IF YOU LIKE NAGS HEAD, TRY . . .

The beach party shifts from day to night on Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington.
The beach party shifts from day to night on Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington. (By Bill Russ -- N.C. Tourism)

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Before the invasion of beachgoers, the seven-mile-long Wrightsville Beach was almost a real battlefield: The island saw Civil War action on its waterways, and it protected Allied ships during World War II by implementing a full-scale lights-out policy. Nature also toyed with Wrightsville, which had to substantially rebuild after a hurricane in 1899, Hazel in 1954 and the double whammy of Bertha and Fran in 1966.

Initially, the island was accessible only by skiff or sailboat, but in the late 1800s, a turnpike was built connecting the beach to the mainland. Today, as many as 50,000 people flock there on summer weekends, thanks to the ease of Route 76. On the far ends of the island, you can escape the hordes at the Shell Island Bird Sanctuary or Mansonboro Inlet, an estuary with dunes, marshes, tidal pools and such accompanying wildlife as oystercatchers, hawks and sea turtles. For even more solitude, take a boat to Masonboro Island, where loggerheads and shorebirds outnumber people.

BEST FOR . . . college coeds who like scoping out the local fauna; naturalists who will paddle for their wildlife; shipwreck divers.

BEACH SCENE: The beach has several access points, but most people hang out in the center portion, where the bulk of shops, restaurants and bars are concentrated. Because Wrightsville is so close to Wilmington (less than 10 miles) and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the strand can become an obstacle course of umbrellas, flying discs and tanned legs. Thankfully, at five miles long and 30 feet wide, you do have some room to wiggle your toes. In addition, park ranger Shannon Slocum says it's the cleanest beach in the southeastern part of the state.

SLEEPS AND EATS: The suites at Shell Island Oceanfront Suites (2700 N. Lumina Ave., 910-256-8696, http://www.shellisland.com), on the northern tip, have the full setup: kitchen, balcony, water views everywhere. Rates from $129. Nearby, the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort (1706 N. Lumina Ave., 877-330-5050, http://www.wrightsville.sunspreeresorts.com) has five pools, pet macaws, horseshoes and rooms from $246. The Blockade Runner Beach Resort (275 Waynick Blvd., 910-256-2251, http://www.blockade-runner.com; from $199), near the hub of activity, has an alfresco restaurant and an oceanfront pool.

Whether you eat inside or on the pier, the views at Oceanic (703 S. Lumina Ave., 910-256-5551) are equally killer. Go for lunch (entrees from $8.80) or dinner (from $17.50), and don't forget the hush puppies. Grab a calzone, stromboli or $2 slice between swims at Vito's Pizza (8 N. Lumina Ave., 910-256-5858). Sit down for a casual meal at South Beach Grill (100 S. Lumina Ave., 910-256-4646), which serves everything from fried pickles to gourmet sandwiches ($7 range).

DIVERSIONS: After a hard day at the beach, swig on cheap beer and catch a live and loud show (punk, hip-hop, Metallica tribute band, etc.) at scruffy Red Dog's (5 N. Lumina Ave., 910-256-2776). See exhibits on Wrightsville Beach's past at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History (303 W. Salisbury St., 910-256-2569, http://www.wbmuseum.com; $3). Don't know a skimmer from a tern? Take Audubon North Carolina's free Shell Island Bird Walk, departing from the north end. Info: 910-686-7527. Wrightsville Beach Water Taxi and Tours (Blockade Runner Hotel Dock, 910-200-4002, http://www.capefearnaturalist.com) offers a variety of boat tours, such as a pirate adventure and a wine-tasting sunset cruise, as well as shuttle service to Masonboro Island for $20. At Saltmarsch Kayak Co. (222 Old Causeway Dr., 866-655-2925, http://www.saltmarshkayak.com), rent a sailboat or kayak or follow a guide through marshlands and creeks (tours from $45; rentals from $20 an hour).

INFO: Wrightsville Beach Visitor Information, 800-650-9106, http://www.visitwrightsville.com; Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 866-266-9690, http://www.gocapefearcoast.com.


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