Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Pittsburgher's Guide to Wrightsville Beach, NC

We headed to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina for our family vacation this year for the second time. We returned so Julia could go to Indo Jax Surf Camp for Kids with Hearing Loss. The weather was perfect and we had a fabulous time. This guide is a mix of reviews and activities from our two summer vacations to this destination. It seems most of my Pittsburgh contemporaries head to OBX each summer, but in case yins want a change of scenery here's my....

Pittsburghers' Guide to Wrightsville Beach

Where to Stay

There are plenty of accommodations on Wrightsville Beach: Holiday Inn Resort, Shell Island Resort, Blockade Runner Beach Resort,  the Surf Suites, as well as many condos and beach house rentals.
We rented a condo for the week in 2014.
In 2015, we chose the Shell Island Resort.

All suites are ocean front. The bedroom window overlooks the inter coastal waterway. Gorgeous views all around. Shell Island is also home to adorable wild bunnies that hop through the dunes.

Getting There

Early in our planning process we decided it was too expensive/inconvenient to fly to Wrightsville Beach. It would cost around $1000 for the three of us, plus a rental car or being stuck without a car. 
There are two routes to consider when driving from Pittsburgh to Wrightsville Beach, I-79 or I-95. We had a good experience driving to Orlando on I-79 last November, but I-95 is 50 miles shorter per the Google maps.
2014 - We left at 7am Saturday morning and headed for I-95. Of course, we'll never really know if this was worse than I-79, but from Washington DC to Richmond, VA we were in some of the worst traffic I've ever encountered. For 60 miles we alternated between 35mph and a dead stop. After stopping for about an hour and a half for fuel, bathroom breaks and lunch, we reached our destination at 7pm Saturday evening.

2015 - We drove down on Sunday. Traffic was much lighter and the trip took nine and a half hours just like the good Google told us it would.

Things To Do

Wrightsville Beach is an island beach town with no shortage of things to do. 

Swim in the Giant Wave Pool (it's free)

Wrightsville Beach looking toward Johnnie Mercer's Pier
I was asked multiple times during our twelve hour (2014) journey "Are we going to have a pool?" 
"Yes," I said. "There's a giant wave pool."
Mom is so fun on long car trips. 
Hours of fun in the ocean!
The water was blue and cool enough to be refreshing on the hot days while simultaneously feeling warm on the cooler evenings. We swam and played mostly on the stretch between access #24 and #27. There were shells to collect, an occasional dolphin to spot, and endless waves to jump over. I asked my husband to take a few pictures of me in the water as proof that I get in and play too. Life was better before I was aware of my ocean face. Still trying to get over that shot. I lived my lifelong dream of building what I felt was a spectacular sand castle. Once, I rode the boogie board all the way into the shore. It was a blast. I probably made a weird face.

Wrightsville Beach Farmer's Market

We're not fond of restaurants, so we shopped at one of Wilmington's Wal-Mart Super Centers on Sunday morning. It was just like a Pittsburgh Wal-Mart except you can buy beer and wine right in the store and the cashier took twenty minutes to check each person out due to her desire to carry on a full conversation in her slow southern drawl.
I refrained from buying produce at the Wal-Mart because each Monday there's a farmer's market from 8am-1pm. We bought six ears of corn, three peaches, two zucchinis, a bag of grape tomatoes, and two crab cakes for $20. Everything was delicious.
As a grocery shopping aside, there's a chain called Harris Teeter with stores on just about every corner. We shopped a second time during the week after running a bit short on food. Harris Teeter reminded me of a Market District store, sort of high end. A little pricey.

Battleship North Carolina

The World War II Battleship North Carolina is moored across from the Wilmington boardwalk. Tickets for the self-guided tour were $12 for adults and $6 for kids age 6-11. It took us about two hours to walk through, but due to oppressive heat and proximity to lunch time we sort of hustled through the last quarter of the tour. Truly a floating city, the ship had every kind of workshop to repair and fabricate parts, a tailor, a cobbler, a post office, giant washing machines, a bakery... just the fact that they fit everything into it was astounding. Imagining a life at sea on this thing really brought new meaning to that "greatest generation" moniker given to my grandparents.


