The 3 best budget-friendly vacation spots in North Carolina, according to readers

N.C. written in the sand on a North Carolina beach

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By Stacy Rounds

May 29, 2024

Our readers have spoken in a recent poll, and we’ve compiled a list of the top three budget-friendly vacation spots in North Carolina.

Our readers have spoken in a recent poll, and we’ve compiled a list of the top three budget-friendly vacation spots in North Carolina. Each of these locations offers a unique blend of natural beauty, exciting activities, and quaint charm without breaking the bank. Whether you’re seeking a tranquil escape or an adventure-filled getaway, these spots provide the perfect setting for a memorable vacation.

So, pack your bags, gather your family or friends, and get ready to explore the hidden gems of North Carolina. From sun-soaked shores and historic landmarks to vibrant local culture and outdoor adventures, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Let’s dive into the details of these top three cheap vacation spots, as voted by you, our savvy readers.

Beachfront condos on Carolina Beach

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3. Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach, located just south of Wilmington, is a vibrant and lively coastal town that offers a wide range of activities and attractions for visitors of all ages. Known for its boardwalk, exciting festivals, and stunning shores, Carolina Beach is a fantastic destination for those seeking a fun-filled, yet affordable vacation.

One of the highlights of Carolina Beach is its famous boardwalk, which has been recognized as one of the best in the country. The boardwalk is packed with shops, arcades, amusement rides, and food stands, creating a lively atmosphere that’s perfect for families and fun-seekers. During the summer months, the boardwalk comes alive with live music, fireworks, and outdoor movies, providing endless entertainment options for visitors.

The beach itself is a major draw, with its wide expanse of soft, golden sand and gentle surf. It’s an ideal spot for swimming, sunbathing, and playing beach games. For those looking to explore the water, Carolina Beach offers a variety of water sports, including paddleboarding, jet skiing, and parasailing. Fishing is also a popular activity here, with the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier and numerous charter boat options available for deep-sea fishing excursions.

Nature lovers will find plenty to do in Carolina Beach State Park, a 761-acre park known for its diverse ecosystems, hiking trails, and the rare Venus flytrap plant. The park’s trails offer stunning views of the Cape Fear River and the island’s unique maritime forest, making it a great place for hiking, birdwatching, and picnicking. The park also has a marina with boat ramps, making it easy for visitors to explore the waterways by boat or kayak.

For a taste of local culture, the Carolina Beach Boardwalk hosts several events and festivals throughout the year, including the Carolina Beach Music Festival and the Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues & Jazz Festival. These events showcase the region’s rich musical heritage and culinary delights, providing a fun and festive atmosphere for visitors.

Accommodation options in Carolina Beach are diverse and affordable, with a range of budget-friendly hotels, motels, and vacation rentals available. Many of these options are conveniently located near the beach and the boardwalk, allowing visitors to easily access all the attractions and activities the town has to offer. Dining is also affordable and varied, with plenty of casual eateries, seafood restaurants, and beachside bars serving up delicious meals and refreshing drinks at reasonable prices.

Under the pier at Topsail Island

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2. Topsail Island

Topsail Island, nestled between Wilmington and Jacksonville, is a serene barrier island that offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure. Known for its quiet beaches, clear waters, and small-town charm, Topsail Island is an excellent destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat without sacrificing the excitement of outdoor activities.

One of the standout features of Topsail Island is its stunning, unspoiled beaches. With 26 miles of sandy shores, visitors can enjoy long walks, beachcombing, and sunbathing in a tranquil setting. The island’s beaches are also famous for their sea turtle nests, and during the nesting season, visitors might be lucky enough to witness baby turtles making their way to the ocean — a truly magical experience. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is a fantastic place to learn about these fascinating creatures and the island’s conservation efforts.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Topsail Island offers a variety of activities, from kayaking and paddleboarding in the calm waters of the Sound to fishing and boating in the Atlantic Ocean. Surfing is also popular here, with several surf schools offering lessons for beginners. Nature lovers will appreciate the many parks and nature trails, such as the Serenity Point Trail, which provides breathtaking views of the island’s southern tip and its diverse wildlife.

The island’s three main communities — North Topsail Beach, Surf City, and Topsail Beach — each have their own unique charm and attractions. Surf City, the island’s commercial hub, features a variety of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options, including the iconic Surf City Ocean Pier. This pier is a favorite spot for fishing, strolling, and taking in the beautiful ocean views. North Topsail Beach is known for its quiet, residential vibe and is perfect for those looking to escape the crowds, while Topsail Beach retains a nostalgic, old-school beach town feel with its retro motels and classic ice cream parlors.

Accommodations on Topsail Island are plentiful and affordable, ranging from beachfront vacation rentals to budget-friendly hotels and campgrounds. Many of the island’s rental properties come equipped with kitchens, allowing visitors to save money by preparing their own meals. Dining out is also affordable, with numerous seafood shacks, casual cafes, and family-friendly restaurants offering delicious, locally-sourced fare at reasonable prices.

The walkway to the lighthouse on Oak Island

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1. Oak Island

Oak Island, located in Brunswick County, is a delightful destination known for its pristine beaches, charming small-town feel, and abundant outdoor activities. With 10 miles of uncrowded sandy shores, this island offers the quintessential beach experience without the hustle and bustle of more commercialized areas. The relaxed atmosphere makes it an ideal spot for families, couples, and solo travelers looking to unwind and soak up the sun.

One of the main attractions of Oak Island is its commitment to preserving the natural environment. The island is home to several parks and nature reserves, including the Oak Island Nature Center and the Environmental Overlook Trail. Here, visitors can explore diverse ecosystems, spot local wildlife, and enjoy scenic views of the marshlands and maritime forests. For those who love fishing, Oak Island boasts two fishing piers, multiple boat ramps, and numerous spots for surf fishing, making it a paradise for anglers.

In addition to its natural beauty, Oak Island offers a range of affordable activities and attractions. The historic Southport nearby is a must-visit, with its charming streets lined with antique shops, local boutiques, and delightful eateries. The Oak Island Lighthouse, one of the brightest in the United States, provides panoramic views of the coastline and is a popular spot for photography enthusiasts. For a bit of history, the Fort Caswell complex offers a glimpse into the past with its well-preserved Civil War-era fortifications.

For accommodation, Oak Island features a variety of budget-friendly options, including cozy beach cottages, affordable motels, and campgrounds. Many of these lodging options are just a short walk from the beach, allowing visitors to enjoy the ocean breeze and the soothing sound of the waves throughout their stay. Dining on Oak Island is also easy on the wallet, with numerous casual seafood joints, family-owned restaurants, and beachfront grills serving up delicious meals at reasonable prices.



  • Stacy Rounds

    Stacy Rounds is a writer and growth producer for Cardinal & Pine. Prior to joining the team, Stacy has worked as a writer, editor, and engagement specialist covering topics ranging from local history, disability advocacy, recreation, and food hotspots to relationships and mental health.



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