Editor’s Note—you can read a recap of our 2021 trip to Ocean Isle Beach here!
I’m so excited about today’s post as Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina is one of my favorite vacation spots in the US—and it’s one I feel like not as many people know about! Growing up, my family spent a week at the beach every summer and it was always my favorite week of the year. We went to North Myrtle Beach—bouncing around between Cherry Grove, Windy Hill, and Ocean Drive if you’re familiar—up through the time I was in high school, and then it really just started growing out of control. It became so commercialized and so crowded that we really wanted to find a smaller, quieter beach town to set up camp at for our annual seaside respite. Enter: Ocean Isle Beach, my family’s favorite coastal Carolina town!
Ocean Isle Beach is not in the Outer Banks, but in Brunswick County, the southern most county on North Carolina’s eastern seaboard that borders the line with South Carolina. It’s about an hour south of Wilmington and an hour north of Myrtle Beach. Brunswick County is also home to Oak Island, Calabash, Holden Beach, Sunset Beach, Shallotte, Southport, and Bald Head Island—all of which are great places in their own right, and many of which my family has spent time exploring, too.
As many of you know, my trips to Las Vegas, France, and Italy were canceled as a result of COVID-19, so I found myself with a lot of extra vacation days for the year. Right before Memorial Day as things were beginning to open up, my sisters, my cousins, and I started brainstorming what type of vacation we might be able to safely go on this summer and quickly decided a road trip was most realistic. We all love the beach, and given it was very conducive to social distancing—we could cook most of our meals at home, eat on a patio outside with a lot of ocean airflow when we wanted to go out, and set up our umbrella at least six feet apart from others—we quickly decided a week at the beach was the perfect way to escape from the four walls we had been staring at for the past three months. I hadn’t spent a week at the beach in five years, and I forgot just how wonderful it is—unlike a sightseeing trip you’re not go, go, go, and I am convinced that a cold drink just tastes better on the beach. It was such a relaxing trip and just reminded me of simpler times.
I know taking a trip right now is not for everyone—and I totally respect that! A lot of people have asked me if people were taking socially distancing seriously when we were there, and I would candidly say not really. At the grocery store, gas stations, and restaurants, we were often the only patrons wearing masks, and at most of the restaurants we went to, the bartenders and servers weren’t wearing masks. (I do believe North Carolina has passed a mandatory mask rule since we were there the week of June 13, so hopefully things are better now!) On the beach, no one was wearing masks, but I wasn’t expecting that or concerned about it—Ocean Isle Beach is pretty quiet and family oriented. It was easy to set up camp for the day away from others, and in the ocean or walking on the beach, most people stayed at least six feet away. As such, if you’re still looking to go but want to be mindful of social distancing, I’d recommend planning to cook at home and just hanging out on the beach—I’d avoid the restaurants and shops! In terms of grocery stores went to the Publix just across the bridge, and all employees wore masks. It’s a huge store with one-way aisles, so even though they weren’t making all patrons wear masks (which they should!), you could at least spread out. We also brought quite a few groceries with us from home, so that’s another option if you want to avoid the store entirely.
So without further ado, let me show you around OIB!
HOW TO GET THERE /
I think the best way—and the only way I’ve ever gotten to OIB—is to drive. Coming from the DC area, it is about an eight hour drive without traffic, and if you’ve spent anytime on the I-95 corridor in the summer, you know there is always beach traffic, so I’d recommend getting an early start. This most recent trip to OIB, we didn’t hit as much traffic as normal given there aren’t as many people traveling this summer. Since Ocean Isle Beach is an island with only one bridge spanning the Intercoastal Waterway to take you on and off the mainland, there’s always bridge traffic on Saturdays as that’s when most rentals begin and end. But the good news is, right after you get over the bridge onto the island, there are several beach bars waiting for you!
If you are looking to fly, both Wilmington and Myrtle Beach are about an hour away from Ocean Isle Beach and have small airports.
GETTING AROUND OIB /
While Ocean Isle Beach embraces such a slow pace of life making it really easy to walk and bike places, given many of the essentials are on the mainland, namely grocery stores—we love the Publix just over the bridge—I would definitely recommend having access to a car given there isn’t a strong Uber or taxi presence on the island. There are also some restaurants off the island my family enjoys going to—more on those below!—that would be hard to get to without a car. Since there isn’t the same access to Uber and very few taxis, we always just take turns being the DD when we go out to eat or to bars.
