Escape to Wrightsville Beach

a photographic tribute to Soldiers and Marines

12/07/2009  |  Amanda Grinavich
TRAVEL USA
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Today, it is an oasis where daily worries drift away with the sea breeze. This was not always so for Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. Its waterways were once the setting for Civil War action, and in World War II, the town went dark to help protect allied ships. But the blockade-runners are long gone, and sailboats and windsurfers have taken their place.

Resting on a five-mile barrier island in southeast North Carolina, Wrightsville Beach breathes of vitality. Joggers fill the streets while a film crew shoots a movie scene at a local restaurant. Kayakers watch the sunrise over the Atlantic while boaters watch dolphins frolic in the surf. Nature lovers track rare finds while surfers search for wild rides.

Every destination claims it has something for ‘everyone’, but this quaint, Southern beach town truly does. Whether seeking a vacation of complete relaxation or one full of adventure, indulging a weekend of history or pampering, enjoying a romantic dinner or day of shopping, North Carolina’s most accessible beach delivers all of that and plenty more.

A popular escape for members of the military, Wrightsville is just a short drive from Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Pope Air Force Base and is easily accessible from Wilmington International Airport. And through April 30, military can take advantage of a special deal at Shell Island Oceanfront Suites, which is offering an oceanfront suite package. More info is available at www.shellisland.com.

“There’s a certain vitality to the town,’’ said Paige Somervell, marketing manager for Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s just a character to it — an energy in its adventurous side, rejuvenation in its relaxation. As soon as you cross over the drawbridge, you get a feeling that excites your senses.”

That feeling can be equal parts subtle and overt. From the wisp of a light sea breeze to the taste and smell of the crisp, salt air to the sight of parents and children, cyclists and walkers filling the 2.5-mile Loop that winds through the island’s parks and marshes.

Those sights, sounds and smells are the portal to a treasured escape. And for most, that escape begins with a rush to the wide stretches of powder white sand and refreshing, sun-drenched waves. Depending on the desire to get in, float on or just sit beside the water, the activities are limitless. For some it may be chartering a fishing boat or taking a sunset cruise. For others, it may be kayaking the Intracoastal Waterway or renting jet skis and sailboats.

The “Sport of Hawaiian Kings” tempts the more adventurous. There’s a reason Wrightsville’s waves are decorated with surfers: Surfer Magazine named it one of the top 10 surf towns in the country, and the island is home to three East Coast Surfing Hall of Famers (Will Allison, Bill Curry, Ben Bourgeois). For the experienced surfer, there’s the annual Reef/Sweetwater Pro-Am Surf Fest in July. For the beginner, there’s a surf camp in surfers can spend a day, a weekend or a week learning everything from “popping up” and “falling well” to predicting and selecting waves. By camp��s end, surfers will know how to catch their own waves.

If visitors look beneath the waves and beyond the shoreline, they’ll see people aren’t the only Wrightsville inhabitants. Head south on the island to find Masonboro Inlet, an estuary full of tidal pools and wildlife including oystercatchers and sea turtles. Continue farther on from there toward Masonboro Island, which is one of the largest undisturbed barrier islands on the North Carolina coast. There are plenty of nature trails from which one can catch a glimpse of some of the island’s inhabitants, such as loggerhead sea turtles and shorebirds. Speaking of birds, the 130-acre Shell Island Bird Sanctuary is home to a variety of different beach-nesting birds.

“That diversity is what makes this place such a wonderful escape,’’ said Grant Pace, a longtime resident of Wrightsville. “You can spend a morning on the beach, in the water or in the shops — then drift into nature by afternoon, and you may not see another human for hours.”

Back on the mainland, the Airlie Gardens are a popular historical and nature site. Set on 67 acres, the 108-year-old public garden is home to wildlife, walking trails, formal gardens, its famed collection of over 100,000 azaleas and a 462-year-old oak. The gardens also are host to the holiday tradition, Enchanted Airlie. Through Tuesday, Dec. 22, the gardens will come alive with magical illuminations under the stars.

Wrightsville’s history goes back further than the old oak tree, and the Wrightsville Museum of History helps tell it. The museum is housed in a turn-of-the- century cottage set up to reflect life in the early days of Wrightsville Beach. Visitors can stroll room-to-room and sit in rocking chairs on the porch. Tuesday through Sunday, visitors can explore the museum free of charge. More information can be found at www.wbmuseum.com

World War II buffs must visit the Battleship North Carolina in nearby Wilmington. After participating in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area during WWII, the Battleship North Carolina was decommissioned and ordered scrapped. A statewide citizens campaign to save the ship was successful, and it now sits majestically across the river from downtown Wilmington. Nine decks are open for visitors to tour and get a taste of what life was like on the ship. A museum also accompanies the Battleship North Carolina and holds documents, personal gear and ship furnishings. Read more about the ship at www.battleshipnc.com

History is always unfurling at Wrightsville, and pop culture mavens might be surprised to know they are standing in what some call “Hollywood East.” Writer Nicholas Sparks picked it as the setting for his most recent book, “The Last Song.” Popular television shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” have filmed there along with movies such as “28 Days” and “Black Knight.”

At the end of the day, if relaxation is all you’re looking for, Wrightsville is just the spot for that too. Spend your days soaking up the sun with your feet buried in the warm sand or spoil yourself with spa treatments. If shopping is your thing, Wrightsville has everything from high fashion to unique boutique shops.

All of that activity means that you should prepare well. Maybe start with breakfast at Causeway CafŽ or a coffee at Lumina Station. Pick up lunch at Roberts Grocery, where the chicken salad is world (or at least North Carolina) famous. Snack on fried pickles at South Beach Grill or grab an ice cream at Kohl’s Custard. After a hard day’s work at the beach, swig on cheap beer and catch a live show at Red Dog’s. Or quietly enjoy ocean views at sunset at Oceanic.

When the sun finally goes down and the movie cameras are put away, the soothing hush of the waves crashing against the shoreline lulls Wrightsville to sleep. In a few hours, the beach will arise and spring back to life.

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