Summer officially begins on June 21, but here in Wilmington North Carolina we get into the spirit long before that. Whether you use Memorial Day weekend or the last day of school as your unofficial welcome to the season of fun-in-the-sun, the area is brimming with activities for all interests and budgets. Here are 50 possibilities that both locals and tourists can use to fill up their calendars for the next few months.
By JUDY ROYAL
1. N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher
Located in Kure Beach, the N.C. Aquarium offers a variety of exhibits for all ages that have everything from an albino alligator to sharks and loggerhead turtles as well as an interactive touch tank. Admission is $6 for children ages 3-12, $8 for adults and $7 for seniors age 62 and older. Find more information at ncaquariums.com/fort-fisher.
2. John Nesbitt Loop
Why do you always see so many people out exercising in Wrightsville Beach? They’re taking advantage of the John Nesbitt Loop, a 2.45-mile stretch of sidewalk that circles the town’s heart. The path follows Causeway Drive, North Lumina Avenue and Salisbury Street. Free.
3. Battleship North Carolina
Located just across the Cape Fear River from historic downtown Wilmington, the Battleship North Carolina used during World War II is open daily for tours and often hosts special events and programs. Check the schedule at battleshipnc.com. Prices range from $6 for children 6-11 to $12 for adults. Children 5 and under get in free.
4. Bald Head Island
A 5.8-square-mile resort village on the east side of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County, Bald Head Island doesn’t allow motorized vehicles so residents and visitors get around via golf carts and bicycles. Not only are there plenty of vacation rentals, but it’s a great place for a day excursion. A round-trip ferry ride from Deep Point Marina in Southport costs $24.75 for adults and $13.75 for children 3-12. Find the schedule and more information at baldheadisland.com.
5. Carolina Beach Boardwalk
Pleasure Island comes alive all summer long with a carnival, complete with amusement park rides and food vendors, set up around Carolina Beach’s Boardwalk at the foot of Cape Fear Boulevard near the ocean. That’s also where you’ll find the legendary Britt’s Donut Shop. Prices for rides vary.
6. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours Shuttle to Masonboro Island
You don’t have to own your own boat to experience Masonboro Island’s secluded beaches and untouched environment. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours and Water Taxi can take you to the 8.5-mile-long undeveloped island between Wrightsville and Carolina beaches. Cost is $20. Find the schedule and more information, including additional tours and programs, at wrightsvillebeachscenictours.com.
7. Cameron Art Museum
Spend the day exploring various exhibits and having a bite to eat at Café Johnnie. Admission ranges from $3 for children 2-12 to $8 for adults. Find hours and more information at cameronartmuseum.com.
8. Fourth Friday Gallery Nights
On the fourth Friday of every month, various downtown Wilmington art galleries open their doors to the public from 6-9 p.m. for free, self-guided tours and refreshments. For a list of dates and participating establishments, visit artscouncilofwilmington.org.
9. Airlie Gardens
Located off picturesque Airlie Road, experience the formal gardens, wildlife, historic structures, walking trails, sculptures, views of Bradley Creek, 10-acres of freshwater lakes, more than 100,000 azaleas and the grandeur of the 467-year-old Airlie Oak. Admission is $3 for children 6-12 and $5 for adults. Find more information at airliegardens.org.
10. Carolina Beach State Park
You’ll find a marina, secluded camping area, visitors center and walking trails that traverse various habitats at Carolina Beach State Park, home to the Venus’ flytrap, one of the world’s most carnivorous plants and a native of Southeastern North Carolina. The park is free and open daily.
11. Jet Ski Rentals
Experience the thrill of gliding across the water as fast as you feel comfortable with a jet ski at the New Hanover County beaches. Rentals are available from wilmingtonjetskirentals.com and carolinabeachjetskirental.com. Prices vary.
