We have plenty of amazing beaches on the North Carolina Coast, and no matter your style of travel you can find a NC beach vacation to match your needs.
On a recent four night family vacation to Ocean Isle Beach in the Brunswick Islands, we loved that Ocean Isle isn’t jam packed full of big ticket attractions and things to do which freed up our time to explore some of the other beach communities and barrier islands of this region.
Ocean Isle is the place to come when you want a quieter and more relaxed beach vacation experience to create memorable family moments.
Down below we share some of the fun things you can do in Ocean Isle Beach on a family vacation including what to eat and drink, where to stay, and activities and attractions to experience.
where is Ocean Isle Beach?
It’s the last of the state’s coastal treasures you experience before heading south of the border to North Myrtle Beach, and is made up of five barrier islands offering forty-five miles of broad, sweeping, uncrowded beaches.
You’ll find stunning beaches, maritime forests, fresh local seafood, expansive saltwater marshes and inlets and our favorite Inter-coastal Waterway connecting them all.
Ocean Isle, NC is considered to be the most family-friendly beach vacation area in the Brunswick Isles with its access to miles of coastline, acres of marshlands, mini-golf and arcade games, museums, zip line adventures, and options for eating and drinking with waterside views.
Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina was named “Best Tiny Town” in 2018 by Southern Living.
Things to do in ocean isle beach
Start Each Day with a Beach Sunrise
One of the best things to do in Ocean Isle, NC is to start the day with a beach sunrise. I know, it means getting up early but it’s worth the effort and it gives you more time to spend doing whatever you want.
The North Carolina beaches have some of the best sunrises I have seen around the world, and the most amazing thing is you’ll have it mostly all to yourself.
It’s that slow, gentle start to the day that sets the tone for the rest of the day of one of spectacular beauty and endless surprises.
Don’t be fooled into thinking once is enough either. No two sunrises are alike. You’ll be amazed at how different they can be. On our last morning we watched it from the comfort of our balcony at the Ocean Isle Inn in pajama pants and messy hair.
Sunrise from our balcony was just as good. As the beaches here run east to west, in some places you’ll be able to see sunrise and sunset over the ocean during late fall when the earth is perfectly moving in a way that lines it up.
Play at Ocean Isle beach
Of course, you’ll want to spend a large part of your days just playing at the beach. I was surprised at how quiet Ocean Isle Beach was in comparison to the other Brunswick Island beaches we were visiting during the fall which was quieter anyway.
We had so much space to ourselves.
The water was the perfect temperature and we had gentle surf for some body boarding. The Ocean Isle Inn is located right near the Ocean Isle Beach Pier, which is perfect for those who love fishing, or just a place to grab a scenic view of the beach.
As shown above, Ocean Isle Beach Pier makes for the perfect foreground for your sunrise photos, and background for playing on the beach.
Travelers have been coming to the pier since 1957, and it offers fishing 101 classes during the summer, and monthly fish of the month contests. The grill and ice cream parlor are updated, and carries Blue Bell dipped ice cream and the only soft serve ice cream on the island. And, they now carry Duplin Winery Wine Slush drinks. A sunset walk on the pier with a beer or slush is a very popular activity.
Paddle the Ocean Isle Waterways
Ocean or waterway? You decide where you most want to take your paddle board or kayak.
I prefer the calmer waters of the waterway, as I love the ZEN like experience of supping. When you go out on the ocean, even with the smallest swell, balancing is a whole lot trickier and I tend to fall off.
We took our stand-up paddle boards out on the marshland area of Jinks Creek just behind our hotel. I loved the tranquil experience paddling with just the birds and a silence you normally wouldn’t find in a beach destination.
Only once was my serenity disturbed by a fish jumping out of the water onto the board. With unruffled Zen I watched with delight as it quickly flipped its way back into its home.
I did have one beady eye on the muddy low-tide banks for beady alligator eyes staring back but I only saw the jagged edges of oyster clumps.
There are outfitters across the islands that rent kayaks, paddle boards, or offer guided tours. We travel with our own inflatable sup boards.
Learn at the Museum of Coastal Carolina
Located in downtown Ocean Isle, The Museum of Coastal Carolina has interactive and engaging experiences such as creating volcanoes, sea life art that comes to life, and touch tanks where you can touch or hold a sea star, an urchin, or a hermit crab.
