This North Carolina Destination Has 5 Barrier Islands, Picturesque Coastal Towns, and the ‘Seafood Capital of the World’

Here’s what you need to know about planning a trip to North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands.

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If there’s one way to describe North Carolina as a whole, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s that the Tar Heel State is filled with options. If you want to visit a mountain town, try Brevard, Boone, or Highlands. Those seeking a city escape will find top-tier dining and world-class cultural institutions in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. And if you’re interested in a waterfront getaway? With nearly 3,400 miles of coastline, North Carolina delivers — several times over.

The northern coast is well-known for the Outer Banks, but there are plenty more amazing seaside destinations as you make your way south, including the Crystal Coast, Topsail Beach, Wilmington, and, finally, the Brunswick Islands. Located in the southeastern part of the state, the latter is made up of five barrier islands, several coastal towns, and a number of wide, sandy beaches. In its entirety, the Brunswick Islands encompasses Oak Island, Sunset Beach, Bald Head Island, Ocean Isle Beach, and Holden Beach, as well as the towns of Southport, Calabash, Shallotte, and Leland. While each is unique in its own right, there is a shared sense of equanimity throughout the region. “Be prepared to take a deep breath, try to forget your daily routines, and be open to a different vibe,” says Ann Bokelman, a Sunset Beach resident and one of the founders of the Old Bridge Historical Society. “Life here goes at a slower pace, allowing you to focus on enjoying your visit.”

Leisure and relaxation are paramount, but that doesn’t mean you’ll grow bored. Debra Allen, who serves as the island coordinator for the Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization, confirms this idea, describing the Brunswick Islands as having the “charm of a small town,” but with “bigger town events … and beautiful beaches where you can enjoy coastal wildlife, sunbathe, visit a museum, surf, fish, swim, and [dine at] some of the best restaurants around.” Rick Pukenas, owner-operator of the Robert Ruark Inn in Southport, shares a similar sentiment, saying how this is a region that “blends the best of North Carolina and South Carolina.” No matter which island or town you choose as your base camp, you’re sure to get a heavy dose of the history, food, culture, and natural beauty that make this part of the country so remarkable.

Interested in planning a trip to the Brunswick Islands? Read on to discover some of the best things to do, eat, and see, according to locals.

Brunswick Islands, North Carolina

  • Book a room at The Sunset Inn, where each morning begins with a delightful breakfast overlooking the marsh.

  • Climb “Old Baldy,” the oldest still-standing lighthouse in North Carolina.

  • Learn more about loggerheads and their habitats at a “Turtle Talk” hosted by one of the local sea turtle protection organizations.

  • Enjoy a seafood dinner, whether it’s ordered at a restaurant or prepared with provisions from a local seafood shop.

  • Visit the Brunswick Islands in the fall or spring to experience mild weather and fewer crowds.

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Best Hotels and Resorts

The Sunset Inn

“If you are a pair of adults, I recommend The Sunset Inn in Sunset Beach. Each room is uniquely furnished and has [a] screened porch on the marsh. The views are spectacular,” says Bokelman. Plus, she adds, “A light breakfast is offered each morning, the staff is warm and welcoming, and they can give you lots of recommendations.”

Robert Ruark Inn

To explore Southport — which you may recognize from movies like “Safe Haven,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and “A Walk to Remember” — make a reservation at Robert Ruark Inn. The historic bed-and-breakfast is conveniently located, allowing guests to walk most places in downtown Southport, but the property also offers tours in its electric car. Allow the owners to take you around the town as you get your bearings and discover Southport’s historical sites and other points of interest.

Marsh Harbour Inn

According to Chris Webb, the executive director at The Old Baldy Foundation, “Most people rent a house through one of the local agencies, Vrbo, or Airbnb.” But he also mentions there’s the option to book a room at Marsh Harbour Inn or The Inn at Bald Head Island. At Marsh Harbour Inn, which overlooks the marina, guests receive a hot breakfast as well as a golf cart to traverse the island. 

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Best Things to Do

Visit Bald Head Island.

Even if you’re not staying on Bald Head Island, Pukenas recommends a day where you “take the ferry over, hike, kayak, go to the beach, or just bike or golf cart ride around the island.” If you want to prioritize getting your steps in, make sure to hike Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest still-standing lighthouse. Travelers who want to learn more about the island itself can participate in the Bald Head Island history tour, which the website describes as a “comprehensive, island-wide experience aboard a golf cart,” where a “trained guide will drive across the island while discussing four centuries of Bald Head Island’s history.”