12. Cape Fear Serpentarium
Claiming the distinction of being the state’s largest reptile zoo and museum, the Cape Fear Serpentarium at 20 Orange St. in downtown Wilmington is a unique attraction for all ages. Cost is $8 for everyone except children under 2, who get in free. Find more information at capefearserpentarium.com.
If you can’t make it to the popular Battleship Blast in downtown Wilmington on the Fourth of July, there are plenty of other chances to see fireworks all summer long. Not only does Carolina Beach have its Fourth of July fireworks display a day early on July 3, but the town celebrates all season with fireworks every Thursday night along with live music at the Boardwalk. For a complete schedule, visit pleasureislandnc.org/fireworks-by-the-sea.
14. N.C. 4th of July Festival
Southport comes alive with its biggest party of the year during the N.C. 4th of July Festival, which attracts more than 40,000 visitors. Events vary and last all week, culminating with a parade and fireworks display on the holiday itself. For a complete schedule, visit nc4thofjuly.com.
15. The Wilmington Ice House
Cool from the hot summer sun at The Wilmington Ice House ice rink. Sign up for figure skating or hockey lessons, or come and join your friends during the public skating sessions. Prices and schedules vary; visit wilmingtonice.com.
16. Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry
Whether you’re going for the journey or the destination, a ride on the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry is a great way to spend a summer day. Walk, bike or drive your vehicle aboard, and take in the sights of the Cape Fear River along the way. Trips leave at various times daily, and the cost is $1 for pedestrians, $2 for bicyclists and $5 for standard vehicles. Find the complete schedule at ncdot.gov/ferry.
17. Culinary Adventures with Liz Biro
Local food writer Liz Biro leads various walking tours centering around the area’s gourmet scene. Prices range from $25 for Drinks Downtown to $42 for Heart of Downtown and $58 for the Top Chef Farmers Market Tour & Cooking Class. Find more information at lizbiro.com.
18. Summer Rest Trail
Explore one of the area’s hidden gems by taking a stroll or bike ride along Summer Rest Trail, a 0.7-mile asphalt path that begins at Port City Chop House on Eastwood Road and winds through a wooded route to Summer Rest Road, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway near Wrightsville Beach.
19. Federal Point History Center
On the south edge of the Town of Carolina Beach’s municipal complex is the Federal Point History Center, a small museum that showcases various displays about the history of southern New Hanover County, as well as a gift shop with books, T-shirts, maps, games, puzzles and post cards. Admission is free, and the museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Find more information at federalpointhistory.org/history_center.
20. Oakdale Cemetery
Part outdoor museum and part arboretum, Oakdale Cemetery at 520 N. 15th St. in Wilmington boasts 100 acres and has a Summer Tour Series with five Saturday dates focusing on various sights each time. Cost is $10. Find the schedule at oakdalecemetery.org.
21. Silver Coast Winery
Silver Coast Winery is an active winemaking facility that has produced several award-winning varieties from its Ocean Isle Beach location. It’s open daily for tours and tastings and has a gift shop and art gallery. Find more information at silvercoastwinery.com.
22. Farmers’ Markets
Whether you’re north, south or in between, the Wilmington area offers a farmers’ market of locally harvested and created goods near you. Downtown Wilmington and Carolina Beach hold theirs on Saturday, while Wrightsville Beach’s is on Monday and Poplar Grove Plantation’s is on Wednesday.
23. Endless Summer Sailboat Charter
Let a licensed Coast Guard captain take you for a four-hour sail aboard a 38-foot sloop from Southport to the open water of the Atlantic Ocean and back. The board holds 2 to 6 passengers, and the cost is $60 per person. Find out more at endlessummer.net.
24. SCUBA Diving
Scuba Now (scuba-now.com), Aquatic Safaris (aquaticsafaris.com) and Cape Fear Dive Center (capefeardivecenter.com) are among the local companies that can take you on an underwater adventure. Get instruction or book a spot on a charter to the area’s best dive spots. Prices vary.
