Shell Island may not be a familiar term for new visitors to Wrightsville Beach, but it’s certainly well-known among locals and historians who like to explore the original roots of the area. Referring to the northern tip of Wrightsville Beach which was once the site of a popular resort, “Shell Island” is still an attractive destination for shell-seekers, fishermen, beachcombers, and anyone who likes a little peace and quiet in this otherwise bustling beach town.
History of Shell Island
Wrightsville Beach is a unique vacation destination along the Cape Fear coastline simply because it’s been around for so long. By the turn of the 20th century, the area was hopping with beach resorts and pavilions that attracted visitors from all across the state and beyond, and which served as fun destinations for long days on the sand, and hot nights at local dance venues and clubs.
The most famous of these “resorts” was Lumina Pavilion, which featured 25,000’ square feet of dancing and socializing space for vacationers, and more than 6,000 lights which truly illuminated the region and leant credibility to the pavilion’s “Lumina” moniker. The only problem, however, was that segregation was still rampant in North Carolina at the time, and African American visitors were more or less excluded from Lumina Pavilion, as well as all the other resorts and beaches of Wrightsville Beach.
This is where Shell Island comes into the story. For many years, Shell Island truly was an island, and was separated from the main town of Wrightsville Beach to the south by Moore’s Inlet. (The inlet eventually filled in 1965, connecting the two separate islands into one.)
In 1923, this northern island was purchased by the Home Realty Company, which quickly went to work building a resort for African Americans who wanted to head to the beach. The resort was extensive and all-encompassing, with a large pavilion, beach boardwalks, concession stands and vendors, and beach cottages and houses to serve as accommodations. The island could be accessed via a streetcar and ferry combination, and by 1925, folks were coming from all over the country to this island resort for African Americans – one of the very first of its kind in the nation.
The biggest attraction at Shell Island was music, and the pavilion attracted famed jazz musicians from all across the East Coast as well, creating an iconic music scene in the heart of the beach.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck just as Shell Island was in its prime, and a great fire wiped out the resort in its entirety in 1926. The complex was never rebuilt, and the island remained relatively isolated in the decades that followed.
In the 1960s, after the inlet had filled in, a scattering of houses began to pop up in the original “Shell island” portion of Wrightsville Beach, and in 1980s, the Town of Wrightsville Beach designated $81,000 towards beach nourishment to combat ocean erosion that was slowly wiping out the shoreline. After this widening of the shoreline, interest in the region soared, and eventually two condominium complexes, a hotel, and a collection of beach houses were constructed on the northern end of “Shell Island,” as well as parking areas and beach access points.
Today, there’s a new Shell Island Resort - which is open to everyone – as well as plenty of pristine beaches that are just as attractive to modern vacationers as they were nearly a century ago.
Accessing Shell Island
Visitors can reach Shell Island by heading to the northern region of Wrightsville Beach. A parking area that can accommodate roughly 25 vehicles is located in this area, as well as a number of vacation rentals and hotels, including the Shell Island Resort.
From here, visitors can stroll north, past the town borders and the patches of development, to nicely undeveloped beaches and an eventual inlet that separates Wrightsville Beach from the exclusive Figure Eight Island. A roughly 1-2 mile walk may be involved to reach the very tip of the island, (depending on where a visitor parks), but the ensuing rewards for the effort is stunning views, few crowds, and lots of shoreline to go around.
Things to Do on Shell Island
One on this northern portion of Wrightsville Beach, there are tons of natural activities that are readily available.
Beachcombing is one of the most popular activities, as the sheer isolation and lack of crowds makes it one of the less-populated corners of Wrightsville Beach for shell seeking.
On the oceanside, the area is also popular with fishermen, surfers, and watersports fans, thanks to its great waves for boarders, and proximity to the inlet for anglers.
The western edge of Shell Island, which borders the Intracoastal Waterway, also has a collection of tide-influenced marshes and paddling trails, and the ensuing wild on-the-water terrain is ideal for adventurous paddlers (as well as fishermen and birdwatchers.)
All in all, visitors who appreciate natural surroundings and few crowds will appreciate Shell Island. Hard to reach but easy to enjoy, Shell Island is a playground for fans of the Great Outdoors.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Shell Island
- The northernmost resort on Wrightsville Beach – Shell Island Resort – is a great place to stay for visitors who want easy access to the adjacent undeveloped beaches. Multiple vacation homes are also available just steps away from the island’s borders.
- Parking in the area can fill up quickly in the summer months, especially on weekends when Wilmington residents tend to head to the sand. Arrive as early as possible for the best spots – as well as the best opportunities for shelling.
- The northern edge of Lumina Drive features several subtle nature and paddling trails that cut through the sandy and / or soggy marshes. Feel free to explore, but use caution – mosquitos, snakes, and other wildlife flock to this area.
- The northern portion of Shell Island is a great spot for birdwatching too! Head to the western edge of the island for ample opportunities to spot wading birds and shorebirds galore.
Shell Island has historically deep roots as a popular vacation destination, and modern-day visitors will still be treated to exceptional beaches, beautiful views, and plenty of sandy activities. Plan a day-trip or stay in this northern Wrightsville Beach region for a chance to enjoy an unusually quiet corner of this popular beach town.