Cruise the Waterways of North Carolina

Cruise the Waterways of North Carolina

Go on a one-hour tour or daylong excursion with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours

Good access to boat ramps and marinas make the southeastern part of coastal North Carolina perfect for boating. Start in Beaufort and follow the Intracoastal Waterway past Wilmington to the Cape Fear River, Bald Head Island, Southport and the Brunswick Islands. Stop in Calabash, the Seafood Capital of the World, before returning to Beaufort.

7-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Head to Morehead City and Beaufort and dock in historic downtown Beaufort.

Day 2: Explore more of Beaufort and Morehead City in the morning before heading southwest along the coast to Jacksonville or Swan Point.

Day 3: Continue heading southwest for an overnight in either Wrightsville Beach or Wilmington.

Day 4: Discover Southport, great for overnight stays.

Days 5 to 7: After visiting the Brunswick Islands and enjoying a Calabash-style seafood lunch, start the trip back to Beaufort. Return to favorite marinas or stop in places missed on the initial run.

Day 1: Morehead City and Beaufort

Visiting boaters could spend days on and off the boat in and around Beaufort and Morehead City, enjoying an array of on-water experiences, marinas, restaurants, shopping, and sightseeing. Plan to enjoy all the variety on the day of your arrival and the next morning, before continuing along the coastline on Day 2.

Beaufort is historic and established, while Morehead City bustles as the state’s second largest commercial port behind Wilmington. Together, they are considered by many to be the hub of the North Carolina boating scene.

Located along Taylor Creek, Beaufort’s delights include: several marinas, such as the convenient Beaufort Municipal Docks; a charming historic district great for walking; the excellent North Carolina Maritime Museum and Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center; an eclectically upscale dining scene, including Spouter Inn, Front Street Grill, and Beaufort Grocery Company; and equally eclectic shopping in stores such as Scuttlebutt Books & Bounty.

To the west, Morehead City’s waterfront includes: a large charter fishing fleet; several marinas, including the convenient Morehead Gulf Docks; The History Place; and a waterfront boardwalk with several restaurants including the Sanitary Fish Market, there since 1938. Just outside downtown, the helpful Carteret County Tourism Development Bureau’s office offers lots of great information on the area, plus a four-ramp North Carolina Wildlife Access point for boaters.

Though Morehead City and Beaufort are ideal bases for boaters, the uninhabited outlying Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout Bight offer truly memorable boating experiences. Part of protected Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks is famous for its wild horses, but there’s also great primitive camping, with no special permits needed, as well as undeveloped wild dunes and valleys. Cape Lookout features the distinctive black-and-white diamond pattern of Cape Lookout Lighthouse and 56 miles of undeveloped beachfront and dunes. If you don’t want to take your own boat to either destination, take advantage of ferry services out of Beaufort and Harkers Island.

Day 2: Jacksonville and Swan Point

After spending time in the Beaufort and Morehead City area and eating lunch, it’s time to put in some serious time on the water. Heading west out of Morehead City along the Intracoastal Waterway, beach communities like Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle are mostly for sun-worshipping landlubbers. Bogue Inlet is the next navigational issue, with the charming waterfront town of Swansboro a popular stop for boaters. Although it’s not nearly as developed as Beaufort, downtown Swansboro has plenty of marina facilities, dining, shopping and history.

The 17-mile stretch from Swansboro to the New River is among the quietest long sections of the Intracoastal Waterway in the state. It’s a straight and well-marked channel, though tidal currents can be heavy at times.

The New River is a highlight for many locals and visiting boaters, thanks to 15-plus miles of largely undeveloped shoreline that runs up to Jacksonville. Don’t plan to land, because this stretch is part of the restricted Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. Old Ferry Marina, located just past the Sneads Ferry bridge, is a great stop for services and upriver information.

Jacksonville is well worth the run up the New River, thanks to the friendly husband-wife operation at Tideline Marine and lots of dining, shopping, and more within walking distance.

