16 Best Things to Do in Surf City NC with the Whole Family

Christine Tibbetts Avatar

In Surf City NC cousins and siblings head into the waves.
Three generations of one family face the waves together. They try to do so every single summer. Photo courtesy Iva Dukate

Overwhelmed by planning a summer beach vacation for your large, multigen family? Start by choosing a destination like Surf City, a popular spot just north of Wilmington, North Carolina. There’s plenty to do, for the young and young at heart. You can save money too. Consider multiple beach rentals instead of a supersized and pricey house. Here’s a complete guide for planning your Surf City family beach trip.

Ssurf City beach tents flow in the breeze
Tents on the beach used to be only big umbrellas. Today, they’re works of art. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Finding the beach with the best vibes for an 18-person multigen vacation takes imagination as well as research. Especially when the budget does matter.

Our group included ages 11 to 79, but mostly college kids and recent grads. Here’s an equation my family uses to figure out the best beach for a multigen vacation.

How many houses needed to sleep 18 family members who plan to come this year, and are they within a block of each other and the waves?

Like a Ouija board, the discovery dial this time pointed to Surf City NC. Think Topsail Island which also includes Topsail Beach and North Topsail Beach.

Our two houses to sleep 18 were in Surf City, a tiny sliver of the county called Onslow, next door to Pender County. That’s 30 miles north of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Read More: How to Rent the Ultimate Family Friendly Summer Beach House

Beach house multigenerational dinners
Skewering kabobs for 18 is a beach week tradition. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

1. Cooking Together Triggers Lots of Laughing

The second equation is all about plates and pots and pans and forks because eating together, and cooking together, is totally part of the fun things to do, and the budget.

We don’t happen to find “table for 18 please” is successful in resort restaurants.

Groceries and a different cooking team each night keeps us together—albeit cozy—less restrained than in a restaurant. We’re curious sometimes about each other’s menus, and grateful for rental houses with porches and patios so we can spread out.

In this multigen vacation, things to do in Surf City NC had to include each other’s cooking.

2. Oyster Farming a New Thing to Do In Surf City NC

Half a day on the water with Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. opens an astonishing new look at ecosystem interactions and sustainability. . . and the delectability of oysters both raw or exquisitely seasoned which we did the next night at our rentals.

Felt odd to go farming on a boat.

Not to worry—-our six-person boat excursion left plenty of beach time available the rest of that day.

“This is sustainable farming,” says Cody Faison, co-founder of Ghost Fleet. “We rely on what Mother Nature is providing.”

And he proceeds to wind through many mazes of oyster-nurturing containers, delighting in the wonders of salt and algae and phytoplankton.

Oyster farming in Surf City NC
Oyster farmers work in water rows, similar to dirt farmers. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Every now and then Faison jumps overboard (feet first) when he thinks his passengers are ready to peer at baby oysters, or larger shelled older versions.

Oysters only grow on oyster shells, and in brackish water. That makes the New River near Surf City a fine farm with the perfect balance of fresh and salt water.

“We’ll touch an oyster 20 times in its life cycle,” he says after one splash into the chest-deep water rows of his farm. Labor intensive wet farming this is.

Matters to oyster farmers like Capt. Cody and his wife bio-geo chemist Rachel Faison, also a boat captain, when oysters change from little bitsy seeds to an inch or two shell size. Then they move to a different part of the watery farm.

3. Learn to Use an Oyster Knife

Ice and oyster knives are handy when a Faison boat captain brings ready-to-eat-size oysters up. Safety first with gentle teaching how to open them.

The six of us were evenly split: “Yes please I would like to eat more” and “Must I?” trepidation.

How cool to have your first taste in the midst of such eco-freshness!!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. will pick you up several ways if you know to ask. We used the boat landing dock in Sneads Ferry. Closer to Surf City is Soundside Park (where there’s also a boardwalk) and the oyster farm tour starting there includes more marshes and pristine habitats. You could also ask for a tour on a working oyster boat.

My crew of six on the Ghost Fleet journey was thankful lunch was a one block away at Riverview Cafe in Sneads Ferry. They branched out but I ordered oyster stew.

4. Trails to Follow for More Oysters

Oyster farming is a collaborative passion and following the North Carolina Oyster Trail might be fun for finding more farms and restaurants.

