Two Hours to Island Time
We're so close to paradise!
by Corbie Hill
Photos courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands
From Raleigh, it’s a straight shot to North Carolina’s southeastern coast: you basically just get on I-40 and head east at 70 miles an hour until you’re almost out of interstate. If you’re in a hurry to leave the Oak City for sun and sand, it’s the quickest and most direct route to a North Carolina beach.
Once you’re there, of course, there’s no longer the need to rush. Between Cape Fear and the South Carolina border, in fact, lies a stretch of barrier islands, which are known for their family-friendly ease.
“All of the islands are great for boating and fishing and kayaking and everything,” says Mitzi York, executive director of the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority. Unique to North Carolina beaches, as she points out, the Brunswick County islands face south. “In certain times of the year, specifically the fall and the winter, you can see the sun rise and set over the ocean,” she says.
Each Brunswick County beach has its own distinctive character. In general, they tend to be family-oriented and are defined by beach houses rather than towering condos, but some skew more toward adventure and surfing while others are quiet destinations, places to go birding or to spot ghost crabs after dark. York was happy to explain the diverse draws of her county’s beaches – and the region immediately inland, too. There are more than 30 golf courses here, she notes, making coastal Brunswick County a destination for golfers as well.
The Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority can be found online at ncbrunswick.com.
Bald Head Island
North Carolina is known for its lighthouses, and this island boasts the oldest one still standing in the state: Old Baldy, as the distinctive little lighthouse is affectionately known, turned 200 in 2017, with events throughout the year to celebrate. “The coast of North Carolina has huge maritime history and the lighthouses were a big, big part of that,” Old Baldy Foundation Executive Director Chris Webb told Wilmington’s WWAY TV. “If we don’t celebrate them, we’re not celebrating the people and the adventurers.” Visit oldbaldy.org and select the “200th birthday” tab to view the birthday calendar, which includes a National Lighthouse Day celebration on the weekend of August 4th-6th.
Bald Head itself (which is technically no longer an island due to sand accumulation in one inlet) is accessible only by a passenger ferry that departs from Southport. A true leisure island, there are few cars here: rather, folks get around by golf cart and bicycle.
Across the Cape Fear River’s mouth from Bald Head stands one of North Carolina’s youngest lighthouses – the Oak Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1958. From this end of Oak Island, called Caswell Beach, you can watch ships come and go, approaching or departing Wilmington as they have for centuries.
Oak Island is a quiet island, a family vacation-oriented strand populated with beach houses of all sizes (and no
high-rises!), but it’s an easy destination for day-trippers as well: there are more than 60 public beach entry points up and down the island. It’s an excellent place to put in a fishing boat, but also to canoe or kayak; Montgomery Slough and Davis Creek, which are contained within the island itself, are relatively sheltered places for small boats. Be sure you’re confident paddling against tidal currents, however.
Speaking of tides, low tide is an excellent time to visit Oak Island’s western tip, where Lockwood Folly Inlet separates Oak Island and Holden Beach. Bring binoculars, because inbetween the two islands and just out to sea, two Civil War shipwrecks are visible as black shapes in the water – but only at low tide.
“One of the iconic kind of scenes of Holden Beach is seeing the shrimp boats that line the intracoastal waterway when you cross over to go to Holden Beach,” says York. That bucolic view is the perfect introduction to what has been ranked one of the best family beaches in the United States time and again, and by respectable outlets like National Geographic Traveler. It’s a great place for kids to swim, bike, explore tide pools or pick up some candy from the candy shop.
Sunset Beach and Bird Island
These were two separate islands until the inlet between them closed. Bird Island is a nature preserve, while Sunset Beach is quiet and peaceful as well. Its remoteness and easy character landed it a spot on National Geographic’s “21 Best Beaches in the World” list in January. Sunset Beach shared this list with global destinations like Shark Bay in Australia, Cathedrals Beach in Spain, and Anse Source d’Argent in the Seychelles.
The Bird Island portion is a nature preserve boasting 1,200 undeveloped acres and, naturally, birds aplenty. At its far end and after a long walk on the beach stands the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, a repository for heartfelt notes since it was moved from its first location to Bird Island in 1983. Ingram Planetarium, too, is on Sunset Beach.
Ocean Isle Beach
There’s a little more adventure at Ocean Isle, with the Carolina School of Surf as well as Surf Unlimited’s surf camps on this island. On the mainland side, York notes, the Shallotte River Swamp Park offers wetlands tours – by boat or by zipline! As flat as eastern North Carolina is, daredevils at the Swamp Park can still get a little altitude at its aerial adventure park.
On the island, family destination The Museum of Coastal Carolina is a natural and maritime history museum with a collection that includes shark jaws, a sea animal touch tank, live snakes, and a wooden strip boat built in Brunswick County. For those who want a little action with their beach trip, Ocean Isle should be a good fit.
Any Brunswick County beach guide would be incomplete without mentioning the towns of Southport and Calabash. Though both towns are on the mainland, both are indelibly connected to the water. Add a few hours – or more – in these towns to a Brunswick County beach vacation and be rewarded with a richer experience.
Southport lies at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and, from its riverfront, one can see both the Oak Island and Bald Head Island lighthouses. Walk to the end of the public pier to see how the fishing is that day, or sit on a riverside bench and watch sailboats come and go from the nearby marina. In this village’s few downtown blocks are historical houses – some with widow’s walks – along with restaurants and shops.
Southport, too, is the home of the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival and accompanying patriotic parade. Plus, ferries launching from Southport can take vacationers either to Fort Fisher for an aquarium visit or to Bald Head Island.
“What Calabash is famous for is seafood. It’s where Calabash-style seafood originated,” York says. It’s all pretty straightforward: whether from a restaurant or bought off the boats, you go to Calabash for seafood. There are also charter boats that depart from this little Brunswick town, she adds.