Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Pittsburghers Guide to Wrightsville Beach, NC

We headed to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina for our family vacation this year. Having never done a beach week before, we picked this destination in particular so Julia could go to Indo Jax Surf Camp for Kids with Hearing Loss. The weather was mostly perfect and we had a fabulous time. It seems most of my Pittsburgh contemporaries head to OBX each summer, but in case yins want a change of scenery here's my....

Pittsburghers' Guide to Wrightsville Beach

Where to Stay

There are plenty of accommodations on Wrightsville Beach: Holiday Inn Resort, Shell Island Resort, Blockade Runner Beach Resort,  the Surf Suites, as well as many condos and beach house rentals.

We rented a condo for the week.

Getting There

Early in our planning process we decided it was too expensive/inconvenient to fly to Wrightsville Beach. It would cost around $1000 for the three of us, plus a rental car or being stuck without a car. 

There are two routes to consider when driving from Pittsburgh to Wrightsville Beach, I-79 or I-95. We had a good experience driving to Orlando on I-79 last November, but I-95 is 50 miles shorter per the Google maps.

We left at 7am Saturday morning and headed for I-95. Of course, we'll never really know if this was worse than I-79, but from Washington DC to Richmond, VA we were in some of the worst traffic I've ever encountered. For 60 miles we alternated between 35mph and a dead stop. After stopping for about an hour and a half for fuel, bathroom breaks and lunch, we reached our destination at 7pm Saturday evening.

Things To Do

Wrightsville Beach is an island beach town with no shortage of things to do. 

Swim in the Giant Wave Pool (it's free)

Wrightsville Beach looking toward Johnnie Mercer's Pier

I was asked multiple times during our twelve hour journey "Are we going to have a pool?" 
"Yes," I said. "There's a giant wave pool."

Mom is so fun on long car trips. 

Hours of fun in the ocean!

The water was blue and cool enough to be refreshing on the hot days while simultaneously feeling warm on the cooler evenings. We swam and played mostly on the stretch between access #24 and #27. There were shells to collect, an occasional dolphin to spot, and endless waves to jump over.

I asked my husband to take a few pictures of me in the water as proof that I get in and play too. Life was better before I was aware of my ocean face. Still trying to get over that shot.

I lived my lifelong dream of building what I felt was a spectacular sand castle. Once, I rode the boogie board all the way into the shore. It was a blast. I probably made a weird face.

Wrightsville Beach Farmer's Market

We're not fond of restaurants, so we shopped at one of Wilmington's Wal-Mart Super Centers on Sunday morning. It was just like a Pittsburgh Wal-Mart except you can buy beer and wine right in the store and the cashier took twenty minutes to check each person out due to her desire to carry on a full conversation in her slow southern drawl.

I refrained from buying produce at the Wal-Mart because each Monday there's a farmer's market from 8am-1pm. We bought six ears of corn, three peaches, two zucchinis, a bag of grape tomatoes, and two crab cakes for $20. Everything was delicious.

As a grocery shopping aside, there's a chain called Harris Teeter with stores on just about every corner. We shopped a second time during the week after running a bit short on food. Harris Teeter reminded me of a Market District store, sort of high end. A little pricey.

Battleship North Carolina

The World War II Battleship North Carolina is moored across from the Wilmington boardwalk. Tickets for the self-guided tour were $12 for adults and $6 for kids age 6-11. It took us about two hours to walk through, but due to oppressive heat and proximity to lunch time we sort of hustled through the last quarter of the tour. Truly a floating city, the ship had every kind of workshop to repair and fabricate parts, a tailor, a cobbler, a post office, giant washing machines, a bakery... just the fact that they fit everything into it was astounding. Imagining a life at sea on this thing really brought new meaning to that "greatest generation" moniker given to my grandparents.


We cooked at our condo most of the time, but we did take in the food scene a couple of times. The Oceanic Restaurant is the only ocean front eatery in Wrightsville Beach. The second story has windows on three sides offering breathtaking views of the water. The food was fair. I had a fried seafood platter which I anticipated would be something really spectacular. It was the same as what we get in the 'Burgh.

Slice of Life Pizza was the best looking option on the GPS as we rolled into Wilmington on Saturday night wanting a quick dinner. Our plain cheese pizza was $14.99. The crust was super thin and the sauce was heavily seasoned. I loved it. We had one piece left over after a famished family feed.

A few nights later we tried Vito's Pizza, a little shop within walking distance of our condo. It was much cheesier than Slice of Life. I didn't like it as well, but it was quick and close.

