Between North Carolina’s central capital, Raleigh, and its long, sandy coast, sprawl miles of grass fields dotted by mammoth oaks. As you drive through this green-scape, slowly, glimpses of sand and sea begin peeking through the tree trunks and a quiet, waterside sanctuary is revealed. The southern state’s beach towns are not as well-known as some of their more northern neighbourhoods (say, those of the Hamptons) but this makes them true ocean pearls. Though quiet, they harbour fascinating depths for travellers to discover.
Wilmington & Beaches
In the state’s southern corner, find the city of Wilmington, home to three beach destinations with a lively surf community. Just in 2015, Wrightsville Beach was officially recognized as the 1909 birthplace of North Carolina surfing. Back in the early days, surfing was considered dangerous and difficult to regulate, explains surf historian J. Skipper Funderburg. The tides began to turn in the 1930s, when lifeguards found use for lightweight hollowed-out boards in their rescues. Thus, an unlikely kinship formed as lifeguarding and surfing grew in tandem.
North Carolina’s local surf culture is decidedly chill. Here, one will hear the sport referred to as “soul surfing”, a “transcendent experience where emotions meet”, effuses Funderburg. This attitude is buoyed by the Atlantic’s soft swells, which, though skillfully carved by national champions, prove ideal for novices at Tony Silvagni Surf School in Carolina Beach. Advice from instructor Lennie: complement the waves, don’t fight them. There indeed comes the moment when, spotting the perfect crest astride your board, you launch into action, pop to standing, and ride the roll to shore, working together with the tide’s gentle nudge.
Once you’ve surfed, it’s time to dine. A half-hour drive from its beach towns, downtown Wilmington overflows with fresh local seafood, out in full force at PinPoint Restaurant. Along with locally-sourced produce, the daily-rotating menu from chef Dean Neff serves North Carolinian catches like corrnmeal-crusted catfish, blue crab fritters, and—as suggested by the shucked-shell chandelier overhead—a wide selection of gargantuan oysters. You can’t go wrong with the classic Rockefeller, but would be truly remiss to skip out on a half-dozen in the half-shell served with refreshing yuzu-cucumber granita.
A stroll through the Spanish-moss-strung neighbourhoods of historic bed and breakfast options or along the boarded Riverwalk makes for a pleasant sunset wind-down. Pop into art galleries and independent boutiques, perhaps stopping for a waterfront glass of red from the wine bar and French café, Le Catalan. Set against the cypress trees along the golden Cape Fear River, a nostalgic, easy-going essence suffuses Wilmington’s contemporary community.
The Outer Banks
Cross one of three bridges—the longest stretching for a staggering 8.4 kilometres—connecting North Carolina’s mainland to the Outer Banks trickling down from the northern Virginian border. The 16 towns and villages that dot these Atlantic barrier islands are defined by sunset vantage points, turbulent history, and outdoor activities that take full advantage of the wind and water along these isolated shores.
Local recreation company Kitty Hawk Kites is a natural go-to for outdoor activities. Bike rentals, beach horseback tours, and more are available throughout the Outer Banks. It’s hard to resist the call of quirky amusements, like mermaid school (wherein swimmers don a shimmering tail and monofin) and hang-gliding lessons on the sand-swept dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park—the tallest on the east coast. Your toes may only leave the ground for a few seconds during a beginner’s lesson, but even so, soaring into the wind elicits a feeling of levity that remains long after landing. Particularly enthusiastic pilots-to-be have the option of learning in a replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1902 glider—the original’s likeness graces the state license plate, reading “First in flight”.
While the Wright Brothers’ success is a feather in the region’s cap, not all craft have been as lucky as that glider. The Outer Banks’ alternate reputation is as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. This hurricane-prone stretch of coast saw thousands of shipwrecks on its treacherous Diamond Shoal sandbank throughout the 16th century—a sunken few can be explored by divers, while dry-footed folk may prefer viewing the curious artifacts, including remnants of North Carolina’s earliest-known wreck from 1650 at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. All this wrecking led to the construction of five lighthouses in the 1800s, three of which are accessible today; mounting 257 steps of the towering Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (the tallest brick lighthouse in the country) rewards with breathtaking views over the expansive waters. For a truly special treat, schedule a climb during a summer full moon.
So slim is the Outer Banks that any point promises an excellent view of both sunrise and set. Perhaps watch it slip away from a personal patch of beach (never far away) or else one of the luxury accommodations offered by Watermen’s Retreat waterfront resort, following a kiteboarding lesson from their adjacent Real Watersports school. Settle into a penthouse perched on the Pamlico Sound or Atlantic-side modern beach cottage and relax to a lullaby of breaking waves.
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