Nude Pirates is the nickname of one of Faison’s oyster farming partners, also known as Anchored Life. Hold Fast Oyster farms near the Marines, and a live range of Camp Lejeune is in Jacksonville. Topsail Sound Oyster is a collaborator too.

Oyster farm tours can include touching and eating.
To touch or maybe not? Boating to visit oyster farms and discuss sustainability can be hands on too! Eating optional, but definitely possible. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

5. Take an Ice Cream Break

Does ice cream really taste better at a beach getaway? Or come in more flavors?

The best way to figure that out is tasting some as a break between eco-adventures or intense noontime sun at the beach.

Beach Bunny on Roland Ave. near Soundside Park caught our attention. Might have been the trashcan flavor: vanilla, chocolate fudge, sprinkles and pecans. Or graham central station which totally tasted like graham crackers with honeycomb and chocolate.

Movies show on the back wall so there’s no rush to head outside, licking drips dribbling down the waffle cones.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The merch pleased my crowd! They went back for $2 crop tops and $5 Beach Bunny sweatshirts as one of the things to do in Surf City NC.

Marshe and coastal waters share eco lessons.
Close up views of the coastal waters and marshes in Onslow County with Lady Swan Tours offer stunning (and pleasant) details about being more sustainable every day. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

6. Tidal Marshes Reveal Eco Delights 

“Creatures — including us – call this water home.” That’s the way Capt. Mikey Diehl launches several hours on the freshwater White Oak River departing from Swansboro in Onslow County.

And then he provides binoculars and charts, vivid photos and curated packets of shells and shark teeth to equip each passenger to win the unfolding scavenger hunt.

He aims to help everyone answer this question: “How much life all around us do we take for granted?”

7. Explore Unseen Places With the Carolina Swan and Lady Swan

That changes over the next 90 minutes with stops in maritime forests and deserted beaches, past kayak trails and osprey nests, and quiet idling engines when dolphin are spotted.

Bear Island is one of the stops to discover special shells — with permission to take a few treasure home.

Bear is a healthy barrier island with four miles of white sand beaches (no other people!)

Strolling a bit on a spoil island taught me a new word, and new understanding of oysters as a foundation of the world.

Maritime forests thrive in coastal marsh lands.
Lady Swan Tours out of downtown Swansboro in Onslow County NC visit maritime forests as well as sandy beaches and marshy coves. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Spoil islands are the result of dredging or disruption to the natural waterscape. Think of the oyster influence when walking on a spoil island, looking down to notice.

First the oyster shells and then the spartina, the marsh grasses. They catch what floats by and then – guess what! Dunes and big mud and living landscapes with oysters as the foundation of it all.

Capt. Mikey points out the other two islands of Hammocks Beach State Park—-but you need your own boat to visit them. Could be worth figuring that out since Jones and Huggins islands are considered globally rare, significant areas with unique ecological features.

Plus, Huggins Island is part of the kayak trail system.

8. Hunt for Shells and Shark’s Teeth on Pristine Beaches

Saturdays are a good time for families to deep dive into the eco information about this coastal region. That’s when Lady Swan Tours schedules trips with even more than the normal eco information.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Take a small sack or a kitchen baggie in your pocket to hold the treasured shells certain to find. Capt. Mikey will give you a tiny bag for a shark tooth or two. When he offers to help search for shark’s teeth, encourage the kids to accept! His gentle style and sharp eyesight guarantee success.

Read More: How to Clean and Preserve Your Beach Vacation Seashells

Shark teeth searches in coastal waters
Success is much more fun than discouragement searching for shark’s teeth—and gentle expert help from Capt. Mikey Diehl is appreciated. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Note the difference between the two boats when making reservations. Lady Swan is accessible, has a restroom and a cover for shade from the sun. Carolina Swan is smaller with full sun and the need for a helpful hand or two to get on and off. The Carolina Swan is shallow draft and shorter than its sister boat so she slips into smaller spaces of eco interest. Bring your own cold water on the smaller boat.

Hungry when back on land? My crew was. A one block walk in charming Swansboro landed us at Church Street Market and Pub. Not only were the flavors outstanding, all 10 of us received excellent and speedy service for food that was fine dining caliber.

Sometimes even with a big group, things to do in Surf City NC pointed to a restaurant.

