Pleasure Island

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ask a local which way to Pleasure Island and they'll look at you blankly. They aren't being coy. Most residents refer to it by its beach names (Carolina, Kure, Fort Fisher), not its official moniker. The 11-mile-long island wasn't born an island; in 1929, it was separated from the mainland to accommodate the Intracoastal Waterway. Originally a busy fishing port, the basin near Snow's Cut Bridge and Carolina Beach still provides dock space to shrimp vessels, charter fishing boats and party cruises. A boardwalk with all-ages attractions, from an arcade to a henna tattoo parlor, parallels Carolina Beach. The area, which about 5,000 folks call home year-round, also boasts a not-too-wild night life. (You'll still make it to the beach before noon.)

Heading south, the main drag leads to Kure Beach (year-round population 1,600), a small enclave with gelato-colored homes, a 711-foot fishing pier and mom-and-pop joints dishing out fried sea life. The island ends at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, where a major sea-and-land battle was fought during the Civil War. Today, it is one of the most peaceful spots around.

BEST FOR . . . Broods who need to be overstimulated; war buffs in bathing suits; visitors passionate about the four Bs -- birds, botany, beach and beer.

BEACH SCENE: Carolina Beach is a long, sloping strand where kids dig holes to China and 20-somethings keep their summer tunes to themselves. Kure Beach is smaller and more residential and therefore mellower and less crowded. "Go to Kure Beach if you want to sit back and read a book," says Russell Haywood, who owns Carolina Beach's Last Resort Bar. Fort Fisher is a delightfully underpopulated four-mile sliver of sand bordered by a tumble of boulders and a velvety green expanse that hides old battle scars.

SLEEPS AND EATS: Lodging is mainly clumped around the commercial areas of Carolina and Kure beaches. All of the rooms at the Courtyard Carolina Beach (100 Charlotte Ave., Carolina Beach, 800-321-2211, http://www.courtyardcarolinabeach.com) are oceanfront with private balconies; rates from $189. The Golden Sands Motel (1211 S. Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach, 888-458-8334, http://www.goldensandscarolinabeach.com; from $149) has two pools (indoor and outdoor), the Ocean Grill restaurant and the Tiki Bar, which sits on the pier and hosts local bands performing a range of styles (e.g., Hawaiian, flamenco, eclectic electric). The Dry Dock has two properties, one in Carolina Beach (300 S. Lake Park Blvd., 910-458-8346), the other in Kure (122 Fort Fisher Blvd. N., 910-458-1154). You'll recognize the latter property by its brightly colored doors, a Kure theme. Rates from $69 for both. The Savannah Inn (316 Carolina Beach Ave. N., Carolina Beach, 800-334-8533, http://www.thesavannahinn.com; from $115) hews to its name with such Southern belle touches as handmade quilts and porch swings.

Rise early for warm glazed doughnuts from Britt's Doughnuts (No. 11), a Boardwalk indulgence since 1939. Eat at the Gulfstream Restaurant (78 Myrtle Ave., Carolina Beach, 910-458-8774) and you might want go with the one-piece that day. The platter (two eggs, three pancakes, bacon or sausage) costs $6.25; the crab and cheese omelet with grits and biscuits goes for $6.95. At Olde Salty (3 Boardwalk Ocean Front, Carolina Beach, 910-458-8090), pair your seafood (from $11.75) with Southern sides (collards, fried okra, black-eyed peas, etc.). Go Greek at Gyros Place (118 Fort Fisher Blvd. N., Kure Beach, 910-458-8494); pita sandwiches from $4.99, salads from $2.99. Bowman's at the Beach (911 N. Lake Park Blvd., Kure Beach, 910-458-6292) gives burgers the Neptune treatment: Try an oyster, shrimp or scallop burger (from $5.25).

DIVERSIONS: The Last Resort (600 N. Lake Park Blvd., Carolina Beach, 910-458-1128), which basically sits on a highway median, claims to be North Carolina's smallest bar. But that doesn't prevent it from stocking 34 beers and hosting live acoustic jams on weekends. Hike the Flytrap Trail at the 700-acre Carolina Beach State Park (off Route 421 on Dow Road, Carolina Beach, 910-458-8206, http://www.ils.unc.edu/parkproject/visit/cabe/home.html; free) and look for the rare Venus' flytrap and other carnivorous plants; the park also has boating, fishing and camping. Do the Lindy on the lido deck during a moonlight dance cruise with Winner Cruise Boats (Carolina Beach Marina, 100 Carl Winner Ave., Carolina Beach, 910-458-5356, http://www.winnerboats.com; $15); the company also offers scenic tours and Gulf Stream fishing. Be multi-entertained at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area (1000 Loggerhead Rd., 910-458-5798, http://ils.unc.edu/parkproject/visit/fofi/home.html), which offers educational events (turtle talks, bird hikes, etc.), the Fort Fisher Historic Site and its Civil War museum, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher (866-301-3476, http://www.ncaquariums.com; $8) and the car-and-passenger ferry to historic Southport (800-293-3779, http://www.ncdot.org/transit/ferry; $1 per passenger one way, $5 per car one way). When the tide is low, walk over the rocks at the tip of Fort Fisher and spend up to 5 hours 59 minutes on Zeke's Island, a protected and undeveloped natural area.

INFO: Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, 910-458-8434, http://www.pleasureislandchambernc.org; Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 866-266-9690, http://www.gocapefearcoast.com.

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