Destination – Southport, N.C.

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This friendly little town is well worth facing down the old CapeFear

This friendly little town is well worth facing down the old CapeFear

It had been a bad day on the Intracoastal Waterway. We first had to wrangle with the Rock Pile, a treacherous cut behind Myrtle Beach, S.C., where straying even a foot from the channel can impale your hull on rocks or rip out your running gear.

 

Then came Shallotte Inlet, where you look directly from the ICW into the Atlantic as it courses in and out, constantly clogging the ICW with sand. Next came Lockwoods Folly Inlet with the same sort of problem. Sometimes these inlet crossings make the ICW almost impassable. And then, finally, we reached the end of the long day and the small city of Southport, N.C.

It’s a quaint (yes, I hate to use that word, but it fits well) little town near the shoal-plagued mouth of the Cape Fear River. Good nearby anchorages for large boats are non-existent. We were exhausted, storms were rolling in from the west, and we wanted desperately to tie up and wind down. We wanted a marina, but we’d totally busted our marina budget in the last month of unusually difficult travel from the Bahamas and up the East Coast. We motored into the town basin, where we saw several people sitting out on a dock in front of an old building with a sign on the roof that read, “Provision Company.” I drifted close to an empty slip and hollered across the water. “Do you know what they charge to tie up here?”

Without pause one of the guys yelled back, in a North Carolina drawl, “Well, if you let us buy you a beer, you can tie up for free.”

This was our first introduction to the people and the friendliness of Southport. Before then we’d always passed by. Now we try to stop whenever we can. The Yacht Basin Provision Company was a small waterside restaurant just opening (or trying to) for the first time that night. Now it’s a popular hot spot for locals and transients who come by car or boat to eat out on the covered dock and hang out on the water.

Lay of the land

You’d hardly expect to find such a friendly, laid-back place guarded, as it is, by the treacherous CapeFear. If you miss the turns of the channel as you come into the river from the Atlantic, you’ll quickly find yourself in shoal water and breaking waves. If you’re passing up the coast outside, you’ll want to steer around 35 miles off the cape, to avoid the notorious Frying Pan Shoals. Many shipwrecks lie scattered around the shoals.

But huge ships negotiate the entrance regularly as they make their way up to the port of Wilmington. Yachts and sportfishing boats ply the channel either to duck in on passage along the coast or just for a good day of fishing. The Coast Guard Station at OakIsland on the western side of the river entrance stands at the ready. “Old Baldy,” the lighthouse built in 1817 on the shores of BaldHeadIsland, still shines a beacon. Its light is only ceremonial now, but to us it’s one more indication of the friendliness of the area and people ashore. The 169-foot Oak Island Lighthouse, on the eastern end of that island, was built in 1958 and is used for navigation. That and the many other aids to navigation will help you get in from the ocean to access the ICW and visit Southport. Of course, if you’re traveling along the ICW, you’re already there.

The town is bordered to the south by the ICW and to the east by the Cape Fear River. (Because the river protrudes into the Atlantic, the lay of the land is such that what you’d normally think of as “south” is actually more west.) A basin opens up off the ICW where headboats, commercial fishing boats and private boats dock. A seafood market sells fish and shrimp right after it’s unloaded from the boats. Occasionally a transient boat will try to anchor in the basin, but it’s too crowded, and the holding is too poor to be considered a good anchorage. There is a free slip for one night at the town’s public dock, if you clear it with the police department, as well as the Provision Company, if you and your crew eat at the restaurant. (Don’t count on marina-grade electricity at either of these slips.)

Beautifully restored homes line the mainland side of the basin and predominate the historical downtown area and the CapeFear riverfront. Many date from the mid-1800s, but the newer homes within the town have been designed to blend with the historical. The 2000 census placed the population at only 2,351, but it’s obvious that Southport’s population is growing, and many new residents are being accommodated in more contemporary homes and condos on the outskirts of town.