Like I mentioned, Ocean Isle is a very walkable place; my family always walks to the beach everyday, you could walk on the beach, and it’s a pretty small island so most of the attractions—the pier, the ice cream shops, the putt putt golf course, the restaurants—are within walking distance of most houses and condos.
One really fun way to get around the island for the week is to rent bikes! We did this on our last trip and had so much fun riding our beach cruisers around the neighborhoods after dinner every night and to happy hour at the bars. We rented ours through Julie’s Rental, and with taxes and fees, they were $48/week for each bike. I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth! They also drop the bikes off at your house or condo and then come pick them up at the end of the week, so it’s also extremely easy. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years but it brought me so much JOY—and it was like they say, it’s like riding a bike ;)!
WHERE TO STAY /
There are two hotels on the island—Ocean Isle Inn and The Islander Inn, which are right next door to each other right after you cross over the bridge and have great access to the pier. I’ve never stayed at either hotel, so can’t speak to them directly—but if you’re looking to stay for less than a week, one of these hotels is probably a great option.
If you’re looking to stay a full week at the beach—which is what I recommend and what my family has always done; you deserve it!—I’d recommend renting a condo or a house, depending on the size of your group. Most week-long rentals on the island run from Saturday to Saturday, and during peak summer season, most rentals require a week-long stay anyway.
When my extended family has gone to Ocean Isle in the past, we’ve rented both 52 Private Drive and 44 Private Drive, neither which don’t seem to be doing vacation rentals anymore. Both of those homes are in the Summer Place neighborhood, which is a cute loop of larger homes, most of which are for rent, and we loved our time there—so definitely look for those in your searches. The neighborhood is just a block off the beach and could accommodate our large groups! For both of those rentals, we went through Cooke Realty. When we booked those rentals five and six years ago respectively, Airbnb and VBRO hadn’t yet had their “moment”, but given our experience looking for a rental this summer, many more homes for rent on OIB are now on those type of “for rent by owner” websites. As such, I’d recommend casting a wide net when you’re looking for a place and narrowing it down from there.
On our most recent trip to OIB this summer, the five of us stayed at 250 West Second Street, Unit 3C, which we booked through Sloane Vacation Rentals. I’d highly recommend looking into this condo complex if you have a similar sized group—and it’s only a block or two off the beach, depending on where your unit is in the complex. All the units are three bedrooms with two baths, and there are two pools, a tennis court, and a beautiful pond on the property. Our rental came with two covered parking spots directly below our unit, and there was an outdoor shower on the ground floor as well, which was helpful to wash all the sand off our beach chairs and the like at the end of the week. The unit we rented was really cute and perfect for our stay, and check-in and check-out were a breeze (and contactless!) since we were given a unique key code for the lock. Our unit was on the top floor, so we did have to walk up three flights of outdoor wood stairs—this could be a deal breaker to some, so wanted to flag. Williamson Realty and McClure Realty Vacations also have similar inventory as Sloane, so I would recommend comparing between all three realty companies and what’s available on VRBO to get the best option.
Regardless of where you stay on OIB, I think you’ll have a great trip. Given the island is pretty small, I think specific location matters very little—and if it’s of interest to you, you could even look for a home that backs up to the Intercostal Waterway!
WHAT TO DO /
When we go to Ocean Isle, we like to spend as much time as we can on the beach! We usually are out on the beach by 10am or so and hang out there until around 5pm. This trip, we packed our lunch and coolers, and only made runs back to the condo if we needed more hard seltzer! While we started our week at the beach setting up our Cool Cabana—which I would totally recommend as it’s so easy to set up!—beach patrol swung by and let us know they were against beach ordinances. Dumb rule, in my opinion, but we are rule followers at heart. Luckily, it is so easy to rent umbrellas—and chairs if you need them—at OIB. We go through Beachway Rentals and they’ll set your umbrella up before 9am and take it down between 5-7pm each night. You just tell them what public access entry point you’re closest to. Since our most recent beach trip got off to a rainy start, we only booked one for three days and it was $90 total. In the past, we’ve done week-long rentals, and there are price breaks for additional umbrellas if you have a larger group. It is so worth the money to not have to lug it down to the beach and set it up yourself!
