by Anne Braly
North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands span 45 miles along the southern coast of the Tarheel State’s Brunswick County, and each of its five barrier islands and six beaches has its own personality, offering a different set of adventures and discoveries. From family-friendly Holden Beach to the charming, laid-back village of Calabash where seafood is served by the platterful in true Calabash style, visitors can pick an island to fit whatever kind of vacation suits their fancy.
But there are several things that each island and small town have in common: Great food, charming hotels with no high rises in sight, and people that will go out of their way to greet you and welcome you to their little piece of paradise.
Sunset Beach and Bird Island
Bird Island and Sunset Beach, the southernmost beach along the chain of Brunswick Islands, were once two islands, but hurricanes have married the two, so as you walk the shoreline, it’s difficult to determine the division that once separated them. However, Gary or Teresa Massey, who operate Sunset Beach Pier, are happy to answer any questions you may have. The 900-foot pier, offering fishing licenses and rods, and a snack bar is a good starting point for your Sunset Beach experience.
It’ll cost you $1 to get on the pier, but once there, you can fish at no charge and also learn about the history of the area dating back to the 1600s on detailed signs posted along the pier’s railing. It makes for a fascinating learning experience.
The beach is wide and welcoming, but there’s something that draws people to the beach other than the surf and sand … something the state of North Carolina treasures: the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
Mailbox In The Sand
The area around Sunset Beach Pier is abuzz with activity, but walk a few hundred feet from sunbathers and surfers, and you’ll find yourself largely alone, taking in the sights and sounds of nature around you. Keep walking and you’ll eventually come upon a lone mailbox planted in the sand at the top of a sand dune.
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox, located on Bird Island is a repository for your thoughts and hopes for mankind, your stories of love, life and loss — whatever’s on your mind. When the mailbox is full, volunteer keepers of the mailbox collect the notebooks, loose letters, photos — whatever’s left inside — and donate them to be archived in the library at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Nicholas Sparks wrote a book, Every Breath, about it, and when a hurricane or other weather event threatens the mailbox, the state of North Carolina sends someone out to remove it to a safe place.
To get there, rent a bike from Julie’s Rentals or walk the two miles from the pier. Climb the dune, open the box and you’ll find notebooks and pens inside to write down whatever story you wish to tell. There are benches where you can sit and reflect, overlooking the sea in front of you and the protected North Carolina Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve at your back. It’s been a tradition in Brunswick County for more than 35 years.
Located just 15 minutes inland from Sunset Beach in Ocean Isle Beach, Silver Coast Winery is a welcome addition to the area for wine lovers. And if you’re wondering how vintner Maryann Azzato can grow European-style grapes in a coastal area, here’s the answer: She doesn’t. The grapes are grown in the cooler mountainous areas of North Carolina and Georgia and imported to her winery where they are crushed, made into wines aged in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels and bottled onsite.
“I originally wanted to start a wine club because good wines were hard to find in this area at that time. Who knew Brunswick County would become one of the fastest-growing counties in the country?” she asks. “So I did my due diligence and found out that wines from other states and countries couldn’t be imported into North Carolina.”
One thing led to another, she adds, so she purchased a former barbecue restaurant in the Ocean Isle Beach community and started making her own. Since then, her wines, such as her Touriga wine, a Portugese red using grapes from Dahlonega, Ga., have won numerous national and international awards.
“I’ve come a long way from making wines in my basement with my dad,” she says.
Silver Coast Winery makes about a dozen dry to semi-sweet wines with a new varietal offered each year.
After a few tastes of wine, you may need something on your stomach. The shrimp burger at Sharky’s, along with amazing fries, is a top choice for al fresco dining along the canal in Ocean Isle. If you happen to leave a few fries on your plate, the seagulls will thank you for that. Other suggestions for dining in Ocean Isle are Jink’s Creek Waterfront Grill (try the Grouper Francaise with Shrimp) or Ocean Isle Fish Company and have a drink in its tiki bar overlooking Ocean Isle Beach.
A Delicious Bash in Calabash
Calabash isn’t just the name of a town, it’s a way of eating that started in this small North Carolina hamlet. Simply put, Calabash-style seafood translates to good eating — and plenty of it. Rather than heavy breading, Calabash seafood is locally harvested fish, oysters, shrimp, clams — whatever fruits de mer the sea decides to share on any given day — lightly battered and fried to a golden brown and always — always — served with hushpuppies.
