A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Before one young guest at The Swamp Park climbs the steep stairs leading to a tree-top platform, park manager George Howard asks if she’s ever done anything like ziplining before.

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Before one young guest at The Swamp Park climbs the steep stairs leading to a tree-top platform, park manager George Howard asks if she’s ever done anything like ziplining before.

Your Guide to Brunswick County’s River Towns

Before one young guest at The Swamp Park climbs the steep stairs leading to a tree-top platform, park manager George Howard asks if she’s ever done anything like ziplining before. She replies “kind of,” and explains, “I’ve done it virtually.” Howard shakes his head in disbelief. For him, it underscores the importance of what he sees daily at the park along the Shallotte River: patrons actually engaging in physically challenging activities and gaining confidence from them.

Much like the park’s zip line, recreation opportunities within inland Brunswick County invite visitors to go out on a limb for a new experience. Maybe that spirit of adventure is fueled by the area’s rivers, which, in the early days, served as lifelines in Southport, Calabash, and Shallotte, providing food, power, and transport of people and goods.

Today, these riverside towns offer rich draws to Brunswick County’s visitors, from picturesque main streets to outdoor recreation and special events to local attractions. Read on for our favorite ways to experience Southport, Calabash, and Shallotte, as well as Belville, Leland, and Winnabow.


Stately homes, with porches angled to catch breezes off the river, line the picturesque streets around downtown Southport. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS


In Southport, life is oriented around the waterfront. Walk along downtown’s streets that lead toward the Cape Fear River, and along the way, you’ll pass stately mansions and historic craftsman bungalows, independent shops, and locally owned restaurants lining the yacht basin.

Various types of tours help you get acquainted with the town. History buffs can sightsee during an  open-air trolley tour with Southport Fun Tours, where guide Dan “Rev” Gustafson shares facts and the backstory behind this coastal community. For history of a different sort, uncover Southport’s spooky side with Old South Tour Company during a Historic Ghost Walk Tour.

If you prefer to explore the area by way of water, join the guides from Adventure Kayak Company and paddle between the ancient cypress trees in Rice’s Creek. Or step aboard The Sally Ann to cruise the Cape Fear with Southport Water Tours.

Downtown Southport boasts a loyal following of folks who come for the shopping scene. Head to Howe Street, where retailers brim with goods ranging from women’s wear to quality kitchen supplies. The town is a haven for art lovers who flock to the galleries and antique aficionados ready to spend an afternoon hunting for vintage knickknacks.

West of Howe Street, waterfront eateries serve up breezes, views, and docks for anyone arriving by boat. The Provision Company, or Pro Co to locals, is known for its steamed shrimp and fried North Carolina crab cakes, as well as burgers and salads. Snag a table on its large, sheltered deck. The specials run a bit more upscale at Edgewater 122 next door and include a decadent lobster tagliatelle. Farther down, the colorful Fishy Fishy Café offers fried, blackened, and grilled options.


In Calabash, you’ll find fresh shrimp, crab, and more — lightly breaded and fried in the signature style — at the dockside restaurants. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS


In North Carolina’s “Seafood Capital,” your first stop is obviously finding Calabash-style fare, which originated at dockside fish fries of fresh-from-the-boat catch dredged in a signature light breading. Beck’s Restaurant is one of the original 1940s establishments that sprung from this tradition. Among today’s mix of seafood joints along Calabash River, long-timers — Dockside Seafood House, Captain Nance’s Seafood Restaurant — and newer additions — Oyster Rock Waterfront Seafood and Waterfront Seafood Shack — feature a variety of foods and cooking styles.

When you need a sweet pick-me-up, get a scoop from Calabash Creamery; with two cow statues out front, you won’t miss it. This mom-and-pop landmark specializes in homemade, hand-dipped ice cream in seasonal flavors like Kentucky Derby pie and Sunset Peach.

