WEEKENDER: North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands
Salt water, stand-up paddleboarding, and sea turtles on the southernmost coast of North Carolina
North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands encompass five barrier islands—Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island—along the southernmost stretch of North Carolina’s coast. It’s roughly three-and-a-half hours from Charlotte; from Ocean Isle Beach, you’re about halfway between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. Unlike more touristy resort towns, the Brunswick Islands offer more off-the-beaten path experiences, lush maritime forests, saltwater marshes, and the largest population of alligators in North Carolina. The area is also home to more than 30 championship golf courses, earning it the nickname “North Carolina’s Golf Coast.” Grab your paddle boards, fishing rods, sand buckets, and golf clubs, and kick off your summer vacation with a weekend at the shore.
The Ocean Isle Inn gives you direct beach access and backs up to the marshland area of Jinks Creek. When the kiddos need a break from the salt and sand, take a dip in the oceanfront pool. The Sunset Beach Inn is a 14-room bed and breakfast with exquisite views of the marsh and Intracoastal Waterway. Rooms at the River Hotel of Southport have galley kitchens, two queen-sized beds, and views of the Oak Island and Bald Head Island lighthouses. The region is also full of vacation rental properties; check out Holden Beach Vacations, a family-run rental company that offers a range of comfortable beach homes.
Start your day at Drift Coffee & Kitchen, which serves all-day breakfast, turmeric lattes, and cookies as big as your face. Grab a shrimp burger or crab cake at Provision Co, a favorite among locals in Southport. Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille has fresh local seafood and a tiki bar with views of the intracoastal waterway. For something more kid-friendly, head across the road to Sharky’s Waterfront, which has the same great views and serves pizza and pasta with gluten-free options. If you can secure childcare, book a table at Ports of Call and dine on classic paella and pan-seared salmon. For something more casual, visit Makai Brewing and sample local brews from the Cape Fear region. And when you need a sugar fix, stop by Calabash Creamery, a mom-and-pop shop with housemade ice cream in waffle cones and porch rockers.
A number of local outfitters rent kayaks and paddle boards for outdoor enthusiasts. If you have toddlers in tow, head to the Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach or Ocean Isle’s Museum of Coastal Carolina, where kids can explore a touch tank with live sea animals. Take older kids to The Swamp Park in Ocean Isle Beach and go on a zipline adventure or guided ATV tour. The Oak Island Lighthouse offers scenic views of the entire stretch of islands—just be prepared for a 131-step climb to the lighthouse balcony. If you’re looking for a more leisurely afternoon, check out the coastal town of Southport, across from Bald Head Island, and peruse the shops, restaurants, and backdrops you might recognize from movies like Nights in Rodanthe, A Walk to Remember, and Safe Haven. And if you came for the golf, find a variety of golf packages and experiences year round.
Summer is sea turtle season in the Brunswick Islands, which sees thousands of sea turtle hatchlings every year. These loggerheads, leatherbacks, ridleys, and green sea turtles lay eggs by the hundred, then return to the sea, leaving thousands of tiny hatchlings to emerge and follow them back into the ocean. Turtle-loving visitors can visit the Bald Head Island Conservancy, which offers children’s camps, turtle walks, island nature tours, and fishing schools. Check the program calendar for touch tank times for children and free movies about local wildlife and sea turtles.