Every year, the rental houses along North Carolina’s coast seem to get bigger. The basic summer shacks of a few decades ago have almost all been torn down, replaced by supersize luxury rentals with multiple stories, several decks and often a beachside pool. They’re meant to be used by large groups, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone making an actual home in one.
Which is why I was struck by Carolina Beach — a town about 15 miles south of Wilmington with a year-round population of about 6,000 — when I visited last year. So far, it has managed to buck the teardown trend. Although many of its beachfront homes (multistory behemoths like those along the rest of the coast) are newly built, its inland streets are densely lined with block after block of tiny, charming cottages from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
To me — a North Carolina native who has visited most of the state’s beaches through the years — the small homes in Carolina Beach are unusual enough to be almost startling. They’re more than houses: They’re the physical manifestations of a tight, easygoing community of year-round residents who give the town, which covers less than three square miles, a welcoming, low-key tone.
As a result, Carolina Beach has become a draw for visitors from all over the state, particularly from the Research Triangle area, which is just over two hours away. “We’ve really made it a tradition to get out there as often as we can,” said Durham resident Joey Zielazinski. “It has a lot of personality. It’s no-frills in the best kind of way.”
These days, beach towns dot the North Carolina coast like beads on a necklace. But there was a time when beach resorts were a new idea. That was around 1880, when Carolina Beach became one of the state’s first developed beaches, with a cluster of cottages that were later passed down for generations.
By the 1930s, Carolina Beach had developed into a summer playground, complete with dance halls, restaurants, an amusement park and a boardwalk, which was home to arcades and shops selling treats. Think of it as the Myrtle Beach of its day, said Rebecca Taylor, manager of the Federal Point History Center, which is located in Carolina Beach and offers exhibits on the area’s history. “It was very lively, renowned throughout the state. It was the place to be.”
During that time, the community was segregated, and Black people had to be out of town by sundown. But a Black family, the Freemans, managed to accumulate several thousand acres of waterfront land just north of town. Called Seabreeze, it was one of the state’s only beaches where Black North Carolinians could swim, dine on fish and dance to live music.
Seabreeze’s beach resort was destroyed in 1954 by the Category 4 Hurricane Hazel, which also hit Carolina Beach very hard. The town was rebuilt, but it began to decline a decade later. By the 1980s, Taylor says, “the boardwalk was nothing but bars, and some were strip bars. And it had a biker clientele; there were knife fights every weekend. It got a really, really bad reputation.”
Eventually, local government stepped in with a moratorium on liquor licenses and an investment in family-friendly events. “The mixture of people has changed a lot,” said Doug McCray, who has lived in Carolina Beach for seven years. “When we moved here, they still had Confederate flag towels in the beach shops; they’ve come down. It’s moving into the 21st century for sure, but they’re trying to keep it beachy and hippie.”
These days, the boardwalk — one of the few in North Carolina — includes a wooden walkway close to the beach, as well as a short pedestrian street lined with tourist shops and restaurants, and a small amusement park. In late afternoons in the summer, the whole area fills up with sandy families who gather to ride the rides and eat fried dough at Britt’s Donuts, which has been there since 1939. There’s a sense of communal enjoyment, a celebratory vibe that I found contagious.
“It’s heaven on earth,” said Doreen Black as she sat on a bench near the Ferris wheel. She lives near Charlotte and has been coming to Carolina Beach for 46 years. “This is a major part of my life. I’m here with my grandchildren now, and I’ll keep the tradition with them.” The beach and boardwalk are Carolina Beach’s main attractions. But just west of the town is Carolina Beach State Park, a low-lying area bordering the Cape Fear River that’s home to hiking trails, campsites and highly sought-after cabins. The park is one of the only places in the United States to see the Venus’ flytrap in its native habitat, and I once caught a glimpse of alligators near the marina.
Given Carolina Beach’s small size, everything — including the state park — is within biking distance, and there’s a small network of bicycle paths throughout the town. Closer to the beach, the town is densely built and walkable.
The tiny cottages — painted colorful hues and surrounded by lush palmettos, banana plants, hibiscus and sprawling live oak trees — are largely clustered in the blocks west of the boardwalk and main downtown area. In a way, they’re a legacy of Carolina Beach’s gritty past: They’re still there only because the town was considered undesirable to the real estate investors who remade most other beach towns along the North Carolina coastline in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But today, Carolina Beach is in the midst of change. Over the past couple of years, it’s been “discovered,” and newcomers have been arriving from all over the country. The question is whether Carolina Beach can absorb them — and the new construction they’re bringing — without losing its fundamental charm.
“There’s a lot of change going on. Prices are way up,” said Matt Nottingham, who owns a local construction company. He has lived in Carolina Beach for 20 years and worries that the area might lose what makes it special. So far, there hasn’t been any real talk of enacting regulations that might preserve the small houses or limit owners’ ability to take them down.
The changes aren’t particularly apparent to visitors. In some ways, they’ve been beneficial: There are more and better lodging and dining options than there used to be. For now, Carolina Beach is in a sweet spot, one where vacationers and year-round residents can appreciate an ambiance that’s the result of the town’s long history while also benefiting from the influx of tourists.
In a couple of years, the atmosphere around town will probably feel a little different. But for now, summer is fading into autumn, and the throng of tourists is disappearing. The town is being returned to its year-round residents. And they all agree that early fall is the loveliest, most peaceful season at Carolina Beach.
Where to stay
Carolina Beach Inn
205 Harper Ave.
Small, family-owned inn with a cozy atmosphere and a large porch. Owners pride themselves on going above and beyond and can provide necessities such as beach chairs and beach towels if needed. Rooms from $105 on weekdays and $115 on weekends during the offseason, and from $155 on weekdays and $175 on weekends during the summer season.
224 Carolina Beach Ave. N
Simple, 1960s-era beachfront motel with a friendly staff; an affiliated restaurant and tiki bar are located across the street. Rooms from $139.
Where to eat
Nollie’s Taco Joint
3 Pelican Lane
Skater-themed restaurant offering tacos, nachos, burritos and quesadillas. Tacos from $3.50, burritos from $7.50, nachos from $9, quesadillas from $10.
9 Pavilion Ave. S
Restaurant on the boardwalk offering North Carolina-style barbecue, as well as sandwiches and burgers. Entrees from $9.
1206 N. Lake Park Blvd.
Classic seafood restaurant with a focus on fresh, well-prepared fish, shrimp and scallops. Entrees from $11.
What to do
Carolina Beach State Park
1010 State Park Rd.
A 760-acre state park highlighting coastal ecosystems, including unusual carnivorous plants. Park has hiking and biking trails, fishing options, and campsites and cabins for rent. Opens at 7 a.m. year-round. Closing times vary by month. Free entry.
Good Hops Brewing
811 Harper Ave.
Local brewery with outdoor seating that also includes a free disc golf course. Open Monday to Saturday 1 to 8 p.m., Sunday 1 to 7 p.m.; disc golf course open sunrise to sunset.
Carolina Beach Market
400 S. Lake Park Blvd.
Outdoor market featuring locally grown produce and crafts for sale. Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p. m., May 15 through Oct. 2.
Pleasure Island Rentals
2 N. Lake Park Blvd.
Bicycle rentals available from $15 per day.
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