25. Fort Fisher State Historic Site
The Fort Fisher State Historic Site’s visitor center boasts an exhibit hall with a 16-foot fiber-optic map detailing the Civil War battle there, an orientation film and a gift shop. A half-mile tour trail circles the remains of the western bastion of the fort, and exterior exhibits include interpretive panels and a partially restored gun emplacement featuring a firing reproduction of a cannon. Donations accepted.
26. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
Enjoy 6 miles of unspoiled beaches, and bring Fido, too. This southernmost part of Pleasure Island past Kure Beach is one of the few waterfront areas that welcome your dog during the summer months. There’s also a picnic area, public restrooms and a large, free parking lot. You can drive all the way to the end of the island if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and an access pass, which is $12 per day or $50 for the year. Inquire at the park office.
27. New Hanover County Arboretum
Explore 7 acres of plants that grow in the coastal area as well as emerging trends in plant material. Free and open daily during daylight hours, the New Hanover County Arboretum is at 6206 Oleander Drive in Wilmington.
28. Pier Fishing
If pier fishing is your thing, you’ll find the concrete Johnnie Mercer’s Fishing Pier in Wrightsville Beach or the more old-fashioned Carolina Beach and Kure Beach fishing piers on Pleasure Island. They charge nominal fees if you want to drop a line, but you can stroll on the Pleasure Island piers for free.
29. Tregembo Animal Park
Located at 5811 Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington, Tregembo Animal Park has more than 75 species of animals including giraffe, lion, tiger, zebra, bear and monkeys. There is also a 4,000-square-foot gift shop with seashells, nautical items, clothing and toys. The zoo is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is $8 for kids 2-11 and $12 for adults. Find out more at tregemboanimalpark.com.
30. Wrightsville Parasailing Company
Fly above the water behind a boat without even getting wet. Each flight lasts 15 minutes and costs $65 per person. Trips leave throughout each day. Find out more at wrightsvilleparasail.com.
31. Ingram Planetarium
Ingram Planetarium, 7625 High Market Street in Sunset Beach, has a variety of programs for all ages, including sky theater and laser music shows, as well as the Paul Dennis Science Hall and Galaxy Gifts. Find out more at museumplanetarium.org.
32. Walking Tours
Learn history from longtime resident Bob Jenkins with the Wilmington Adventure Walking Tour (910-763-1785) or choose the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington, Haunted Pub Crawl or Hollywood Location Walk from Wilmington Walking Tours (wilmingtonwalkingtours.com).
33. Dog Parks
Want to hang out where the dogs run free? Empie Park at Independence Boulevard and Park Avenue in Wilmington has 2 acres of off-leash fun for pooches. Other area parks that have smaller off-leash areas are Ogden Park, Hugh MacRae Park, Mike Chappell Park in Carolina Beach and Joe Eakes Park in Kure Beach.
Whether you want to rent a kayak to explore the area’s various waterways on your own or go on a guided tour, there are plenty of companies that can get you gliding across the water. Among them are Kayak Carolina (kayakcarolina.com), Hook, Line & Paddle (hooklineandpaddle.com), Expedition Organization (expeditionorganization.com), Wrightsville Kayak Company (wrightsvillebeachkayak.com) and North Carolina Eco Odysseys (ncecoodysseys.com).
Stroll along the scenic downtown Wilmington section of the Cape Fear River, which has been the backdrop for many TV and film productions, on the Riverwalk, a boardwalk that spans various shops and restaurants. A good place to start your walk is at the foot of Market Street.
36. Freeman Park
Also known as the North End, Carolina Beach’s Freeman Park is a popular spot for enjoying the ocean and is one of only two four-wheel-drive beaches in the area. Get a season pass for $100 or go for one-, two- and three-day options that range from $20 to $50. Purchase them at events.lanierparking.com/FreemanPark.aspx.
37. Wrightsville Beach Museum of History
Housed in a turn-of-the-century cottage, the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History at 303 W. Salisbury Street has a scale model of the area circa 1910, exhibits and hurricane information. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday and is free; donations accepted. Find out more at wbmuseum.com.
