A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

As you cross over Brunswick County’s G.V. Barbee Bridge, your windows down so you can breathe in the briny air, you’ll find a calm found only at the coast. Here

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

As you cross over Brunswick County’s G.V. Barbee Bridge, your windows down so you can breathe in the briny air, you’ll find a calm found only at the coast. Here

Where Oaks Meet Sea: A Week on Oak Island

As you cross over Brunswick County’s G.V. Barbee Bridge, your windows down so you can breathe in the briny air, you’ll find a calm found only at the coast. Here at North Carolina’s southeastern corner, the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) flows toward the Atlantic and watery paths create dark swirls through thick marsh grass. Vacation —and your home away from home — are near.

Take in the view of the Intracoastal Waterway from the G.V. Barbee Bridge. photograph by Kristin Goode/Oak Island Accommodations

On Oak Island, nature takes center stage in every season. Live oaks hang over many of the roads, providing shelter from the sun and a reminder of times gone by. Just over the bridge, catch glimpses of Oak Island Golf Club through trees that surround the course. “Oaks are a dominating feature of the maritime forest habitat on Oak Island,” says Amy Mead, a local environmental sustainability educator.

At the first traffic light after the bridge, you have access to the two towns that share the island. Stay on the road that gently curves its way into Caswell Beach, or turn right onto East Oak Island Drive and enter the town of Oak Island. 

“It’s just so beautiful,” says Danielle Herrera, co-owner of Long Beach Paddle Company. “There’s nothing better than an oak tree and a beach scene.”

This week, the island’s nature, history, and adventure are yours for the taking. Read on for three itineraries to sketch your own Oak Island landscape.


Blend into the Seascape

Oak Island mornings have the dreamy softness of a watercolor. As you plan out your day from the deck of your rental home — one of the best ways to live like a local — sip a cup of coffee and savor a lemonade donut from OKI Scoop Shop and Donuts. No matter where you are on the island, you can hear the ocean in the distance.

Time to check it out. “With more than 115 free public beach and ICW access locations, Oak Island offers more accessibility to our greatest natural resource than any other coastal town in the state,” explains Michael Scott Emory from the Town of Oak Island. 

Stepping between the dunes, warm sand sifts between your toes. Your children breeze past, towels fluttering behind them, propelled by the sea air. Their bright voices add to the seascape — a rainbow of umbrellas down the beach, V formations of pelicans above, and sparkling ocean ahead. 

At low tide, amble down the miles of beach through tide pools, scouting for sand dollars among the oyster shells. During warmer months, if you pass the Tropical Treats cart that rolls down the beach daily, indulge yourself with a refreshing Italian ice. In cooler months, stop by Ruby’s Coffee House and Eatery at the Oak Island Pier for a toasted bagel sandwich and warm up with a specialty coffee or hot chocolate. 

Later in the afternoon, let one of the area’s seafood markets provide inspiration for dinner. Inside Haag and Sons Seafood, find a handwritten list of the day’s catch on a chalkboard hanging above the counter. Once you’ve made your selection from the fresh fish tucked in ice-filled freezers, pick out some seasonings and condiments to spice up your meal. Then, bring your bounty back to your rental home and prepare an amazing meal in your own kitchen.

Prepare an amazing meal in your own kitchen with fresh seafood from Haag and Sons Seafood. photograph by Kristin Goode/Oak Island Accommodations

Once the family is fed, enjoy a game of bocce or a frisbee toss on the sand while a brilliant sunset fades to dusk over the west end of the beach. “As one of North Carolina’s few barrier islands that faces directly south, beachgoers can enjoy magnificent views of both an ocean sunrise and sunset, all from the same stretch of sand,” Emory says. 


Make Your Own Wind and Waves

If you and yours prefer a day with vivid strokes and splashes of intense color, there’s no shortage of adventurous activities.

Want to spend the morning touring the island on two wheels? Yacht Drive connects Register Park with Veterans Park, a 2.2-mile stretch providing serene views of the ICW. On the ocean side of the island, pedal your way down the beach from Oak Island Pier to Ocean Crest Pier . If you decide to try your hand at ocean fishing, both piers rent fishing rods.

