The main summer target is Wrightsville Beach (tel. 800/650-9106 or 910/256-8116; www.visitwrightsville.com), 6 miles east of Wilmington on U.S. 74/76 -- and don't expect to have the beach to yourself during the high season. The island is separated from the mainland by a small drawbridge. A year-round residence for some 3,200 dwellers, Wrightsville Beach, once known only as "The Banks," is the widest beach on the Cape Fear coast, stretching for a mile along the oceanfront, its beige sands set against a backdrop of hearty vegetation such as sea oats. The south end isn't ideal for swimming; you'll find better conditions between the rebuilt Johnnie Mercer Pier and Crystal Pier (patrolled by lifeguards in summer).
Another good spot is Carolina Beach State Park (tel. 910/458-8206; www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/cabe/main.php), sprawling across 1,770 acres 10 miles north of Wilmington off U.S. 421. This beach, flanked on one bank by the Cape Fear River and on the other by the Intracoastal Waterway, lies at the northern edge of aptly named Pleasure Island. The significance of the park lies not in the beach -- in fact, swimming is not allowed -- but in the natural flora, including the rare Venus' flytrap and other insect-eating plants, which abound in the swamp forest. The park has 5 miles of hiking trails. Facilities include toilets, a marina, a picnic area, and a family campground.
At the southern tip of Pleasure Island is the small, family-friendly community of Kure Beach. From here, you can see Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. The white-sand beaches are generally uncrowded, restaurants are informal, and the Kure Beach fishing pier is a magnet for anglers. You can wander through the remains of Fort Fisher.
Batson's Charter Boats, Carolina Beach (tel. 910/458-8671), departs from the Carolina Beach Municipal Marina, offering trolling and bottom-fishing charters. The charter boat can accommodate up to six fishers besides the crew. Prices are $400 for 5 hours, $790 for 8 hours, and $1,050 for 10 hours; rates include rod, reel, and bait.
The Belvedere Country Club, 2368 Country Club Dr., Hampstead (tel. 910/270-2703), has one of the best and most popular courses in the Wilmington area, offering a par-72, 6,315-yard, 18-hole course open daily from 7am to 7pm. From Monday to Thursday, greens fees are $36 before 11am, $31 from 11am to 2pm, and $26 after 2pm. Friday to Sunday, greens fees are $40 before 11am, $36 from 11am to 2pm, and $32 after 2pm. Clubs can be rented from $10 to $20 for 18 holes. Tee-time reservations are requested. Facilities include a clubhouse, a restaurant, and a pro shop. Professional instruction is available at $50 per hour. The club lies 15 miles outside Wilmington. Take U.S. 17 north to Hampstead (about 10 miles), and continue on the same route the final 4 1/2 miles.
The best outfitter is Aquatic Safaris & Divers Emporium, 6800-1A Wrightsville Ave. (tel. 910/392-4-FUN ; www.aquaticsafaris.com).