Captain Robert Taylor of Calabash Fishing Fleet owns several boats that ply the waters of Calabash River and the Atlantic Ocean in search of seafood to bring back to his riverside Waterfront Seafood Shack Market and Eatery.
Standing on the dock beside his 65-foot Navigator, an ocean-going vessel that can be chartered for deep-sea fishing and dolphin cruises, Taylor tells a history of Calabash seafood.
“Years ago, all the little restaurants around here had small back porches for the folks coming in with fish they’d caught, and they would cook it for them,” he says. “Back then, cooks marinated the seafood in Carnation milk before it was fried. And they fried it in lard. Most restaurants don’t do that anymore, though.”
His secret to some of the best seafood in Calabash? He adds a little Old Bay seasoning to the flour. And for his hushpuppies, he adds a little onion to make them savory rather than the sweeter hushpuppies served at many other Calabash restaurants.
You’ll find Capt. Robert around the docks in an area with several restaurants, such as Captain Nance’s Seafood, the Dockside Seafood House Restaurant and the Oyster Rock Waterfront Restaurants. Unfortunately, Ella’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Calabash and a town favorite, burned down the week I was there.
A Town Full of History
Southport is a town steeped in history. Just take a self-guided walking tour and you’ll discover why. The neighborhoods surrounding the historic downtown area have lovely Victorian homes with magnificent, welcoming front porches shaded by ancient live oaks, many with historic markers from the mid-1800s, designating their place in Southport’s past. Or walk through Smithport Burial Grounds, and if you’re one of those who can spend an afternoon walking through old cemeteries, this one will enrapture you with graves dating back to 1804, their markers roughened and weathered through centuries of guarding the final resting places of ship captains, veterans of wars, their wives and children.
Hollywood discovered Southport years ago and found it to be the perfect setting for movies such as Safe Haven, based on Nicholas Sparks’ book of the same name and filmed in sites all around town. There’s a walking tour for that, too.
You’ll work up an appetite with all that walking, so take a break and walk to the end of Yacht Basin Drive where you’ll find several restaurants, such as Fishy Fishy Café, Provision Company and The Frying Pan.
Finish your day at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, a small museum that tells the story of the town dating back to the time when the Cape Fear Indians were its primary residents.
Beach life in Oak Island and its Caswell Beach centers around its 880-foot pier, the place where you’ll find two popular restaurants — Ruby’s Coffeehouse and Eatery which opens early for breakfast or a light lunch, and Coco Cobana, open for lunch and dinner with amazing views, good cocktails and delicious fresh fish tacos.
The island isn’t as busy as some others, but it’s a good place to kick back and enjoy a beach vacation with no chain eateries and, like all Brunswick Island beaches and barrier islands, no chain hotels. A good one on Oak Island is Beach House at Oak Island, a roadside hotel from the 1950s, newly refurbished and within easy walking distance of the pier. Oak Island is an oasis of natural beauty with beautiful shells on the beach and good fishing, too. It’s a beach vacation like baby boomers may have experienced long ago — a hidden gem among the Brunswick Islands.
Families planning a trip to the Brunswick Islands should first check out the scene at Holden Beach. Named one of the top beaches for families in the country by National Geographic Traveler, Holden offers something for every beach lover: Miles of wide, white sandy beaches that, at low tide, offer room for everyone; golf courses; great shopping; and amazing seafood in restaurants like Mermaid’s Island Grill, where the clam chowder and burgers are said to be the best on the beach.
Watching your budget? Bird Watching and shelling are great on Holden Beach, especially on the underdeveloped eastern end of the beach. And at Bridgeview Park, the kids can play on the playground and dance beneath waterworks on the splash pad. The park also offers picnic tables, bocce ball and a pier with docks for temporary docking. Or, relax, wet a line and do some surf fishing or cast your line from high up on the Holden Beach Pier.
Charters for deep-sea fishing are available at several outfitters, such as Catch 22 Charters or Ollie Raja Charters. Kayak and bike rentals and any other beach gear you may need can be found at Mr. Beach Rentals at Holden Beach Marina.
For more information on the Brunswick Islands and everything it offers, from family fun to quiet reflection, visit ncbrunswick.com.