A scavenger hunt will guide kids to various displays in the museum and help them connect more deeply to the flora, fauna and native American history of coastal Carolina.
Admission also includes the Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach.
Sea Turtle Nesting experiences
One unique Ocean Isle Beach attraction is the opportunity to witness loggerhead sea turtles laying their eggs and the babies hatching a few months later.
Nesting season lasts from Mid-May to August, so it’s your summer beach activity. We were too late, but we did see some fences still up protecting nests at Caswell Beach on Oak Island.
Thanks to the help of hundreds of Turtle Watch participants and volunteers, these endangered turtles are protected along the entire NC coastline by Sea Turtle Protection Organizations. They monitor nests every morning from May through August and search for turtle tracks.
Once eggs are found, the area is protected using stakes and flagging tape and is identified with a sign. Barriers are often constructed to decrease the chance of hatch-lings getting stepped on, run over, or confused by lights.
Watching them hatch and find their way to the ocean is a popular thing to do. Stand back, don’t touch, and give them quiet space.
During sea turtle season, the Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization hosts “turtle talks“ free to the public at the OIB Community Center
We donated to the Sea Turtle Protection Organization to help protect these precious sea creatures and as a way of giving back to the communities we visit.
Epic Sunset at Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill
Welcome to one of my favorite sunset views on the Carolina coast and one of the best things to do in Ocean Isle.
There was something so magical and magnetic about these expansive views over the intra-coastal waterway marshland in Ocean Isle.
I felt like I was in Africa and hippos were about to poke up their heads!
Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill is the place to soak up this sunset view. Head on up to the Tiki Bar with enough time to grab front row seats.
Get there early for a seat and grab your margarita and shrimp and grits and enjoy. Note it down as one of the top attractions in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands!
Jinks Creek is on the higher priced side for meals. There is a fabulous private gazebo overlooking the water if you’re lucky enough to get that. Otherwise you can eat on the outdoor deck or the inside dining room which has large windows for the views.
However, I found the views are much better from the outside spaces.
On the menu, you’ll find a variety of dishes (with an emphasis on seafood) like seafood platters, surf and turf, wild mushroom risotto and burgers. My shrimp and grits was very good.
Zip-line over the cypress Swamps
Not only do you have oceans and river-ways for your outdoor adventure in Ocean Isle Beach, you also have swampy fun too.
On the way out of the island area you’ll find the Shallotte River Swamp Park, which offers a range of outdoor fun from the ground up over the trees.
Craig and Kalyra took on the cypress canopy tour, zipping through the trees and over sections of the 300-year-old cypress swamp (look out for wildlife!). The zip line tour lasts approximately 2 – 2 ½ hours and includes 10 zipline stations, three bridges and more than 1.25 miles of cable.
It claims to have the longest, fastest, and tallest zip line on the East Coast.
As Savannah was too light for the zip-line tour, her and I headed for the Aerial Adventure Park; a series of rope course obstacles high in the tree line. We had two hours here to move between the three different levels of height and difficulties. It was one of the best treetop adventure courses we have done. (another one we loved was in Roanoke, Virginia)
I loved navigating around the giant gorilla, climbing over kayaks and jet skis, and rock climbing over a fish wall suspended in the sky.
The red level was for 14 years and over as the safety belays were a little more difficult to connect to. I left Savannah on the greens while I took on the highest of the rope courses.
The Swamp park also has guided cypress swamp cruises and a nature trail through the reptile sanctuary. It’s a great way to get some ecological education while having a fun time.
Town Center Park and mini golf
Younger kids will love the new Town Center Park which features playground equipment and splash pad. Our kids are too old for it now, but we past by here plenty of times seeing smiling kids playing on the playground while their parents played bocce.
During the summer months, the Town Center Park has a concert series with regional and local performers.
Across form here is the River Country Mini Golf course which was always busy with people playing. Since this is a more relaxing North Carolina beach vacation, mini golf with the kids will always be an enjoyable thing to do in Ocean Isle.
Play a round of Golf
If you are a golfer, you’ll be thrilled to know that the Brunswick Islands is NC’s Golf Coast. There are more than thirty championship golf courses in the region.
