Deemed a pit stop to some, North Carolina’s coast has more to offer than you might suspect.
Talking to North Carolina natives and long-time residents, I kept hearing one common complaint: “No one ever comes here.” It became obvious they feel their state is often forgotten—never really the destination, but more a stop people make along the way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina or Florida. Though once you visit, especially the coastal area, you see that it has a bit of everything: beaches, adventure, water sports, history, pop culture and food and drink to please every palate.
ROOTED IN HISTORY AND LORE
Taking a horse-drawn carriage tour through downtown Wilmington, it’s very clear how rooted in history this town is, though it has a contemporary and laid-back southern charm. While passing through myriad streets—some of which are still cobblestoned—you get that southern feel in spades. On a horse-drawn trolley tour, passing historic homes, some of which had been commissioned and previously inhabited by members of government, it’s hard to ignore the plaques that adorn every other home—burgundy for those over 75 years old and black for those over 100.
Wilmington isn’t the only place rooted in history. Heading to the Outer Banks, a narrow region situated between the Pamlico Sound and Atlantic Ocean, you’ll see signs for Roanoke. If that name rings a bell, it’s for good reason. According to lore, Roanoke was a settlement than eventually became known as the “lost colony.” While no one really knows what happened to the colony, there are many stories—including an episode in the most recent season of American Horror Story.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic is also located here in the Outer Banks, though its reputation is not as exciting. The area, which is prone to hurricanes during storm season, saw thousands of shipwrecks dating back to the 1600s. While some artifacts and shipwrecked dive sites can still be found, it’s the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that stands out the most—not just because it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States standing at 64 metres with 257 steps to the top—but also because it was one of five built to help prevent the constant occurrence of shipwrecks.
If you’re still a fan of One Tree Hill even after it’s been off-air for five years, you probably already know of all the notable landmarks in Wilmington. In addition to a number of houses and the Riverwalk, which runs along the Cape Fear River, both staples on any Tree Hill tour, this area also boasts filming locations for such notable flicks as Iron Man 3, Safe Haven and We’re the Millers. So, if you’re a pop culture junkie on a filming tour of America, make sure you hit these stops along the way.
For those drawn to the water, coastal North Carolina is the place to be. Wrightsville Beach, one of Wilmington’s beachside areas, is recognized as the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina dating back to 1909 when hollowed-out wooden boards were used in what was once considered a dangerous sport. Surf historian and author J. Skipper Funderburg described that surfing, lifeguarding and swimming all grew in tandem as more and more people took to the waves—and once you ride a few, you see the appeal.
The surf culture is very real in this area, which includes Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. It has a laid-back feel and is not at all as cheesy as it is portrayed in movies. Although the entire culture is decidedly chill, there’s a devoutness and respect for the ocean.
Looking to learn? The Tony Silvagni Surf School is an easy choice for any novice and guarantees you will get up on your board and ride the roll right to shore—perhaps even more than once. Longboard surf champion Tony Silvagni, and his roster of expert instructors, will show you how to align your body on your longboard, pop up and keep yourself going as you ride into shore. Word to the wise from the ever-patient instructor Leigh Powell: “Don’t fall victim to popping up to your knee—it’s a tough habit to break, even if it’s your first time.”
If you’re looking for something more fast-paced, consider wakeboarding and kiteboarding. Learned separately at REAL Watersports on Cape Hatteras, wakeboarding requires equal parts of determination and patience as you fight the force of being pulled behind a jet ski. For those wishing to kite- board, you’ll learn to glide before you board and your lesson includes dry land training before challenging the choppy Atlantic waves.
In the Outer Banks area, head over to Kitty Hawk Kites where you can log some airtime (and admire sweeping views of the Atlantic) as you take hang-gliding lessons in Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which boasts the tallest sand dunes on the east coast.
From there, book a horseback tour through the gorgeous wooded areas and along a sprawling beach.
FOOD AND DRINK
In between adventure-packed activities and calm strolls along boardwalks, be sure to indulge the fresh local seafood for which the area is known. At PinPoint Restaurant in downtown Wilmington, chef Dean Neff changes his menu daily, but ensures you always experience that southern flavour, whether it’s blue crab fritters and oysters to start or the cornmeal-crusted catfish as your main entrée. If you want to eat as the locals do, give the pimento cheese a try.
As craft breweries continue to flourish, the abundance of breweries will keep your taste buds guessing. Whether you’re in town for Wilmington Beer Week (a must for any aficionado) or just hopping on the Port City Brew Bus, you’ll get to visit notable breweries such as Flytrap Brewing, Waterline Brewing and Wilmington Brewing Company to sample some of their hops.
North Carolina boasts a surprisingly impressive donut offering, and you’d be remiss to pass on one of these. Whether you head to the seasonally opened Britt’s Donut Shop in Carolina Beach, the perennial Wake N Bake donuts or the chains Rise Biscuits Donuts and Duck Donuts, your sugar high will be unrelenting and your sweet tooth sated. It felt like a sweet ending to a trip full of adventure.
If you’re heading to North Carolina in the summertime, you should be on hurricane watch. When a storm heads toward the state, they will call for an evacuation of coastal communities, like the Outer Banks. What the locals won’t tell you is that many of them hang back for what they call “hurricane parties.” If it sounds dangerous, it is, but these wet soirees are apparently the must-be-at party for locals.
For more information, visit:
Visit North Carolina: VisitNC.com
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau: outerbanks.org
Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau: wilmingtonandbeaches.com
Kitty Hawk Kites: kittyhawkkites.com
PinPoint Restaurant: pinpointrestaurant.com
Port City Brew Bus: portcitybrewbus.com
REAL Watersports: realwatersports.com/capehatteras
Tony Silvagni Surf School: surfschoolnc.com
Wilmington Beer Week: wilmington.beer