Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Part of the Grand Strand, the 90-mile stretch of coastal South Carolina is known for beautiful beaches, fantastic seafood, and nightly entertainment. But where is it written that a vacation can only include a single destination? If you’re looking for something a little different, try a day trip up the coast to Wilmington, North Carolina for a tour of a WWII-era battleship, a ride on a 30-minute car ferry, and loads of options for great local eateries.
Wilmington, North Carolina is known as the “Hollywood East”, and for good reason: the city features a diverse architecture, enormous downtown sector, historic buildings, modern structures, and lots of attractions. This attraction for big budget and independent films also makes it a great place for anyone to visit. Just a two hour drive up the coast from Myrtle Beach, it’s the perfect getaway during your getaway, and a chance to experience things the Grand Strand doesn’t offer.
This is a long day trip with a four-hour round trip drive, but well worth it for the entertainment, attractions, and scenery. There is a lot of excitement to be found on a day like this, it’s going to be a long day. Breakfast and lunch are entirely up to you, and I would recommend something light and quick for both (maybe you could even pack a lunch for a fun picnic on the beach at Fort Fisher). But don’t let the long drive discourage you from this exciting day trip. If you don’t enjoy it thoroughly the first time, just do it again the next year. It doesn’t take long for Wilmington to grow on your good side.
1. Hit the Road | 8 a.m.
Yes, it’s early, but this is a long day. There are certain optional points along the way, so you can start later if you want (or if the children just can’t get out of bed). This doesn’t have to be one of those absolutely exhausting vacation days when you’re supposed to be resting vacation day. But the way I see it: you may not be within driving distance of a lot of these unique coastal attractions, so why not do it while you can? You can rest when you go back to work next week.
The best way to get out of the Myrtle Beach area is to hop on Highway 31. When construction began on this highway it was meant to eventually become a bypass interstate to take visitors around the Grand Strand area quickly while traveling north and south between North Carolina and Florida. Those plans changed, but a big piece of the highway had already been finished. The four and six lane divided highway is treated like an interstate with exit and entrance ramps and a 70 mph speed limit, making it an easy way to get around the area.
When Highway 31 ends in Little River, stay to the left and merge onto Highway 9, then take the first right at a traffic light. This will take you onto State Highway 57/Wampee Road. It’s a two lane road with a low speed limit, but still faster and easier than traveling through the busy intersections of Highway 17 through Little River. After 10 miles the road will end at Highway 17, where you turn left.
2. Southport, North Carolina | 9 a.m.
Southport is a beautiful waterfront town, and a booming tourist destination in recent years. Because of it’s southern charm, beautiful downtown area, and friendly atmosphere, the town has played host to many film and television products. Getting here is easy, and once you’re here you have many options for things to do.
The two main streets of Southport are Howe Street and Moore Street, intersecting in the middle of downtown. Streetside parking is free in this little town, and there are plenty of space to accommodate large summer crowds. It’s still early, so you can stop at the Port City Java (113 North Howe Street, Southport, NC | 910-454-0321 | www.portcityjava.com | $5-10) for a coffee and bagel, or you can start shopping. Walk up Moore Street for places like Bull Frog Corner (101 East Moore Street, Southport, NC | 910-454-9300), Northrop Antiques Mall (111 East Moore Street, Southport, NC | 910-457-9569), and the Moore Street Market (130 East Moore Street, Southport, NC | 910-363-4203).
If you’re just not up for shopping or eating just yet, head down to the end of Howe Street to a parking area along the water. This small park features plenty of benches to enjoy the view, and a fishing pier for some early recreation. Keep in mind you need to leave this area 30 minutes before your scheduled ferry departure to guarantee your space.
3. North Carolina Ferry to Fort Fisher | 11:30 a.m.
This is an optional portion of the trip, but it’s so much fun if you miss it! If you’re not interested in hopping on a car ferry for a thirty-five minute journey across the water, you can leave downtown Southport and turn right onto Highway 133/87. This two lane road will take you back to Highway 17 at Winnabow. Turn right onto Highway 17, and soon you’ll be in Wilmington.
