Written By: Jon Shumaker
Fishing pier at Surf City, NC
In what seems like a lifetime ago, I went on a long-distance cycling trip along the eastern coast of the States for a month with a small group of gents. This was the trip that started my travel bug (thank you Stephen). The group started out in Georgia, we moseyed our way along highway 17 by ways and eventually ending up in Canada (crossing the Canadian-US border on a cycle is an experience, especially the US border!). Along the way there were severally memorable towns that all these years later I have wanted to go back for a visit. One was Bath, NC where we camped in the town park and a kind lady gave us a pack of stale Club crackers with some freezer burned cheddar cheese. It was the best meal ever when you are traveling and a generous act. Years later I remember fondly what many folks would throw out. The other town I always wanted to go back to was Surf City, a beach town about 40 minutes away from Jacksonville, NC. First, the town was not over built with franchise stores in an effigy to blatant consumerism and the folks we meet in our 30-minute morning break. We just stood on the main entrance deck to the beach, in the center of town and enjoyed the perfect scene. There was one wonderful couple we met and started talking. The gal was a reporter, and the man was a Marine. They invited us to spend the night at their place and she would write an article on us about the incredible cycling journey that we were on (we of course just thought of it as fun). Just a general life note, we do not regret what we did but what we did not do. We had just started riding for the day and wanted to get more miles done that day, so we continued. So a few years later and a lot less hair, I wanted to go back to visit Surf City and write an article from the local’s perspective on visiting this town that still has retained the local vibe.
Surf City Beach
My memories of the first trip all those years ago are admittedly a bit hazy, but the one clear memory is the first sight of the beach from the main entrance deck was same as it is today. Now as a more experience traveler, when you enter a new area, the insights into the area’s dynamics are much clearer. You see the fish market with the three generations working, the hot dog stand that looks like it could have served the military folks when the base still existed back in the fifties, and plentiful small coffee shops that are sprinkled around.
The morning here is the most peaceful, watching the surfers arrive for their Sunday morning surfing, the walkers/runners with their dogs, and the few photographers who attempt to capture this idyllic scene. With Apollo’s chariot starting his day long journey across the sky, the morning folks are silhouetted in a perfect backdrop. Then when the coffee places do open for the day, getting a wonderful cup of joe and the best donut you will ever eat.
Unlike the path that so many beach town have taken of rampant commercialization, when the bridge is crossed to Topsail Island, the island vibes begin. That is of course after you figure out the parking situation… First off, all parking in the Surf City area is paid with via an app between 0900 to 1700 (the world uses the 24-hour clock, Statesiders can learn it too) at $3/hour or $20/day. The parking fees pay for beach renovations. When installing the app, make sure you allow the app access to your GPS, or the app will not function. In the town area all lots are paid and there is limited parking for the stores generally. Most of the beach parking in the general area is paid via the app. The town of Topsail and the beach access points are free parking. The nearest and not shockingly one of the most popular free parking areas is the Onslow County Beach Access #2. There are two large parking lots (one on either side of the road). The beach side has a large shower and bathroom facility, and the estuary side has a kayak/standup paddle board rental company with a public access to the estuary. These lots fill up quick and they are first-come-first serve, therefore get there early.
Sunset at Surf City Beach
Kayaking and Beach
For those who enjoy human powered water sports, there are many public access points to the estuary on both the coast and island side. The Onslow County Beach Access #2 has easy access and plenty of parking if you show up early. The current is a bit strong in the estuary with some wind in the afternoon. A company offers kayak and standup paddle board rentals. Please listen to the folks who run this when they are giving instructions. The prices are steep and you want to paddle with the correct paddle position. Half of the folks I saw had the paddles upside down or even backwards and were barely moving or going in circles. Listen to the instruction before you pay $50 dollars to go in circles. The estuary is beautiful, so you want to enjoy it and not just go in circles. If you have not figured out, I am an experienced Yaker who hates seeing the sport defiled by tourists who think they know anything about it or think it is easy. Please listen to the instructions if you are unfamiliar with Yaking.
Rental Kayaks at Onslow County Beach Access #2.
There are two distinct beaches on Topsail Island that have different characteristics.
Surf City Beach- A popular beach near Jacksonville that still has a local feel. This is a popular spot for surfers in the morning. The parking is free till 0900 and after 1700. This is a town that is the favorite of a biker that has traveled the many beach towns along the coast due to the local culture and small businesses. They have the best local vibe of a beach town I have been.
Topsail Beach- This beach is windier and not ideal surfing conditions, but this makes it better for flying kites, which is a popular activity here. Some of the local stores offer kites for sale. The parking is free and there are less people than the more popular Surf City beach. It is a less developed town than Surf City and cheaper lodging.
