9 Things You Can Only Do in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands

Nestled along the southernmost stretch of North Carolina’s coast, the Brunswick Islands are known for their tranquility. Much of these five barrier islands are pristine, covered with rolling dunes and waving shore grasses. But that respite isn’t the only attraction. There’s plenty of golf to play, cuisine to taste, celebrations to join, history to explore and unique views to enjoy.

While the Brunswick Islands offer enough adventures to fill several trips, these nine are the experiences you won’t find just anywhere.

Due to COVID-19, please check local tourism offices' and attractions' websites for the most up-to-date visitor information. Additionally, please visit Count On Me NC to see participating businesses and for tips on how to stay safe when visiting North Carolina.

Explore North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, Old Baldy

Explore North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, Old Baldy

Standing at the Cape Fear River’s mouth for more than two centuries, Old Baldy is the elder statesman of North Carolina’s seven lighthouses. Today, instead of steering ships, it beckons visitors to car-free Bald Head Island. Follow the wooden stairs to the top, an easy climb that turns slightly more difficult if you continue up the ladder to the lantern room. Stop at Smith Island Museum, inside the keeper’s cottage, for a souvenir and local ecology lesson.

 

Climb our state’s youngest lighthouse, Oak Island

Climb our state’s youngest lighthouse, Oak Island

Oak Island Lighthouse, across the Cape Fear and within sight of Old Baldy when skies are their Carolina bluest, is our state’s youngest lighthouse. Climbing the 153 feet requires a reservation and some nerve (please note: You should be able to make a reservation beginning in July). Instead of stairs, you’ll scramble up a series of ship ladders to the top. There you’ll find panoramic views of Caswell Beach, whose gentle slope makes for spectacular shelling. The best time to go is right after the tide changes, when whelks, sand dollars and countless other varieties are exposed.

 

Watch the sun rise and set over the ocean from the same spot

Watch the sun rise and set over the ocean from the same spot

From late fall through early spring, you can watch the sun rise and set over the ocean without moving your beach chair. The islands’ east-west orientation offers the perfect perspective for seeing the sun arc just above the southern horizon. It’s one of a few places worldwide where this view is so accessible. That earned the islands a spot on The Weather Channel’s list of “10 Incredible Phenomena You Have to See in Fall.”

 

Try the original (and tasty) Calabash seafood

Try the original (and tasty) Calabash seafood

What the small fishing port of Calabash lacks in size, it makes up in flavor. Savor it by grabbing a seat at one of the self-proclaimed "Seafood Capital of the World’s" family-run restaurants. Most were started by local fishermen almost a century ago, when they began serving visitors the shrimp, crab, scallops and fish they plucked from nearby waters. The unique preparation – a light breading and gentle fry – and generous portions make it popular and widely imitated.

 

Celebrate at the NC Oyster Festival

Celebrate at the NC Oyster Festival

While oysters’ power as an aphrodisiac can be debated, you’ll feel the love for this tasty mollusk in Shallotte. Head here in October, when our state’s oyster fishing season starts, for the two-day NC Oyster Festival. Meet crafts vendors, enjoy live music and choose from a variety of foods. Test your shucking skills in the competition, or sample the oyster stews that local restaurants have entered in the cook-off. There’s also an oyster-eating contest; you’ll win by downing a dozen pre-shucked ones the fastest.

 

Take part in our state’s official 4th of July celebration

Take part in our state’s official 4th of July celebration

What started with a simple toast and a few cannon blasts in 1792 has become a week-long celebration of our nation’s birthday. The North Carolina 4th of July Festival welcomes you to Southport to see firsthand why Coastal Living named it a "Best Beach Town in America for the 4th of July." (It's also expanding to Oak Island for the 2021 celebration). Watch the flotilla, admire classic cars, shop at the arts and crafts market, and take part in plenty of family-friendly activities, a day dedicated to beach activities and two fireworks displays on the waterfront.

 

Enjoy some solitude on one of the world’s best beaches

Enjoy some solitude on one of the world’s best beaches

Ponder your thoughts to a soundtrack of rolling waves and salt-air breezes on Sunset Beach, where the lack of development earned it a spot on National Geographic’s list of the "21 Best Beaches in the World." Explore adjacent Bird Island, where the Kindred Spirit Mailbox has stood for more than 35 years. Write your experiences or thoughts on the notebooks inside, or read entries left by previous visitors.

 

Play all the golf you like, all in one place

Play all the golf you like, all in one place

You’re never far from a tee in the Brunswick Islands. Nicknamed "North Carolina’s Golf Coast," it’s home to more than 30 golf courses, whose fairways wind through scenic stands of pine and oak and along quiet estuaries. Mild weather drives year-round play, and the variety of courses, designed by some of golf’s biggest legends – Arnold Palmer, Willard Byrd, Fred Couples and Rees Jones – means you won’t have to play the same one twice.

 

Visit famous TV and movie locations

Visit famous TV and movie locations

The Brunswick Islands have starred in many favorite vacations, not to mention television shows (like Under the Dome) and movies (especially those based on Nicholas Sparks' best-selling novels such as A Walk to Remember). Stop by the Southport Museum and Visitors' Center for a map of past filming locations and see how many you recognize. And keep your eyes open while on your self-guided tour – there’s always the chance you’ll come across a live set.

 

This article was produced in partnership with Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority. All photos courtesy of Brunswick.

Updated May 4, 2021
About the Author
Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer whose work also has appeared in Business North Carolina, Carolina Sportsman and Thousand Islands Life. He enjoys exploring North Carolina, especially its diverse fishing holes, local race tracks and world-renowned barbecue joints.

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