Carolina Beach, a beach town on North Carolina’s Pleasure Island, is often overlooked as a vacation destination in the region, going up against other popular places like Myrtle Beach. But this laid back, coastal town offers outdoor adventure, family-friendly activities, a flourishing food and beverage scene, and of course, a beautiful, spacious beach. With plenty to do, and fewer crowds than similar destinations, Carolina Beach is a perfect year-round getaway.
The Best Time to Visit
Late spring is the best time to visit Carolina Beach. During shoulder season, kids are in school, meaning fewer crowds and lower prices than peak season. Plus, you can still enjoy the summer-like weather with temperatures reaching the 70- to 80-degree F range. You can experience these same perks in the fall, but fall is also hurricane season. While Carolina Beach isn't hit every year during hurricane season, consider buying travel insurance, and monitor the weather and any storm alerts leading up to your trip. (The last hurricane that hit Carolina Beach was Hurricane Florence, a category 4 hurricane in September 2018.) Summer is peak season, but if you plan your trip for then, you can take part in the many seasonal activities, such as the summer concert series on the boardwalk, outdoor movie nights at Carolina Beach Lake Park, and weekly fireworks on the beach.
Things to Do in Carolina Beach
While the beach is the main attraction, you’ll find plenty of other things to do during your visit.
Book a yoga class: Book a morning yoga class with Salty Dog; they offer a Rise & Shine session that meets on the beach at 7 a.m. You can also take a class at their studio location, but why not start your day with some (literal) sun salutations on the beach?
Learn to surf: Tony Silvagni, a professional surfer, has owned and managed his namesake surf shop, Tony Silvagni Surf School, for 11 years. Located just a block away from the beach, you can head here to book a surfing, paddleboarding, or kayaking class, or rent gear to use on your own. (For some classes, you might head to Shark Tooth Island, instead of the ocean, where you can search for prehistoric shark teeth.)
Even better? Salty Dog and Tony Silvagni Surf School teamed up to offer a yoga and surf combo class, where you can do a one-hour yoga session followed by a one-hour surf lesson.
Explore Carolina Beach State Park: Head here to go kayaking, swimming, boating, hiking (you’ve got 9 miles of trails to choose from), camping, and more. Whatever your preferred activity, make a stop at the visitor center to learn about the area’s Venus fly traps—the park is one of the only places in the world where this carnivorous plant is native, a 70-mile stretch of land in North Carolina and South Carolina. Then head out on a hike to try and spot some in their natural habitat—but don’t touch them or take one home with you.
Take a tour: SunFun Taxi offers a few different tours of the area. Book the Fun Facts one to learn a bit about the town’s history and attractions, or choose the craft beer and wine tour where you’ll be shuttled to the local brewery, wine bar, and famous local dive bar, The Fat Pelican.
Hang out on the boardwalk: You can easily spend most of the day shopping, playing arcade games, walking along the beachside path, dining with ocean views, and more right on the boardwalk. This is a must-visit if you’re traveling to Carolina Beach in the summer; at this time of year, you can also catch a concert, ride the carnival rides, and watch the weekly fireworks.
Visit Fort Fisher State Historic Site: During the Civil War, Fort Fisher in nearby Kure Beach was used by Confederate troops to protect the southern states from the Union troops. You can come here to learn about the role it played in the war and attend an event or reenactment. It’s free to visit (donations appreciated).
Carolina Beach Lake Park: Only a couple blocks from the beach, this lake used to hold the title for largest freshwater lake closest to salt water. It’s given up that title, but is now a popular spot for outdoor activities, especially in the summer. Venture onto the lake in a kayak or paddleboat, have a picnic, or go for a walk around the lake path. In the summer, head here for Sunday evening outdoor movie screenings and the Saturday farmers market.
What to Eat and Drink
You should expect to find some delicious seafood on your visit to Carolina Beach, but the culinary scene in town offers a lot of options beyond marine cuisine. Here are the best places to eat and drink on your visit.
- The Fat Pelican: This quirky watering hole is a famous and beloved dive bar. First, head to the gigantic cooler to choose your brew from hundreds of options and grab some of the free popcorn, and then play some foosball or arcade games. And if you haven’t had your fill of the beach yet, head out back to “Pelican Beach” where you can relax with your toes in the sand as you enjoy your drink.
- Kate’s Pancake House: For an indulgent and fresh take on traditional flapjacks, head here for versions like Reese’s or S’mores pancakes.
- Britt's Donuts: It’s no exaggeration to say that a donut from here might be the best you’ll ever have. This business has been on the boardwalk since 1939 and only serves one thing: handmade glazed donuts for $2 each (cash only). It’s only open seasonally, usually April to mid-September (dates vary, so check the website), so if you’re in town at that time, make sure to try one. Don’t let the inevitably long line deter you—it moves quickly for to-go donuts, but you can also opt to eat in at the counter where you’ll be served within a few minutes, which is important because these donuts are best eaten warm and freshly made.
- Surf House: What looks like an unassuming surf shop outside transforms into a polished, high-end seafood restaurant when you step inside. Order the oysters and one of the craft cocktails to start and then try one of the seasonally rotating entrees.
- Salt Fish: Head here for a laid back, island vibe and seafood dishes that are as tasty as they are colorful (several items are served inside a carved-out pineapple or garnished with flowers). If you happen to go on a Wednesday, order a bottle of wine; they’re half-price, and you can take it with you if you don’t finish it.
- Good Hops Brewery: The only brewery on the island, it's located across the street from the state park, so you can come here to treat yourself to a brew or two after your outdoor adventures. This brewery is home to a disc golf course, and tours are available upon request. Order the Donna Golden Ale, or the popular summer option (if you're in town then), Georgia On My Mind Peach Jalapeño.
Carolina Beach is located on the northern end of Pleasure Island and is best reached by car. The town is relatively small and fairly walkable, depending on what you want to do. If your main plan is the beach, boardwalk, and surrounding area, walking is the best way to get around. However, the state park and Fort Fisher are a few miles away from the beach and downtown area, so plan on driving to reach those attractions. (Uber is available but sparse, so plan to wait up to 20 minutes for your driver.)