Located north of Wilmington and just south of the New River Inlet on North Carolina’s scalloped southern coast, Topsail Island remains a well-kept secret among locals. You can’t blame them. This kind of laid-back charm is hard to come by, with many nearby beaches awash in tourists and traffic.
Part of the reason Topsail has avoided the fate of busy neighboring islands is that tourists and developers didn’t have access to it until the late 1940s when the U.S. government and military moved out.
Prior to World War II, you could only reach Topsail Island by boat, and even if you did you’d only find a few beach shacks and fishing camps. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. Army built Camp Davis at Holly Ridge on the mainland and took possession of the 26-mile island to use as a training area, erecting facilities and buildings in what is now Surf City. Soon Topsail Island was home to several anti-aircraft batteries, and its population mushroomed. In 1940, Holly Ridge had 28 residents; just three years later that figure grew to 110,000.
After the war, the U.S. Navy moved in and established the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Facilities at Topsail Island for its top-secret Operation Bumblebee project developing ramjet missiles. The program only lasted about a year and a half before the facility was shut down. However, it did bring a few key improvements: a bridge from the mainland, new roads, a dredged waterway and fresh water piped onto the island.
Today you’ll find scant evidence of that storied past: the former missile assembly building at Channel Blvd. and Flake Ave. now houses a museum, the missile launch pad is used as a patio for Jolly Roger Oceanfront Inn and a few concrete missile tracking towers are still scattered around the island.
In addition to endless stretches of beach and maritime forests, Topsail Island is home to three seaside towns: North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach. Of the three, Surf City is the largest, with a permanent population of about 3,500.
Here you find the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center, a focal point of the island’s conservation efforts to protect and oversee the hatching of loggerhead sea turtle eggs. Visitors are always welcome.
Other popular activities include strolling the Surf City Ocean Pier, taking a spin at Topsail Beach Roller Skating Rink (above the post office), picnicking at Town Park in North Topsail Beach, kayaking in the Sound and Banks Channel, enjoying spectacular sunsets at Serenity Point, chowing down on fresh seafood, or just hanging out on Topsail’s miles of breathtaking beach. Whatever you choose to do, the island’s small-town vibe and endless sands are a balm for the soul.
WHERE TO DOCK
Topsail Island Marina
Located two blocks from the beach in the heart of Surf City, this family-owned marina has 15 slips, a floating dock and an 80-foot fuel dock, as well as showers, laundry, pump out and more.
Harbour Village Marina
Located in Hampstead, on the mainland side of the ICW just opposite Topsail, HVM has 192 slips for vessels up to 110 feet, fuel, pump out, showers, grills, electric hook ups and free Wi-Fi.
New River Marina
Just off the northern tip of Topsail Island in Sneads Ferry, New River Marina offers 13 slips, as well as a fuel dock, restrooms, a ship’s store and Internet access.
WHERE TO DINE
Beach Bums Grill & Bar
It’s the place to go in North Topsail to “Eat, Drink and Have Some Fun!” Eat: po’ boys, wings, shrimp tacos, seafood baskets and sandwiches. Drink: more than 30 beers or try a Bummy Mary or Frozen Pineapple Bumarita. Fun: pool table, live entertainment.
Beach Shop & Grill
What began as a soda shop in 1952 has grown into a rustic, Lowcountry bistro at the south end of Topsail Island. Southern and local favorites such as crab cakes, shrimp and grits, pork chops and Krispy Kreme bread pudding are paired with an extensive wine list.
Cora’s Isle-End Deli
This Topsail Beach favorite, named after the establishment’s resident greyhound, serves salads, wraps and sandwiches — everything from grilled pastrami and Swiss to a shrimp and sausage po’ boy.
Low Tide Steakhouse & Sandbar
Looking for turf after all that surf? Low Tide’s got you covered with a New York strip, bone-in pork chop brined in sweet tea or a 24-oz. ribeye. Like a cocktail first? Visit the Sandbar with more than 40 bourbons.
Just a block from the beach in Surf City, Shaka Taco prides itself on freshness. Order at the window and enjoy your tacos, nachos and quesadillas on the deck, patio or beach. Also available: Mexican lagers, seasonal beers, wine and cider.
Splash by the Sea
Located inside the Villa Capriani resort in North Topsail, this casual American eatery serves seafood and grilled fare, salads, pizzas and shareable plates with an oceanfront view. Check out the crab bisque, tuna nachos or the Splash Steam Pot, their must-try version of a Lowcountry boil.