Ocean Isle Beach is home to four outstanding courses: Leopard’s Chase Golf Club, Panther’s Run Golf Club, Lion’s Paw Golf Links, and Tiger’s Eye Golf Links.
Ocean Isle Inn Restaurants (+ places to drink)
Coffee & Bagels at 59 Causeway Grill
Whenever we’re on the coast we always try to incorporate our meals around water views, and 59 Causeway Grill offers quality lattes and tasty bagels with a stunning view of the waterway.
Besides a full coffee bar including specialty lattes, they also serve up smoothies, teas, pastries, bagel sandwiches and breakfast platters.
Ocean Isle Fish Company
Ocean Isle Fish Company is on the Intracoastal Waterway with gorgeous views of the waterway, marsh and Ocean Isle Beach. Fishing boats offload their catch daily, which moves up the stairs from the boat to your plate.
There are several levels including a lower level beach bar and an upper deck Tiki Bar.
Any kind of seafood you like, you’ll find on this extensive menu, including sushi, tacos, shrimp and grits, and lobster nachos. The servings are generous! My small cobb salad with blackened shrimp was huge and only $7. There weren’t a great deal of gluten free options.
We loved the island vibe of this Ocean Isle Restaurant and we ate twice here for lunch. Flip flops is standard dress for this Ocean Isle restaurant.
Sharky’s Waterfront restaurant
Sharky’s Waterfront Restaurant is Ocean Isle Beach’s oldest restaurant. Like Ocean Isle Fish Company it is located near the OIB bridge and on the marina and waterway.
They have 200 feet of docking if you want to arrive by boat. Sharkey’s has a great view from the outdoor deck over the waterway and has a smaller menu than Ocean Isle that features seafood, tacos, and pizza, including gluten free. And it was pretty tasty!
Drift Coffee & Kitchen
Another place we frequented on more than one occasion was Drift Coffee & Kitchen. A stones throw away from our hotel and the ocean, we enjoyed a morning coffee and avocado on toast on their elevated deck.
You’ll also find smoothies, acai bowls, breakfast bowls and burritos. I loved the ample gluten free options. Drift also have two locations in Wilmington, NC.
Taste the Tropical Spirit at Makai Brewing
What kind of beach trip would it be without experiencing local craft beer flavors?
Makai Brewing has around a dozen rotating taps featuring their own brews and those of other breweries in the Cape Fear region.
They also had a gluten-free beer in a bottle, which excited me! Beach lovers will appreciate the Hawaii vibe of this brewery, whose name Makai means “toward the sea” in Hawaiian.
wine tasting and Live Music at Coastal Wine Room
Craig and I ducked out one afternoon for a walk, which just happened to lead us to the deck of Coastal Wine Room (right next door to Drift Coffee).
They have an extensive collection of wines and brews from around the world which you can drink at the bar or outside deck or take home with you.
We ordered a cheese board and glass of chardonnay and craft beer and enjoyed a moment of time out. A band was setting up just as we were leaving (our walk time was about up!). They have live music on Tuesday and Thurs and wine tasting experiences.
It’s a fabulous local find with friendly owners passionate about bringing people together over good wine.
Ocean Isle Beach Rentals
Stay at Ocean Isle Inn
It’s ideally located to explore the Brunswick Islands and you cannot beat taking a few strides to your own piece of sand near the beach. (The perfect place for daily sunrises!)
If you want a break from the salt and sand, there’s an oceanfront pool waiting for you – still with views. Do your best to book an oceanfront room as the expansive views up and down the island are pretty special.
We also loved how it was within walking distance to the small town of Ocean Isle Beach where you’ll find restaurants, bars, and cafes.
The Ocean Isle Inn has free continental breakfast!
We only realized during our stay at the Ocean Isle Inn when its familiarity jogged our memory that we stayed here for our good friend’s wedding back in 2008. So, brides to be, consider this Brunswick Islands hotel for your wedding venue!
Ocean Isle Beach Directions
Below are the approximate driving times and distances to Ocean Isle Beach from these popular destinations in North Carolina:
- Wilmington: 55 minutes (46 miles)
- Raleigh: 2 hours, 45 minutes (174 miles)
- Charlotte: 3 hours, 20 minutes (193 miles)
- Asheville: 5 hours, 20 minutes (327 miles)
Have any questions, or your own suggestions for Ocean Isle NC? Drop us a comment down below!
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