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North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands offer a feast for the senses

Idyllic communities, beaches offer vivid sights, sounds and tastes

By Mary Ann Anderson, Tribune News Service
Published: January 27, 2024, 5:57am
4 Photos
A tiny plover, one of the more than 200 bird species that populate the Brunswick Islands, skits along the shore of Sunset Beach. The beaches of Brunswick Islands are known for birdwatching.
A tiny plover, one of the more than 200 bird species that populate the Brunswick Islands, skits along the shore of Sunset Beach. The beaches of Brunswick Islands are known for birdwatching. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS) (Photos by Mary Ann Anderson/TNS) Photo Gallery

Since the frenzied pace of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s has finally settled down, now is the best time to plan summer travel.

Finding the idyllic amalgamation of sun, surf and seafood can be a challenge, but not when it’s a getaway to the Brunswick Islands. The islands, wedged into North Carolina’s southernmost corner between Wilmington to the north and the South Carolina state line, are strung like a pearl necklace of coastal communities including 45 miles of stunning, windswept beaches and five barrier islands that protect the coast from the sometimes tumultuous Atlantic.

Atlantic winds and surf contour the 10 cities of the Brunswick Islands, with each community differing uniquely from the others. Six of the 10 have their own beaches, among them Bald Head Island, Caswell Beach, Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Oak Island and Sunset Beach. The picturesque coastal towns that round out the Brunswick Islands are Calabash, Southport, Shallotte and Leland.

If you wait until the off season of fall or winter, you can experience a natural phenomenon of which scant few places can boast. On the East Coast, the sun rises in the east over the Atlantic and sets in the west over land. In the Brunswick Islands, the sun rises and sets over the ocean. How can that be, you ask? The Brunswick Islands run east and west, so the beaches face south, and the autumnal equinox tilts the sun far enough south so that it appears to rise and set over the Atlantic. You would never even have to move your beach chair to catch the sun going up or down.


For more detailed information, visit North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands website at www.ncbrunswick.com to download or order a visitor guide.

In addition to those dramatic barrier islands and beaches and their dazzlingly vivid sunrises and sunsets, the Brunswick Islands — a quiet seaside getaway that is beach- and outdoor-focused — offer myriad opportunities for dining, antiquing, visiting museums and historical sites, exploring art galleries, shopping and selecting a variety of accommodations, from campgrounds to grand vacation homes.

Letting nature reign

The salt marsh of the Brunswick Islands, at first glance not much more than prairies of tall grasses striated with tidal rivers, hides a litany of surprises: the surreptitious movement of river otters, long-beaked wood storks, elegant egrets and shimmery dolphins. At daybreak, the marsh glows a glorious pale pink, brilliant red and subtle orange. The sunsets are even more magical as the marsh simmers and burns in golden shards of light. The hauntingly beautiful marshlands offer some of the best kayaking and paddleboarding on the East Coast, and several adventure outfitters supply rentals to explore on your own or with expert guides who can show you distinctive and tranquil ecosystems teeming with hundreds of species of birds, marine creatures, and warm- and cold-blooded wildlife.

It’s a good half-hour walk or short bike ride from the nearest public access point to a secluded stretch of sand dunes on Bird Island, an uninhabited isle at the west end of Sunset Beach. But thousands of local folks and visitors have made that trek to share the written word of their innermost thoughts, wishes, joys, even despondencies into the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. With the aria in the background of a harmonious, soothing blend of surf, wind and birdsong, the mailbox contains journals in which you can anonymously — or not — share your secrets or read the contemplations of others. It’s a long ramble to get there, but the heartstring-tugging stories you read as you write your own are well worth the walk.

Along with the bright blue water and powder-soft sands of Sunset Beach are wonderfully intricate and fascinating sand mazes. Hunter Gibbes, known as the Maze Man, has been creating the mazes since 2005. Each carving in sand, which takes up to two hours, is huge — life-size or even larger than life — and often spans from the sand dunes to the ocean’s edge. Among his recent mazes are the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, pumpkins for Halloween, sand versions of corn mazes and an anniversary sand-card to his wife, Linda. Gibbes creates his works of art year round, but he is most active during summer. Follow Sunset Beach Maze Man on Facebook for the latest updates and locations of new mazes.

