Without a doubt, Southport is one of North Carolina’s most picturesque coastal towns. The Cape Fear River, Intracoastal Waterway, and Atlantic Ocean meet here, and the water is almost always crowded with watercraft of all sizes and shapes: sailboats, shrimpers, anglers out for the day, huge cargo ships headed upriver to Wilmington, yachts, kayaks, and deep sea fishing boats.
The town’s history is rooted in the water, and there are still several multigenerational fishing and shrimping families around. River pilots who know the shoals and tides like no one else operate out of Southport, heading offshore in speedy boats to the container ships and tankers making their way to Wilmington; they help navigate the cumbersome ships through the currents and the channel and guide them safely to the port and back out to sea, just as people from local families have for 200-plus years.
Throughout the town, historic buildings, including Fort Johnson, a British fort built in 1745, line the oak-shaded streets. The Old Smithville Burying Ground, a community cemetery dating to before the founding of the town, is a beautiful spot, and many of the headstones are inscribed with epitaphs for sea captains and their widows. Stop in at the Fort Johnston-Southport Museum and Visitors Center (203 E. Bay St., 910/457-7927, 10am-4pm Mon.-Sat., 1pm-4pm Sun., free) for more information on the town, although Southport is small enough to explore and discover on your own. While you’re at the visitors center, ask about the history of four of the town’s street names: Lord, Howe, Dry, and I Am.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport (204 E. Moore St., 910/457-0003, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sat., free) tells the story of Southport as a maritime town in some detail. The pirate Blackbeard and his compatriot Stede Bonnet prowled these waters, and Stede Bonnet was captured on the river about a mile from the museum, then sent to Charleston, where he was hanged for his crimes. The museum sheds some light on their exploits. Other displays include a 2,000-year-old Native American canoe fragment, information on the blockade of the river during the Civil War, and many artifacts brought up from nearby shipwrecks.
Given the beauty of the town and its proximity to Wilmington, it’s no surprise that Southport has been the star, location-wise, of several television shows and films. Safe Haven, an adaptation of North Carolina literary son Nicholas Sparks’s novel of the same name, takes place here; one reviewer called the movie “an extended infomercial for the lulling charms of Southport.” Since the movie’s 2012 debut, a steady stream of fans has been touring its locations. Southport Tours (910/750-1951, $10) and Southport Fun Tours (608/334-0619, $10 adults, $5 seniors and under age 12) both offer film and town-history tours.
Southport has its share of fairs and festivals throughout the year, but they all pale in comparison to the North Carolina 4th of July Festival (800/457-6964), the official Independence day celebration for the state. Some 50,000 people attend the parade, the festival park and street fair, and the fireworks in the evening. Launched from a barge on the river, the fireworks are a special treat as they reflect on the water. Perhaps the most moving of the events is the naturalization ceremony for new Americans as they declare their loyalty and enjoy their first 4th of July celebration.
In the vicinity of Southport, golfers will find several courses that are both challenging and beautiful. On Oak Island, the Oak Island Golf Club’s (928 Caswell Beach Rd., Oak Island, 800/278-5275, 18 holes, par 72, greens fees from $45) is a 6,720-yard George Cobb-designed course that provides the serenity of a golf course with occasional ocean views and ocean breezes. In Boiling Spring Lakes, you can walk or ride The Lakes Country Club (591 S. Shore Dr., Boiling Spring Lakes, 910/845-2625, 18 holes, par 72, greens fees from $25), the oldest golf course in Brunswick County.
There are a number of cute boutiques, antiques stores, and kid’s shops in Southport, but our favorites are <a href="http://www.oceanoutfitters.com">Ocean Outfitters (121 E. Moore St., 910/457-0433, 10am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 10am-6pm Sat., 11am-4pm Sun. summer, 10am-5pm Mon.- Sat., 11am-4pm Sun. winter), a sportswear outfitter that carries clothing perfect for the local climate, and Cat on a Whisk (600-C N. Howe St., 910/454-4451, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat.), a kitchen store with knowledgeable staff, a fantastic selection of gadgets and cookware, and a friendly cat or two.
Lois Jane’s Riverview Inn (106 W. Bay St., 910/457-6701, $120-180) is a Victorian waterfront home built by the innkeeper’s grandfather. The guest rooms are comfortably furnished, bright and not froufrou; the Queen Deluxe Street, a cottage behind the inn, has its own kitchen and separate entrance. The front porch of the inn has a wonderful view of the harbor. At the same location the Riverside Motel (106 W. Bay St., 910/457-6986, $85-105) has a front porch with a fantastic panorama of the shipping channel. Another affordable option is the Inn at River Oaks (512 N. Howe St., 910/457-1100, $80-110, lower off-season), a motel-style inn with very simple suites.
At Oak Island, west of Southport, Captain’s Cove Motel (6401 E. Oak Island Dr., Oak Island, 910/278-6026, $90) is a long-established family motel one block from the beach. The Island Resort and Inn (500 Ocean Dr., Oak Island, 910/278-5644, $132-220) is a beachfront property with standard motel rooms and one- and two-bedroom apartment suites. The Ocean Crest Motel (1417 E. Beach Dr., Oak Island, 910/278-3333, $105-330) is a large condo-style motel, also right on the beach.
One unusual bed-and-breakfast is the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower (offshore, 704/907-0399, $300-500). Located some 30 miles offshore at the end of Frying Pan Shoals, this former light tower (think of a lighthouse on an oil derrick) has been converted to a bed-and-breakfast that caters to the adventurous set. You have to take a boat or a helicopter from Southport to reach the B&B, which can be booked when you book your room. The restoration project at Frying Pan Shoals is vast and ongoing, and often the owners will have “working getaways” when guests will pitch in to repair, restore, or reopen some part of the structure. Naturally, every guest room has water views, and deep-sea fishing and diving opportunities are literally right under your feet; the tower stands in 50 feet of water.
For a town this size, Southport has a surprising number of good restaurants. I love to dine on the water at Yacht Basin Provision Company (130 Yacht Basin Dr., 910/457-0654, 11am- 9pm daily, entrées around $10), shortened to “Provision Company” by locals, to enjoy a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp or a grouper sandwich. Frying Pan (319 W. Bay St., 910/363-4382, 4pm-10pm daily, entrées around $18) is a restaurant that serves fried seafood and local delicacies from a dining room elevated 18 feet off the ground, offering commanding water views. Both restaurants get very crowded in summer, with two-hour waits at Provision for lunch around July 4; you can wait for your table at Old American Fish Factory (150 Yacht Basin Dr., 910/457-9870), an open-air bar featured in Safe Haven and other film and TV shot in Southport. The views are incredible as the deck extends out over the water. During the highest tides, your feet can get wet. Try not to drop anything; it may fall through the cracks in the deck into the river below.
Moore Street Market (130 E. Moore St., 910/363-4208, 7am-4pm daily, $1-10), a small coffee shop and deli, makes a good lunch and serves the best cup of coffee in town. Its central location is steps from antiques shops and historic sites in Southport. Dinner is always good at Ports of Call Bistro and Market (116 N. Howe St., 910/457-4544, lunch 11:30am-2pm Tues.-Sat., dinner 5pm-9pm Tues.-Sat., brunch 10am-2pm Sun., entrées $17-33), a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant serving both tapas and entrée-size portions. Their menu changes seasonally and always features local seafood.