battleship North Carolina, which is moored along Cape Fear River across from Riverwalk. Tours are available of this majestic 728-foot, 45,000-ton ship that earned 15 battle stars during World War II.
On our last day, we visited the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, located about 15 miles south of Wilmington. This also proved to be a big hit with our daughter, who got a real kick out of the exhibits, which showcased the offshore reef habitat and hundreds of different sea creatures, including sharks, stingrays and exotic looking jellyfish. Theres also a winding nature trail outside, as well as a new playground, which comes in handy when the kids start to get antsy.
As we headed home, crossing over the Intracoastal Waterway again back towards Lake Norman, I felt that sense of melancholy that often comes when you know your vacation is coming to an end. But I was comforted in knowing that a return trip is always just a short drive away.
Another great option for budget-minded families is Holden Beach. This tiny barrier island (pop. 575) is ideal if youre looking for a laid-back, lesser-known coastal destination. Holden Beach is mostly residential, with a handful of restaurants and shops, and not much else, which is a good thing, especially for families with kids. Moreover, rental rates at this off-the-beaten-path destination drop dramatically in August, in some cases by nearly half. Its possible to rent a three or four bedroom oceanfront house for a week for less than $1,000. There are several rental companies that can help you find just the right house for you, including Brunswickland Realty (www.brunswicklandrealty.com.) Not all rentals come with things like bed linens and towels, so be sure to confirm this before you arrive, so you dont get stuck having to buy supplies.
Holden Beach is about a five-hour drive from Lake Norman, and roughly halfway between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Once you pass over the Holden Beach Bridge, theres the main two-lane boulevard, which is lined with homes on either side. What you wont see are towering hotels, souvenir shops and flashing neon signs. Folks come here to get away from it all and of course enjoy the beach, which is unique in that it runs east and west, so youre treated to beautiful sunrises in the morning and sunsets at night. The water is also noticeably clean and clear, and the beaches uncluttered.
There are plenty of bike rental shops available on Holden if you feel like cruising around and checking out the unspoiled beauty of the area. If youre really feeling ambitious, you can go for a walk or run along the wide sidewalks that run parallel to the main boulevard, which have exercise stations every 100 yards or so.
There are also a couple of cozy, laid-back restaurants on Holden, including Castaways Raw Bar & Grill. Located across the street from the beach, this casual spot has a large screened-in dining room, spacious outside decks and a sandy area in front with benches. There also live music most nights, and several big-screen TVs around the bar. Menu items run the gamut from oysters, clams, crab legs, shrimp and sandwiches, along with plenty of adult beverage options. Just down the block from Castaways is Paradise Café, which offers a full lineup of fried and grilled seafood combinations, along with sandwiches, soups and salads.
If you need a pair of sunglasses, bathing suit or gift to take back home, the Salt Peddler is the lone retail store on the island. And next door is Harleys Ice Cream, where you can get a cone or hot fudge sundae, kick back on the spacious deck and look out onto the ocean.Wrightsville/WilmingtonSummer Sands Suites
104 S Lumina Ave.
Wrighstsville Beach, N.C. 28480
116 Orange St.
Wilmington, N.C. 28041
900 Loggerhead Road
Kure Beach, N.C. 28449
100 South Lumina Ave.
Wrightsville Beach, N.C. 28480
6415 New Haven Drive
Wilmington, N.C. 28411
Holden BeachCastaways Raw Bar and Grill
112 Ocean Blvd. West
Holden Beach, N.C. 28462
102 Jordan Blvd.
Holden Beach, NC 28462