Ocean Isle has a pier and it’s definitely worth a walk on—they also allow fishing if that’s your thing! It costs $1 to enter. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of piers and I am especially not a fan of swimming near them—hello sharks!—but I think the OIB pier is well-constructed and there’s an arcade and ice cream shop at the entrance of the pier, along with a bait and tackle shop. Right across from the pier is the only mini golf course on the island—we’ve never played it because it’s not really our thing anymore, but it would be such a fun family activity. (We loved all the mini golf courses in North Myrtle Beach when we were kids!)
In the past at OIB, we’ve had great weather barring a passing afternoon thunderstorm. This past trip, it was pretty cold and rainy our first couple of days at the beach, so we decided to road trip down to North Myrtle Beach and drive down Highway 17, the main road in town, to see what all had changed since we had been there last. (For me, it was college beach week in 2013!) We went to lunch at Margaritaville at Broadway at the Beach, which was so much fun—and something we never would have done if it was a sunny week. So if you’re also faced with rainy weather, I’d definitely recommend taking a little drive and enjoying one of the many activities down in Myrtle Beach that are a little less weather dependent than going to the beach.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
If you love seafood, you’re in luck! Ocean Isle Beach has some great seafood—and some great beach cocktails! On the island, here’s what I recommend:
- Sharky’s—this is my family’s favorite restaurant on the island, the food and drinks are good, but we also just have so many great memories here. They have an awesome back patio that overlooks the waterway and all sorts of delicious surf and turf options.
- Ocean Isle Fish Company—located right next to Sharky’s, this three-story establishment has a large patio, an indoor restaurant on the second floor, and, my personal favorite, a rooftop on the third with unbeatable views. I love the margs here and usually go for the fish tacos!
- The Isles Tiki Bar—this place was new-to-us on our last trip, but I think it might have the best food on the island. We went for lunch two days while we were at the beach—we just wore swim coverups and sat outside, which is definitely where you want to be! They have great frozen cocktails and all the food we had was delicious. I loved the burger, the stacked Cobb salad, the quesadilla, the bruschetta, and the crab dip!
- Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill—OIB overall is a very casual place, so you won’t find any super high-end fine dining establishments. However, if you’re looking for a nice night out, this is probably the nicest restaurant in town and it has an amazing view of the Intercoastal Waterway, especially at sunset!
- Ice Cream at the Pier—a lot of people grab ice cream at Ocean Isle Creamery or Sunset Slush (which also pushes their carts up and down the beach!), but my favorite ice cream on the island is the soft serve inside the arcade at the pier. You can’t beat a waffle cone with soft serve vanilla and rainbow sprinkles on a hot summer day!
- Doug’s Seafood Market—this isn’t a dine-in restaurant, but if you’re looking for fresh seafood to cook at your rental, Doug’s is our go-to place. We always get peel and eat shrimp here and it’s so fresh!
If you’re willing to venture off the island, there are two restaurants nearby (within a 20-30 minute drive) my family likes to go to when we’re visiting OIB:
- Inlet View Bar & Grill in Shallotte—my family LOVES this place! There is always a wait in the summer because they don’t take reservations, but it is so worth it—and there are plenty of spaces to enjoy a drink overlooking the water while you’re waiting for a table. They have fresh orange crushes, which are amazing, and as soon as you sit down at your table, a basket of hot hush puppies shows up. They’ve also got great seafood—or other options if that’s not your thing!
- The Boundary House in Calabash—we also love Boundary House! This place does take reservations, but we usually go over a little early so we can walk around Callahan’s, which is an amazing gift shop just across the parking lot. No matter what you order, make sure you get the basket of fresh croissants. They are SO GOOD. I am a big fan of their cajun seafood pasta!
* One thing I will flag about all these restaurants is that if you’re heading to OIB, I’d double check what days they’re open. While in the past, most restaurants were open seven days a week during the summer, we found most had limited schedules because of COVID-19.
Ocean Isle Beach is one of my favorite places ever—and had it not been for COVID-19, I would have never made it there this summer, so that is definitely a huge silver lining of these trying times. If you have any questions about OIB or what we did, don’t hesitate to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also—I would hope this goes without saying, but if you’re also road tripping this summer, don’t forget your MASK! And wear it when you’re stopping at gas stations and fast food places en route and when you can’t socially distance upon arrival at your destination. We can all do our part to stop the spread.