Carolina Beach, just 30 minutes from downtown Wilmington by car, is on a narrow slip of land between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway (Snow's Cut), the island is called Pleasure Island. Established in 1857, when Joseph Winner planned the streets and lots for the 50 acres of beach property he had purchased, the island's only access then was by water. In 1866 a steamship began carrying vacationers down the Cape Fear River to Snow's Cut and a small railroad took them the rest of the way into Carolina Beach. In later years, a high-rise bridge was built over Snow's Cut connecting the island with the mainland.
A drive through Carolina Beach reveals a pleasant 1950s-style beach town of modest cottages, increasingly more upscale single-family dwellings and an abundance of three- and four-story condominiums. The town also has a movie complex, grocery stores, drugstores, beach shops and boutiques, numerous restaurants, both upscale and simple, hardware and variety stores, an ABC store and even bait shops. The beachfront motels, including several vintage motor courts, offer a welcome blast from the past. If you were a kid during the '50s and your parents took you on vacation to the beach, this was the kind of place you probably remember. Some of the best beachfront lodging values are offered here. The nostalgia is free.
Carolina Beach underwent a dramatic transformation during the 1990s. Once considered a wild party spot, it is currently evolving into a heavily residential community dedicated to creating a wholesome family environment. Recent years have seen the cultivation of improved services, pleasant landscaping, attention to zoning and tangible citizen action to make Carolina Beach an attractive visitor destination.
The main business district is centered around an active yacht basin containing a large number of charter fishing boats and large excursion boats. The nearby Boardwalk area is undergoing revitalization and rebuilding in conjunction with the oceanfront Courtyard by Marriott Resort Hotel and several mixed-use condo/retail projects.
Anglers love Carolina Beach. The surf promises wonderful bounty all year long, and there are plenty of tackle shops and piers as well as the opportunity to experience deep-sea fishing from the sterns of a number of charter boats berthed in the municipal yacht basin. Several annual fishing tournaments are based on the abundance of king mackerel, and you can pay a nominal entry fee for a chance to reap as much as $50,000 for the winning fish.
Carolina Beach also offers one of the few state parks in the region. For a modest fee, you can camp and enjoy the wonders of coastal nature. The Venus's flytrap, a carnivorous plant that eats insects, is abundant in the park. This plant, a relic from pre-human existence, grows naturally within a 60-mile radius of Wilmington.
Away from the seasonal bustle at the center of the city, Carolina Beach is a quiet community of about 5,000 year-round residents. That number jumps three to five times at the peak of the vacation season. The community is growing in appeal to both locals from Wilmington and newcomers from other areas for two big reasons: It isn't crowded yet and it's affordable. Many a Wilmingtonian has given Wrightsville Beach over to visitors for the summer in the past few years and turned to Carolina Beach for a quiet spot on the sand.