Wrightsville Beach & Vicinity

Residential in character, Wrightsville Beach is not your typical beach resort town. There is no carnival atmosphere — no Ferris wheels, no arcade, no mini golf or bumper boats, and only a few gaudy displays of beach merchandise. Instead, Wrightsville Beach is primarily an affluent residential community that has its roots in Wilmington. For more than a century, the 5-mile-long island has been a retreat from the summer heat for Wilmington residents whose families have maintained ownership of beach homes there for generations.

At first, only a few people had access to the island and built houses there. The first large structure, built in 1856, was the Carolina Yacht Club, which today is the second oldest in the country, after the New York Yacht Club. In 1899 Wrightsville Beach was incorporated as a resort community, and the Tidewater Power Company, which owned the island at that time, built a trolley system from downtown Wilmington to the beach. The trolley provided the only land access to the island until 1935.

Interested in development, the company built the Hotel Tarrymore in 1905 to attract visitors and revenue. Later named the Oceanic, this grand hotel burned down in 1934, along with most structures on the northern half of the island. The Tidewater Power Company also built Lumina, a beach pavilion that became a Wrightsville Beach standard. Lumina was located on the site of the current Oceanic Restaurant at the south end of the beach, and offered a festive place where locals gathered for swimming, outdoor movies, and to attend the dances that were held there. It too is now gone, but many locals still have fond memories of the place and it lingers in the names of area shops, businesses, and even the local newspaper.

Development of the beach continued steadily until 1954 when Hurricane Hazel, a monster storm, came ashore and wreaked devastation on the island's homes and buildings. Hazel also shoaled the channel between Wrightsville Beach and adjacent Shell Island. Developers, seeing an opportunity for expansion, filled in the remaining water and joined the islands together.

Today, the area is the site of the Shell Island Resort Hotel, numerous condominiums and large homes. In the aftermath of two hurricanes in 1996, the resort hotel found itself precariously close to an advancing inlet. Sand was brought in to replenish the beach and Shell Island's condominium owners wanted to erect a seawall to save their property from the encroaching sea. However, North Carolina has very strict laws regarding seawalls because of their negative impact on the rest of a beach and the state denied them permission to do so. In 2002, the inlet was dredged and moved north toward Figure Eight Island, thereby, for the time being, reducing the threat to Shell Island.

Today, Wrightsville Beach is a very busy and prosperous place. Because of its popularity with both residents and tourists, there is almost no available land for sale. The area is still a stronghold of long-term residents who summer in family homes built to catch the ocean breeze. The permanent residential population is about 3,000, but that figure swells considerably in the summer.

With a land mass of nearly a square mile, this island manages to maintain its charm despite the surrounding growth. Surprisingly, brisk commercial development in the form of marinas, restaurants, hotels, and other services has not seriously changed the residential orientation of the island and its very clean beaches.

Lifeguards oversee the safety of swimmers in the summer season, and the beach patrol keeps an eye on the area to make sure laws are obeyed. Alcohol and glass containers are not allowed on the beach. If you have questions, just ask one of the friendly lifeguards.

Boaters, sun worshipers, swimmers, surfers and anglers will find much to appreciate and enjoy about the setting. Public beach access points, liberally sprinkled along the shoreline, make a day in the sun a free experience for daytrippers — with the notable exception of parking.

Insiders know the island is extremely crowded during peak summer weekends and are inclined to leave those times for visitors. On in-season weekends, visitors are wise to arrive before 9:30 AM and bring plenty of quarters for the parking meters. Meter rates are $2.00 per hour, or you can try your luck at finding a rare non-metered spot. Free parking is available at Town Hall, 321 Causeway Drive, the boat ramp lot beside the drawbridge, and at the Intracoastal Waterway along Old Causeway Drive. The Town of Wrightsville Beach also uses "pay stations" at some public parking locations. The stations accept credit cards (VISA and MasterCard only), bills ($1, $5, and $10) and coins, and they give change.

Park-By-Phone allows you use your cell phone to pay for parking. Sign up at www.Park-By-Phone.com for an annual membership of $5.95, then you can pay for parking each time by calling (888) 310-PARK and entering the lot or meter number, which are visibly marked on bright yellow signs.

