A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Carston Allen remembers when he caught his first wave. The nine-year-old was visiting his grandparents at Ocean Isle Beach, and the thrill of his achievement left a lasting mark. Allen

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Carston Allen remembers when he caught his first wave. The nine-year-old was visiting his grandparents at Ocean Isle Beach, and the thrill of his achievement left a lasting mark. Allen

Your Guide to Brunswick’s Five Islands

Carston Allen remembers when he caught his first wave. The nine-year-old was visiting his grandparents at Ocean Isle Beach, and the thrill of his achievement left a lasting mark. Allen has now been surfing for 20 years and owns the Carolina School of Surf on Ocean Isle Beach, where he lives.

Where Ocean Isle is known for friendly surfing, diverse dining, and fishing charters, its barrier island neighbor, Sunset Beach, is prime for biking, birding, and hiking to a beloved landmark. Just north up the coast, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island round out Brunswick County’s five islands. While bound by geography, like any set of siblings, each destination has its own identity, including a punch list of “must sees” that bring visitors back year after year.

Read on to learn more about this southern span of coastal North Carolina and get a few tried-and-true tips for enhancing your own visit.



 

The generously wide beaches and rolling swells make Ocean Isle Beach a perfect place to get the hang of riding waves. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Surf, Fish, and Dine on the Water at Ocean Isle Beach

Allen wasn’t just lucky when he first caught that wave: Ocean Isle Beach is known as a great beginner surf spot — there’s lots of space, and the waves are generally flat-breaking. “It’s normal for folks to feel intimidated initially, but we have a lot of success. It’s rare for a student to not get the hang of it,” Allen explains, adding, “It’s really cool for someone to come home from a vacation with a new skill, and this is the place to do it.”

Allen, who’s also a former ocean rescue lifeguard, says surf camp students not only learn the sport, but also the culture and history around surfing, as well as the importance of beach clean ups and good practices for marine life.

From the outdoor deck at Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille, you can slurp fresh oysters while watching the sunset. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Another popular Ocean Isle pastime is fishing, and booking a charter trip levels up the experience. Expert captains and crews from businesses like the Ocean Isle Fishing Center offer half- and all-day outings for inshore angling or deep-water ventures.

When the day winds down, find a waterfront restaurant where you can enjoy a stunning Southern sunset. Ocean Isle Fish Company and Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille are popular, as are many other dining options — some with dockage — that line the Intracoastal Waterway. Settle in, order a drink, and start telling tall tales of the day’s waves and catch.

Avid birders can head to the aptly named Bird Island, where hundreds of species of birds, including the American oystercatcher, land during the migration seasons. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Go Birding and Biking and Leave a Note at Sunset Beach

Quiet, non-commercial, and the smallest of Brunswick County’s islands, Sunset is big on birding, biking, and preserving tradition. In fact, part of its appeal is largely its defiance of all the hype that typically surrounds premier beach destinations.

Six sites from the North Carolina Birding Trail are located in Sunset Beach, including (not surprisingly) Bird Island. Varied ecosystems and the turnover of migration seasons can attract hundreds of species, so pack binoculars and head out to the salt marshes, maritime shrubs, dunes, and beach grasses in search of wood storks, black skimmers, white ibises, winter sparrows, American oystercatchers, least terns, and horned grebes, among many others.

Take a moment of reflection as you jot down your thoughts, poems, or personal love letters to stow inside the Kindred Spirit mailbox. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Bring your own fat-tire bicycle or rent from a local shop — low tide draws cyclists for a relaxing ride on Sunset’s wide, flat beach. The Sunset Beach Pier is a common stopover, as is Bird Island’s Kindred Spirit mailbox — it’s roughly a 4½-mile or so roundtrip ride between the pier and Kindred Spirit. Hiding in plain sight, the black mailbox and the journals inside have welcomed more than 40 years of notes and prayers. Take a seat, pen your thoughts, and then seal them safely back inside — the completed books are catalogued at nearby UNC Wilmington.

 

Bask on the Beach, Paddle, and Search for Shells at Holden Beach

Known as “the Family Beach,” it’s only appropriate to spend your days in the sand alongside relatives, whether building sandcastles, tossing a football, or making lasting multi-generational memories. If meandering the island’s rivers, inlets, and Intracoastal Waterway is more your speed, rent a single, double, or wave-riding kayak from one of Holden Beach’s many purveyors. At Bridgeview Park, a public kayak launch makes setting out on your adventure easy-peasy.

