Located on the edge of the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway, Southport — with its stunning historic homes, walkable downtown filled with shops, and legendary waterfront seafood restaurants — is a paradise for modern-day mariners.

In fact, this coastal town’s quaint setting is the reason that directors looking for a small-town backdrop for romantic movies like Safe HavenNights in Rodanthe, and A Walk to Remember have chosen to film here. Once you discover Southport, you’ll fall in love, too.



Put down a platter of seafood with a view

Pull up a chair (and some napkins) and tuck in to a pile of peel-and-eat steamed shrimp at legendary Southport seafood joint Provision Company. Or try the conch fritters, crab cake sandwich, or grilled yellowfin tuna. Lines can be long, but trust us, the casual vibe and stunning waterfront setting are worth the wait.

Tip: Plan to visit around sunset. The covered outdoor dining area overlooks the Old Yacht Basin and the Intracoastal Waterway, a spectacular backdrop as the sun dips below the horizon.

Provision Company
(910) 457-0654
provisioncompany.com

 

Fall in love with traditional hook-to-fork fare

Since 1899, the Potter family has been providing Southport with their catch of the day at Potter’s Seafood Market. Today, fifth-generation shrimper Royce Potter carries on the tradition, taking his boat out every morning and returning with the freshest shrimp, grouper, and snapper in town (you can spot his boat docked behind the colorful seafood market). Potter’s also sources additional fresh fish from other locals; check out the seafood case for a selection just off the boats.

Tip: Even if Southport is a long way from home, you can order some shrimp to go — all of the seafood at Potter’s can be vacuum-sealed and packed on ice in a cooler for travel.

Potter’s Seafood Market
(910) 457-0101
potters-seafood.com

Pick up a fresh catch at Potter’s Seafood Market. photograph by James Mieczkowski

 

Imbibe on the perfect coastal patio

Perched on the edge of Southport, overlooking the point where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the Cape Fear River, American Fish Company has one of the best views in Southport. Featured in the movie Safe Haven, this bar is as popular with tourists as it is with the locals who clamor for seats along the railing to take in the views and, on weekends, to listen to live music.

Tip: It’s a drinks-only menu, so remember to stop at one of the nearby restaurants for a bite. The bar charges a $1 “membership fee” to comply with North Carolina liquor laws.

American Fish Company
(910) 457-9870
americanfishco.com

 

Explore the town on a golf cart

Golf carts are one of the most popular forms of transportation around this small town. Rent one to explore the historic district (and take advantage of “golf cart only” parking!), or hop aboard a golf cart for a guided tour — Surf Tours of Southport provides tailored tours in a six-passenger golf cart dubbed the “Street Car Named Desire.” Owner Steve Simon will customize the tour to your interests: Learn about local history and architecture, visit movie filming locations, or see the sights along the waterfront. Tours depart from the Southport Visitors Center and last for one hour.

Tip: Morning tours book up fast and are first come, first served. Call ahead to reserve an early morning or evening tour.

Surf Tours of Southport
(910) 465-6707

 

Immerse yourself in maritime history

Housed in the former officers’ quarters at historic Fort Johnston — the site of a British colonial fort in the 1700s and, later, a U.S. Army post — the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport features exhibits and artifacts that highlight the fisheries, shipwrecks, and military conflicts off the coast from the time of the pirates through World War II. The newest exhibit, “The Seal Shall Not Have Them,” focuses on the formation of the United States Coast Guard. A working periscope — the first in a North Carolina museum — offers great views of the Cape Fear River. No other museum has such a rich collection focused on the maritime history of the lower Cape Fear River.

Tip: Check the events calendar for special programming for adults and children. The museum hosts regular lectures, hands-on explorations, and seasonal events like guided kayak tours.

North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport
(910) 477-5151
ncmaritimemuseumsouthport.com

 

Satisfy your curiosity

A jail might seem like an odd addition to your vacation itinerary, but the Old Brunswick County Jail is more than just a former lockup. The Southport Historical Society transformed the building, which dates back to 1904, into a museum, and today, you can go behind the bars to explore the original cells (and read the graffiti that former prisoners left on the walls). Check out the exhibits and learn about the history of the jail and its former inhabitants.

Tip: You can explore the museum solo or join a docent for a guided tour.

Old Brunswick County Jail Museum
(910) 457-7927
southporthistoricalsociety.org

 

Get offshore

Rent a kayak from Adventure Kayak Company and paddle solo along Southport’s waterfront, or join a guided tour to glide across local waterways like salt marsh creeks and blackwater rivers while watching for great blue herons, brown pelicans, egrets, otters, and dolphins.  

Tip: You don’t need to be an experienced paddler to sign up for a tour; the guides are experts at teaching beginners the ropes.

Adventure Kayak Company
(910) 454-0607
theadventurecompany.net

 

Ride the waves

Board the Southport-Fort Fisher ferry and enjoy the quick 35-minute ride across the Cape Fear River to Pleasure Island. There, you can walk along stretches of sand at Carolina and Kure beaches or explore Fort Fisher State Park, a historic fort and important Civil War site that has been transformed into a small museum. The ferry accommodates both cars and walk-on passengers.

Tip: Reservations are not accepted for the ferry; check the schedule and arrive early to secure a spot.

Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry
(910) 457-6942
ncdot.gov

 

Fly the friendly skies

Nothing compares to seeing Southport from the water — except maybe seeing Southport from the sky. At High Tide Helicopter Tours, choose from seven itineraries, each one offering a different view of the coastline. Fly over Old Baldy, the oldest lighthouse in the state, during the Lighthouse Tour or see an aerial view of St. James Plantation and the USS Iron Age shipwreck on the St. James Tour. And you’ll be in the hands of an expert: Knowledgeable pilots narrate the tours, which last between 15 and 60 minutes, highlighting all of the beaches, historic sites, and popular filming locations below.

Tip: Watch for dolphins and sharks in the surf, and for sea turtles in the sand.

High Tide Helicopter Tours
(910) 477-1926
hightidehelicopters.com

 

Dream about the past

The historic Robert Ruark Inn was built in 1890 and named for an acclaimed local author. The four-room bed and breakfast is located in the heart of Southport, and is walking distance from shops, reJostaurants, and the waterfront. Indulge in a gourmet breakfast — fluffy blueberry pancakes, a signature French toast bake, tomato-basil quiche — before heading out to explore. But be sure to return in the afternoon for wine and light appetizers, which can be enjoyed in the rocking chairs on the front porch or on the pretty brick courtyard.

Tip: The inn has bicycles available for guests. Borrow one to explore Southport on two wheels.

Robert Ruark Inn
(910) 363-4169
robertruarkinn.com

Sit a spell and stay awhile at the Robert Ruark Inn. photograph by Robert Ruark Inn

This story was published on

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.

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