You can walk through town in a few hours, but it’s best to stretch it into a few days to enjoy what the area offers. The Visitor’s Center on West Moore Street is within walking distance of the waterfront and will supply you with a walking tour brochure and other helpful information. If you stop there, you’ll find KeziahPark — with its strangely bent live oak — partially overlooking the waterfront. Estimated to be 800 years old, the live oak is called the Indian Trail Tree and, according to legend, was curved while a sapling by American Indians who used it to mark the way to their fishing grounds. It later rooted itself a second time, completing an arch.

It also will be helpful to contact the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce (www.southport-oakisland.com ). The Web site is updated with events, attractions and opportunities.

The movies come here

The town’s qualities are reflected in the fact that several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Rand McNally, have rated it as one of the top spots in the country to retire to. Of greater interest to many, however, is the number of movies and television shows that have been filmed, at least in part, in Southport.

According to “Wilmington Films and Locations: Movie Power in North Carolina” by Betsy Brodie Roberts, these include: “A Walk to Remember,” with Mandy Moore and Shane West; “Crimes of the Heart,” with Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange; “Dawson’s Creek” (television), with Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek; “Domestic Disturbance,” with John Travolta; “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr.; “Matlock” (television), with Andy Griffith; “Summer Catch,” with Jessica Biel and Brian Dennehy; and “Weekend at Bernie’s,” with Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman.

As you walk about the streets and get to know the locals — an easy thing to do — you’ll never get the impression of this sort of fame.

Exploring

But as you walk about, you will get other impressions, and you’ll like them. You may notice “Lord Street,” “Howe Street,” “Dry Street,” and “I Am Street,” the reflection of a priceless sense of humor from a combination of Southern and seafaring cultures. You’ll find the WaterfrontPark at the end of Howe Street, where you can sit on a bench and watch the ships pass up and down the CapeFear or look out to the inlet and see Old Baldy and Oak Island Light. On select summer evenings people gather on the Garrison Lawn across the street to watch movies.

Nearby, the Cape Fear Pilots’ WatchTower is a reminder of the village’s close connection to the sea. The North CarolinaMaritimeMuseum (www.ncmaritimemuseum.com) brings that connection home to you, from historical and modern-day perspectives. Its exhibits include the plea for mercy from so-called “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, just before he hanged, and treasures from shipwrecks just offshore.

If you’re into old graveyards, walk into the Old Smithville Burial Ground where you’ll find ancient monuments, some to entire families and crews. Some say you may encounter Tony the Ghost, a harpist who lived at the old Brunswick Inn (now a bed & breakfast). He died when a boat capsized on the river and is rumored to haunt the inn and perhaps this graveyard, where he was buried.

There’s also a scenic, historic Riverwalk trail of less than a mile from the City Pier, past the fisheries and the small-boat harbor, to a 750-foot boardwalk with benches and railings over the tidal marsh near Southport Marina.

There are many restaurants from which to choose, including Mr. P’s, which specializes in low-country cuisine; PJ’s, an old favorite of many, located near the Southport Marina; the Live Oak Cafe; Joseph’s Italian Bistro at the South Harbor Village Marina, serving fine Italian cuisine; Taylor Cuisine Café & Catering, a local favorite for lunch and breakfast; Dry Street Pub and Pizza; Fishy Fishy, which has outdoor and indoor seating; Thai’s Peppers and the Cape Fear Restaurant and Lounge, with a great view of the river and ships passing by. The Amuzu Theatre, now being restored, features live theater performances. (Check the Chamber of Commerce Web site for information.)

As you’d imagine, this is an area known for great fishing. For example, the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament has been held here for more than 25 years and now attracts more than 500 boats. It’s hosted by the Southport Marina, which is also a major sponsor. The well-known Bald Head Island Fishing Rodeo is held annually at that nearby island’s marina.

There are at least nine popular golf courses within some 20 miles of town. The booklet “Picture Perfect,” published by the Chamber of Commerce, lists nearby golf spots. They’ll send you a copy, as well as other information, on request.

Marinas

Southport Marina (www.southport-marina.com ) is immediately “south” of the town basin along the ICW, a few minutes’ walk from the center of town. As of September, it was in the process of being rebuilt, though nearly complete. The new Cumaru (a Brazilian hardwood) docks and pilings are installed and taking permanent boats and transients. Gas and diesel are available on the T-head, and the marina can accommodate very large boats there, as well as other boats in slips up in the basin.