In 2022, Holden Beach added “sea biscuit hot spot” to its claims to fame. Likened in size to a golf ball and bearing the appearance of a puffy sand dollar, there’s nothing new about these shoreline finds: Sea biscuits are, in fact, fossils of echinoderms from more than 40 million years ago. But when a beach renourishment project dredged up these beauties, folks started flocking. Those on the hunt tend to hit the beach early, while you can also search the water line at low tide.

Cap your day with dinner at the red-roofed Provision Company, a casual waterfront dining spot where boats are welcome. The hardest decision of your evening will be choosing between the shrimp burger and the special, a half-pound of steamed shrimp, crab cake, and corn on the cob.

 

Shop coastal-inspired crafts made by local artists at the Oak Island Farmers Market. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Enjoy Live Music, Events, and Surf Fishing on Oak Island

The largest of Brunswick County’s barrier islands, Oak Island is big on community gatherings, with outdoor concerts and open-air markets drawing locals and visitors. Bands by the Beach is its free summer concert series, taking place on Fridays at the Middleton Park Amphitheater. Come Monday, you can shop for fresh produce and homemade goods at the Oak Island Farmers and Artisans Market.

Register in advance for a tour of Oak Island Lighthouse for the opportunity to see inside and climb the ladders to the top. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Or you can catch your ingredients (well, at least some of them). Surf fishing — especially in the fall — is a laid-back outing, and with more than 60 beach access points, you won’t have to haul gear very far. Fishing is popular at the tip of the island, dubbed The Point, with whiting and bluefish on the ocean side and trout and black drum swimming in the Intracoastal Waterway.

On the far end of the island, North Carolina’s youngest lighthouse rises up above Caswell Beach. Completed in 1958, Oak Island Lighthouse doesn’t have the spiral staircase we’ve come to expect from older beacons. Rather, it has a series of ship ladders, with 131 total steps. Tours are available year round with advance reservations, so plan ahead if you want to learn more about the history of this quirky tower.

 

From the top of Old Baldy Lighthouse, you can take in views of Bald Head Island and the Cape Fear River estuary. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Climb a Lighthouse, Discover Wildlife, and Take a Slower Pace on Bald Head Island

Personal cars aren’t allowed here — but trust us, they aren’t missed. Ferry over to Bald Head Island, and hop on a bike or golf cart. You’ll appreciate being closer to nature, because when it comes to Bald Head, that’s what shines.

See it from above with a climb up Old Baldy Lighthouse, the oldest in North Carolina. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and built in 1817, its 108 stairs lead to a breathtaking view of the island and Cape Fear River estuary. Once down, take a hike on the M. Kent Mitchell Nature Trail. As you wind through the salt marsh trail over wooden boardwalks, you’ll spot markers along the way identifying various plant life, but keep an eye out for fiddler crabs, alligators, and many types of migratory birds.

Keep your eyes peeled for fiddler crabs, migratory birds, and other creatures as you explore the boardwalks that lead through the brackish marshland. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Of course, you can’t talk about Bald Head’s wildlife without mentioning its sea turtles. The Bald Head Island Conservancy was founded in the 1980s as a grassroots sea turtle protection program. Today, the conservancy runs a saturation tagging beach, protecting countless loggerhead sea turtles around the clock.

Beyond hands-on sea turtle tagging and protection, programs at the conservancy include exploratory tours, outdoor adventures, and educational spaces where visitors can see native species and engage in hands-on science. Conservancy members can even join experts on guided nighttime Turtle Walks.

“Whether we’re working with the kids in our summer camps or with their parents in other programming, we’re interacting with the next environmental stewards — not only of Bald Head Island, specifically, but of all the wonderful spaces across North Carolina,” says Dr. Jennifer Wiggen, senior educator for the conservancy.

“Adults can forget what it’s like to explore something just for the sake of exploring — but along the way, they just might discover something they’ve never seen before,” she adds.

You, too, can reinvigorate that child-like urge to explore while visiting this collection of barrier islands. Whether you’re looking for surfing, waterside dining, or live events by the sea, the defining qualities of these beaches and islands let you customize the trip to your interests.

This story was published on Mar 04, 2024

Lauren Eberle

Lauren Eberle is a writer and editor based in Winston-Salem.