Cruising North Carolina’s Eastern Seaboard
Written by Heather KW Brown | Photography courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches CVB
The perks of being a travel writer who plans the family vacations is that I can front load our agenda until the tired mom in me is ready to drop my cape at the cleaners and plop on the beach, adult beverage in one hand and book that has been collecting dust on my nightstand (ahem – for longer than I care to admit) in the other.
Before I could hit the sand on Bald Head Island, which you can read all about in our June issue, I had a number of stops to make.
For several days, we dutifully stayed busy along North Carolina’s eastern seaboard, stopping in Wrightsville Beach, neighboring Carolina Beach and Wilmington, where my husband and I met Chef Keith Rhodes, former “Top Chef” contestant and owner of both Phun Seafood Bar and Catch, who regularly shares his passion for food and healthy eating with the local school children.
Renown for dishing creative and innovative food that tastes as fabulous as it looks, Rhodes crafts memorable starters like the Catch lump crab cakes served with potato puree, Champagne lobster sauce and organic kale and the North Carolina sweet potato salad served with organic spinach, tangy goat cheese, elderflower cranberries, hemp seeds and the signature honey shallot dressing. In-town foodies flock for the entrées here, namely the sticky barbecue ribs and fried honey shrimp served with spiced Covington sweet potato puree, Pippen apple slaw and Florida tangelo pink peppercorn honey as well as the Lobster! Lobster! Lobster! – a dish aptly comprised of tempura lobster tail, lobster cream potatoes and lobster bisque, wakame seaweed salad, Tobikko caviar and micro wasabi.
Its charming downtown with great shopping and fun beach scene only 10 minutes away (maybe 15 to 20 with traffic) qualifies Wilmington as one of my favorite destinations, but the foodie in me always craved more, opting to dive into dishes that capitalized on the local seafood without the fried factor. It was only a matter of time before a talented chef would call it home and finally introduce the city to a style of cooking that would spoil the locals and treat the tourists. Chef Rhodes has done just that, continuing to surpass the expectations of even seasoned palates.
Catch is conveniently located between downtown Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. The downtown area is replete with history and offers everything from cobblestone streets where the 230-block National Register Historic District can be explored via riverboat cruise, horse-drawn carriage or trolley tour. With kids in tow, we chose an eco-cruise with Wilmington Water Tours, which was a perfect reprieve from all of the specialty shops we’d been “researching” the first half of the day.
A Tale of Two Beaches
Residents and guests of Wilmington have their own beach haven mere minutes down the road at Wrightsville Beach, which exudes village charm in lieu of tourist tackiness. As the beach I call home, Wrightsville’s 5-mile stretch of white sand and beautiful coastline is hard to beat. SUP – short for stand up paddling – and Tony Silvagni Surf School are available as fun activities as is The loop, a 2.45-mile paved fitness path that circles the inner island. Meanwhile, history buffs will gravitate to the island’s Museum of History and narrated scenic cruises along the Intracoastal Waterway.
We spent the day on the beach and then grabbed lunch at South Beach Grill right on Lumina Avenue (the main drag through Wrightsville Beach) before heading south for a visit to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach. Once inside, we met Luna – a rare albino alligator who was quite the sight to see, played in the touch tanks and watched divers feed sharks in between exploring the other marine exhibits. Next up was a little history, compliments of the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, a state park that was a former Civil War battlefield. Plenty of cannons, forts and memorabilia are available for lessons on North Carolina’s past.
When hunger strikes, which it surely will after all of this exploration, Michael’s Seafood is a popular spot for dinner, Havana’s Island Restaurant has award-winning chowder worth trying and Kate’s Pancake House is a diner full of fabulous (and creative) pancake options that will make the whole family happy as a clam. I had the sweet potato bliss pancakes, but options like Boston Cream Pie pancakes, S’mores pancakes, pumpkin French Toast, and plenty of choices for omelets and healthier combos. Needless to say, we left fat and sassy.
Traveling with our 6-month-old puppy to the beach isn’t the easiest task as many beaches don’t welcome four-legged friends with open arms and a clean room. Rather than driving from Wrightsville, we docked our family at Beacon House Inn B&B in Carolina Beach. Innkeepers Mike Truffa and Heather Hawkins moved from the harried pace of life in New York City to this old-school beach town where their hosting skills – previously honed by managing their own beach house in Fire Island and country home in Woodstock, N.Y. – are in full swing. The affable couple runs the bed and breakfast plus the two cottages where dogs are allowed to bunk with their counterparts … only one block off the beach.
The last thing on our list was to tackle the Venus Flytrap Trail in Carolina Beach State Park, which the kids loved but without a ranger as our guide, I’m pretty sure we would have trampled all over the prized plants.
They took notes while the pup investigated on her leash and then we piled back in the car to catch our ferry to Southport. Bald Head Island awaited.