A palpable depth and richness embrace visitors to the southern coast of North Carolina. Cruising from the urbane city of Wilmington south through coastal beach communities with their own distinct personalities, you are greeted with a casual welcoming atmosphere. Even if you’ve never been here, it will feel like familiar territory. The region has hosted more than 400 TV and film productions including Iron Man 3, which was filmed along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.
DAY 1: WILMINGTON
Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach — 5 NM
Breathtaking stretches of white sand and crystal blue water offer a pleasant sense of removal from everyday life. Known as one of the best surf towns in America, Wrightsville Beach is all about activity. Visitors can walk the 2.45-mile paved loop around the island, scuba to historic shipwrecks, or learn The Shag, a Carolina swing dance. During the annual East Coast Shag Classic, dancers display their footwork to the beach music of several live bands. Complimentary shag and line dance lessons are offered.
Wrightsville is a very walkable beach town where leisure travelers indulge in resort amenities, boutique shopping and abundant sea-to-table fare. Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar provides healthy snacks or a coffee pickup during a busy day. For lunch or dinner, try the Shark Bar for a burger, crab cake or “Great White” margarita.
On the eastern shore of the ICW, just south of the drawbridge, Wrightsville Beach Marina has slips to 150 feet. The Bluewater Grill overlooks the docks, luring in hungry boaters to enjoy prime rib or local seafood in the dining room or on a spacious patio.
DAY 2: BALD HEAD ISLAND
Wrightsville Beach to Bald Head Island — 28 NM
Although only a stone’s throw away from Wrightsville Beach, Bald Head Island — with its endless marshes, forests and rustic charm — feels worlds apart. Bald Head Island’s history is filled with tales of pirates, ghosts and civil war soldiers told by guides on tours from the Old Baldy Foundation or Sail Shop’s Ghost Walk. The interactive, theatrical tour through the island features costumed performers representing lighthouse keepers, river pilots, famed pirates, sought-after women of the time, lost civil war soldiers, and Blackbeard, the most fearsome pirate of all. An unmistakable landmark on any tour is Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse.
The Bald Head Island Conservancy provides close-up involvement with nature. Scores of loggerhead sea turtles return each summer to lay their eggs. Seeing a nesting sea turtle or watching a nest boil and release a hundred turtle hatchlings are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Nature manifests in a different manner during the “Howl” party (so called by locals) at East Beach Access 39. When the full moon rises out of the Atlantic Ocean each month, a collective “howl!” arises from the gathered crowd. Howlers bring food and drink to share as they gather around a blazing bonfire.
For classic coastal dining, Jules’ Salty Grub & Island Pub offers a signature steampot brimming with crabs, shrimp and more, as well as the Calabash Seafood Platter stacked with fried fresh catch. The well-stocked Maritime Market has a cafe and is also an excellent provisioning spot.
Bald Head Island Marina, surrounded by charming Harbour Village, has 155 slips to 115 feet, full boating amenities, and front-door access to the island.
DAY 3: SOUTHPORT
Bald Head Island to Southport — 3.82 NM
Southport is a 2.2 square mile village that combines historic residences and lush coastal landscaping. Both quintessentially Southern and authentically maritime, the town has a distinct culture all its own.
In a community devoted to the water, tourists find ample walkways to explore the waterfront, restaurants and lounges with incredible views overlooking the river, and even a park and town pier for a front-row view of passing ships. A stroll along “Marsh Walk,” a long boardwalk that begins along Brunswick Avenue on the edges of bustling downtown and ends essentially nowhere, provides incredible views of the Cape Fear and Elizabeth rivers.
Howe Street, close to a host of restaurants, art galleries and the scenic waterfront, offers several options for scoring a chic pair of flip-flops for mingling with locals along the docks. Boo & Roo’s is a funky shop that twists modern appeal into classic southern style reflecting the laid-back but fashion- forward Cape Fear scene. For seafood or brunch, Oliver’s on the Cape Fear gets rave reviews.
Offering more than 200 slips to 210 feet and can lift a boat up to 75 tons, Southport Marina is one of the largest, most complete marinas located on the ICW. The marina is at mile 309, marker 2A, at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. Be sure to check out Port City, the energetic waterfront bustling with shops, restaurants and nightlife.