Cass Farrar travels back to her much-loved university town in North Carolina with her daughter Lola and finds it to be just as special as she recalls, as well as a top spot for a family break
As I sat on the sand watching my four-year-old daughter Lola building sandcastles and splashing in the shallow surf of Wrightsville Beach recently, I was utterly overcome with emotion. A tiny barrier island off the coast of south-eastern North Carolina, this stunning flicker on the US map that measures just over 6km2 is heavily weighted with memories for me. For it was there, on that relatively untouched island that connects to the nearby city of Wilmington by drawbridge, that I spent the first half of my twenties.
Having moved there for university at the tender age of 19, I spent my days studying in the vibrant, inspirational and immaculate campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. On weekends, I could be found on that exact same stretch of sand where Lola played, tanning on a plastic sunlounger, chatting with dear friends I adore to this day and, no doubt, procrastinating on an essay of one kind or another.
Evenings were spent in the small smattering of beach bars on Lumina Avenue, the road that punctuates the middle of the island. We downed local oysters and cold beer in bikinis straight off the beach until we fell home, salty, happy and a little drunk. Hence, watching Lola on that same sand playing happily among the sea oats all these years later, I was a tad choked to say the least.
My university years were some of my very happiest and, ever since moving back to London over a decade ago, I have endeavoured to return to North Carolina annually, and never more so than since I became a mother. This southern state that wedges itself neatly on the east coast between family-happy Florida and hip hangouts such as New York doesn’t leap out for most Europeans as a top American destination with children, but it absolutely should.
It’s a state you may be more familiar with than you realise, even if you’ve never visited. Ever watched Dawson’s Creek? That was filmed in Wilmington, as was Iron Man 3 and Sleeping with the Enemy, thanks to the city’s huge movie studios. Homey, cosy clapboard summer homes fringe the beaches, pelicans swoop elegantly overhead, and the local, utterly charming Southerners welcome everyone, especially those touting a British accent. They’ll serve you scratch-made biscuits and gravy for breakfast (this is actually very good) and go weak at the knees with every word you speak.
Wrightsville Beach is where my heart personally lies. The Blockade Runner is the most obvious family hotel on the island with its sweeping beachside pool, large family rooms and seemingly endless buffet for each meal of the day. It ticks every box for families and it’s located almost bang in the middle of the island. If you do hit this beach, breakfast at Causeway Café, a quintessentially Southern eatery that serves everything from pancakes to eggs-any-way, French toast and even pig brains (a Southern thing), is a must. We would eat there every day if Lola had her way, so enamoured by the Minnie Mouse-shaped pancakes she is (you can’t escape Disney in the States, I find, even if you don’t venture into Florida or California). It’s a local, family-run favourite and serves
as the heartbeat of the entire island.
Cross the drawbridge into Wilmington and the downtown area of the Port City (as Wilmington is known) boasts gorgeous diners and fabulous Southern cuisine restaurants (think collard greens, fresh fish and macaroni cheese with, literally, every meal).
The architecture is that of Gone with the Wind, all gorgeously colonial and unique; all the buildings are perfectly preserved in their original 18th- and 19th-century states. They are inhabited, however, so one feels very much part of the thriving, cultural and creative community that defines the downtown area.
It’s not like walking through a museum as some preserved Southern areas can be and, as such, you’ll find a bevy of fantastic boutiques, restaurants and guesthouses to stay in. The Battleship North Carolina is docked proudly on Cape Fear River, which winds along the curve of the city’s downtown area, and it’s a great option for a family day out to tour the battleship. We visited in the spring when the strawberry farms surrounding the city are in full swing and you can ‘pick your own’. Lewis Strawberry Farm is one such lovely example, and Lola and I spent a gorgeous afternoon there.
At the age of four, she is ripe for a day donning a small basket and a straw hat but, let’s face it, fruit-picking is fun at any age and we took our wares home and froze them. (Mine metamorphosed later into strawberry daiquiris; Lola’s were pureed into a virgin version.)
And if you don’t leave the beach, there is more to do than simply sunbathing and swimming. Little ones keen on surfing (or interested in learning) won’t have any problem hitting the water, as there are some great places to rent mini boards and enjoy lessons at the beach: WB Surf Camp is one excellent option.
If your kids are aged six or upwards, they’ll have them on a board within their first day, leaving you some quality beach time of your very own. They also run highly reputable summer camps for kids, teenagers and adults, too. Hitting the water by boat is a must if you’re there during the spring, summer or early autumn months (when temperatures can still hover well into the 80s).
The Intracoastal Waterway that divides the mainland and Wrightsville Beach is a gorgeous spot to potter on the water (Lola and I were lucky to spot a pod of dolphins when we were there, which I’ve only seen a handful of times over the past 18 years) and it leads out to neighbouring islands, such as pristine, uninhabited Masonboro Island. This is a lovely place to take a picnic and spend a day (just avoid it over 4 July weekend or Memorial Day when it gets hijacked by Budweiser boats and raucous students. I know – those were my favourite weekends of the year during college).
But as wonderful as North Carolina is during the hot and humid summer months, I also love heading ‘home’ to the Tar Heel State with Lola and my husband during the off-peak months. The interior of the state has some thriving cities, such as Raleigh and Charlotte, but keep driving through those towards the Blue Ridge Mountains and you’ll find yourself in an area that rivals New England during the ‘fall’.
In late September and October, the leaves change colour from summery green to hues of red, orange, yellow and pink that will take your breath away.
As far as the eye can see, the fresh mountain air is pierced only by the visual circus that befalls those lucky enough to visit at just the right time before the leaves come off the trees for winter. And if you’re in that western part of the state, make sure you head for Asheville, namely to the Biltmore Estate.
Built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s, it has no fewer than 65 fireplaces throughout, a bowling alley, original works by Renoir and John Singer Sargent and grounds that will keep little ones exploring for days.
On site, a few lovely options for accommodation serve as a perfect springboard from which to explore the mountainous area of North Carolina. Locals refer to the ‘surf’n’turf’ of North Carolina, and the truth is it’s one of the few states to boast both pristine beaches and flawless mountains – plus they’re just a few hours drive from one another.
And so, while Lola and I enjoyed our most recent visit to this southern gem over Easter, it is a seriously worthy option for a family holiday at any time of year. The food may send us home a few pounds heavier and, to my horror, Lola adopted use of the pronoun ‘y’all’ on our last trip, but we’ll never fail to return.
Between the hearty locals who have you begging for bluegrass with their heavenly southern hospitality, the fresh local catch, and the smell of that soft sea air, my heart breaks a little every time I leave.
HOW TO GET THERE: Delta airlines flies to Wilmington via either Charlotte, North Carolina, or Atlanta, Georgia, from £545 for adults and £455 for children. Journey time: 17 hours (including layover).
WHERE TO STAY: The Blockade Runner at Wrightsville Beach has Queen rooms starting at £95 per night plus tax or State rooms (which have kingsize beds, an ocean view, an outdoor fireplace, and a living room), which start at £261 per night plus tax for two adults and two children.
WHAT TO DO: For most of the year (bar August and September) you can pick strawberries, blueberries or blackberries at Lewis Farms. If you want to try the surf camps at Wrightsville Beach, check out WB Surf Camp on Causeway Drive. Admission to The Battleship North Carolina is £9 for adults and £4.50 for children (those under five enter for free). And if you get to the mountains of North Carolina, check out The Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
Visit North Carolina Tourism for more information.