Photograph by C2 Photography; Video by Dillon Deaton
Lockwood Folly River
(Varnamtown, North Carolina) — Capt. Scott Martin slows as he cruises past the boats docked at Varnamtown. For members of this tight-knit community, he says, “fishing is in their blood.” Martin himself fell in love with the water as a boy, during summers spent with his grandparents in nearby Windy Point.
He started Windy Point Nautical Adventures as “a little bit of a give-back,” he says — a way to share his passion for the coast. On his boat tours, Capt. Scott Martin points out ospreys and dolphins, manta rays and the occasional pilot whale as he tells stories of life along the winding Lockwood Folly River.
For passengers whose vacations begin and end at the beach, Martin’s boat tours — and its shift from open estuary to cypress swamp — are a surprise and a delight.
Green Swamp Preserve
Cars zip by on nearby Highway 211, but, just a few steps into the Green Swamp Preserve, Zach West is in a different world. As a regional steward with The Nature Conservancy, West helps promote longleaf pine restoration throughout the 17,000-acre Green Swamp, sometimes through prescribed burns. Until you walk the preserve’s three-mile trail, you may be picturing the wrong kind of swamp.
Here, shrubby pocosin bogs open into these pine savannas — a “world-famous” ecosystem, West says, whose moist soil yields amazing small-scale biodiversity, including yellow-green pitcher plants, vibrant orchids, and rare Venus flytraps.
You can see it along quiet neighborhood streets, shaded by spreading live oaks; at the end of the city pier, where anglers cast a line into the mouth of the Cape Fear River; on the front porches of classic coastal homes — including the Walker-Pyke House, built around 1800 and thought to be the oldest standing in town: Southport embodies the spirit of summer in North Carolina.
In fact, that easygoing, porch-perfect feeling is so vital here that town leaders outfitted Waterfront Park — the community’s front porch — with a series of swings. Sit back, rock gently, and watch the world pass by on the water.
Down around the Yacht Basin, where the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River meet the ocean, something of a restaurant district has sprung up in Southport. Fishy Fishy Cafe sprawls along the water, a colorful mix of indoor and outdoor seating welcoming tourists and townies for flounder, crab cakes, fish tacos, and live music in the outdoor bar area known as “The Fishbowl.” You can’t miss it: The restaurant’s roof, with its name spelled out in large white lettering, is a Southport icon.
The light flashes four times every 10 seconds, a reliable presence in the town of Caswell Beach on the eastern end of Oak Island. Built in 1957, the Oak Island Lighthouse is the only one in North Carolina with ship’s ladders instead of stairs, meaning that it takes some effort to scale the 131 steps to the top. But it’s worth it: When you walk out onto the balcony, wind whipping your hair, the view is breathtaking.
From a vantage point of more than 150 feet, the homes along Caswell Beach Road look like dollhouses. That view is like a promise, giving strength to the climbers — as young as 9 and as old as 93 — who come to see the beach from above.
Seafood is a centuries-old tradition in Holden Beach, where Phil Robinson Jr. and his wife, Anna, run the Old Ferry market on the Intracoastal Waterway. The old wooden building has been a seafood market since 1957; Robinson, who grew up helping his father run a fish house, jumped at the opportunity to buy the place in 2008. During the summer, bins overflow with shrimp, flounder, and blue crabs — never frozen, Robinson says, just what’s running — and many families plan their vacation meals around what’s fresh at Old Ferry.
A little ways down the ICW, Provision Company restaurant serves its famous shrimp burger in a sunny space that pays tribute to the property’s past as a boatyard: Outside, you can still find remnants of the old boat rails; inside, the bar area is modeled on the wheelhouse of a shrimp boat.
Ocean Isle Beach
In the 1930s, the construction of the Intracoastal Waterway in Brunswick County created Ocean Isle Beach, along with the neighboring islands of Holden and Sunset beaches. For many families, vacation doesn’t start until they cross the waterway on the Odell Williamson Bridge, named for the man who bought the island in 1959 and oversaw the town’s growth. In the early days, he dug canals into some of the lots, giving homeowners with boats easy access to the ICW.
In 1991, another visionary, Stuart Ingram, opened the Museum of Coastal Carolina to share his knowledge of nature with younger generations — a mission that plays out every day around the museum’s touch tank when it’s time to feed the starfish.
“Once you get beyond 40th Street,” Ann Bokelman says, “you’re committed.” The beach access there is the last link from the town of Sunset Beach to the uninhabited Bird Island Reserve: 1,300 acres of salt marshes and tidal creeks. As a steward with the Bird Island Preservation Society, Bokelman often leads nature walks. But for many people, the 1.5-mile journey to the Kindred Spirit mailbox is one they make alone. For decades, notebooks inside the mailbox have provided a place for wanderers to write about their struggles and joys, about proposals and births, about people they’ve lost, and often, simply, about how happy they are to be here, surrounded by all this peace.
Not far from the docks of Calabash, a new generation continues a tradition that began with fish camps in the 1930s. Shaun Bellamy and her brother, Kurt Hardee (wearing green), run Beck’s and Ella’s, started by their great-aunt and grandfather, respectively. Both restaurants serve heaping platters of “Calabash seafood” — that is, “lightly breaded and not fried so heavily you can’t taste the difference between an oyster and a scallop,” Shaun says. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing — in 2012, a fire destroyed the building that had housed Beck’s for decades. But the family rebuilt, adding a brand-new touch: On one wall, Shaun’s husband, Corey (wearing blue), painted a map of the village they call home.
Golf enthusiasts tee up all over Brunswick County, where more than 30 world-class courses make up North Carolina’s “Golf Coast.” On the southern end of the county, the greens at Oyster Bay Golf Links showcase the lakes, marshes, and maritime forests of Sunset Beach. Farther north, in Leland, the Compass Pointe Golf Club bears the stamp of renowned golf course architect and Brunswick County resident Rick Robbins. Nearly anywhere you vacation in this part of the state, there’s a nearby golf course where you can slip away and sink some putts.
When Mannon Gore purchased the three-mile island known as Bald Beach in 1955, he envisioned a quiet community that would let the beauty of nature take center stage. There would be no buildings taller than 35 feet, he decided, and the houses would be built far back from the shoreline. In the years since, as the beaches here remain wide and the salt marshes flourish, the town’s name almost seems like a mission statement: From his home on neighboring Ocean Isle Beach, Gore was so taken with the view of the sun sinking over the barrier island to the west that he was inspired to call it Sunset Beach.