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Wrightsville Beach is residential in character and is not your typical beach resort town. There is no carnival atmosphere — no Ferris wheels, no arcade, no mini golf or bumper boats, and only a few gaudy displays of beach merchandise. Instead, Wrightsville Beach is primarily an affluent residential community that has its roots in Wilmington. For more than a century, the 5-mile-long island has been a retreat from the summer heat for Wilmington residents whose families have maintained ownership of beach homes there for generations.
At first, only a few people had access to the island and built houses there. The first large structure, built in 1856, was the Carolina Yacht Club, which today is the second oldest in the country, after the New York Yacht Club. In 1899, Wrightsville Beach was incorporated as a resort community, and the Tidewater Power Company, which owned the island at that time, built a trolley system from downtown Wilmington to the beach. The trolley provided the only land access to the island until 1935.
Interested in development, the company built the Hotel Tarrymore in 1905 to attract visitors and revenue. Later named The Oceanic, this grand hotel burned down in 1934, along with most structures on the northern half of the island. The Tidewater Power Company also built Lumina, a beach pavilion that became a Wrightsville Beach standard. Lumina was located on the site of the current Oceanic Restaurant at the south end of the beach, and offered a festive place where locals gathered for swimming, outdoor movies, and to attend the dances that were held there. Sadly, it too is gone, but many locals still have fond memories of the place and it lingers in the names of area shops, businesses, even the local newspaper.
Development of the beach continued steadily until 1954 when Hurricane Hazel, a monster storm, came ashore and wreaked devastation on the island’s homes and buildings. Hazel also shoaled the channel between Wrightsville Beach and adjacent Shell Island. Developers, seeing an opportunity for expansion, filled in the remaining water and joined the islands together.
Today, the area is the site of the Shell Island Resort Hotel, numerous condominiums and large homes. In the aftermath of two hurricanes in 1996, the resort hotel found itself precariously close to an advancing inlet. Sand was brought in to replenish the beach and Shell Island’s condominium owners wanted to erect a seawall to save their property from the encroaching sea. However, North Carolina has very strict laws regarding seawalls because of their negative impact on the rest of a beach and the state denied them permission to do so. In 2002, the inlet was dredged and moved north toward Figure Eight Island, thereby, for the time being, reducing the threat to Shell Island.
Today, Wrightsville Beach is a very busy and prosperous place. Because of its popularity with both residents and tourists, there is almost no available land for sale. The area is still a stronghold of long-term residents who summer in family homes built to catch the ocean breeze. The permanent residential population is about 3,000, but that figure swells considerably in the summer.
With a land mass of nearly a square mile, this island manages to maintain its charm despite the surrounding growth. Surprisingly, brisk commercial development in the form of marinas, restaurants, hotels, and other services has not seriously changed the residential orientation of the island and its very clean beaches.
Lifeguards oversee the safety of swimmers in the summer season, and the beach patrol keeps an eye on the area to make sure laws are obeyed. Alcohol and glass containers are not allowed on the beach. If you have questions, just ask one of the friendly lifeguards.
Boaters, sun worshipers, swimmers, surfers and anglers will find much to appreciate and enjoy about the setting. Public beach access points, liberally sprinkled along the shoreline, make a day in the sun a free experience for day trippers — with the notable exception of parking.
Insiders know the island is extremely crowded during peak summer weekends and are inclined to leave those times for visitors. On in-season weekends, visitors are wise to arrive before 9:30 AM and bring plenty of quarters for the parking meters.
Parking is hourly (and enforced) from 9 AM to 6 PM, but there is no charge before or after these times. Winter visitors enjoy free parking from November through February. It’s tempting, but don’t make the mistake of parking at business locations or at private homes.
Opportunities for water-related sports and entertainment are plentiful on Wrightsville Beach. Some of the most luxurious marinas along the North Carolina coast are clustered around the bridge at the Intracoastal Waterway and offer a full range of services (see our Marinas and Intracoastal Waterway chapter). Charter boats, both power and sail, are available in abundance. Diving, Jet Ski rentals, windsurfing, Parasailing, kayaking and sailing lessons are there for the asking (see our Watersports chapter). Bait, tackle, piers and more than enough advice on the best way to fish are all easy to find (see our Fishing chapter). Visitors who bring their own boats will appreciate the free boat ramp just north of the first bridge onto Harbour Island, the island between the mainland and Wrightsville Beach.
A visit to Wrightsville Beach, whether for a day or for a vacation, is bound to be a pleasant experience that will be repeated time after time. The island is wonderfully walkable, and you can find everything you need for a comfortable and memorable vacation almost any time of the year.