These are recommendations for the best shelling in the area. People typically walk the beach near the main entrance and then towards Jacksonville. Go further up on Topsail Island and walk towards surf city in the morning after the tide has gone out. For the best shelling in the area and a popular but less known area, Serenity Point is the spot. A wonderful place to enjoy the day or just an evening watching the sunset. You will find boaters and locals alike enjoying the relative privacy this place offers.
Gardens and Parks
There are two parks of note in the area:
Airlie Gardens (near Wilmington): This park has beautiful old Live Oaks and a large park. Many of the Live Oaks were cut down during early naval ship builds due to the very dense wood caused cannon balls to bounce of the hull and is rot resistant. Therefore, the USS Constitution was nicknamed “Old Iron Sides” and is the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the US Navy. She still is on the water and considered a plum assignment for Boatswain mates.
Abbey Nature Preserve (near Surf City): This is a large park with many wide dirt trails thru a prime example of Carolina coastal forest. This is a popular place for an evening walk and with enough shade to stay as cool as you can be in the humid Carolina air. Dogs are allowed on a leash.
Red Headed Sliders at Abbey Nature Preserve.
Museums and Art Galleries
Poplar Gove Plantation- A good recreation of plantation life with a farmers’ market on
Missiles and More Museum- This is a darling small museum with information many people do not know about the development of topsail with a great history lesson. The folks who man the outfit are fun to talk with. If you would like to learn about the early missile development in the States, largely with the technology stolen from the Germans for jet engines and V1/V2 cruise missiles. Learn about the women who flew planes during WW2 the WASPs.
Seacoast Art Gallery: The art gallery and studio of a local artist named Sandy Mchugh. A beautiful spot to visit a bit off the main commercial area for local art and friendly conversation.
Surf City Coffee: Along with great coffee and cozy places to sit, this place has wonderful art on the walls.
Local tour boat off of Serenity Point, Topsail Island
There are plenty of highly recommended bars and beaches to roam. In Topsail, there is a mini golf course called Patio Playground and Topsail Beach Skating Rink. There are several bars in the general Surf City area that are highly recommended by the locals.
Dale’s Pub (Holly Ridge): a local pub for people who want a laid-back environment in Holly Ridge (near Surf City). Many of their clients are older. The seafood place across the street is considered the 2nd best in the area.
Hulas Bar and grill (Surf City): A local down-to-earth watering hole with an amazing cheeseburger
Boat anchored at Serenity Point, Topsail Island
10th Street Bar & Grill (Surf City): Local friendly dive bar good to meet people and have a conversation. Try the Sunday brunch. There are plenty of pool tables and live music.
The Second Row (Surf City): A local bar that features live music and music memorabilia. They serve drinks (wine and local brews) and upscale snack food. Open mic is available with instruments on the walls available to play a jam session. A dog friendly place.
Trailer Bar (Surf City): To quote one reviewer mentions of how the locals describe the bar “It’s a trailer bar what do you expect..”. Affordable drinks, great service, friendly folks, and live music on the deck. What more needs to be said.
Quarter Moon Books & Gifts (Topsail): This is one of the more unique bars you can go to. During the day it is a café and bookstore, at night live music bar. The coffee is amazing, as you expect on Topsail Island. The bar is nearly a full bar and a peaceful deck to enjoy the evening air while listening to live music.
The Daily Grind Surf City: Most popular with the tourists with comfortable places to sit and relax. The original coffee shop in the area. They have live music on the deck shared with a sister bar. Both are immensely popular with the tourists.
A fisherman's catch of the Surf City fishing pier.
Coffee and Treats
The coffee in this town is all around high quality with one standout. For the best coffee and ice cream in the Surf City area (and competitive in the best of circles for both) the Sea Blue Coffee & Ice Cream. The ice cream is imported from a super-premium creamery in Wisconsin and the coffee is also some of the best around. This place has only premium products!
The other coffee shops are just a step behind, but each have a unique quality to each. Surf City Coffee has the rarest guarantee of a coffee shop, “try before you buy and if you don’t like, you don’t pay.” This is a chill place, great for a conversation or long drink with plenty of private nocks to sit
with local art on the wall. The tourist favorite and the first coffee shop in the area is The Daily Grind Surf City. With good coffee, plenty of seating inside and on the deck, and live music in the evenings at the sister wine bar one sees quickly why this is a tourist favorite. In the Topsail area, there are very few coffee shops (maybe two), but the Quarter Moon Books & Gifts does it all very well. They are a café with excellent coffee during the day with a books shop and a live music bar in the evenings.
There are a few good fudge options in the area. In the Surf City area, the fudge is average at best, but on the main highway is the best chocolate and fudge. Burry Chocolates is a small, local confectioner with high chocolate content, which is not common at small shops, that is high quality. The fudge is also in the top five fudges with a semi-sweet soft and cream texture. On the Carolina Beach boardwalk, checkout The Fudge Boat. This place was rated the best fudge a pastry chef had ever had so this is worth checking out. Also, along the boardwalk is Britts Donuts. These are freshly made donuts that are warm and gooey glazed. A must!
