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Surf City Guide
by Allison Thompson
Topsail Island is a hidden treasure favored by locals and vacationers for its sleepy, laid-back atmosphere. Many families have been returning to this very spot for generations, creating memories marked by photographs and tan lines, often to homes built that have been in the family for years. The island itself is a patchwork of the old and the new, with small cottages standing precariously on whitewashed stilts next to towering condos painted in cheery pastels. But every vacation, whether you’re an old friend or new, starts with the thump-thump-thump of tires over the metal grating of the swing bridge as you cross from the mainland into Surf City.
The Heart of Topsail
Surf City is located roughly in the center of the 26-mile long barrier island. As the largest town, Surf City boasts a modest grocery store, over 20 restaurants, 3 coffee shops, a fishing pier, and easy access to the mainland over the swing bridge.
Locals are accustomed to the traffic jams that pile up on the hour but visitors may be surprised when they find themselves headed to the mainland to buy groceries and are caught up in a snarl of traffic as the bridge turns to let a few sailboats pass by. Although inconvenient, the charm of the swing bridge lives on, although the town plans to build a new, taller bridge beginning 2017. - THERE IS NOW A NEW BRIDGE
Surf City Events
The town itself hosts a variety of summer activities, mostly geared towards children. On warm Friday nights, families gather at Soundside Park next to the swing bridge, to enjoy movies, magic shows, and live music. On Tuesdays, the farmer’s market pops up in the park, with vendors selling local produce and handmade crafts. Stop by to pick up some fresh fruit or eggs, or simply browse the booths of handicrafts to hear stories about the island from the people who live here.
The biggest event of the year, however, is Independence Day. As dusk falls, the main road becomes almost impassable as people crowd into the parks, beaches, and even parking lots to watch a spectacular firework show that lights up the night sky.
In the morning, no place on the island can compare to Surf City’s collection of doughnut shops, coffee shops, and bakeries. Whether you’re in desperate need of a quiet place to drink your latte or you’re preserving a time-honored tradition of bringing home a box of doughnuts to feed the family on a Saturday morning, Surf City has what you need.
As lunchtime rolls around, you have the choice of eating in or grabbing an order to-go. Most local restaurants offer lunch specials, and you’ll find salads, sandwiches, and seafood on most menus. Take a seat and take a break from the hot sun. In Surf City, the lunch hour is leisurely and you’re bound to enjoy some local gossip along with friendly service.<
If a beach picnic is more your style, you can grab lunch at one of Surf City’s many sandwich shops. Whether you’re in the mood for New York deli sandwiches, classic diner-style burgers, or a sub, Surf City can match your craving. If you’re not a sandwich person, pizza, sushi, Carolina barbecue, and seafood are all just a short walk from the beach. Spread out a blanket on the sand and listen to the waves as you feast. Just don’t forget the napkins!
When the sun goes down, you’ll find a variety of people sitting at the booths and tables of Surf City’s restaurants. Although some will don sundresses, khakis, and polos, you’re sure to find others looking like they just got off the boat, with the sunglasses and tans to prove it. Again, take-out food is one option to avoid the summer crowds, but most locals bear with the lines knowing that when dinner comes, it will be all worth it.
And it usually is, whether you’re looking for somewhere to seat a large, boisterous family or the perfect place to impress the in-laws, you’ll find fresh food and friendly service. Be brave, and try the brightly-painted little dive the checkout lady at the store suggested or make reservations at that place everyone says you need to go. You just might find a place to come back to year after year.
Fun for the Family
Though you may be tempted to spend your entire vacation on the beach, Surf City has plenty of other options for active families. Kayaking tours are offered at Surf City’s many outdoor sporting shops, for those who want to see the Topsail Sound’s peaceful marine ecosystem up close. Explore the Topsail Sound by boat and see bald eagles, ospreys, sea turtles, and bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat. Or, for even more of a challenge, book a surfing or stand-up paddleboard lesson and try your hand at a new sport. Surfers chance the waves in all sorts of weather, though most beginners prefer clear days when first attempting to stand up on a board.
Fishing, of course, is one of the most popular activities for sportsmen on the island. Whether you prefer chartering a day-long excursion or just want to cast a line from the pier, Surf City has something for everyone. Stop in at one of the many bait shops around the island for tips from local fishermen on where you can get the best bites.
If you prefer staying on dry land, rent a bike, and experience the charm of Topsail Island at your own pace. Bikers can be found crossing the island in even the hottest weather, occasionally with surfboards attached to their bicycles. On the mainland, you’ll also find a pirate-themed putt-putt golf course. A bit weather-beaten, the course is perfect for a little bit of competitive fun and reflects the island’s history as a pirate hideaway.
Sea Turtle Hospital
Surf City’s main attraction (besides the beach, of course) is the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Run solely by donations and volunteers, the hospital is responsible for saving and rehabilitating turtles who have been injured from pollution, motorboats, and other dangers. Take a tour, and learn from local volunteers about sea turtles and sea turtle conservation. If you’re on the beach in the early morning, you just might spot members of the turtle watch tagging sea turtle nests, keeping them safe from unwary feet. Their dedication has helped thousands of hatchlings reach the ocean every year.