However, if you’re up for the adventure, the ferry is a fun way to travel! The ferry terminal is just 10 minutes from downtown Southport. The ferry is first-come, first-served and they recommend you arrive about 15 minutes early (though on summer days I would arrive much earlier). The car lanes fill up fast, sometimes leading to a long line out on the highway. You don’t want to be stuck here and miss your boat!
The ferry ride is about 35 minutes long on the water, but it takes about another 10 minutes on both ends to load and unload all the cars. But once you feel the deck plates begin to vibrate through your car, you can step out and enjoy the wind blowing through your hair. All the ferries on this route have an upper observation deck forward and aft to enjoy the views, and an air conditioned interior space with benches and a few tables. Bring some bread for the seagulls to entertain the children (or adults cause I bring bread every time myself).
If you happen to get nauseous on boats, you might be okay on this one. It’s a large vessel so it doesn’t rock very much, especially on sunny, calm days. If you happen to get sea sick easily, stay near the center of the boat where it is the most stable.
1301 Ferry Road SE, Southport, NC | https://ferry.ncdot.gov | $5 per vehicle, $3 per motorcycle and $2 per rider
4. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area | 12:30 p.m.
Fort Fisher is a Civil War-era earthen fort and part of the larger state recreation area in Kure Beach, NC. The area features a beach access, small museum, and the chance to walk the grounds of the fort. It’s a fun place to spend about an hour, and a nice excursion on a hot summer day.
There is ample parking in a large, free lot on site beside the museum. There are restroom facilities, vending machines, and a small gift shop. The museum is excellent with lots of artifacts, information panels, and videos about the history of the area and siege during the Civil War. Did you know Wilmington was the last coastal town to fall to the North during the War Between the States? Visitors can then exit the back of the museum and explore the grounds of the fort. A nice trail takes visitors around the outside of the fort, along the Cape Fear River, with a chance to climb atop the earthen walls and enjoy a view that was once the view of war.
Across the street from the parking area is a short boardwalk leading to a gazebo on the beach with stunning views of the ocean. The view from here is stunning as visitors walk beneath wind-swept coastal trees to a clean beach. It’s a nice excursion for a few minutes, and a great place to enjoy a picnic with the food I suggested you pack. If you don’t want to eat here, you can find several locally owned joints further up the road in Kure Beach and Carolina Beach.
Once finished here, the drive into Wilmington is short, but feels like forever. The main drive through the beach towns becomes Carolina Beach Road once you leave the island and take you into Monkey Junction. At this point, traffic flow stays straight ahead but you want to turn left and continue on Carolina Beach Road. This takes you past the State Port, Greenfield Lake, and to the intersection where you turn left to travel across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Once on the clackety metal draw bridge you’ll see downtown Wilmington, the Cape Fear River, and the USS North Carolina on your right. Take that first right, and you’ll arrive at the battleship. The total drive from Fort Fisher to the battleship memorial is about forty five minutes.
1610 South Fort Fisher Blvd., Kure Beach, NC | 910-458-5538 | www.nchistoricsites.org/fisher/fisher.htm | Free Admission
5. The Battleship North Carolina | 3 p.m.
The city of Wilmington is very proud of their landmark attraction: the U.S.S. North Carolin battleship. The WWII-era battleship has been anchored on the Cape Fear River across from downtown Wilmington since 1986. The battleship memorial includes a very nice indoor museum on land, a video presentation, self-guided tours across the main deck and many interior compartments of the ship, and a very large gift shop.
The self-guided tours of the ship take visitors across the main deck beneath the massive 16″ guns, below decks through several compartments including the mess hall, armory, and inside one of the gun turrets, then above deck through the command and control room and viewpoints along the upper decks. A leisure tour will take about two hours to complete, but it’s also possible to skip sections of the ship and visitors are welcome to spend as much time as they like in one place.
This was a former warship that has seen a lot of action, so obviously not all parts are accessible for those with walking handicaps. Many of the staircases are narrow and steep, which may also be difficult for children (but not impossible). However, those with difficulty walking can still enjoy the main deck of the battleship via the ramp entrance and exits from the main building. It’s not much, but it’s still something you could enjoy. If you have children, be sure to get their photo sitting in the seat of one of the machine gun turrets. Just check to make sure the seat is dry first (I sat in one after a cold, rainy day).
