We are fortunate in my home state of North Carolina to have 301 miles of coastline offering a wide variety of beaches for family vacations.
Early this summer, our 9 day vacation included 3 days at Topsail Island, NC and 6 days at Carolina Beach, NC.
While these two beaches are only 45 miles apart, they offer two totally different vacation experiences.
In Topsail, we stayed with my parents and brother’s family in an oceanfront beach house. When I was trying to find the best beach for my family of 4 to get a condo, I had trouble figuring out the best beach for our family.
The goal of this blog post is to help those of you looking to take a vacation to a North Carolina Beach to see a side by side comparison of two popular beaches fairly close to Wilmington, NC.
How to choose between Topsail Beach and Carolina Beach:
Topsail Island is a narrow island over 25 miles long encompassing Surf City, Topsail, and North Topsail Beach. Topsail Island is 31 miles north of Wilmington, NC and 15 miles south of Camp Lejeune.
Carolina Beach is 14 miles south of Wilmington on Pleasure Island which also includes Kure Beach and Fort Fisher.
As I compare the two vacation experiences, it is important for you to know exactly where we stayed. At Carolina Beach, we stayed oceanfront next door to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. For our stay on Topsail Island, we were oceanfront a quarter mile down from the Surf City Pier.
Advantages: Chair & Umbrella Rental, Multiple Frozen Treat Vendors with carts, Surfing thanks to a sand bar close to shore, lots of other families/kids, lifeguards, easy access
Disadvantages: Quick Drop-Off: Due to a sharp drop-off close to shore, our kids were not able to go out in the ocean without an adult. Only a few steps out, and the water was neck high on me and I’m over 6 feet tall. Crowding: Carolina Beach has many more multi-unit hotels and motels than Topsail Beach. This leads to many more people on the beach, especially close to the boardwalk and public access parking. Surf Fishing. A few times during the week, I like to fish while my kids swim in the ocean. Thanks to the waves starting further out because of the sandbar, there are lots of surfers making it difficult to fish off shore. Plus, with the quick drop-off I had trouble walking out into the water to throw my line far enough out.
Advantages: Not crowded, kids could play in water without worries of a huge drop-off, great flat beach to run on in the mornings, better shore fishing due to less surfers and no drop off, surfing popular near the surf city pier, easy public access
Disadvantages: I’m a huge fan of the Topsail Island beach… outside of the Caribbean or Gulf Coast it’s tough to find a better beach.
WINNER: Topsail Island
Since our stay at Carolina Beach was just me, my wife, 6 year old daughter, and 11 year old son the primary reason I chose Carolina Beach was that it looked like there was more to do.
Staying near the Carolina Beach boardwalk gave us plenty to do within walking distance from our condo. A couple of evenings we let the kids ride amusement park rides. Plus, in the evenings the Carolina Beach Boardwalk had FREE events for families like fireworks, bingo and kid night.
The Carolina Beach Boardwalk has an arcade, ice cream shops, beach equipment rentals, restaurants, bars, and Britt’s Donuts [which happen to be better than Krispy Kreme].
There were surf camps and hourly surfing lessons that are very popular with local kids and visitors.
The marina offering near-shore and deep sea fishing was also within walking distance of our condo. It appeared that there were sunset and dancing cruises available at the marina.
We were lucky; it only rained one day on our whole trip. When it rained, we went to the Fort Fischer Aquarium which was a little over a 10 minute drive from our condo.
There are two piers on Paradise Island. My daughter and I enjoyed a few hours fishing on the Kure Beach pier.
Topsail has two fishing piers. The Surf City pier has a bar next door and seems to be a gathering spot for surfers, and military personnel from Camp Lejeune.
The selling point to Topsail Island is that it doesn’t have many hotels or motels making it less crowded. Due to fewer crowds, there is less to do. There is a marina offering near-shore and deep sea fishing.
Driving toward Sneed’s Ferry, off of the Island there is a Putt-Putt Course and arcade. There is not much to do with the kids that are walking distance.
WINNER: If you are looking for more things to do with the kids besides just being on the beach, then Carolina Beach will be the better option.
Within easy walking distance of our condo, we had sub shops, pizzerias, seafood, Mexican, and breakfast restaurants.
I recommend Michaelangelo’s Pizza, Havana’s Fresh Island Seafood, and Kate’s Pancakes House. Havana’s Clam Chowder has won several awards and lives up to the hype!
Within walking distance, there is a HWY 55 burgers, Dairy Queen, and a couple of seafood restaurants. Even within nearby driving distance there are not as many of choices for good dining as we had within walking distance in Carolina Beach.
WINNER: Carolina Beach
In general Topsail Island has a more high-end feel to it, offering vacationers mostly rental beach houses. Carolina Beach has a mix of motels, hotels and beach houses. It does have some areas to toward Kure Beach, away from the boardwalk, that are mostly beach houses.
If your number one factor when picking out a vacation spot is the beach itself, then you’ll want to go to Topsail Island. If you need more than a beach to keep the family and yourself entertained then Carolina Beach has much more to do and is 14 miles closer to Wilmington, NC which has even more to offer.
If you do go to Carolina Beach just be aware that the water gets deep quick and keep a close eye on the kids.[box] If you have questions or comments about these two beaches please include them in the comments below! [/box]
Author Note: Rich Tucker is founder of CruiseSource and is a regularly quoted cruise enthusiast. He has been a beach addict since the age of 2 and enjoys sharing his experiences to help you make the most out of your vacation. A couple times per year, he takes advantage of living 3 hours from the coast and vacations on a North or South Carolina beach.