We cooked at our condo most of the time, but we did take in the food scene a couple of times. The Oceanic Restaurant is the only ocean front eatery in Wrightsville Beach. The second story has windows on three sides offering breathtaking views of the water. The food was fair. I had a fried seafood platter which I anticipated would be something really spectacular. It was the same as what we get in the 'Burgh.
Slice of Life Pizza was the best looking option on the GPS as we rolled into Wilmington on Saturday night wanting a quick dinner. Our plain cheese pizza was $14.99. The crust was super thin and the sauce was heavily seasoned. I loved it. We had one piece left over after a famished family feed.
A few nights later we tried Vito's Pizza, a little shop within walking distance of our condo. It was much cheesier than Slice of Life. I didn't like it as well, but it was quick and close.
The Ocean Grill was by far my favorite meal of the whole vacation. Situated on nearby Carolina Beach, the second story was laid out much the same as the Oceanic, but the decor was more pleasant. The lunch menu was much better. Tim and I both had Mahi Tacos, their best seller. It was everything I want out of a meal. I had my mahi mahi fried. It was topped with shredded cabbage, salsa and guacamole. 
View from the Ocean Grill, Carolina Beach. The Tiki Bar on the pier looked really cool if you're into that kind of thing.
The Original Ice Cream Stand was within walking distance of our condo. They have Hershey's ice cream. It was yummy!

Johnnie Mercer's Pier

Everyone on Wrightsville Beach uses Johnnie Mercer's Pier as a reference point. It costs $2 per adult and $1 per child to walk out on the pier. You can also fish from the pier. Rates are posted on their web site.
Johnnie Mercer's Pier from above and below.
When we walked out on the pier we saw two little silver fish caught and were informed that we'd missed a small shark by a few minutes. I'm not upset about missing the shark!


Julia wanted nothing more than to buy a hermit crab at the beach. We found crabs first at a store next to Johnnie Mercer's Pier, but it was closing time and we didn't want to rush her selection. It turned out to be a good thing because the Wing's Beachwear store offers a much better deal: buy the cage, get the crab free. This ended up being a $12 savings.
We spent one rainy evening at Independence Mall. It had lots of out of business stores. Really reminded me of home.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Spoiled by the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher was nothing to write home about. I actually feel like we missed a wing or a floor. We consulted the floorplan before leaving, so strong was our sense of aquatic disappointment. For an extra $3 each we went into their butterfly exhibit. We always enjoy hanging out with butterflies.
All in all, it was nice to get out of the heat for a bit and the drive to Kure Beach was beautiful. On the way home we stopped at Carolina Beach for that awesome lunch at the Ocean Grill.


It was surf camp that brought us to Wrightsville Beach in 2014 and watching our daughter catch wave after wave caused my husband and I to have completely different feelings toward the sport. 
I felt confident that any attempt by me to stand on a moving object in the ocean would result in pulled muscles or sprains of body parts yet unknown.
My husband? Well he can tell you in his own words. "Watching the surf camp got me pretty amped to get wet myself, so I decided to rent a foamy. Trying to paddle out in the morning in the blown-out, messy surf, I got raked over and caught inside. Having not perfected my turtle roll, I decided to give up until the tide came down some." "In the afternoon, I finally got my stick to the outside. I was pretty noodled by then but couldn't give up. I caught two waves and made a total Barney of myself before coming back in."
I like to call this one "Man Contemplates Ocean."
Tim rented his board from Sweetwater Surf Shop (again walking distance from our condo). It was $15 for a half day. He's unharmed, well versed in surfing lingo, and hopefully got the surfing bug out of his system.

By 2015, I'd gained some confidence or who knows what happened to me. We took a family surf lesson with Indo Jax. I did it. I would do it again!

Next time I'll hire a photographer to take a picture of me actually surfing. I'm not sure this shot counts as definitive proof.

Fireworks by the Sea at Carolina Beach & Britt's Donuts

Thursday was our last night at the beach and there's no better way for a Pittsburgher to cap off any event than fireworks. We headed back to Carolina Beach to take in their Fireworks by the Sea and Boardwalk Blast. Look out Zambelli family! We'd heard a few things about Carolina Beach over the course of the week. One thing was that the ocean is "half Bud Light" because this is the vacation spot for people from the deepest recesses of South Carolina. The second was we absolutely must have Britt's Donuts.
We're a rather particular family when it comes to donuts, preferring only certain kinds of Donut Connection donuts. The line for Britt's was ridiculously long, like miss the fireworks long. We got ourselves some Krazy Kones and headed to the beach to stake out a spot. The cones were okay. I had a homemade ice cream sandwich that was pretty gross. I threw half of it away.
On the beach, we waited about thirty minutes with some hard core hoopies (except in the south I suppose they're rednecks) before finding out the fireworks were cancelled. We headed back to the donut line. It was twice as long as the first time we checked it out. And that was how we knew our vacation was over. Time to go home.