Take in serene views of the ICW along Yacht Drive or, on the ocean side of the island, pedal your way down the beach from Oak Island Pier to Ocean Crest Pier. photograph by Kristin Goode/Oak Island Accommodations

At the Point, the area’s beloved park that curves around the western end of the island from beach to sound, several rental companies make it easy to explore by delivering kayaks or stand-up paddle boards to the park’s launch sites. Or sign up for a guided kayak and stand-up paddleboard tour, where you might spot dolphins or sea turtles in the waters around Sheep Island.

Long Beach Paddle Company, owned by Danielle and her mother, Julie Stiller, operates out of Julie’s home. They recommend paddling the Beaverdam Creek, which is accessible from the dock in their backyard. “It’s out of the waterway and out of the boat traffic, so you’ll see more birds and oysters and fish,” says Danielle. Plan to spend two or three hours exploring the estuary environment. Due to the company’s small size, call ahead to reserve a time — and be prepared to help carry kayaks. 

After a busy morning, drop into Inergy Market for some healthy fuel to keep you moving the whole afternoon. Try their signature Swamp Juice at the smoothie bar, a tasty combination of tropical fruit, vanilla protein powder, and green superfood.

Oak Island also has plenty of choices for filling your afternoon with action. The splash pad — open Memorial Day to Labor Day — and pirate ship playground at Middleton Park — open year-round — will delight young travelers. Golfers of every skill level can enjoy Oak Island Par 3 at South Harbour, located just off the island. Fearless vacationers can catch spectacular views when skydiving with Skydive Coastal Carolinas

When your day is done, kick back and let Swain’s Restaurant Bar and Grill cook dinner for you. From fresh local seafood to pasta and steak, everyone in your crew is sure to be satisfied. If you don’t have room for dessert, take home a slice of one of Swain’s decadent — and logic-defying — cheesecake-stuffed cakes.


Add Historical Detail

Maybe you’re looking to create a day that feels like a classic work of art — one spent exploring the area’s past. 

Before you get started, grab coffee and an assortment of locally made bagels from the popular Island Jo. Or for hearty, down-home fare, dig into a loaded biscuit at Old Bridge Diner. This open-faced biscuit includes two sausage patties, hash browns, cheddar cheese, sausage gravy, all topped with two scrambled eggs.

After breakfast, visit the treasured Oak Island Lighthouse and its boardwalk that leads to the surf. Located near the east end of the island in Caswell Beach, the landmark was one of the last lighthouses built in the U.S. The stately, 153-foot-tall beacon has guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear River for 63 years. 

Next, make your way to Southport, a charming town that faces the Cape Fear River. Just a 20-minute drive from Oak Island, Southport was founded before the Revolutionary War as a fishing village and military town called Smithville. 

A number of historic homes and buildings still stand in Southport — the oldest dating to 1800. Find walking tours of these notable sites on PocketSights, a mobile phone app. Printed copies are also available at the Fort Johnson-Southport Museum and Visitor Center.

Later, browse paintings, pottery, jewelry, and much more at Franklin Square Gallery, an artist cooperative showcasing stunning works from throughout southeastern North Carolina, located in a historic building beneath live oaks just a few blocks from Southport’s waterfront.

Before leaving Southport, be sure to check out the town’s Yacht Basin area. Several restaurants line the water, all with open-air seating and spectacular views of this area where the sound, sea, and Cape Fear River meet.

Southport’s Yacht Basin area has spectacular views of where the sound, sea, and Cape Fear River meet. photograph by Matt Parvin/Oak Island Accommodations

Fishy Fishy Cafe serves sandwiches filled with tasty combinations like pesto and salmon at lunch, and dinner specialties like bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp.

Under the sails at Frying Pan Restaurant, enjoy generous portions of classic seafood dishes with a Southern slant. As you tuck into your last bite of homemade molten chocolate cake, savor the final moments of your week at the beach, filled with equal parts relaxation and adventure — at just the right pace.

This story was published on Jan 10, 2022

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.