It’s all about engaging the senses for Ian and Kristi Balding. Guests on their Wilmington tours see the sparkling coastline, hear great music, smell the salty air, touch rough mollusk shells — and then taste their way through freshly shucked oysters, homemade sauces, and perfectly paired wines. The Oyster Farm Tour & Tasting is just one of the ways the Baldings engage guests with a variety of adventurous maritime tours with their company, Epic Excursions.
“This is a water community, and we don’t feel like you get a full overview of the Wilmington area until you get out on the water,” Ian says. Channeling memorable adventures from their frequent vacations to the Bahamas, the couple designs out-of-the-box activities that make local experiences feel, well, epic.
A level up from a traditional boat charter, for five years Epic Excursions has hosted everything from paddleboard and eco tours to private island seafood boils, chef dinners, and camping. “We want to be the highlight of your visit,” Kristi says, “not just because you’ve had a great adventure, but also because you’ve gotten to see more of this wonderful region.”
Epic Excursions is just one of many companies crafting curated experiences that showcase this coastal destination. By land and sea, Wilmington and its island beaches have dozens of guided and do-it-yourself tours.
See Wrightsville Beach from a new perspective on a cruise with Soundside Adventures. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
1. Water Ways
With the Cape Fear River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the legacy of this region is best grasped by boat. Sunset sails, island-hopping cruises, eco-adventures, and private charters are available through Wilmington Outdoor Adventures, Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, YachtSource, and Soundside Adventures.
Or board a vessel in downtown Wilmington to see the famous Riverwalk from a new vantage point. Cape Fear River Boats and Wilmington Water Tours take narrated cruises along this storied river, with sunset outings being a fan favorite.
Discover World War II history when you tour the Battleship North Carolina. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
2. History Class
Legends and lore await in this historic port city. Horse-drawn carriages traveling brick-lined streets offer narrated rides through Wilmington’s Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Book through Springbrook Farms, which uses rescued Percheron horses and costumed drivers. Or lace up: Tour Old Wilmington has a variety of delightful walking tours that introduce the city’s customs, nautical tales, and notable personalities.
From along the Riverwalk, eyes naturally fall on the refurbished World War II Battleship North Carolina. Upgrade your ticket to join a docent-led group like the City at Sea Tour, the Big Bang Tour, or the Above the Deck Tour. “With so many decks to explore, a tour of the battleship with an experienced volunteer means that, in addition to seeing all the main points of interest, you also get insight into the engineering genius of her design and behind-the-scenes tales of life aboard the battleship,” says Heather Holbrook, director of marketing for the battleship.
On the second Thursday of each month, visitors enjoy summertime jazz concerts at the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
Blocks away, stately houses invite visitors to step inside the past lives of prominent local families. The Colonial-era Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens features Georgian architecture, guided tours, and regular special events, while the Latimer House Museum features upper-class Victorian-era decor and evidence of the three generations who lived and worked there.
Explore the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts from basement to belvedere, as well as the adjacent original slave quarters, one of the best-preserved examples in the country. Time your visit for the second Thursday of the month to enjoy live summertime jazz on the museum’s beautiful grounds.
Rather see the city at your own pace? A smartphone and a few dollars are all you’ll need to embark on one of six topical tours, including “African American History,” “Pub Crawl,” “Civil War,” and “Lost Wilmington.” The GPS-guided “Wilmington.tours” app offers interesting content at each site, with the freedom to start, stop, and break when you please.
Sip a flight at Edward Teach Brewing, one of the stops along the Wilmington Ale Trail. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
3. Local Flavor
Try local oysters at Pinpoint Restaurant, a stop on the Taste Carolina gourmet food tour. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
Opportunities abound for culinary and beverage tours, which should tell you something about the remarkable caliber of restaurants and drinks in the area. One of the most lauded is Taste Carolina, whose gourmet food tours guide groups to five or six hotspots, giving guests a chance to chat with chefs, sample local dishes (often paired with sips), and dig into Wilmington’s food culture.
Coastal cuisine steals the show on a Tasting History Tour of Carolina Beach, where island stories are shared at some of the beach’s best eateries.
Ready to wet your whistle? The Wilmington Ale Trail is a craft beer-based checklist of breweries and bottle shops, or you can set out on two wheels with the Wilmington Bike & Brew Tours, an easy e-bike excursion that combines history and haunts with stops at two breweries. Inside a refurbished Quonset hut, learn the behind-the-scenes scoop on sourcing, fermentation, distillation, and finishing of spirits at the award-winning End of Days Distillery.
Stop and smell the flowers — and admire mighty live oaks draped in Spanish moss — at Airlie Gardens. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
4. Creative Culture
With a roster of rotating exhibitions and outdoor works, the Cameron Art Museum celebrates a diverse artistic heritage with representation not only by notable North Carolinians, but renowned international makers as well. Weekly docent experiences are offered, and you can enhance the visit with guided hands-on activities inspired by the Cameron’s current artworks (by reservation only). While there, don’t miss the museum’s outdoor offerings, including the nation’s first U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) Sculpture Park.
In Carolina Beach, 14 magnificent murals (with numbers 15 and 16 on the way!) tell tales of the island’s history and culture. Snap a selfie with the nostalgic Best Day Ever, the vibrant Carolina Dreamin’, or the whimsical Indigenous Fly Feaster. Tasting History Tours will soon add a Mural Tasting Tour highlighting a few of these masterpieces.
Mother Nature’s palette is on display at the 67-acre Airlie Gardens. Guided tours (including a narrated tram option) delve into the garden’s horticulture, as well as its wildlife, lakes, birds, and a seasonal butterfly house.
Explore the natural beauty of Fort Fisher State Recreation Area along the Basin Trail. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Island Beaches, NC
5. Trailing On
As 2023 is the state’s Year of the Trail, a visit to Wilmington and its beaches isn’t complete without time spent on its low-impact nature trails and greenways and in its coastal forests. Carolina Beach State Park’s nine trails wind through various habitats; joining one of the weekly ranger nature hikes is a great way to discover native flora like the rare Venus flytrap.
At Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, miles of walkable coastline reveal Kure Beach’s wildlife marshes, a WWII bunker, and, if you’re lucky, loggerhead sea turtles. Prefer pedals? The River-to-Sea Bikeway, Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, and Island Greenway are self-driven paths perfect for bikes. (Rentals are available from purveyors like Pleasure Island Rentals, Wrightsville SUP, and Shore Break Bikes Carolina Beach.)
Whether you follow the leader or become your own guide, there’s something for every kind of traveler in this pocket of paradise that offers everything you love about beaches, plus a historic city too.