Swan Point is the next stop past the New River, with Swan Point Marina offering complete services and information about the run to Wrightsville Beach. Jacksonville or Swan Point both make for great overnight docking before Day 3.

Day 3: Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington

Harbour Village Marina, about 19 miles farther from Swan Point along the Intracoastal Waterway, is another popular stop. Access to outlying islands like Surf City and Topsail Beach is available, but these are mainly beach destinations.

Wrightsville Beach, however, is well worth visiting because it has a number of marinas, lots of restaurants, including the Causeway Café, within walking distance, plus shopping. There is interesting cruising all along the Intracoastal Waterway, with many convenient ramps.

After Masonboro Inlet’s busy Masonboro Yacht Club and Marina, Carolina Beach is the next stop along the Intracoastal Waterway. Lots of development means marina facilities and boat ramps are limited. Both Carolina Beach State Park and Civil War-era Fort Fisher are well worth exploring by boat and ashore.

Like the New River, the Cape Fear River is definitely a cruising highlight in this region. Whether you use one of many ramps to explore a part of the river, or float about 10 miles all the way up to the charming riverfront city of Wilmington, there’s little to worry about boating the Cape Fear.

Highlights of this area include lots of local history, Bald Head Island, cruising the river, and Wilmington. The history of the Cape Fear includes the pirate Stede Bonnet and the 1725 town of Brunswick. Reached only by private boat or a frequent public ferry, Bald Head Island is a great place for boaters to visit. No cars are allowed, so residents and visitors use golf carts for transportation, and Old Baldy stands as a landmark lighthouse.

The shoreline up to Wilmington is largely undeveloped, making for a quiet trip. That changes when you reach the state’s largest port. Commercial traffic, including huge container ships, can sometimes be daunting to smaller vessels. Once you’re in Wilmington, you’ll enjoy downtown docking, good restaurants such as Pilot House, a waterfront favorite, shopping, and historic sites. Across the river from downtown, visiting boaters shouldn’t miss a tour of the huge Battleship North Carolina.

Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington are ideal overnight stops.

Day 4: Southport

Back at the mouth of the Cape Fear, the town of Southport is a top boating hotspot. You may recognize the Southport ferry, its terminal and many of the town’s charming restaurants from the film Safe Haven, adapted from the Nicholas Sparks novel. Parts of the romantic thriller were shot here in the summer of 2012. Other highlights in Southport include a meal at famed Yacht Basin Provision Co., a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum of Southport, and a warm welcome at Southport Marina, where you can use a convenient ramp for a fee.

Farther along the Intracoastal Waterway, South Harbour Village Marina has developed into a popular boater stop. You’ll find quiet cruising and anchorage, with a busy ramp about a mile down Dutchman’s Creek. Joseph’s is a particular highlight of South Harbor Marina, thanks to creative Italian cuisine and lots of friendly locals who know boating in the area.

Days 5 to 7: Return trip to Beaufort

As you pass by the Intracoastal Waterway community of St. James Plantation and through the mouth of Lockwood Folly River, there’s great upstream cruising for smaller craft. The next few outlying islands offer a busy passage along the Intracoastal Waterway. Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Sunset Beach are all worthy of exploration, but the town of Calabash, a North Carolina seafood classic, should definitely be on the menu of every boater in the area. After passing briefly into South Carolina on the Intracoastal Waterway, Calabash Creek leads boaters back north and northeast into North Carolina.

Calabash’s two main streets are lined with restaurants dating back to the 1940s. The town is known all along the coast and inland for its Calabash-style made-to-order seafood, lightly battered, deep-fried and typically served with coleslaw and hush puppies. Several of the restaurants offer water views. Captain Nance’s and Coleman’s are longtime favorites.

A seafood lunch washed down with some sweet iced tea seems like an ideal way to “end” the first half of the trip – before starting back to Beaufort and a speedier two-night run to keep the trip to seven days.

Enjoy all the area has to offer by mixing and matching events to your particular interest. Be sure to check days and hours of operation for each venue.

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