1 Battleship Road Northeast, Wilmington, NC | 910-251-5797 | www.battleshipnc.com | $14 Adults, $10 Seniors (65 and older), $10 Active Duty or Retired Military, $6 children 6-11, and Free for children 5 and under
6. Dinner in Downtown Wilmington | 6 p.m.
At this point, I’d imagine you would be kinda hungry. But this is also a time to make a small decision about your day. There are two ways the next three hours can go. Sunsets on the Cape Fear Riverwalk are absolutely stunning, and it’s a nice place to walk. If you decide to take this day trip adventure during the summer months, the sun will be setting late in the evening around 8:30 p.m. so you’ll have time to eat first. However, if this is a winter day trip the sun will be setting a couple of hours earlier so you may want to start with the Riverwalk first. It is just a sunset, but a sunset here is something truly spectacular.
When you decide to eat, downtown Wilmington has a lot to offer. Getting here from the battleship is easy: drive across the Isabelle Holmes Bridge (large concrete bridge north of downtown), turn right, and you’re essentially in downtown already. You will arrive in downtown on North 3rd Street, but you want Front Street. This street is the heart of downtown and provides visitors easy access to all points. Streetside parking is available, but it taken fast almost year-round. You can try parking at the public parking garage at Market Street & Front Street, or the one level parking deck at Front Street & Chestnut Street.
You can find a great place to eat from either of these parking locations. Walking through downtown Wilmington is safe and easy with wide sidewalks and crosswalks at all intersections. The downtown area has undergone extensive renovations through the 2010s, so everything looks nice and shiny. Here are a few of my favorite places to eat in downtown Wilmington:
Paddy’s Hollow (10 Walnut Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-762-4354 | www.paddyshollow.com | $10-20) Located inside the historic Cotton Exchange, Paddy’s Hollow is the very definition of an old Irish pub (that means they actually serve food). The small, rustic restaurant features a large menu of salads, sandwiches, pasta, chicken, seafood, and steak. They also have a large wine menu and several unique beers on tap. This isn’t a place for a family to dine, but it’s great for couples and adult groups.
The Basics (319 North Front Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-343-1050 | http://thebasicswilmington.com | $10-25) The Basics is about as southern as it gets when it comes to the menu. Fried okra, collard greens, pan fried flounder, and the word “southern” before half their menu items is all you need to know. It’s also really good food in a casual dining atmosphere. However, this isn’t the best place to bring younger children. They do not have a dedicated kids menu, and the atmosphere is usually very quiet. This restaurant is also located inside the historic Cotton Exchange, a building worth exploring on its own.
Trolly Stop Hot Dogs (121 North Front Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-343-2999 | www.trollystophotdogs.com | $5-10) There is nothing wrong with indulging in a hot dog for dinner, especially when they have a menu divided by “Step 1: Choose Your Dog” and “Step 2: Choose Your Style”. The Trolly Stop has long been a familiar place to Wilmington, starting with their first location on nearby Wrightsville Beach in 1976. Since then the locally owned joint has expanded their locations and menu, but always offering the best hot dogs. The one downtown has a large indoor seating area that is pretty quiet throughout the day, and also a comfy outdoor patio area on the backside facing the Cape Fear River. This is a great place to bring a tired family for a fast, inexpensive dinner.
I Love NY Pizza (28 North Front Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-762-7628 | http://ilovenypizzailm.com | $2-3 per slice, $10-20 whole pizza) If you’re just looking for a little hole-in-the-wall kinda place to grab a simple meal, this is your place. Located right on Front Street, I Love NY Pizza has a few tables inside that makes visitors feel like they’re sitting in New York (I always feel like I’m in the subway for some reason). The food is delicious, always hot, and they make custom ordered pizzas on the spot. It’s a bit of a wait, but it’s worth it.
