One of the great things about living in North Carolina, especially in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, is that so many different activities are just a few hours drive, especially if you love the mountains or the beach. The Outer Banks, of course, are famous for their wind-swept dunes, but even closer to home we have Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, only a 2-hour drive down Interstate 40.
Wilmington also has several other attractions; in particular, it is home to the Battleship North Carolina. Our teenage son recently became interested in military history, so we decided to combine a beach trip with a little history lesson. Naturally, we decided to wait for Labor Day Weekend!
Pro-Tip: As usual, we found that being early was key, especially for beach parking!
Although Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach are close enough for a day-trip, we decided instead to spend a night in a hotel in Wilmington and hit the beach the first thing in the morning. Then we would visit the Battleship after lunch on our way out of town.
Wilmington itself has a beautiful downtown. From its Waterfront Park you can actually see the Battleship across the Cape Fear River. You can stroll around the historic area, take a trolley ride, or have a bite at many of the restaurants. We checked out a place called Black Sea Grill, which serves delicious Mediterranean cuisine.
We managed to get to the beach right before 8am and snag a parking spot in the lot at public access point number 4. This is about a mile north of the main road into the beach. There is also a parking lot there, near the pier. You might also get lucky and find street parking. Be warned, though! When we left around noon, traffic was backed up for miles headed TO the beach. Remember, this was the Sunday before Labor Day.
Pro-Tip: Parking is scarce. If you can, arrive early and you might find a space in one of the public lots.
The beach itself wasn’t too crowded. We were about a mile from the north end of the beach, and there are a lot fewer condos and houses at that end. We got lucky with the weather as well: perfect blue skies, a light breeze, temperature just right.
While it is possible to surf at North Carolina’s beaches, we’ve usually found the waves are more suited for bodyboarding, aka “boogie boarding.” This is a fun activity you can do with your kids, so we recommend snagging a board before you head out. And it goes without saying, you’ll want a beach chair, shovel and pail, and probably a cooler as well!
Sadly, we didn’t have all day to lounge at the beach; we had to do some learning too! After lunch we headed to the battleship. As we mentioned, the ship is parked right across the river from downtown Wilmington, but you have to go north or south a bit to cross the river.
Pro-Tip: Admission is $14 per person (children under 11 and seniors get a discount). ALSO: there are lots of STEEP ladders where you will have to climb up or down, and several tight or cramped spaces. If you have any difficulty moving around, be warned!
The good news is, there’s ample parking! There is a shaded pavilion if you want to bring your picnic lunch. You can purchase tickets for a guided tour, but went self-guided. You can spend hours here if you are a real military history buff. The Visitor’s Center has a film and several exhibits, and the ship itself is massive. You can climb into a gun turret, go below-decks, and see the conditions that the 2200+ sailors lived and fought under. North Carolina fought in the Pacific theater of WWII, fighting in every major naval offensive, and losing only 10 men killed and 67 wounded!
That said, often children aren’t THAT interested in history. So, we spent about an hour; we skipped a bit, including the engine room, but we did see the gun turrets, the crew quarters, and the bridge. And then, after a fun beach morning and a historic afternoon, we cruised on back to Raleigh and were home in time for supper. Not a bad weekend!