The Ocean Grill was by far my favorite meal of the whole vacation. Situated on nearby Carolina Beach, the second story was laid out much the same as the Oceanic, but the decor was more pleasant. The lunch menu was much better. Tim and I both had Mahi Tacos, their best seller. It was everything I want out of a meal. I had my mahi mahi fried. It was topped with shredded cabbage, salsa and guacamole. 

View from the Ocean Grill, Carolina Beach. The Tiki Bar on the pier looked really
cool if you're into that kind of thing.
The Original Ice Cream Stand was within walking distance of our condo. They have Hershey's ice cream. It was yummy!

Johnnie Mercer's Pier

Everyone on Wrightsville Beach uses Johnnie Mercer's Pier as a reference point. It costs $2 per adult and $1 per child to walk out on the pier. You can also fish from the pier. Rates are posted on their web site.

Johnnie Mercer's Pier from above and below.
When we walked out on the pier we saw two little silver fish caught and were informed that we'd missed a small shark by a few minutes. I'm not upset about missing the shark!


Julia wanted nothing more than to buy a hermit crab at the beach. We found crabs first at a store next to Johnnie Mercer's Pier, but it was closing time and we didn't want to rush her selection. It turned out to be a good thing because the Wing's Beachwear store offers a much better deal: buy the cage, get the crab free. This ended up being a $12 savings.

We spent one rainy evening at Independence Mall. It had lots of out of business stores. Really reminded me of home.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Spoiled by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher was nothing to write home about. I actually feel like we missed a wing or a floor. We consulted the floorplan before leaving, so strong was our sense of aquatic disappointment. For an extra $3 each we went into their butterfly exhibit. We always enjoy hanging out with butterflies.

All in all, it was nice to get out of the heat for a bit and the drive to Kure Beach was beautiful. On the way home we stopped at Carolina Beach for that awesome lunch at the Ocean Grill.


It was surf camp that brought us to Wrightsville Beach and watching our daughter catch wave after wave caused my husband and I to have completely different feelings toward the sport. 

I felt confident that any attempt by me to stand on a moving object in the ocean would result in pulled muscles or sprains of body parts yet unknown.

My husband? Well he can tell you in his own words.

"Watching the surf camp got me pretty amped to get wet myself, so I decided to rent a foamy. Trying to paddle out in the morning in the blown-out, messy surf, I got raked over and caught inside. Having not perfected my turtle roll, I decided to give up until the tide came down some."

"In the afternoon, I finally got my stick to the outside. I was pretty noodled by then but couldn't give up. I caught two waves and made a total Barney of myself before coming back in."

I like to call this one "Man Contemplates Ocean."
Tim rented his board from Sweetwater Surf Shop (again walking distance from our condo). It was $15 for a half day. He's unharmed, well versed in surfing lingo, and hopefully got the surfing bug out of his system.

Fireworks by the Sea at Carolina Beach & Britt's Donuts

Thursday was our last night at the beach and there's no better way for a Pittsburgher to cap off any event than fireworks. We headed back to Carolina Beach to take in their Fireworks by the Sea and Boardwalk Blast. Look out Zambelli family! We'd heard a few things about Carolina Beach over the course of the week. One thing was that the ocean is "half Bud Light" because this is the vacation spot for people from the deepest recesses of South Carolina. The second was we absolutely must have Britt's Donuts.

We're a rather particular family when it comes to donuts, preferring only certain kinds of Donut Connection donuts. The line for Britt's was ridiculously long, like miss the fireworks long. We got ourselves some Krazy Kones and headed to the beach to stake out a spot. The cones were okay. I had a homemade ice cream sandwich that was pretty gross. I threw half of it away.

On the beach, we waited about thirty minutes with some hard core hoopies (except in the south I suppose they're rednecks) before finding out the fireworks were cancelled. We headed back to the donut line. It was twice as long as the first time we checked it out. And that was how we knew our vacation was over. Time to go home.

Getting Home

Since I-95 was so horrible, we went home via I-79. It took twelve hours including our hour and a half of fuel stops, lunch, bathroom breaks, and one episode of violent car sickness. It was not fun.

The Stuff We Didn't Do

It was an active vacation and we did all that was possible (for us) in the amount of time we were there. If I ever make it back to Wrightsville Beach I'd like to check out Arlie Gardens, Masonboro Island, and the "loop." We also forgot to look for the Diminishing Republic as we drove on and off the island.

I'd love to go back sometime. After the memory of that drive has faded.