Carolina Beach shoreline and dunes

Carolina Beach has a stunning stretch of shoreline. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Discover Sun and Vintage Fun in Carolina Beach, North Carolina

Carolina Beach, North Carolina, is all about embracing coastal living. The seaside town is bursting with beachy activities, from stunning shores and campgrounds to a vintage boardwalk complete with an amusement park and ice cream stands. Surrounded by a coastal barrier island called Pleasure Island, hiking, fishing, kayaking, swimming and much more are possible in a single weekend getaway.

Though small in size, the area is home to historic sites, top-notch seafood restaurants and an aquarium. Best of all, you don’t even have to come in the summer to experience the best of this destination — with mild temperatures year-round, visitors are welcomed any time.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Wander the Boardwalk

Carolina Beach ocean pier
The pier is a famous landmark in Carolina Beach. (Photo: Getty Images)

Kick off your first day by taking it slow and indulging in all of the quintessential beach town scenes.

Start with breakfast in the heart of downtown at Gulfstream Restaurant, where they serve up classic down-home dishes like pancakes and omelets, before making your way to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. There are plenty of souvenir shops along the way, so take your time choosing just the right delightfully campy T-shirt or fridge magnet.

Given the easy access to the shore, it makes sense to spend some time in the sand. Lounge for a bit or take a dip in the ocean before returning to the boardwalk for lunch. Once you’ve had enough walking (or lounging), step back in time to the 1950s for burgers and hot dogs at Pop’s Diner.

Next up is some classic boardwalk fun. Indulge your inner child and take a ride on the Ferris wheel and carousel, play carnival games and then head one block from the ocean to Carolina Beach Arcade for some more games, including Skee-Ball, claw machines and dozens more.

Turn in your tickets for a prize, then make a stop back at the hotel to get ready for the evening, which includes classic North Carolina barbecue at Carolina Smokehouse. (That’s eastern North Carolina-style: pit-roasted pulled pork in a tangy vinegar dressing. The regional barbecue wars here are no joke, so it’s best to know your stuff!)

After dinner, make your way to the Tiki bar-themed spot SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar. Then at Buzz’s Roost, order the “Boardwalk Bum” cocktail — a potent blend of pineapple and banana rums, OJ, pineapple juice, and ginger ale — to kick things off.

Saturday: Head to Fort Fisher

Though you’re heading just 5 miles south of the busy boardwalk, it will feel like a world away. Kick off the day with breakfast at North End Café To-Go (try the “Grilled French Toast PBJ”) and pick up sandwiches for lunch.

Then hop in the car to make the 12-minute journey to Fort Fisher State Historic Site, where you can see the remains of a large fort from the Civil War. Don’t miss a stop inside the visitors center, where you can check out more period-specific artifacts. Snap a picture at the seaside 1921 Fort Fisher Monument, then follow the easy trail to see the historic Robert Harrill “The Fort Fisher Hermit’s” bunker.

You won’t have to search too hard for the perfect picnic spot: Fort Fisher Recreation Reserve Observation Deck is just down the trail.

Oak Island Lighthouse during the day
Oak Island Lighthouse is a must-see on your trip. (Photo: Getty Images)

After your sandwich stop, walk back to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, home to all kinds of local wildlife, from stingrays to baby sea turtles. You can also plan a visit around one of the free daily programs, which include live feedings, special dives, and up-close encounters with turtles and gators. Then drive over to catch the Fort Fisher Ferry for a 35-minute ride to Southport.

A quick walk along the beach will bring you to the Oak Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1958. While most older lighthouses feature spiral staircases, this one is slightly unique: A series of ship ladders make up the 131 steps to the top. Tours of the lighthouse are available year-round. Once you’ve covered the area, head back to the car and drive right back onto the ferry.

Back in town, make your way straight to Kure Beach for dinner at the Caribbean-inspired Jack Mackerel’s Island Grill. You can’t go wrong with the fresh catch of the day, whatever it may be. To wrap up the night, stay close by and drink at Bud & Joe’s Sandbar.

Or, if you have some energy to burn, head back toward the boardwalk to Lazy Pirate Island Sports Grill for some late-night beach volleyball and live music to finish the day.

Sunday: Enjoy Seafood and State Parks

Pancakes with blueberries and orange juice
Pancakes are a classic breakfast option. (Photo: Marriott International)

Today is another nature-filled day, but this time you’re heading north. Carolina Beach State Park, a mile away from the boardwalk, is known as one of the most beautiful campgrounds in the state. Before you get too far into the great outdoors, find a parking spot and fuel up at Kate’s Pancake House. After chowing down on a stack, walk over to the state park.

Try the half-mile Flytrap Trail loop for an easy hike through pocosin wetlands and longleaf pine forests. If you visit during May and June, keep an eye out for the Venus’ flytraps along the route. Then pop over to the dock and marina on the Cape Fear River for some fishing or kayaking before lunch. Paddle NC is a great option for hourly gear rental.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, head just outside the park to grab a quick bite at the famous Michael’s Seafood Restaurant — the chowder, loaded with clams, crabmeat and scallops, is a house specialty. From here, it’s back to the marina to rent a boat or Jet Ski to take out on the water for the afternoon.

After a day on the water, get ready back at the hotel before enjoying dinner in town at Havana’s Restaurant, housed in a 1916 cottage. Whatever might be calling to you on the menu, the hot rum bananas Foster for two is a dessert must, and if you didn’t max out at Michael’s, a bowl of the restaurant’s award-winning clam chowder will start you off right.

Call it a night after having a craft beer at Good Hops Brewing for a local pint.