Beaches on the cheap: Wrightsville on less than $150?

Wrightsville Beach is about 200 miles (and a four hour drive) slightly southeast of Charlotte. This haven for fun and sun is also home to the annual azalea festival and the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla -- an annual weekend of fireworks, boats and festivities that brings 50,000 people to the area.

Our first stop could have been taking a ride on the historic Henrietta 3 Steamboat, which was at a 25th anniversary discount price of $5.50 when we were there. But we chose something a bit more off-the-beaten-path. And it does not get more off the beaten path than this.

The Cape Fear Serpentarium, nestled in the heart of downtown Wilmington. This isn’t a place for the faint of heart.

The indoor reptile park is home to some of the world’s rarest crocodiles, dragons, and of course, snakes. If you time your visit just right you can even witness feeding time.

On our visit we saw Sheena, a 23-foot-long, 340 pound giant anaconda. She was munching on rabbit, which would be swallowed whole.

So, how does one end up with a serpentarium in the middle of historic Wilmington? The home of quaint shops, restaurants and Hollywood productions of shows like Dawson’s Creek and blockbusters like Iron Man?

Dean Ripa, the owner of all these animals, said the decision was easy.

“I spent 20 years collecting snakes and catching them and sending them to zoos. Over the years, I’d keep some choice favorites, and they became more and more, and I had to either get rid of them or build them a nice space. My mom is here, my dad is here,” he said.

A visit to this serpentarium will cost you just $8.50 per person.

If all the cold-blooded critters stirred up your appetite, the locals recommended we try Trolley Stop Hot Dogs -- a place the locals, and not-so-locals, have been coming to since 1976.

“We’re from Toronto. We saw this place on [The Food Network],” said a cheery couple who came to the Wrightsville area to play golf.

The dogs range from the meaty with chili and bacon bits, to vegetarian and turkey dogs. The prices seem to have stayed in the 1970’s because at $2.75 a dog, we’ve still got $127.50 to spend on the rest of our trip.

For accommodations we found the Blockade Runner Resort, where off-season rates at the website Sunny Savers, netted us a million-dollar beach view for just $106, including taxes and fees.

That left us with $12.50 for the rest of our stay.

If you time your stay at the Blockade Runner just right, you may be able to catch their free mini cruises. If not, and you have an extra $20 to burn, you could always take a full-length scenic ride to Masonboro from Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, which runs their boats across the street from the hotel.

Captain Joe runs the show, and along with the ride he also points out some indigenous birds along the way (the Captain has a degree in biology).