The Big Chill - Wrightsville Beach, NC In Winter
Wrightsville Beach in winter provides a different kind of beach vacation
I land at the same familiar Outer Banks, North Carolina, destination each summer. I eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same shops, book the same dolphin tour and visit the same attractions year after year. Breaking tradition can feel uncomfortable for me, but staying in my silo of routines makes it difficult for me to discover new things. That’s why visiting Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, in the offseason — with smaller crowds, shorter waits and unobstructed beach views — was eye-opening.
A four-hour drive from Richmond, Wrightsville Beach’s waterfront feels more like a private tropical island than a popular tourist spot. The palm trees and lush plant life were more abundant, the sand was whiter, the water bluer and the shells easier to find. To be fair, it’s all in what you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of mini golf and go-karts, a Starbucks drive-thru and a Super Wings on every corner, this is not the place for you. Instead, Wrightsville Beach has a small-town feel, with a main road that winds past gorgeous homes, busy walking and biking trails, and locally owned shops.
My trip’s home base was Blockade Runner Beach Resort, central enough to comfortably walk or bike to most destinations. Though I have always rented houses at the beach, I was pleasantly surprised at how a hotel stay could enhance my experience. Blockade Runner’s outdoor space is divine and includes colorful gardens, well-placed hammocks, private cabanas and cozy fire pits. With sound-facing and oceanfront balcony rooms, a ground-floor 3-bedroom garden apartment and a 13-bedroom beach cottage adjacent to the property, this hotel has accommodations to fit any group.
You don’t have to go far for an impressive dinner; the service and food at the hotel’s East Oceanfront Dining restaurant were convenient and incredible. Try the fresh Atlantic sea scallops with corn puree, steakhouse bacon, roasted tomatoes and a brown butter emulsion to understand why some say seafood is best on the coast. Fish House Grill offers a more relaxed waterfront dining experience suitable for kids and groups. South Beach Grill presents locally sourced, farm-to-table recipes; beautiful, flavorful food; and a casually upscale atmosphere. They serve thoughtful Southern-inspired dishes such as their buttermilk frites and pork belly appetizer. Dinner at Ceviche’s was so satisfying that I returned for lunch on my way out of town. Though they have a variety of Panamanian dishes, my fave was El Quatro — a sampling of four of their classic ceviches.
The Workshop is a great local option for an elevated breakfast, along with coffee and smoothies. While there, peruse the jaw-dropping display of fossil jewelry crafted from shark (mako, great white and tiger) and megalodon teeth made by shop owner Audrey Longtin, a Canadian native who visited Wrightsville Beach and never left.
For drinks or nightlife, check out the beach bar vibes and live music at The Palm Room or King Neptune, a laid-back, pirate-themed bar serving cocktails, wine and beer.
Stay centered on vacation with a visit to Be Unlimited Yoga. Instructor Carlyn led a chilly oceanfront sunrise class on Crystal Pier, then introduced me to breakfast with the locals at SUNdays Cafe in South End Surf Shop.
For a familiar beach town shopping experience, go to Lumina Station, whose upscale retail boutiques, distinctive restaurants and lifestyle services are nestled against lush landscaping and whimsical statues.
If typical beach activities don’t interest you, perhaps try something new. Book a relaxing salt cave session at Prana Salt Cave, just across the bridge on the sound. Their halotherapy session takes place in a cave maintained at 70 degrees to preserve the Himalayan salt on the floor and walls.
On the sound side of the shore, Airlie Gardens is a gorgeous 67-acre escape featuring a nearly 500-year-old oak tree, picturesque Bradley Creek Pier, and an accessible, trail-lined public garden space filled with plant and bird life.
Bike over (grab a rental from South End Surf Shop) to beautiful Harbor Way Gardens in Wrightsville Beach Park and visit their thoughtful Plant It Pink Garden, a seasonal area filled with plants that boast pink blooms to support breast cancer awareness. Bring the kids or dog to enjoy the splash fountain, bring a friend for a chat, or just take a leisurely stroll through the gorgeous gardens and green space.
While you’re out, be sure to visit a local landmark: the Wrightsville Beach Mailbox, where visitors leave letters that are never delivered, and add one of your own.
travel North Carolina beaches
by Kari Smith
JANUARY 12, 2024