Listen to a “Turtle Talk” by local sea turtle protection organizations.

Loggerhead sea turtles lay their eggs along the Brunswick Islands from May to August, and the babies begin to hatch in July (although this part of the process can continue into October). The event itself is magical, but visitors can also dive further into the topic by attending a “Turtle Talk.” “Turtle Talks are family-friendly, and we welcome all ages to join us to learn about why and how we protect this endangered species,” says Allen. For updated dates and times, be sure to check the organizations’ websites, including the Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization, Holden Beach Turtle Watch, Sunset Beach Turtle Watch, Caswell Beach Turtle Watch, and Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection.

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Spend time on or by the water.

You can always opt for a classic beach day — or, as Bokelman recommends, a beach night: “Go outside on a clear night and walk to the beach, away from bright lights. Put down a blanket, lay down, and gaze up at the stars. Be sure to give your eyes 10 to 15 minutes to adjust. You will enjoy a real treat, especially if you live in a city where there’s no light pollution at night — so many stars, planets, and sometimes the Milky Way.”

Enjoy an afternoon at a museum.

Travelers of all ages will find something of interest in the various museums throughout the Brunswick Islands. Pukenas suggests the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport. Allen adds the Museum of Coastal Carolina is a must-do, as guests can “learn about the North Carolina coastal ecosystem, wildlife, and ocean,” along with visiting the touch tank and sea turtle room. If you have time, the Ingram Planetarium is another great addition to the entire family’s itinerary.

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Best Restaurants

It should come as no surprise that seafood is a popular choice in the Brunswick Islands; Calabash even calls itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.” A few top-rated spots include the Waterfront Seafood Shack and The Oyster Rock in Calabash, Swain’s Restaurant on Oak Island, and Fishy Fishy Cafe in Southport. For fresh seafood you can prepare at home, Bokelman recommends Bill’s Seafood Market in Sunset Beach and Island Seafood in Ocean Isle Beach.

Allen also recommends Jinks Creek in Ocean Isle Beach, where you’ll find a “great meal with one of the best sunsets in the world.” “Jinks Creek has an upper deck that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, so you can see an unbeatable sunset while enjoying a cocktail, appetizer, or … dinner.” For another by-the-water dinner, this time on Bald Head Island, there’s Jules’ Salty Grub & Island Pub, which Webb says is a “beautiful experience overlooking the marina.” He also says that Jailhouse Provisions, located more centrally on the island, has a menu that includes “burgers, chicken sandwiches, as well as good seafood options.”

Other local favorites include Mr. P’s Bistro in Southport, Lucca Italian Chophouse in Shallotte, and La Cucina Italian Grill in Sunset Beach. For the latter, Bokelman says, “A reservation is key in the summer, but a good idea most times because it’s a local favorite.”

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Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit the Brunswick Islands depends on your preferred weather and desired activities. “If you love the beach, hot weather, and a more active bustling atmosphere, come during the summer. If you prefer a ‘ghost town vibe’ where you can stroll the forest, deserted beaches, and trails, without seeing anyone, come in the winter,” says Webb. The spring and fall shoulder seasons are known for fewer crowds as well, but Webb says the “restaurants and stores are still open and the weather is beautiful.” Bokelman also mentions the fall weather, noting that the ocean is “still warm enough to enjoy” this time of year.

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How to Get There

Wilmington International Airport (ILM) and Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) are the closest commercial airports to the Brunswick Islands. ILM and MYR are ​37 and 45 miles, respectively, from Shallotte. No matter which airport you choose, you’ll need to rent a car to complete the remaining leg of the journey.

How to Get Around

How you get around will differ based on where you’re staying and which areas you want to explore. As a general rule of thumb, you can “drive or ride a golf cart around most of the islands,” says Pukenas. The only exception is Bald Head Island, where cars aren’t allowed. Instead, you’ll want to rent a golf cart. “Biking is fun, but if you need to lug groceries around or travel with elderly or small children, you will need a golf cart. Most [accommodation] rentals come with a cart; otherwise, check out Cary Cart Company … One can also rent a bike from Riverside Adventure Co.,” says Webb.

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