North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands is one of the few places on the east coast where you can watch the sunset over the ocean.
Follow U. S. Highway 17 north - and east - across the North Carolina state line at Little River (26 miles from downtown Myrtle Beach) and you come to another world. Slower of pace and definitely “old South” this part of the Carolina Low Country has seen far less growth than the South Carolina beaches, but don’t let its quiet demeanor fool you. There’s a lot going on here.
Located between Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, North Carolina, the Brunswick Islands is a collection of barrier islands much like the Outer Banks that has quietly protected the North
Carolina mainland from the Atlantic Ocean for eons. Unlike the long sweep of wide continuous beach on the Grand Strand, these islands have seen hard duty over the years and are continually buffeted by the waves and tides. They also have the advantage of being south-facing beaches, which means you can see both the sunrise and the sunset over the water.
Mostly residential in nature, the islands are similar to the Grand Strand South Beaches in culture with few if any commercial businesses except on the mainland. Each of the islands, except Bald Head Island, has a fishing pier. There’s only one high-rise among them, but there are two authentic lighthouses and you can climb to the top of both of them.
Separated for years by an iconic pontoon bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, Sunset Beach is the last of the Brunswick Islands to see any major development. It retains a wild and natural feel with the Bird Island Nature Reserve at the west end of the island. A museum celebrating the old bridge is located on the mainland at the foot of the sleek new bridge and it’s worth a stop to see the old photos and talk to the locals who knew it well.
Home to the Brunswick Islands' only high-rise condominium, Ocean Isle Beach features vacation rentals, condos, and a handful of seafood restaurants. Each year the North Carolina Oyster Festival swells the island’s population by an additional 30,000, one of many events throughout the year. The island is also home to the Museum of Coastal Carolina, a community supported interactive museum with a marine touch tank.
Home to the annual Bopple (boat apple) Race, part of the Days at the Docks festival, the island bears the name of the Holden family who have owned it since 1756. Holden Beach offers several restaurants with water views and each fall the island plays host to the North Carolina Festival by the Sea, a celebration with arts, crafts and seafood.
At ten miles in length, Oak Island is the longest of the Brunswick Islands and includes Caswell Beach on its east side. The Oak Island Lighthouse is here and you can climb the 131 steps to the top if you are 9 years and older (reservations required). Oak Island has more than 60 public beach accesses and two fishing piers.
Accessible only by boat, Bald Head Island is a private resort with a long history. This was once the territory of the pirate Blackbeard. Today, the no-cars-allowed island can be reached by ferry (about $25 per person) or by private boat. Here you’ll find 10,000 acres of truly pristine beach, marsh and maritime forest preserves. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse, “Old Baldy,” bike, swim, or hike the island paths.
Zoom in and out, find your location, and the Brunswick Islands on this interactive Google map.
In addition to the islands there are several historic river towns that are worth a visit. On the west side just across the state line from Little River is Calabash, with its famous seafood restaurants. Shallotte offers shopping and dining, and Southport, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is a step back in time, with quaint streets and unique shops. From Southport, you can hop aboard the North Carolina ferry and cross the Cape Fear River to Fort Pickens and the North Carolina Aquarium just south of Kure Beach.
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