Sea turtle rescue and rehab near NC beach
Rescuing sea turtles and returning them to the wild is a passion for volunteers and scientists, and a special visiting opportunity for beach vacationers. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

9. Sea Turtle Rescues Matter A Lot

Curious experience to meet a sea turtle from Massachusetts on my beach vacation in Surf City NC.

A guided tour of the sea turtle hospital overflows with interesting tidbits. I hadn’t known that turtles like back scratches! Quite obviously so in the therapy pool where healing sea turtles return over and over to the rush-of-water spray onto their backs.

My kids used to delight in picking up yard turtles nibbling low fruit on our tomato plants just to see how fast that turtle pulled his head inside the shell.

Sea turtles can’t do that. Of course, we can’t pick them up either. A loggerhead can easily weigh 310 pounds and the less frequently seen leatherback can weigh 2,000 pounds.

10. Turtle Tours Guarantee Close Up Looks

Tours of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Tortuga Lane require scheduling. Fifteen people max so there’s no just showing up. That guarantees everybody sees every turtle up close.

Many of these turtles return to the sea. Veterinary biologists, and gentle loving volunteers team up to soothe sea turtles hurt in boat accidents, harmed by plastic in many sizes and shapes wrapped in their food supply or deeply chilled by missing migration channels.

“Cold stun” was new information to me. That’s a serious set of ailments sea turtles incur when they stay too long in northern waters, like say Massachusetts. Warming in the sun does not work.

Might meet some of them in an airport because pilots volunteer to transport cold stun sufferers to Surf City. Their charity’s name? Turtles Fly Too.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Tell the kids that families can make a big difference on vacation if they just keep their eyes open for possibilities. The Beasley family was just at the beach for fun, and intrigued by tracks in the sand. Nobody was tracking loggerhead nests then. This family paid close attention and when the seven-year-old daughter Karen died at age 29, she asked her parents to do something for the turtles. Mom Jean lives near Surf City now, well known as a local conservationist, and past president of the International Sea Turtle Society.

Surf City NC bridge access highlights a park.
The bridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway is a gateway to Surf City, and swoops over Soundside Park. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

11. Walk a Boardwalk, and a Pier

Soundside Park is the kind of space which feels like someone considers all sorts of ways to play. This thughtful park deserves high ranking on a list of things to do in Surf City NC.

  • Boardwalk for ambling around calm marshes and water from the Intracoastal Waterway
  • Ramps for easing pontoon or fishing boats into the water
  • Playground for little kids to swing and slide, crawl and climb
  • Trees with stubby low branches to climb
  • Benches for walkers who tire
  • Big Braille signs in the playground for knowing the alphabet and some cheerful phrases
  • Public restroom painted a cheery yellow
  • Tiny strings of lights under the boardwalk handrails shine in purple or white at night
  • Access point for Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. tour about oyster farming and sustainability

SheBuysTravel Tip: This sweet park is comfortable and cosy, and parking off Roland Ave is simple and free. Tell the kids about perspective here. The swooping bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway is so very visible from Soundside Park but it’s easy to drive the bridge and not notice the park below. Another “eyes open” opportunity in Surf City.

Things to do in Surf City NC include many playgrounds.
The playground at Soundside Park even has Braille boards with the alphabet and fun messages. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

12. Eyes Up in Surf City! You’re Likely to See Another Osprey

Eco tour boat captains point out birds in tree tops, especially osprey mates who return to familiar nests and are a welcome sight to locals.

The big birds are considered bio-indicators of the health of coastal waters — gauging the pollutants that flow and float in from far away.

Osprey return to Surf City
Osprey return to their nests year after year, and keep a close check on pure or polluted waters. Photo credit: Jane Simpson, Lady Swan Tours

With a wingspan of up to six feet, osprey the birds seem to have inspired osprey the plane – officially V-22 Osprey used by Marines at nearby Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.

They fly over Surf City beaches a lot. Interesting look since they’re capable of vertical liftoff and landing (think helicopter) and also high speed cruising flights.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Give the planes overhead more than a cursory glance; they’re a big American military financial investment. Locate osprey birds on an eco tour, or at least watch an osprey video before heading to the beach. Tell the kids to equate the two: swoop down fast and sure from on high, scoop up prey if a bird and rescue troops if a plane, and lift straight back up.

Osprey means plane and bird in Surf City NC
Looking up is exciting when Osprey planes fly by, a regular occurrence in Surf City. Photo credit: #OnlyInOnslow

13. Imagine Finding Pirates and Female Aviators in a Missiles Museum at the Beach

Operation Bumblebee has a secret meaning at this beach, and apparently within the Army.