The Sea Blue Coffee & Ice Cream has some of the best ice cream I have ever had and the best by far in the area. Try the coffee! Everything is premium here. The ice cream is sourced from Wisconsin. I would say that the ice cream made with Jersey Cow milk has generally been the best ice cream category anywhere if you are looking for the highest quality ice cream. The other shops in the area serve Hersey’s Ice Cream, but this cannot compare to the super premium ice cream.
For one of the best donuts you will ever eat, go to the Fractured Prune for a custom made fresh and gooey bite of goodness. It is located right off the Surf City traffic circle.
A bird couple going home for the evening.
For the best local seafood markets:
Grant’s Oyster House has fresh off the boat seafood available on a first come first serve and a priority basis. They have their own boats that bring in the morning catch for immediate sale. If you want the freshest seafood this is a must!
Thomas Tackle & Seafood has all the local seafood and the supplies to retrieve it from the ocean. This is a family run operation that is knowledgeable about the fishery. These folks consider not local the scallops from Virginia. No frozen Shrimp from China here.
Best Seafood Restaurants:
Best Seafood Restaurant: Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant 2nd best that is good but cannot compare to the best. The best is Riverview Café in Sneads Ferry. Lightly breaded and perfectly fried, sides are all good. Try the pie. My recommendation for seafood is the Soft-Shelled crab as it is a local seasonal specially.
Southern Roots Grille (in Holly Ridge) has low cost and high-quality southern food.
Convenient Stores with Great Selection of Local Beer:
Gypsy’s Maritime Market in Sneads Ferry (by Riverview Café).
Best Cheap Eats:
HOT DIGGITY DOGZ: This is the classic quick beach bites that shockingly specializes in dressed up hotdogs. Try the shakes here also.
Seasonal Produce Market:
Andrews Produce: Seasonal is open during the warmer months on Topsail Island.
Smoky Tony’s BBQ: They have not been open exceedingly long, but this is good Carolina BBQ with excellent service. The sides are great.
Most of the stores are focused on typical cheaply made tourist items. If your wanting local, go to Seacoast Art Gallery, Surf City Coffee for local art, or buy a bag of the delicious local coffee.
Surfer off Surf City Beach.
During the busy season, all forms of lodging is scarce and needs to be booked in advance. Therefore, expect to pay a steeper price.
The only hostel in the area is in Wilmington about 45 minutes away called Stella Maris Hostel, near the Historic District. I stayed there while in the area and found it had a true hostel vibe. Many of the folks who stay here are working in town and live elsewhere. The policy is that people cannot be from Wilmington and stay there (this policy prevents homeless from using it as a cheap place to live, that can be an issue). The folks are chill and often down for a conversation, with a large, covered community area outside.
There are plenty of hotels (cheapest in Topsail, but generally low star rating) in the area with the chain hotels just off Topsail on the main highway. There are beach front short-term rentals available, but plan ahead since these places fill quick.
For primitive camping, Stump Sound Campground is one of the only (if not the only) in the area. Be aware that camping in this area is expensive, even primitive. The campgrounds on the island cater more to the RVs. Lanier’s Campground has campsites with hookups. If you are planning to camp, plan ahead! These places fill up fast.
Sand bike track on the beach at Serenity Point.
Day Trip Opportunies:
Topsail: This town is the site of the former military base that occupied much of Topsail Island that is less developed than Surf City. The beach gets more wind, which makes it good for flying kites more so than a morning surf. The local business district is small with less food options. One of my favorite highlights of this town is the kite flying, Serenity Point, and the Missiles and More Museum. The beach is not my favorite due to more wind blowing sand. This is a historical location and going to the Missiles and More Museum is highly recommended for those that enjoy the historical nature of the area in many key technologies today and to learn about the WASPs.
Swansborro: This town is located on the other side of the causeway to Emerald Isle, but for me this is the star attraction in the area. The housing architecture has the cute beach bungalow feel and most of the houses are original. The downtown is cozy with many small local stores and restaurants. There are several small B&Bs and hotels in town. The person that queued me to this to this place said this town has the best sweets shop anywhere! They were correct. Candy Edventure has the best selection of candies you have not seen in years to popular candies today. The ice cream was good and creamy, but not in the best category. The fudge is average, but a bit sweet for me. What makes the fudge standout is the flavor combos. The creative combinations make these worth trying. The true gem of this candy shop is the variations of old fashion sodas. The flavors range into the disgusting sounding, such as pickles and tamales. Make sure you try these sodas! This is the place for fresh seafood on the seashore and a roam around a quaint small town. Down the road is Emerald Isle, a typical over built and commercialized beach town with more option for activities outside of the beach, but no local vibe anywhere. For those who have a passion for boiled peanuts, checkout Winberry Farm produce stand along the main road to Emerald Isle. Perfectly boiled and flavored! The produce at the stand is first rate also.