Found on a barrier reef off the coast of North Carolina, Topsail Island beckons with sunbathing, swimming in the surf, surfcasting, boogie boarding and other pleasures of the beach. Find a Topsail Island vacation rental right on the beach, with a balcony and view of the sunrise over the ocean. Even vacation rentals that face the bay have their own delights. The waters of the bay are gentler, there’s an abundance of wildlife, and you’ll be able to sit on your porch or deck and toast the sunsets with a glass of wine or two.

1. Topsail Island

Source: Flickr/Leah Jane Fisher

Other pleasures to be had at Topsail Island include cruises that take you and the family out into the Atlantic to fish or enjoy the sunsets. The kids will love the Topsail Island Skating rink and soak up some history at the Missiles and More Museum, which highlights the contributions of the island during World War II. Both you and the kids will enjoy the Patio Playground which has putt-putt and an arcade. Don’t miss the boutiques, shops and the restaurants. How could you resist a place called the Dirty South Bar & Grill where you can make up your own menu?

2. Wilmington

Wilmington is a little less than an hours drive south from Topsail Beach, but that’s because you’ll have to actually go north to Surf City, cross the bridge, then drive south. Rich in history and culture, it has a historic downtown and many famous venues for the theater. This includes the Thalian Association Children’s Theater and, remarkably, the Brooklyn Arts Center. Wilmington is so sought after as a location for film and television that you just might find a crew filming on one of its streets. It’s also the home of the yearly Cape Fear Independent Film Festival. Try and catch one of the Free Family Concerts offered by the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra or February’s North Carolina Jazz Festival.

3. Castle Hayne

Source: Flickr/Nina Sutterlin

This friendly town of moderate size got its name from the huge house built by Captain Haynes. Take the kids to Old McFaye’s Farm where they can pet and feed the animals, as well as ride the donkeys and ponies. You’re bound to find that item you didn’t think you needed at Zartiques gift shop. Vacation rentals in Castle Hayne are comfortable, with carports or garages for rented bikes and cars.

4. Holly Ridge

Source: Flickr/Parula’s Nature

Found a few miles north of Topsail Beach, this town lies close to the Holly Shelter Game Land, a nearly 50,000-acre reserve that splits the year into hunting and hiking, with camping in designated areas. Holly Ridge’s pleasures are simple, including playgrounds for the kids. The calendar of events includes the Easter Egg Hunt, Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations, the Halloween Egg Haunt, the Christmas Tree lighting, and a Christmas party thrown for the kids.

5. Sneads Ferry

Source: Flickr/charles.seabrook

Sneads Ferry is found right at the southern end of the New River and across the water from Camp Lejeune. Rent jet skis or charter a day boat tour of the River on the Southern Belle. Duffers in the family should avail themselves of the North Shore Golf Course with its views of Topsail Island. For romantic riverside dining, head to the Riverview Cafe on Hall Point Road, and enjoy the catch of the day with a side of hush puppies.

6. Surf City

Source: Flickr/Jesse Hall

It sounds like a Beach Boys’ song, but Surf City, North Carolina is much older. While you’re there, fish, dine or stroll along the pier, take the kids on a boat tour, or do some kayaking and canoeing. One very interesting place to go is the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, where injured sea turtles are cared for until they can be returned to the ocean.

7. Sloop Point

This sleepy community is the place to decompress after a busy day at the beach. It does have Sloop Point Plantation, which has a historic house built in 1729. It’s thought to be the oldest framed building in North Carolina. The kids will be thrilled to learn of the legend of pirates burying their treasure nearby. Who knows? Maybe one day someone will find it!

8. Swansboro

Source: Flickr/Mista Vista

This towns motto is “The Friendly City by the Sea,” and so it is. This Burg is found right across from Hammocks Beach State Park. Enjoy waterskiing, fishing, swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding in the White Oak River or around the Bogue Island beaches. For family members who’d rather stick to dry land, there’s biking and hiking, outdoor concerts under the stars, and an abundance of restaurants. Enjoy the Italian food at Trattoria Gourmet Pizza & Bread and good American grub at the Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant.

9. Bogue

Source: Flickr/mj56p

Established in 1713, the town of Bogue sits right at the bottom of the Croatan National Forest. Take the family to enjoy this preserve’s 159,885 acres of forests, bogs, estuaries, and types of acidic wetlands called pocosins. Take the family to camp, bicycle, camp, hunt, swim, or fish. There’s even a place called Shrek’s Swamp! You can just relax on the porch of your vacation rental or get a glimpse of the horses in the pasture behind the Guthrie Farm Stand.

10. Emerald Isle

Source: Flickr/Zach Frailey

This evocatively named town has vacation rentals in both old and new houses and condos, many rights at the shore. Some are spacious and have their own docks. You and the kids can run down to the beach to swim, look for shells or sunbathe, and the ocean waves are occasionally mighty enough for an avid surfer to tackle.

11. Rocky Point

Source: Flickr/Karen Newman Photography

Though Rocky Point is actually fairly close to Topsail Island, a drive takes about 51 minutes, again because of a complicated route. This quiet, two-traffic-light town is just the thing for you and your family if you like your vacation rentals rural. Find fresh fruit and veggies for breakfast, lunch or dinner at roadside farmstands or shop for antiques at yard sales and flea markets.

12. Jacksonville

Source: Flickr/Fallingstar

This city is a bit over a half an hours drive from Topsail Island. Jacksonville has an abundance of parks, greenways, trails and historic places, including Pelletier House. Since its right on the New River, Jacksonville offers water sports such as boating, canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding. City parks have playgrounds for the kids, sports fields, and recreation centers.

If you’re in town in May, take the kids to the Jacksonville Jamboree, which is held on the first Saturday. If you come in December, attend Winterfest, held the first weekend in December at Riverwalk Park. There are games designed especially for the kids, pony and hay rides, lots of food, ice sculptures, and sledding on real snow, though the snow probably has to be imported!