Weekend in Southport, North Carolina
By Jennifer Brunnemer Slaton
The waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway, and Cape Fear River come together in front of the little harbor town of Southport, North Carolina, where they lap against the rock-strewn shoreline. Incongruously, a hulking 900-foot oceangoing freighter cuts through the freshwater/saltwater mix, while a little john boat floats nearby. A sailboat rests behind it, jib gently waving in the wind. Kids run on the long, grassy field of Waterfront Park behind the gray benches that face out to sea and shout out to the giant boat, which looks stretched to Mr. Fantastic proportions with crewmen visible on deck.
From the swings in Waterfront Park, visitors take in barrier islands, Oak Island Lighthouse, Old Baldy Lighthouse (as if one lighthouse isn't lovely enough!), and boats of all kinds.
Art galleries dot Howe Street, the main road through town, ending at Waterfront Park. The welcoming vibe extends to the downtown pier, where you can fish for free alongside kids, young couples, and weathered grandfatherly types, and watch the flash each minute from Oak Island Lighthouse across the waterway.
You'll also find Bull Frog Corner, a haven for kids, full of toys and barrels loaded to the brim with old-school candies like Bit-O-Honey, Mary Janes, and licorice twists. Just up the road, Cat On a Whisk offers lovely table linens and fine cookware.
What to Do
The real draw may be the people. "It's typical in Southport to run into people with incredible talent or backgrounds," Pete Wallace says. "People gravitate here, and once they are here, they stay."
Southport is famous for its annual NC 4th of July festival, when the town swells to 50,000 people. The U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament is held in October, when some 500 boats compete to see who can catch the biggest whopper.
Locals enjoy everything from golf, boating, and fishing to perusing the thousands of artifacts in the downtown Maritime Museum and the monthly local artists' exhibits at beautiful Franklin Square Art Gallery.
What to do Outside
Part-time resident and retired principal Lynn Williams and her husband bought a white-brick cottage a couple of blocks from the water. "We can ride bikes safely and have a water view," she says. "We didn't know a soul before we came here, but we liked the feel."
An easy drive away, the family-friendly beach on Oak Island is a beautiful 10-mile stretch of sand with plenty of public access. Bald Head Island is accessible by ferry from Southport every hour.
The town enjoys harbor breezes, but gets hot in July with temperatures in the low 90s. January is the coldest month, with temperatures in the 30s.
Where to Stay
Along Bay Street looking out to the pier stand beautiful bed-and-breakfasts and former sea captains' homes from the early 1800s—hurricane-surviving structures protected 20 or so feet above sea level.
Just a short walk to the shoreline, the elegant Robert Ruark Inn, built in 1890, offers bedrooms with original fireplaces and luxurious baths in the former home of writer Robert Ruark's grandfather.
Rates start at $130; robertruarkinn.com.
Lois Jane's Riverview Inn on the waterfront has cozy, pretty rooms and a lovely balcony view.
Rates starts at $120; loisjanes.com.
Where to Eat & Drink
Most of the town's nearly 3,000 residents, many of them retirees, walk, bike, or drive golf carts to dining options.
At Fishy Fishy Café near the Southport Marina, couples dining on the restaurant's pier tend to sit side by side looking out over the water, enjoying the live music and a menu of favorites like shrimp-and-grits.
Mr. P's Bistro serves up fresh daily specials such as grouper Oscar, pan-roasted with red-pepper hollandaise.
At The Pharmacy Restaurant (located in an old drugstore), white tablecloths and lace curtains greet locals who eagerly await nights when the excellent portobello mushroom soup is served.