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Wilmington and Cape Fear Coast, NC, in Winter

This North Carolina seaside town offers history, shops and offbeat attractions that are perfect for families to discover in the colder months

Known for its picturesque beaches and boardwalks, coastal North Carolina (i.e. Cape Fear) might not jump to mind for a wintry family getaway. But there's plenty to see beyond the waves – if parents know where to look.

For one thing, the beach isn't off limits. You and the kids can save your swimsuits for the hotel swimming pool, of course, but walking along the sandy shores can still be part of your crew's plans (after all, the average daytime temperature is in the mid-40s – and snow is a rarity, not the norm).

Instead of flip-flops, pack some walking shoes so you're ready to explore the variety of historical destinations, aquarium, downtown shops – and an offbeat attraction or two – in delightful Cape Fear/Wilmington.

Battleship North Carolina

This iconic ship is a memorial to the state's veterans that died during World War II. Saved from scrapping by the efforts of area residents, it's an interactive museum where visitors – including kids – are encouraged to look, touch and use their imaginations to relive what it must have been like to stay onboard.

While the museum recommends allowing two hours to stroll through the decks, I could have spent all day there – and my 9-year-old agreed. This is no ordinary historical site. There are no tour guides (unless your child volunteers to lead), but instead plagues and posters, along with staged mannequin stand-ins tell the story.

Your kids may be surprised by what they find. The ship had an enviable ice cream machine – the whole area had to be chained off to avoid sailors rushing in for sweets!

Tickets are $12 for those 12 and older, children ages 6-11 pay $6, and ages 5 and under get in free. Visit the Battleship North Carolina site or call 910-251-5797 to learn more.

Historic Downtown Wilmington

Just over the bridge from the battleship, the downtown area may look familiar. Lined with Victorian era homes and dotted with quaint shops and restaurants, it's played a supporting role in several TV shows and movies, like Matlock, Dawson's Creek and the CW's One Tree Hill.

You can explore the town on foot, by horse-drawn carriage by or trolley.

The Horsedrawn Tours start on Market Street between Water and Front Streets (I found it by following my nose – not because of the smell of horses, that is, but fudge: Kilwin's Chocolates and Ice Cream is right near where the tours start). Call 910-251-8889 to learn more.

Or, on Saturdays, you can hitch a ride for a 45-minute narrated tour aboard a trolley (910-763-4483). Tours are every hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and start on Water Street (right along the Cape Fear River in the heart of the downtown area).

Beyond the historical sites, schedule some playtime at Children's Museum of Wilmington (a short walk from Water Street), which is open daily and admission is $8 per person, babies ages 12 months and under admitted free. The museum is ideal for youngsters up to age 10. You can reach it at 910-254-3534.

But if your kids are looking for a truly unique experience, head down the street to The Cape Fear Serpentarium, which has on display a range of venomous snakes as well as some of the rarest (and most deadly) varieties in the world!

This museum will intrigue brave kiddos with an interest in all things slithery, but may be too scary for young children. Each display case is marked with a skull-and-crossbones to let visitors know just how potent each snake can be. You'll have to decide whether your family is up for a close encounter with a King Cobra. Admission prices are $8 per person and free for those 2 years and younger. Ring them for the latest hours at 910-762-1669.

Other attractions like the Wilmington Railroad Museum (910-763-2634) or the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science (910-798-4350) may also intrigue your kids.

North Carolina Aquariums-Fort Fisher

Luna had to be one of the highlights of our family's trip to North Carolina. The rare, nearly six-foot long albino alligator has her own viewing area tucked inside the aquarium complex. Stingrays, sharks and turtles were also big draws, but my daughter could have spent the day staring at Luna.

There's a touch tank available with educators ready to answer any questions that your kids (or you!) might have. Admission prices are $8 for those ages 13-61, and $6 for ages 12 and under – kids 2 and under are admitted free. Call 800-832-FISH (3474) for more.

Fort Fisher

Around the corner from the aquarium, check out the Fort Fisher area, too. This National Historic Landmark includes about 10 percent of the original fort that served as a Confederate post during the Civil War.

Take a 15-minute audiovisual program "tour" at the visitor center, stroll the quarter-mile tour trail and grab a souvenir at the gift shop. Check the Fort Fisher calendar for events – or call 919-733-7862.

Where to stay

The Wilmington/Cape Fear region is surrounded by water – not just the Atlantic Ocean to the east, but also the famed Cape Fear River that winds through town. The river was named for the dangerous shoals (sandbars) that can shift unpredictably, making water travel inland treacherous for sailors.

But you won't have any problem getting around. In fact, we chose a centrally located hotel instead of staying on the beach. The Wilmington Homewood Inn and Suites do caters to business travelers during the week and families on the weekend. For around $100, you can stay in a one-bedroom suite with daily hot breakfasts – and, Monday-Thursday, you get a warm dinner, too!

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