At four hours away from Richmond, Carolina Beach is just close enough for a quick weekend escape. Load up some tunes, and head down the highway. Just south of Wilmington, North Carolina, in the Cape Fear region, Carolina Beach is an odd blend of old school boardwalk and beach town, and halfway point to someplace else. Modern hotels contrast with 1950s-style motor inns, and central gathering spots like the park surrounding Carolina Beach Lake — where you’ll find vendors on Saturday mornings and free movies on Sunday nights — give it a community feel. There are ample restaurants and bars to satisfy all tastes, but that’s mostly an accent to the sprawling beaches and the rolling waves filled with boogie boarders and families.
Given Richmonders’ affinity for doughnuts, you should start your visit at Britt’s Donuts (11 Carolina Beach Ave. North,  707-0755), just off the boardwalk. In operation since 1939, Britt’s is a cash-only, one-style operation. The doughnuts come hot out of the fryer and are drenched in a sweet glaze. A true seasonal operation, Britt’s opens on Memorial Day and closes “sometime in September.” Their doughnuts may not change a Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen devotee’s mind, but it’s certainly worth a visit.
No Particular Place to Go
While you’re still on your sugar rush from Britt’s, head two blocks east to the boardwalk that lines downtown. From there, the beach stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction. It is broken to the south only by a tiki bar that occupies a pier at the Golden Sands Hotel. We recommend heading south to avoid some of the more crowded sections near the boardwalk. Settle in, and prepare to while away the day.
Golden Sands Hotel’s tiki bar. (Photo courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches CVB)
Please Please Me
When it’s time to satisfy lunch cravings, you can hit one of the many restaurants that dot the downtown near the beach, or head to The Veggie Wagon (608-B S. Lake Park Blvd., theveggiewagon.com). Carolina Beach’s equivalent of Union Market in Church Hill, The Veggie Wagon is the go-to place for everything from gelato to growlers, house-made pickles to imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, sundries to sandwiches — you can satisfy breakfast and lunch needs, and stir up the ingredients for a great dinner, as well. If you’re there on a weekend, be sure to pick up their freshly made mozzarella.
Here comes the night
After you’ve spent a few more hours on the beach becoming sun-baked and happily exhausted, grab dinner at any number of the town’s restaurants before hitting the after-dark carnival rides near the boardwalk. In addition to many other options, your dining choices include upscale fare from Ocean Grill (oceangrilltiki.com) at the Golden Sands, surprisingly good sushi at Nikki’s Gourmet and Sushi Bar (nikkissushibar.com), or very solid Mexican at El Cazador (elcazadormex.com). After dinner, follow the lights to the rides — or hang with the big kids at The Fat Pelican (thefatpelican.com). Nearly every surface inside and in the beer garden is covered with visitors’ signatures and carved notes, and you’ll find nearly 300 beers to choose from in a refrigerated walk-in. Rated as one of the best dive bars in the state and even the country, the Pelican deserves its own feature.
Wake Up Boo!
The next morning, before you decide to hit the beach once again, be sure to grab brunch at The Surf House (surfhousenc.com). Widely loved by the locals, Surf House sources nearly all its ingredients locally. The staff is attentive and knowledgeable, and the food is excellent —
buttermilk waffles with fruit, a catfish bánh mì and the “Good Ol’ Boy” with eggs, bacon, sausage, grits and toast are among the highlights. You can even rent a stand-up paddleboard in the side room. (Note: If you’re going there for brunch, you won’t be able buy alcohol until after noon.) Don’t ask, just go. In general, that’s kind of the mantra about Carolina Beach. Don’t ask, just go.