#VanLife, a 6-day camping trip on the North Carolina coast, April 2021
Updated: Sep 9
Feat. comments about the Winnebago Revel camper!
Route: Carolina Beach State Park and Wilmington, NC ⇨ Morehead City and Beaufort ⇨ Flanners Beach and New Bern, NC. This is a portion of a longer trip we took, titled The Vax Tax Refund Trip which can be found here.
Highlights: van camping, historic cities, antebellum architecture, lots of hushpuppies and fresh seafood, Outlander sites
Method of Travel: 600+ miles in a rented Winnebago Revel, staying at both state park and private campgrounds
And here is where our Camper Van life began! We rented a Winnebago Revel through Outdoorsy, which is a site on which to rent RVs and camping vehicles from private owners. We have used Outdoorsy several times, all with great results. We chose this particular top-of-the-line camper van to find out if we would like #VanLife. (It turns out we do.) We picked up the van in Raleigh, learned all about it, and took off for the coast.
Carolina Beach State Park - after a quick stop at the World’s Largest Frying Pan (I don’t recommend it), we were off to the coast, listening to Yacht Rock and learning how to drive this 10 foot tall, 20 foot long Mercedes with a bed in it. We detoured to Wrightsville Beach just to say hello to the ocean. It was quite windy, so we didn't last long.
We pulled in to our quiet and wooded site at Carolina Beach State Park (#83, pictured below), overlooking Snow’s Cut, which is a manmade channel that connects the Cape Fear River to the Intercoastal Waterway. The Cut itself was problematic when built in 1930, and continues to be, eroding the banks quickly. More about this here. Of course we knew nothing about any of this, while we blithely sipped G&Ts as the sun set and instead discussed the terrifying 1991 movie, Cape Fear.
The Revel’s main super cool feature is the bed, which raises and lowers with a switch, allowing access to the expansive storage during the day while the bed is up (pictured). And the bed in this van was very comfortable! The kitchen is just big enough, and there’s space for two people to eat inside because the front seats swivel.
When we travel we drink the fancy wine! (that's my travel diary, without which I'd forget everything I'm trying to record here)
The kitchen with G&T fixins, and the "bedroom"with its own screen door.
Driving the rig was pretty easy, it has a lot of Mercedes bells and whistles, including wind correction, lane-change warnings, and tire pressure monitors. This was helpful when we realized we were losing pressure in one tire and the culprit was a nail! We easily found a place to patch the tire (our hero, below), only losing about an hour of travel time, while I frantically read the van’s operating manual and all the rental insurance wording. We let the owner know, absorbed the $30 repair, and carried on.
Figuring out campsite coffee is important! We brought along a ceramic filter holder. The van came with an electric induction burner that quickly heated water.
Wilmington, NC - after a quick nature walk with our coffee, we headed into Wilmington, which was about a 15-minute drive from the campground. The best thing about the Revel is that it packs up quickly and fits in normal parking spots when you’re in town. We visited the USS North Carolina Battleship (WWII), and wandered around town, which is quite charming.
The Starz series Outlander was filmed in Wilmington, and we’re fans. One of the two historic houses on my list, the Bergwin Wright house, was featured in the show. We also walked around the Bellamy Mansion, which has an amazing wrap-around porch supported with Corinthian columns, and the first two-story structure for enslaved workers I’ve seen. Though we did not go on an official tour, this museum’s website has lots of fascinating details about the people who lived here, both enslaved and free.
Bergwin Wright house and
Bellamy Mansion ⇩
We had a nice lunch on the boardwalk along the river, featuring fried green tomatoes, which is something this northerner cannot successfully make (but will keep trying). Back at camp we had another happy hour with a view and a successful dinner from our tiny kitchen.
The next morning we set out for Topsail Island, a 26-mile long barrier island that could be described as Outer Banks Lite. In a good, low-key way.
On the way, we stopped for a delicious lunch at Sears Landing, where we had a table with a view of the boats coming and going, and, of course, we had hush puppies - this time with crab!
We drove around Topsail, checking out the windy beaches. Then we tried to find a liquor store, and stopped some guys with red solo cups who were walking by - they said North Carolina makes their liquor stores hard to find. It’s always interesting to learn a state’s rules about alcohol, such as where and when it’s sold. In our state, Wisconsin, you can’t buy alcohol in a store after 9 pm, which one gets used to, but a visitor might find that inconvenient!
The campground we chose for this one night, Laniers, was back on the mainland. This privately owned campground had a lot of permanent trailers, including one with a Confederate flag flying, which made me uncomfortable. We did see several of these flags on this trip, but then we’ve also seen them in upstate New York and eastern Washington, so this inexplicable phenomena is not solely Southern.
Fortunately, our campsite was nice.
This site was located on the western end of the property, along an inlet. Many of the other sites face Topsail Island. The campground bathrooms were just ok, and there was a common space with games, but we weren't there for that.
Here's the sunset from the bed, with sock. The back doors were open with the screen in place.
Here is a great resource for places to camp along the coast in North Carolina. During the pandemic, campsites have been hard to come by, especially in state parks. I try and check in advance what the campsite will look like, but some websites are better than others. Reviews from The Dyrt and Campendium can be helpful.
The next day we headed north and drove the length of the Bogue Banks, a 21-mile barrier island of mostly private homes. We were headed to Morehead City to eat at the historic and famous Sanitary Fish Market restaurant, and it did not disappoint. More hushpuppies, more crab, more boats to watch while eating. We may have even had a second beer while watching boats.
We continued north to Cute Town Alert! Beaufort, where we explored its charming waterfront, and also the prettiest cemetery I’ve ever seen, the Old Burying Ground.
Beaufort, North Carolina is pronounced “BOW-firt,” as in a bow and arrow. If you're going to Beaufort, South Carolina, you must say, “BEW-furd." Ironically, both are named for an Englishman, Henry Somerset, the Second Duke of Beaufort, who never came to either North Carolina or South Carolina. You’re welcome.
Our campground for the next two nights was near New Bern, called Flanners Beach, on the Neuse River. The beach access was closed, due to destruction from Hurricane Florence in 2018 that hasn't been addressed. This was the cocktail spot near our campsite. We met some other campers who had some questions about the Revel. It does get attention!
A lovely day in New Bern started with an official tour of Tryon Palace, the first permanent capitol of the colony of North Carolina, and another Outlander location! The tour was given by excellent costumed interpreters, and included the extensive gardens.
We enjoyed crab nachos (crab over queso on wonton chips, with mango and avocado) at Captain Ratty’s, which has an excellent rooftop.
We made the required pilgrimage stop at the drugstore where Pepsi was invented (I am a diehard DP fan, living in a DC world).
⇩ This was a pleasant surprise, we happened upon a fife and drum practice session!
We also visited the excellent North Carolina History Center, which was included in our Tryon Palace ticket, and very worth it. I was pleased to see a temporary exhibit about the Green Book, which was a Black traveler’s guide to safe places to stay, published from 1936 to 1966. I highly recommend reading about it in Candacy Taylor’s book, Overground Railroad. Another reminder of my white privilege is that traveling comfortably and having access to whatever I want is something I take for granted. For Taylor's research, she tried to visit locations from the Green Book, but many no longer exist.
A very successful trip in a van we wish we could afford!
The rest of this trip, where we drive some 2000 miles to get to this van, and then continue on to Asheville, is called the Vax Tax Refund Trip, April 2021.