The floating docks are state of the art, including electric hookups with 30-, 50- and 100-amp service. Dredging was reported as not yet complete, but the marina reports that boats that draw 6.5 feet can lay alongside the T-head, while those that draw less can use the slips. Because dredging is still under way, it’s expected that these depths will improve. Call the marina for the latest information.

Indigo Plantation and Marina — (910) 457-7380 — is the next marina south on the ICW, also inside a dredged basin. It is home to a yacht club, offers transient facilities, and serves as the embarkation point for the several ferries to BaldHeadIsland.

Just to the south you’ll find South Harbor Village Marina

(www.southharbourvillage.com), with 1,000 linear feet of dockage alongside the ICW; 30-, 50- and 100-amp electric service; reported 10-plus-foot depths at mean low water at the transient dock, shops, two popular restaurants and other facilities. You’ll need to rent a car or grab a taxi to get to the historical area of Southport, but Enterprise and Hertz both are nearby.

Just to the south of that, around five miles from town by road, is the Marina at St. James Plantation (www.stjamesplantation.com). It serves not only as a transient stop but also as a focal point marina for the prestigious luxury golfing and resort residential development by that name. Here, you’ll find 81 holes of championship golf, tennis clubs, an athletic club, dining and more. You can also check out the homes and real estate being offered.

Nearby destinations

Looking across the ICW from the Southport area you’ll see OakIsland. This manmade island faces the Atlantic, with beaches, golf courses, restaurants and residential areas, both resort and permanent. It was formerly connected to the mainland until the construction of the ICW made it an island. The 169-foot Oak Island Lighthouse marks the eastern end of the island.

Less obvious from town but clearly marked by the 90-foot Old Baldy is BaldHeadIsland. This is a luxury resort island with permanent residents, vacation homes and rentals. Its marina (www.baldheadisland.com ) is within a protected basin and is just inside the inlet. Many boats traveling up and down the coast duck inside here for a convenient stopover for the night.

Nature trails, beautiful beaches, marshland, historic sites, golf, tennis, several restaurants and shops, rental golf carts and bikes (great for exploring), and other attractions invite a much longer stay. To me one of the highlights of the island is to stand on the beach and look out over Frying Pan Shoals spectacularly reaching far into the ocean. Waves and currents from all sides send confused seas leaping into the air in the far-reaching shallows.

If you don’t dock there, you can reach this island from the mainland by ferry, which carries passengers on a daily schedule. There are no bridges; access is only by boat. The beaches on Bald Head are open to the public.

The port of Wilmington is around 23 miles away by land, with its famous charm and Southern atmosphere. I’ve particularly enjoyed visiting the battleship North Carolina, carefully preserved in the water and open for touring directly across the river from Wilmington’s historic downtown. She was one of the most decorated U.S. battleships of World War II, with 15 battle stars (www.battleshipnc.com). You can explore, see how she fought, and how and where her crew lived and worked. We also stood on her towering bow and looked down at alligators swimming around in the water.

We’ve spent many pleasurable nights at the WilmingtonMarineCenter (www.wilmingtonmarine.com ), which is on the river to starboard shortly before you reach the city’s historical waterfront area. The marina is completely enclosed and protected, and it has a huge repair facility. Docked here, you shouldn’t have to worry about the weather or the fast-moving river as your explore one of the South’s favorite cities, a short taxi ride away.

Also a short distance from Southport is the North Carolina Aquarium (the state’s largest), Historic Fort Fisher (with the CivilWarMuseum), and Fort Fisher State Recreation Site. They are on the southern tip of PleasureIsland on the opposite side of the Cape Fear River, and you can easily reach them by the Fort Fisher Ferry, which you’ll probably pass as you go up or down the ICW course on the Cape Fear River (www.pleasureislandchambernc.org ).

Slow down, sit a spell

For many generations, Southport has been a safe harbor from the sea. More recently it’s also been a place to relax after long days on the ICW. But it’s even more. It’s a very special escape into a quiet, kinder and more pleasant time. Come see.