Front Street Brewery (9 North Front Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-251-1935 | www.frontstreetbrewery.com | $10-15 food, $3-5 beer, no kids menu) Front Street Brewery has long been one of the staples of downtown dining in Wilmington. It’s a fun place to eat, and a great place for large groups or families. They don’t have a specific kids menu, but the staff is always willing to work with custom orders for the smaller mouths. They have typical brewery foods like soups and salads, lots of pulled pork and BBQ, burgers and sandwiches, and seafood entrees. They always have a large menu locally brewed beers, but also “North Carolina’s largest selection of bourbon and whiskey” at their bar.
Riverboat Landing Restaurant & Bar (2 Market Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-763-7227 | www.riverboatlanding.com | $15-30, no kids menu) This is perhaps the most romantic place for a couple to have dinner in Wilmington, and certainly has one of the best views. The Riverboat Landing Restaurant sits nestled at the corner of the cobblestone Market Street and Water Streets. It is most well known for the second floor balconies that overlook the Cape Fear River, Riverwalk, and Water Street. The small balconies are the perfect place for two to dine (although the table is a bit small) but only two; this is not a place to bring the family or large group. They have a menu consisting of salads, seafood, steaks, and pasta. It’s an expensive place to visit, but perfect for that romantic date.
The Reel Cafe (100 South Front Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-251-1832 | www.reelcafe.net | $10-25, $5 kids’ menu) The Reel Cafe is one of the most vibrant, diverse dining experiences in downtown Wilmington. The restaurant is located in an old building that has been given new life in components: indoor seating, outdoor seating, and nightclub with rooftop bar. It can get a bit rambunctious late at night, but for dinner it’s a great place to visit. It’s a family friendly place, especially during the warmer months when diners can sit outside. The menu is just as diverse as the building with seafood, pasta, steak, salad, burgers, and sandwiches. This is a one-stop destination for dinner that would almost be a guarantee for everyone to find something they like.
7. Sunset on the Riverwalk & Kilwins Ice Cream | 8 p.m.
After everything listed for this day, you might cringe at the thought of even more walking. But this is a short walk, and definitely worth the effort. Especially since it involves ice cream!
Kilwins Ice Cream (16 Market Street, Wilmington, NC | 910-772-1298 | www.kilwins.com | $5-10, more for specialty items) is a great place for the dessert you deserve after this day trip. Located on Market Street just half a block from the Cape Fear River, visitors will usually find a long line out the door and into the street on warm summer nights. That’s because the ice cream is absolutely amazing, and you can get it just about anyway you can imagine. They also have chocolate everything, lots of specialty items, and drinks. But enough about that, just get an ice cream!
The Cape Fear Riverwalk is a boardwalk a little over a mile in length, stretching between Nun Street and the Isabelle Holmes Bridge, taking visitors past several shopping areas, Cape Fear Community College, and the recently completed Wilmington Convention Center. However, if you’re not up for the entire walk, don’t worry about that. One of the best features of the Riverwalk is just a block from Market Street.
Starting at Market Street and heading north along the river, the Riverwalk is a wide area made of stone patio pavers, running adjacent to the cobblestone Water Street. Just a block up the Riverwalk is a beautiful area (pictured above) with about a dozen trees decorated in lights, with a view across the river of the U.S.S. North Carolina. This is one of the most places to watch the sunset anywhere. Water Street is not a heavily traveled road, so it’s usually pretty quiet and peaceful out here, despite the fact it will be busy with visitors during the warmer months. This is a great place to spend your final moments in Wilmington before hitting the long road “home”.
8. Head Back to Myrtle Beach | 9 p.m.
Remember when I said this was going to be a long day? Well, you’re not quite done yet. You still have to drive back to your hotel in the Grand Strand. I never recommended getting a room in Wilmington for the night because this was just a day trip, but it’s also a long day trip.
The journey back is easy, taking about two hours down Highway 17 South. At this time of night traffic will be light so it’s just as easy to stick to Highway 17 through Little River and North Myrtle Beach. By the time your head hits the pillow at your hotel room, condo, or rental home back in the Grand Strand, you’ll forget about this long drive home in the dead of night and instead remember this amazing day. If you don’t remember this amazing day, I recommend a repeat on a future visit.