Peace for the soul
The Brunswick Islands welcome generations of travelersBy Renee C. Gannon
Situated in Bird Island, a 1,200-acre state coastal preserve at the end of Sunset Beach, the Kindred Spirit Mystery Mailbox has offered pen and paper to anyone willing to venture a stretch down the beach. For more than 36 years, folks have spent a few moments sitting on the weathered wooden bench or parked on the sand, jotting down thoughts about family, loved ones recently lost, new flames and old. The Kindred Spirit has "heard" confessions, laments, shoutouts, laughter and love — all found in various stages of handwriting, from tight script to a child's scrawl.
Many notebook entries are from those who have visited Sunset Beach and the North Carolina Brunswick Islands for decades, others for the first time. The ocean, sand, wind and relaxed atmosphere found in this part of the southern North Carolina coast are a call to anyone looking for solace and time away from the world.
"This world is built with clay and dirt [and often] baked with sorrow. Yet, the beach and its companions erase that melancholy every time I come here," wrote one Mystery Mailbox visitor.
The Brunswick Islands comprise five barrier islands: Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island and Bald Head Island. Surrounding towns such as Calabash and Southport provide quick getaways for those in search of local restaurants, shops, galleries and cultural outings.
At the south end of the barrier island chain is Sunset Beach, the last developed island in North Carolina before crossing the state line into South Carolina. For many who have visited the island since the late 1950s, the old thump-thump sound a car makes while driving over the island's swinging bridge can no longer be heard. The "heartbeat of Sunset Beach" became a memory in 2010, when the state replaced the swinging bridge with a modern raised one. In the shadow of the new one, however, stand the old bridge ramps and tender's office, bought for $1 from the state and revamped as a museum for the bridge and local history (910-363-6585 or oldbridgepreservationsociety.org).
Island time is spent with family along the beach, fishing from the pier or surf, or by boat within the Intracoastal Waterway. Birdwatchers covet Bird Island, home to more than 260 bird species, as well as loggerhead turtle nesting. Kayaking the waterway, inlets, creeks and basin between the island and mainland also provides a quiet eco-friendly way to catch a glimpse of various birds, turtle, otters, and even dolphin or porpoise, whether paddling to Bird Island, the Tubbs Inlet or along the Blane Creek tidal basin (877-597-0001 or summertidetours.com). The town's mainland side offers 12 golf courses and the Ingram Planetarium (910-575-0033 or museumplanetarium.org), as well as shops and restaurants.
Another family-friendly island is Ocean Isle Beach, which offers seven miles of beach to those looking for relaxation, a fishing spot or to catch a wave surfing or standup paddleboarding (SUP). The Carolina School of Surf (910-713-9283 or carolinaschoolofsurf.com) offers group lessons in surfing and SUP. The outfit also has a surf camp geared for ages 6-15. For those wanting to take a break from the sun and sand, visit the Museum of Coastal Carolina (910-579-1016 or museumplanetarium.org) to check out a touch tank and learn about the flora and fauna in and around the Brunswick Islands. A few miles inland you can find the Silver Coast Winery. This vineyard and winery blends Yadkin Valley-grown grapes with its own local scuppernong and muscadine to produce about 4,000 cases of various wines a year. A wine-tasting room, art gallery and a big event room is also available (910-287-2800 or silvercoastwinery.com).
Holden Beach, offers a small town vacation feel with plenty of restaurants and shops on an 8-mile long island. The island's Lockwood's Folly inlet gives a glimpse of ocean life at low tide and is a family-friendly adventure. Looking for fresh seafood for dinner? Captain Pete's Seafood Market (910-842-6675), located on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island, is a good place to start. The market offers fresh, local seafood and easy-to-understand preparation tips. Captain Pete's Seafood Restaurant is adjacent to the market. Other restaurants such as Provision Company also offer local fare. Enjoy old-fashioned candy? Sandman's Candyland gives you a sand bucket and shovel to scoop up all the candy you desire for $7.99 a pound (910-842-6322 or sandmanscandyland.com).
On Oak Island, you will find two towns: Oak Island and Caswell Beach. In 1999, Long Beach and Yaupon Beach merged to form the town of Oak Island. Reminders of the two towns can still be seen at the Oak Island fishing pier as well as in street names, the old homes, cottages and memories. The town boasts two fishing piers, marinas, boat/canoe/kayak ramps and 60 public access points to reach 10 miles of beach. The younger crowd has a skate park and the Oak Island Nature Center offers various activities for all. Caswell Beach sits on the eastern end of the island, where Fort Caswell once stood guard from 1826 to just after the Civil War.
Today, The Oak Island Lighthouse overlooks Caswell Beach and the island. The 153-foot tall, tri-colored concrete lighthouse features a 131-step, multi-leveled ship ladder system to reach the gallery level, not the typical spiral staircase. Built in 1958, the all-electric and automatic lighthouse replaced an earlier manned one. When in use the beacon was the brightest light in the U.S., and second brightest in the world, and could be seen for 16 miles. The gray-white-black lighthouse is open for tours (910-278-5471 or oakislandlighthouse.org).
Another lighthouse in the island chain is Old Baldy, the state's oldest lighthouse located on Bald Head Island at the Smith Island Museum (910-457-7481 or oldbaldy.org). This island, accessible by ferry only, offers 14 miles of beaches, as well as hiking, biking and plenty of golf cart trails. A no-car zone, the island is a pedestrian-friendly resort island. Just 2,000 acres of the island is developed, with 10,000 acres of maritime forest, salt marshes and beaches that offer a glimpse into local wildlife, including sea turtle nestings.
ncbrunswick.com or 910-755-5517