What’s your earliest Thanksgiving memory? Does it involve watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, gathering with loved ones and carving a turkey? No matter who you are, there are memories tied to the start of the holidays and the magic to come. For many—including me—one of those fond memories is the annual NC Holiday Flotilla at Wrightsville Beach, taking place this year on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
The coastal official start of Christmas decorates the waterway with boats dressed to the nines during a Thanksgiving weekend filled with festive family fun. Experience bedazzled boats, mesmerizing evening fireworks and more during a getaway to Wrightsville Beach for the annual holiday event.
What Is the Flotilla?
A flotilla takes your typical parade and puts it on the waterway. The term, denoting a fleet of ships, is a Southern twist with owners decorating (and competing) their boats in magnificent holiday décor. Amid the lights and music, you’ll see displays like inflatable Santas steering the helm with Rudolph and crew launching off the deck. Even boaters get involved, sometimes dressing as the Grinch, a candy cane or an elf to bring their theme full circle. However, you don’t need a water vessel to experience the magic. Now in its 40th year, the NC Holiday Flotilla always brings a lively, welcoming atmosphere to Wrightsville Beach.
Deck the Docks with Boughs of Holly
Before the NC Holiday Flotilla’s festivities, hop in the car and say hello to Santa while enjoying decorations throughout Wrightsville Beach. You’ll spot the town’s beautiful Christmas tree, which will be illuminated following the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Wrightsville Beach Park Nov. 24. Or, get an up-close look with a harbor cruise from Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours.
Before Saturday’s main event, the Festival in the Park takes place earlier in the day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at Wrightsville Beach Park with amusements like inflatable slides and live music to keep the kids entertained. Sample the on-site food trucks and shop various arts and crafts vendors to start crossing off your holiday gift list. With almost 100 vendors present, you’re sure to find unique coastal treasures while making holiday memories.
The Main Event
Sure, there’s plenty to do prior to the parade but you’ll want to save up some energy for the main event at 6 p.m. Arrive early to snag a good viewing spot. Some lesser-known vantages include South Harbor Island (there are two mini-parks with water views) and the sandy South End beach that faces the Intracoastal Waterway.
If you want to make an evening of it, local restaurants with waterside seating – including South Beach Grill, Dockside Restaurant, Fish House Grill, The Bridge Tender and Bluewater Waterfront Grill – are exceptional for enjoying dinner, drinks and views of the event. If watching the flotilla from the comfort of your room is more your style, check out harbor-facing lodging options along the parade route including vacation rentals, hotels and inns located along Waynick Blvd. and S Lumina Ave. No matter where you stay on the island, you're never far from the holiday happenings, so explore all the lodging options in our walkable town including full-service, surf-to-sound resorts like the Blockade Runner Beach Resort and Lumina on Wrightsville Beach. (Advance reservations are highly recommended for dining and lodging.)
Once the flotilla parade kicks off, cast your vote via text if you see a swoon-worthy boat! For details on voting by text, visit the event’s website. Last year’s winners included the neon “Presents Under the Tree” as “Best in Show” and the dazzling “Sea Serpent Santa Sleigh” for “People’s Choice.” After the boats adorn the Intracoastal Waterway and Banks Channel, breathtaking fireworks over the water heighten the celebration. If you’re not in the holiday spirit by this point, you might just be a Grinch.
They say the holidays are a magical time, and this longtime Southeast Tourism Society Top 20 Event is nothing short of just that. You might have your tried-and-true traditions (and this may be one of them for some people!), but where’s the fun in not shaking things up a bit? This year, make new memories with a refreshing coastal twist by attending the NC Holiday Flotilla at Wrightsville Beach.