Discover the secret—and others—at the Missiles and More Museum on Channel Boulevard in Topsail Island.

Then notice tall abandoned looking towers you might have ignored otherwise along this barrier island. Everything connects if we can ever notice the details.

Photographers sat in those observation towers in 1945 when the military was secretly testing ramjet missiles to assess their capabilities. This was Camp Davis, but who knew? Secret was the plan.

Surf City Missiles and More Museum also at the beach
Towers used in the secret 1945 missile-testing military mission still stand. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

The museum’s run by the Historical Society of Topsail Island and the details are abundant. Read a lot, or a little because the voluminous facts are delivered in many ways: posters, printed pages, drawers to pull out for their contents, videos, big photographs.

Pirate stories of the Carolinas are told here, and so is the history of women pilots. Sometimes they flew as tow target pilots for gunnery training!

Often they ferried planes from factories to points of embarkation. And the women flew all 78 different types of aircraft used those 1940s years.

14. Roller Skate…or Send a Postcard From the Beach

Silly my gang thought to find a skating rink above the post office. Loud, huh? This combo-business is a couple of blocks from the Missiles and More Museum.

For a tamer outdoor activity on ground level, mini golf is available several places, definitely on the things to do in Surf City agenda.

Surf City NC night skies
Always a good plan to pay attention to the night skies on a beach vacation–they can be sultry and mysterious. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

15. Look Up — Don’t Miss the Night Skies

Walking the Surf City Pier for sunset views is surely a fun thing to do in Surf City NC —or as a romantic moment. However, intense competition like playing Pictionary dominate multigen after-dinner hours.

Family friendly can take on new interpretations with team sports over board games!

Might miss the ocean pier but we could look up at the sky where we were.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure the rental houses you are considering have a big table for eating, sure, but also for game playing. Teams of four around the table was my family’s game equation.

Read More: Best North Carolina Resorts for Families

Surf City beach fashions include tents.
Beach tents come in many more shapes and sizes than those of my childhood in the 1950s at the Jersey shore! Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

16. Renting for a Multigen Beach Vacation

When my age 40-ish kids were little, we rented big houses at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida. Really big houses to sleep dozens.

Today’s great-big house rental prices don’t fit our vacation budgets. So we look for two.

Here’s more of what my family has learned with many multigen beach summers:

  • Narrow down the location to one family being within errand-driving distance if possible. For us, that’s the eldest who live in Wilmington NC. We’ve enjoyed Wrightsville Beach, Kure Beach and Carolina Beach. Helps to have a headquarters for family arriving from long distances a day or two early.
  • Find houses as close together as possible. The kids will swarm from one to the other all the time. Late night board game playing wraps up more easily if the walk home is no challenge.
  • Beach access really matters. Factor in a week of trudging too far to cross the dunes and the price of “right there” might be do-able.
  • Ocean views do not rank as high as proximity unless somebody in the multigen really doesn’t leave the house to get to the beach. If mobility is a concern, then a house with an elevator might be wise.
  • Check the size of the dining room tables. How many chairs? That matters for shared meals and for game nights.
  • If the kids are little, make sure all bedrooms have access inside the house. I had a carport-level room this year which required going outside and up exterior stairs. OK for me, but totally unsatisfactory to assign to children.
  • Double check the rental’s sheets and towels policy. Provided automatically? Extra rental price? That can pose a budget problem for people flying in, or crowded in a car.
  • Does the house provide beach chairs, and how many? They’re impossible to bring with you, and expensive to rent or buy on site.
  • If your crew likes vigorous outdoor activities and water sports, figure out how close the houses are to paddleboard and surfboard options. Or tackle shops and surf shops.

Find Places to Stay Near Surf City, NC

There are lots of options for hotel stays near Surf City, including vacation rentals. Use this interactive map to help you find a place to stay in the area.

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Christine Tibbetts believes family travel is shared discovery — almost like having a secret among generations who travel together. The matriarch of a big blended clan with many adventuresome traveling members, she is a classically-trained journalist. Christine handled PR and marketing accounts for four decades, specializing in tourism, the arts, education, politics and community development.  She builds travel features with depth interviews and abundant musing to uncover the soul of each place.
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