Parking is hourly (and enforced) from 9 AM to 6 PM, but there is no charge before or after these times. Winter visitors enjoy free parking from November through February. It's tempting, but don't make the mistake of parking at business locations or at private homes. Parking lots at area restaurants and hotels are vigilantly guarded, and residents are not inclined to allow unknown cars to occupy their driveways. Towing is very strictly enforced in no-parking zones.

Opportunities for water-related sports and entertainment are plentiful on Wrightsville Beach. Some of the most luxurious marinas along the North Carolina coast are clustered around the bridge at the Intracoastal Waterway and offer a full range of services (see our Marinas section). Charter boats, both power and sail, are available in abundance. Diving, Jet Ski rentals, windsurfing, Parasailing, kayaking and sailing lessons are there for the asking (see Boating & Watersports). Bait, tackle, piers and more than enough advice on the best way to fish are all easy to find (see Fishing). Visitors who bring their own boats will appreciate the free boat ramp just north of the first bridge onto Harbour Island, the island between the mainland and Wrightsville Beach.

A visit to Wrightsville Beach, whether for a day or for a vacation, is bound to be a pleasant experience that will be repeated time after time. The island is wonderfully walkable, and you can find everything you need for a comfortable and memorable vacation almost any time of the year.

Figure Eight Island

Figure Eight Island, just north of Wrightsville Beach, is a private, very exclusive, oceanfront resort community. This highly restricted residential island of 441 expensive homes is accessible only by a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. Indeed, it is so private and secluded that a guard will let you onto the island only if you've called ahead to someone on the island, such as a friend or a real estate agent, and are on the list at the gate.

While active visitors will discover an endless array of things to do, such as watersports, biking and tennis, most people are drawn to Figure Eight Island because of what you won't find here. There are no commercial enterprises on the island, which means no hotels, shopping centers or traffic. What you will find is five miles of pure beautiful beaches for the vacationer looking for some R and R and peace and quiet from a noncommercialized retreat.

It's a favorite hideaway for celebrities and political bigwigs who want privacy when they're visiting the area. Former Vice President Al Gore and family, for example, have enjoyed vacationing here since 1997. But the celebrity orientation of the island does not mean regular folk can't rent homes and enjoy a private vacation. In fact, the island is very hospitable to vacationers and welcomes guests to its uncrowded shores. To contact real estate companies on or near Figure Eight Island for rental information (some of the larger Wilmington real estate companies may also handle properties on this exclusive island) see our section on Vacation Rentals.

Masonboro Island

South of Wrightsville Beach and north of Carolina Beach you'll find Masonboro Island. Barren of any development, Masonboro Island is the last and largest pristine barrier island remaining on the southern North Carolina coast. This 8-mile-long island, with an Atlantic Ocean beach on its eastern shore and marshes on its western shore facing the Intracoastal Waterway, is accessible only by boat.

If you are fortunate enough to have a shallow-draft boat, just look for a spot to approach among the reeds — probably alongside other boats — and tie a meaningful line to the shore with your anchor because, as in all areas of the Cape Fear region, the tides have wide fluctuation. If you tie up at high tide, you may have a tough job getting off the sand if you try to leave at low tide.

The island, consisting of about 5,000 acres, has about 4,300 acres of tidal salt marshes and mud flats and only about 600 acres of beach. Although parts of the island belong to private landowners, no development is allowed. Masonboro is a component of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and the National Estuarine Research Reserve. The island is home to gray foxes, cotton rats, a variety of birds, river otters and several species of aquatic life; it is an important nesting site for the beautiful and famous loggerhead sea turtles.

You can spot the island by the large number of pleasure craft clustered on the Masonboro Sound side. If you want to be alone, pass by this gathering and look for small passages farther south on the island. Access is only limited by the draft of your boat and how easily you can push it off when you run aground. Gather your gear and hike a short way to the ocean side, where it's a special pleasure to take a picnic and relax on the uncrowded beach. There are no facilities so be prepared to rough it. If you make the trip in the fall, be sure to take along insect repellent because the yellow flies can be extremely annoying.

For more information on Masonboro Island, see the following pages: Attractions and Camping.

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