Settle in on the outdoor deck at The Oyster Rock and enjoy fresh oysters and tuna club sandwiches while overlooking Calabash River. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

For an immersive Calabash experience, reel in king mackerel on fishing charters based along the Calabash River. Calabash Fishing Fleet offers fishing and dolphin tours, and Captain Ed Elliott, a second-generation local fisherman and owner of Lucky Strike Charters, helms inshore and offshore trips. Cast a line with Hurricane Fleet Charter Fishing or take their naturalist-led dolphin cruise to get up close and personal with ocean life.

Before leaving the river, visit Callahan’s of Calabash. What opened as a modest souvenir shop in 1978 is now the sprawling 35,000-square-feet legacy of its founder, Clark Callahan. Sure, you can still buy T-shirts, sunglasses, and mementos of your Brunswick County trip, but you’ll also find home decor, house-made fudge, collectible items, and one of the largest Christmas collections in North Carolina.


Take in the peaceful views along the Shallotte Riverwalk. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS


At one time, Shallotte’s eponymous river was at the center of regional trade — a vital passage for barges and sail boats. Today the Shallotte Riverwalk travels a quarter mile along this landmark waterway.

On Saturday mornings, Shallotte’s Mulberry Park bustles with shoppers selecting cucumbers and field grown tomatoes at the Market on Mulberry. Come summertime, the park comes alive with music and community at the SummerFest concert series.

Nearby, within the town’s center, riverfront Smoke’d specializes in brisket, barbecue, local seafood, and craft cocktails. About a 10-minute drive south, where the Shallotte River meets the Intracoastal Waterway, Inlet View Bar & Grill has been owned and operated by the same family for 45 years. From the second-floor bar, toast to a memorable evening as moonlight splashes on the surrounding waterscape.

Practice your swing amid the peaceful surroundings at Rivers Edge Golf Club. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Discover thrills as you fly through the tree canopy during The Swamp Park’s zip line tour. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Golfers at Rivers Edge Golf Club tee off amidst sweeping views of coastal marshland that gives way to the sparkling river. This course, designed by Arnold Palmer, allows golfers to test their skills in the varying terrain and natural beauty of Brunswick County.

To the west of town, The Swamp Park boasts the largest and longest zip line canopy tour on the eastern seaboard, as well as an elevated obstacle course among the bald cypress treetops. Guided ATV tours through the grounds and boat tours through the blackwater swamp allow you to see and learn about its ecology. You could also see some inhabitants of the park — egrets, wood storks, anhinga, eagles, river otters, turtles, bass, and so many more.


Glide through Town Creek as you explore the marshland oasis at Brunswick Nature Park. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

Explore More of Brunswick County

Southwest of Wilmington, the towns of Winnabow, Leland, and Belville brim with history and natural sites that invite visitors to discover the area’s past and present.

In Winnabow, paths at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Sites pass foundations of homes from this pre-Revolutionary port town along the Cape Fear River and meander through the remains of the Civil War fort. Stop by the visitor center to read more about the site’s past.

Get a break from the summer sun as you follow the tree-covered paths through Belville Riverwalk Park. Photography courtesy of NC’S BRUNSWICK ISLANDS

This part of the county is also known for its parks. At Belville Riverwalk Park, moss-draped trees shade paths opening to boardwalks over marshes along the serene Brunswick River. Another path leads to a playground and a grouping of shady picnic shelters by the river’s edge. A pier, complete with fish-cleaning stations and a kayak launch, extends 125 feet into the river.

If you prefer to explore by way of water, Brunswick Nature Park in Winnabow and Cypress Cove Park in Leland provide launch points for kayaks and paddleboards for quick access to Brunswick County’s paddle trail. You can bring your own kayak or rent one from Riverwalk Rentals, which puts in at Belville Riverwalk Park spring through early fall. Owner Mario Barron, a Brunswick County native, loves that it’s easy to reach a peaceful, natural environment within a 10-minute’s paddle from the park. “It’s where I de-stress and decompress,” he says.

Ready to find solace during your beach trip? Whether you want to paddle, sightsee, dine, or cast a line, these river towns offer activities where you can be as adventurous or laid-back as you want during your time at in Brunswick County. Click here to start planning the fun.

This story was published on May 20, 2024

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.