38. Kindred Spirit Mailbox
Get away from the crowds and go on a unique journey to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, which holds a collection of handwritten thoughts from visitors over the years. To get there, drive to Sunset Beach and turn right at the ocean, going to the westernmost public beach access. From there, continue to walk southwest (right) as the beach turns into uninhabited Bird Island. About 1.25 miles down, you’ll find the mailbox marked by a flagpole.
39. Jungle Rapids
Jungle Rapids, 5320 Oleander Drive in Wilmington, is a kids’ paradise with a water park, go-carts, laser tag, a climbing wall, miniature golf and more. Prices vary. Find out more at junglerapids.com.
40. Outdoor Movies at the Carolina Beach Lake
From Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends, Carolina Beach Lake Park will host free outdoor movies every Sunday at 8:45 p.m. Bring a lawn chair and refreshments, or purchase snacks there. Go to pleasureislandnc.org/free-movies-at-the-lake for a schedule.
41. Stand Up Paddleboarding
Among the area’s companies that can get you up and padding on the water are Wrightsville SUP (wrightsvillesup.com) and Carolina Paddle Board Co. (carolinapaddle.com).
42. Cape Fear Museum
Cape Fear Museum, 814 Market Street in Wilmington, is open Tuesday through Sunday and offers various exhibits and programs focusing on the area’s history and science. Admission ranges from $4 for children ages 3-17 and $7 for adults. Find out more at capefearmuseum.com.
43. Winner Party Boats
Whether you want to go fishing or take a pleasure cruise, there’s an excursion for you on the Winner Party Boats. Vessels leave from the Carolina Beach Municipal Marina on Carl Winner Drive between North Lake Park Boulevard and Canal Drive in Carolina Beach. Find out more at winnerboats.com.
44. Cape Fear Riverboats
The Henrietta III riverboat and several smaller vessels can take you on a variety of excursions along the Cape Fear River. The boats are docked off Water Street and at the foot of Dock Street in downtown Wilmington. Find out more at cfrboats.com.
45. Poplar Grove Plantation
Built in 1850, Poplar Grove Plantation, once part of the peanut trade, is now a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Homes. Tour the main house and tenant farmer’s cabin, visit the craft shops to learn about basket making and see the blacksmith’s shop. It’s located at 10200 U.S. Highway 17 North, Wilmington. Tours happen daily and range from $5-$10. Find out more at poplargrove.com.
46. Brunswick Air Fun Flights
Take off in a Cessna 172 and see the sights like the birds do with Brunswick Air Fun Flights, which leave from the Cape Fear Regional Jetport, 4019 Long Beach Road in Oak Island. Tours start at $90 per flight and can hold up to three passengers. Find out more at brunswickair.com.
47. The Children’s Museum of Wilmington
The Wilmington Children’s Museum, 116 Orange Street in downtown Wilmington, houses hands-on exhibits with opportunities for youngsters to explore and learn. Admission is $8, and the museum is open daily. Find out more at playwilmington.org.
48. Museum of Coastal Carolina
The Museum of Coastal Carolina, 21 E. Second Street in Ocean Isle Beach, has several themed galleries with dioramas and exhibits about the natural history, environment and culture of the Coastal Carolinas as well as the Nature’s Treasures gift shop. Find out more at museumplanetarium.org.
49. Cooking Classes
The Seasoned Gourmet, 1930 Eastwood Road in Lumina Commons near Wrightsville Beach, offers cooking classes through the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club. Topics vary. You must be a club member or guest to attend; memberships are $5 for 30 days or $15 for the entire year. Find out more at theseasonedgourmet.com.
50. Horsedrawn Carriage and Trolley Tours
Springbrook Farms has carriage and trolley tours pulled by rescued horses leaving daily from Market Street between Water and Front streets in downtown Wilmington. A costumed driver will give historical narration. Cost is $12 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Find out more at horsedrawntours.com. ■