We only write about destinations we have personally visited with our family. We are grateful to Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau for their generosity during our visit. All opinions are our own. This post contains affiliate links. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to UNICEF.
To be honest, we didn’t know much about Wilmington, North Carolina at the time we were planning our trip. We simply wanted to break up the 8 hour drive from Charleston, SC to Shenandoah National Park. Wilmington was around the halfway point and was on the ocean, so we decided to give it a shot, and we are so glad we did. Wilmington turned out to be one of our favorite places in the whole SE USA road trip!
Here’s what we did in Wilmington for two days with our two kids (aged almost 3 & 5):
After a long drive from Charleston, we arrived in Wilmington, NC late afternoon. We didn’t have time to do much, so we drove to their charming downtown for an early dinner. We found a really nice southern food restaurant downtown called The Basics. The food was excellent and we were impressed at the quality of the kid’s food; it was prepared with a quality you don’t see very often. As good as our entrees were, the star of the show was the Hummingbird Cake – a three layer spiced cake with very generous cream cheese icing. Between the four of us, it was like a cow falling into a lake of piranhas – the Hummingbird Cake was gone instantly!
Morning 1 – Venus Flytraps!!
This morning we drove south of Wilmington to Carolina Beach State Park, a beautiful park located on the Cape Fear River. The main reason for our visit was to see the star attraction – wild Venus flytraps! I always thought Venus flytraps were some exotic Asian plant, but in fact they only grow in the wild within a 75 mile radius of Wilmington! Who knew?!?
We were so fortunate to get a park tour from Park Ranger Chris. We began in the Vistor’s Center, which has all sorts of good introductory information on the Venus flytrap, as well as some fun hands-on exhibits for our little ones. One of the first things we learned is that the park is home to several other kinds of carnivorous plants including sundews and pitcher plants, but the Venus flytrap is the star attraction.
Just outside the information center is a little nursery where the park staff are growing some new plants to help replace the one that are so carelessly being stolen from the park. (Be aware that Venus flytraps are so special that stealing one is a felony offense!) It’s a good idea to come to the Visitor’s Center first to get a good idea of what these little guys look like before you attempt to see them in the wild.
Ranger Chris used a little twig to demonstrate how the Venus Flytraps close their’jaws’ on their victims. They have three little whiskers on the inside of each jaw leaf – if two of them are touched, the jaws will snap shut. I was very surprised how quickly the jaws snapped shut! Given it is a plant, I expected the closing action to be slow and methodical, but it was really fast!
The Carolina State Beach Park has an easy, short trail called the Venus Flytrap Trail where, if you know where to look, you can see these special plants in the wild. The Venus Flytraps like to grow in the transition zones between dry land and wet land, so watch for these areas and you’ll improve your chances of seeing one. The plants are typically quite small making them a little hard to see, but I found it was helpful to look for the teeth – their “teeth” make a predictable pattern which stands out in the randomness of the wild plants. Park Ranger Chris asks that everyone help keep these plants survive and by staying on the trails.
If you have the time, check out the other hiking trails in the park, as this is a really beautiful area.
After our tour we drove into the town of Carolina Beach to have lunch at Michael’s Seafood Restaurant, which was highly recommended to us. The food was great and reasonably priced and we were truly impressed by the kids menu. It had real menu items for kids (not just the standard chicken fingers, etc), with good portion sizes at a very reasonable price.
Afternoon 2 – Fort Fischer Recreational Area
It’s been very hot on our East Coast USA road trip and today was no exception. In fact, today there was a heat advisory issued for Wilmington, so we decided to skip their highly rated Aquarium and spend the whole afternoon playing at the beach. We drove south past all of the developed beach-front to a beautiful natural beach in the Fort Fischer Recreational Area.
This beach has restrooms, changing rooms and hoses to wash off your feet, but that’s it. Everything else is pure, natural North Carolina beauty. This was a very beautiful beach – it’s deep and wide with super soft sand. Our kids loved looking at all the pretty seashells scattered along the shore.
Despite the heat in the middle of high season, the beach didn’t feel that crowded, which was a very pleasant surprise for us. Sometimes, when we travel, we are guilty of trying to see and do too much, and sometimes you just need to let it all go. This was such a beautiful beach on a beautiful day, we were happy to forget it all and spend the whole afternoon having good, old fashioned family fun. It was perfect.
After going back to our Airbnb to shower and change, we went back downtown for pizza at Slice of Life, a local favorite for over a decade. Our kids loved the ring of TV’s all around the room, while we enjoyed sinking our teeth into some very good food.
Morning 2 – Eco Tour on Masonboro Island
This morning we drove to the coast to join an Eco Tour with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. The Eco Tour is a family-friendly catamaran boat tour to nearby Masonboro Island, a protected nature preserve.
The captain dropped our group off on beach facing Masonboro Sound. We split into two groups, with one guide per group. Our guide immediately got to work and gathered the kids on the shoreline and they all started to look for hermit crabs. Then we started walking inland towards the beach which was exposed to the ocean. Along the way our guide pointed out many interesting things about the ecosystem of the island and why it is so important.
Once we got to the ocean, the official part of the tour ended and everyone could go do their own thing on the beach for about 90 minutes. The beach was incredibly beautiful and stretched for as far as the eye could see in both directions. There are not many visitors to this island, so there was an abundance of treasures on the beach for the kids to find like seashells, etc.
There was a huge, shallow tide pool which our 3 year old thought was awesome, in fact, he played in it literally the whole time. Our daughter and one of the guides built a home in the sand for the crabs to live in. Once the sand house was built, they looked for seashells to decorate it with. The guides were so good with the kids, they made it a lot of fun for them.