Off the Beaten Path: Visiting Southport, North Carolina
Those who desire to experience an idyllic bygone era need travel no farther than Southport, North Carolina. Just an hour or so off I-95, this quiet and quaint town backs to miles of swamplands and faces the ocean. From Waterfront Park and City Pier, where swinging, sitting, and strolling abound, clear views of Oak Island and its silo-shaped lighthouse, the Cape Fear River, Bald Head Island and Bald Head Lighthouse, the Yacht Basin, and the Intracoastal Waterway offer visitors a diverse and relaxing scene. Southport is a walking, biking, and golf carting town, with plenty of gingerbread cottages and Victorian mansions, moss-covered oaks, and friendly shops. Not surprisingly, it has been the set of at least 40 movies.
When we arrived and mounted the porch of the very Victorian Robert Ruark Inn, a lady pushing mail through the door’s brass mail slot said, “You’re going to love staying here.” Just a block off the main North Howe Street and built in 1890 by river pilot Capt. Edward Adkins, the two-story home with scalloped shingles, turned porch posts, and stained glass arched attic windows was frequently visited by the original owners’ grandson, Robert Ruark, who became a famous journalist and novelist. His most famous work was Old Man and The Boy, written about life with his grandfather at the Southport house. Some of the author’s treasures are in the home-turned-inn, including letters, books, and photographs. A Robert Ruark room even sports safari decor as he was especially fond of all things African after journeying there.
Today, innkeepers Linda and Rick Pukenas beautifully present healthy breakfasts made from scratch for guests to enjoy at a formal table with vases of fresh roses. Guests are treated to wine and cheese every evening, and bottles of water, candies, and cookies are always available. Bikes are free to use and, if asked, Rick, a certified Southport tour guide, may even provide a golf cart excursion. At least 10 inns are located in Southport, including Linda’s identical twin sister’s inn, Captain Newton’s.
For dinner, we met Mitzi York of Brunswick County Tourism at a favorite restaurant, Ports of Call Bistro & Market, a few blocks from the waterfront. Distinct and flavorful creations are featured, such as braised short ribs with asparagus, pecan-crusted chicken with kale and potatoes, BLT salad with seafood, and vanilla bean creme brulee. While we were dining, Mitzi pointed out we were sitting across from the table where Safe Haven actors Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel shared a scene.
The next night, Rick recommended his favorite spot — Mr. P’s Bistro, which offered fresh seafood and quality steaks. A Tropitini martini was a perfect start with coconut-flavored rum, splash of Curacao, and dash of pineapple juice. We enjoyed a fried goat-cheese salad, an 8-ounce prime rib, grilled scallops, and uniquely prepared vegetables, including green beans with dill and parmesan, slow-roasted collards, and butter beans with tasso ham.
For lunch, The Flying Fish Cafe near the Oak Island Lighthouse provided sustenance before the climb in the form of soft tacos with chunks of grilled mahi mahi, guacamole, and mango. We consumed the best fried flounder and seared tuna sandwiches at Fishy Fishy, with expansive waterway views. The Brunswick Catch symbol on the menu ensured that fish was locally caught. At Taylor’s Cuisine Cafe, with a bright green and purple ambiance, we had its local favorite Reuben and chunk chicken salad on a croissant.
Afternoon refreshments included a too-pretty-to-eat (almost) chocolate éclair from The Confectionary and a Chai Steamer at Port City Java.
Wine tasting is fun and interesting at various sites, including Silver Coast Winery, where manager David Thorpe entertained and educated us regarding the “Seven S’s” of proper tasting. We were enamored with the Touriga (Cape Fear Blood Wine), which complements meats.
Before entering Southport, we first stopped to meet a tour guide at the Oak Island Lighthouse. Bob Ahlers explained that the 153-foot lighthouse was the next to the last built in the United States. First lit in 1958, it is designed inside with ship-like ladders and adjoining decks, instead of a traditional spiral. Bob, who has ascended the 131 steps at least 1,500 times, was encouraging to say the least as we ascended, as this adventure is not for the faint of heart. After climbing onto the first landing, fear of heights encroached, but I was determined and did not look down. The exhilaration of stepping onto the tower deck was definitely worth the fear and exertion. Visitors can walk around the entire top part (just below the large revolving reflecting lights) and marvel at the expanse of water, the nearby Coast Guard station, and the 360-degree, 16-mile views.
Besides lighthouse tours, kayaking and canoeing throughout tranquil marshes and inlets are popular. Wilmington is only a 30-minute drive away. In between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach are North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands, a collection of unique coastal communities with five barrier islands and six distinct beaches: Caswell, Holden, Ocean Isle, Oak Island, Bald Head, and Sunset. For golfers, the area is replete with courses.
Randy Jones, area native and Southport’s director of tourism, recommended the North Carolina Maritime Museum with fascinating displays of Native American and shipwreck artifacts as well as the Southport Museum at Fort Johnston that includes local movie-set memorabilia. Besides tourists and historians, Southport attracts public, private, and homeschooled students because of its hands-on educational opportunities.
Visitors can tour by bike or golf cart to see where movie characters from Safe Haven “lived” (such as the Grey-Burriss House, circa 1879), where Katie slept under the pier, and where Alex’s set-built store was located before it was burned for a scene. Rick says practically the whole town of 3,500 turned out as extras for the movie’s Fourth of July parade shots.
Plan a trip to Southport any time of the year, but check event calendars first at ncbrunswick.com or southportnc.org. There is something for everyone each month, from the Summer Farmers and Artisans Markets that begin this month and run through August, to the Fourth of July Festival that draws thousands for old fashioned celebrating and fireworks from a barge, to a Wooden Boat Show in September. Since September is also the 300th anniversary of the capture of famed area pirate Stede Bonnet, Southport has a host of fun activities planned surrounding the event. I plan to return, if for no other reason than to take in the resplendent sunsets from the marina.