For stargazers who enjoy traveling for the heavenly views, the dark skies of Brunswick Islands require no telescope to see the glittering wonder of the galaxies. With minimal light pollution and no high rises, the night sky is illuminated with a blanket of stars that seems to go on forever. Complemented by an orchestra of waves lolling against the shore, a clear night out on the beach and under the velvety sky is a spectacle you won’t soon forget. Watch for the Summer Triangle of Cygnus, Aquila and Lyra and, when the night is especially clear, the Milky Way.

Get into the swing of things and tee up for golf at one of 30 challenging courses within the Brunswick Islands. Among the selection of courses are the surrounded-by-nature Panther’s Run Golf Links on Ocean Isle Beach; Crow Creek Golf Club in Calabash, which has one of the most immaculately maintained courses along the East Coast; and Magnolia Greens Golf Course in Leland, which gets consistently good ink in golf magazines. Many of the courses were designed by golfing legends Arnold Palmer, Bobby Jones and Fred Couples.

Raising a fork

If there is an iconic thing the Brunswick Islands are known for, it’s seafood. Start your culinary sojourn in Calabash, a historic fishing village known as the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Fresh, lightly breaded and deep-fried denizens of the sea (think shrimp, oysters, crab, grouper and flounder) became famous here in the 1930s and ’40s.

The lore is that fisherman brought their catch into the docks around Calabash, where locals would meet the boats to see what was in their nets and on their hooks. Often, someone would set up big cast-iron kettles near the docks and fry up a feast of seafood on the spot. Townsfolk, following the irresistible aromas of fried seafood, came to buy lunch or dinner from these pop-up fish camps, and Calabash seafood was on its way to fame.

While such seafood is available at plenty of restaurants in the Brunswick Islands, in its namesake Calabash, try a basket of fried goodness at Oyster Rock Waterfront Seafood, Captain Nance’s Calabash Seafood Restaurant, Calabash Seafood Hut or Bennett’s Grill and Café.

Other great eateries are peppered throughout the Brunswick Islands, including no-frills Holden Beach Provision Company overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, famous for its grilled shrimp burger. Salt 64 in Oak Island is more upscale and offers Southern classics including chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and its creamy coastal sunset bisque, with lobster, shrimp, crab and scallops. In Ocean Isle, Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille has beef, chicken and pasta, but its seafood dishes really get the tastebuds tingling. Try the “Jewels of the Sea,” with sauteed shrimp, scallops and lump crab.

Fishy Fishy Café in Southport offers world-class sunsets along with its delectable fresh seafood. Try the baked crab dip with French toast as a starter, followed by a fried shrimp po’ boy or the jazzed-up Carolina Seafood Plate with choices of seafood either fried, blackened or grilled. Visiting by boat? No problem: Just pilot on up to Fishy Fishy’s boat dock and stroll right on in.

Slumbering, Carolina-style

With the Brunswick Islands being a family-friendly destination, plenty of travelers want more privacy and room than a hotel or inn can provide. Myriad rental homes, condominiums and cottages pepper the Brunswick Islands and especially the beach areas, with local rental agencies — including Holden Beach Vacations, Sloane Realty Vacations and Margaret Rudd Vacation Rentals — all ready to find your ideal home away from home, from simple and homey to fabulously luxurious.

The Robert Ruark Inn in Southport, once the childhood summer home of the renowned journalist and outdoorsman, has all the frills of what you would expect from a charming bed and breakfast, including lavish Victorian-era furnishings, blooming gardens and family heirlooms, among them an extensive collection of Ruark’s books. Other inns in the area are the Inn at Bald Head Island, and LaPolena Bed and Breakfast and Captain Newton’s Inn, both in Southport.

There are a few chain hotels, but you may want to try a smaller, more intimate place. The Beach House at Oak Island with its bright rooms and ocean views has been recently renovated, while the Sunset Inn in Sunset Beach offers individually decorated rooms and glorious views of the salt marsh. The River Hotel of Southport, Ocean Crest Motel in Oak Island and Marsh Harbour Inn in Bald Head Island are also cozy options.

The last word

On my last evening in the Brunswick Islands, I took a solitary walk along the sandy shores of Sunset Beach, the late-afternoon sun setting and the beach aflame with soft light as I listened to the elaborate whistling, chirping and piping of the sandpipers, plovers and terms. My heart and soul were at peace in this powerfully serene sanctuary — the perfect place to take a pause from daily life.