Butterfly Release at Airlie Gardens
We didn't have time on our first trip so I was sure to plan on stopping by Airlie Gardens. On Tuesday afternoons they release butterflies into their butterfly pavilion. It was hot walking around, but the park is huge and definitely worth the trip.

I love a big tree. Airlie Gardens has a spectacular (and very old) one.

Masonboro Island Reserve (Spoiler Alert: I give this a thumb's down)

Masonboro Island is an uninhabited island reachable only by boat. During our 2014 trip I couldn't work out how to get us there and what we would do. This year I bit the bullet and purchased tickets for a kids "Eco Cruise" offered by Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours. I read through the FAQs on the web site after spending $95 for the three of us to take the tour. I had quarters for parking ($6.50 worth) and Julia and I wore our tennis shoes because it said NO FLIP FLOPS. I read reviews and even heard from a local woman that "Captain Joe" is the bees knees of boat drivers.

We arrived for our 9am tour and found that parking was not $2/hour as listed on the web site, but $2.50/hour. Obviously this messed up my quarter calculations. To make a long story short, everything on the web site was wrong. Wear water shoes to Masonboro, just use a credit card for the parking, and don't expect Captain Joe to be anything special. The guy that skippered our boat was a crusty turd of a man.

The island itself wasn't that special. The uninhabited beach at the tip of Wrightsville Beach (to the left of Shell Island) is spectacular, we found more shells than we did on Masonboro, and it didn't cost us $95 to get there.

Wrightsville Beach Museum of History

This is a small cottage that showcases the history of the island. It was free and the historian was very friendly. It would be a great first stop to find restaurants and activities for your trip to the island.

Getting Home

2014 - Since I-95 was so horrible, we went home via I-79. It took twelve hours including our hour and a half of fuel stops, lunch, bathroom breaks, and one episode of violent car sickness. It was not fun.

2015 - We took I-79 home on Friday. Plus we dose Jules with dramamine before any long car trip since the great upchucking of 2014. The day of the week seems to be a major factor in the success of this trip. No problems on Friday. Ten hours from Shell Island Resort to our front door.

The Stuff We Didn't Do

We hit a lot of the things we missed the first time on our second go round. We still never made it to , and the "loop." We also forgot to look for the Diminishing Republic  AGAIN as we drove on and off the island.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Change Hearing Aid Battery Doors

Every summer, part of our end of school ritual is to change from the FM battery doors on my daughter's BTE hearing aids to the regular ones. This used to be a big deal when she had her Phonak Naida aids because the FM door didn't match the pink hearing aid. She recently got a set of Phonak Sky aids. The doors and boots match the hearing aid, so I doubt she'll be reminding me to make the change this summer. Still, the battery door change is a good starting point for what I'm hoping will be a series of how-to videos.

The tool I'm using should have been included in the pack with your hearing aids. If it was not, a thick sewing needle will do the trick.

Swapping the battery doors is pretty easy. Be sure to keep track of that little pin because losing that would surely be cause for a trip to the audiologist's office. The regular battery door makes the aid more water resistant so it's a good idea to switch to it when FM isn't being used regularly.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ear Hook "Headphones" for Hearing Aid Users

We gave up on Julia privately listening to games or music for quite some time after hitting a frustration limit with her Phonak iCom. It became too much of an event to get that finicky device to sync with the hearing aids. I resigned myself to a life of listening to secondhand Taylor Swift and Minecraft villager grunts.

Then I encountered a middle schooler with hearing loss. Unable to be separated from her iPod, even during classes, the older girl uses a simple solution: t-coil ear hooks. No buttons, no Bluetooth, no high technology, just reliable access to her music.

Julia using her ear hooks as she plays Lep's World.

We ordered Music-Link ear hooks online for about $40. Julia's hearing aids had to be programmed at the audiologist to enable the t-coil. When the t-coil is active the FM receivers are not. Her default program is FM + Mic for school and a second program activates the t-coil. So there is one button to push on one hearing aid to put the whole setup into the correct program for the ear hooks.

The important part is that it works. She hangs the ear hooks right alongside her BTE hearing aids and plugs the 3.5mm stereo plug into whatever she's listening to. It is a foolproof, worry-free system.

Best of all, it looks just like she's wearing ear bud headphones. There's no odd silver necklace like with the iCom. She could walk into Middle School and look just like all of the other iPod zombie children.

Someday soon, that will probably be the ear hook's most attractive feature.