By Tom Neale, 9/5/2008
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It’s a little town near the shoal plagued mouth of the Cape Fear River. There are no nearby anchorages for large boats, by our standards. We were exhausted, storms were rolling in from the west, and we wanted desperately to tie up and relax. We wanted a marina. But we’d busted our marina budget in the last month of unusually difficult travel from the Bahamas and up the east coast. We motored into the town basin where we saw several people sitting out on a dock in front of an old building with a sign on the roof that said, “Provision Company.” I drifted close to an empty slip and hollered across the water, “Do you know what they charge to tie up here?”
Without a pause one of the guys yelled back with a North Carolina drawl, “Well, if you let us buy you a beer, you can tie up for free.” This was our first introduction to the people and the friendliness of Southport. The Yacht Basin Provision Company was a small waterside restaurant just opening (or trying to) for the first time that night. Now it’s a popular spot for locals and transients who come by car or boat to eat out on the covered dock and hang out on the water.
You’d hardly expect to find such a friendly laid back place so close to treacherous Cape Fear. Just up the coast from the river’s entrance, the notorious Frying Pan Shoal holds the bones of many shipwrecks. If you miss the turns of the inlet channel as you come into the river from the Atlantic you’ll quickly find yourself in shoal water and breaking waves. But huge ships negotiate the entrance regularly, as they make their way up to the seaport of Wilmington.
The town is bordered on its south by the ICW and on its east by the Cape Fear River. Because Cape Fear protrudes out into the Atlantic, the lay of the land here is such that what you’d normally think of as “south” is actually more west. A basin opens up off the ICW where head boats, commercial fishing boats and private boats dock. A seafood market sells fish and shrimp unloaded from the boats. Occasionally a transient boat will try to anchor in the basin, but it’s close and the holding is too poor to make a good anchorage. There is sometimes a free slip for one night at the town’s public dock (if you clear it with the police department), as well as at the Provision Company if you and your crew eat at the restaurant. (Don’t count on marina grade electricity at either of these slips.)
Beautifully restored homes line the mainland side of the basin and predominate the historical downtown area and the Cape Fear River front. Many date from the mid 1800s. The Visitor’s Center, on 113 West Moore Street (910 457 7927) is within walking distance of the waterfront and has a walking tour brochure and other helpful information. It will also be very helpful to contact the Southport-Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce (910 457-6964 or 800 457-6964, www.southport-oakisland.com). Their web site is updated with events, attractions and opportunities.
Ancient history permeates this place. At nearby Keziah Park, partially overlooking the waterfront, you’ll see a strangely bent live oak, estimated to be 800 years old. It’s called the Indian Trail Tree. According to lore, it was curved while a sapling by Native Americans who used it to mark the way to their fishing grounds. It later rooted itself a second time, completing an arch.
The Old Smithville Burial Ground has ancient monuments including some to entire families and crews. Some say you may encounter “Tony the Ghost” who was a harpist and lived at the old Brunswick Inn (now a B&B). He died when a boat capsized on the river and is rumored to haunt the inn and perhaps this graveyard where he was buried.
You may notice “Lord Street,” “Howe Street, Dry Street,” and “I Am Street,” a reflection of a priceless sense of humor from a combination of Southern and seafaring culture.
At the Waterfront Park at the end of Howe Street you can sit on a bench and watch the ships pass up and down the Cape Fear River or look out to the inlet and see Old Baldy and Oak Island Light. On select summer evenings people gather on the Garrison Lawn across the street to watch movies. Nearby, the Cape Fear Pilots’ Watch Tower reminds of the village’s close connection to seafaring. The North Carolina Maritime Museum (910 457 0003) brings that connection home to you, from a historical and modern day perspective. Its exhibits include the plea for mercy from the so called “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, just before he hanged, and treasures from shipwrecks offshore.
There are many restaurants. A few include Mr. P’s which specializes in low country cuisine, PJ’s, an old favorite of many located near the Southport Marina, the Live Oak Cafe, Joseph’s Italian Bistro at the South Harbor Village Marina serving fine Italian cuisine, Taylor Cuisine Café & Catering, a local favorite for lunch and breakfast, Dry Street Pub and Pizza, Fishy Fishy which has outdoor and indoor seating, Thai’s Peppers, and the “Cape Fear Restaurant and Lounge” with a great view of the river and ships passing by.
Southport Indian Trail Tree
The Southport area is so unique that movies and TV shows have been made here. These include in part: Crimes of the Heart with Tess Harper, Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek; Dawson's Creek (television); Domestic Disturbance with John TrovoIta,; I Know What You Did Last Summer with Sarah M. Geller, Jennifer Love Hewitt,; and Matlock (television) with Andy Griffith.
As you’d imagine, this is an area of great fishing. For example, the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament has been conducted for over 25 years and now attracts more than 500 boats. It’s hosted by the Southport Marina which is also a major sponsor. The well-known Bald Head Island Fishing Rodeo is held annually at that nearby island’s marina.
Southport Marina (910) 457 9900 or www.southport-marina.com) is immediately “south” of the town basin along the ICW and a few minutes walk from the center of town. It has been completely rebuilt recently. The new Cumaru (a beautiful Brazilian hardwood) docks and pilings are installed and taking permanent boats and transients. Gas and diesel are available on the T-head and the marina can accommodate very large boats there, as well as other boats in slips up in the basin. The floating docks are state of the art, including electric hookups with 30, 50, and 100 amp service.
Indigo Plantation and Marina (910 457 7380) is the next marina south on the ICW, also inside a dredged basin. This marina is home to a yacht club and offers transient facilities, and serves as the embarkation point for the several large ferry boats to Bald Head Island.
Just to the south you’ll find South Harbor Village Marina (910 454 7486 or www.southharbourvillage.com) with 1,000 linear feet of dockage alongside the ICW, 30, 50,& 100 amp electric service, reported 10 plus feet at MLW at the transient dock, shops, two popular restaurants, and other facilities. You’ll need to rent a car or get a taxi to get to the historical area of Southport from here, but Enterprise and Hertz are nearby.
Around five miles from town by road, is the Marina at St. James Plantation, (910-253-0463). It serves not only as a transient stop but also as a focal point marina for the prestigious golfing and resort residential development by that name. www.stjamesplantation.com/StJamesMarina.aspx
Clearly marked by the 90-foot high white lighthouse, “Old Baldy,” is Bald Head Island. This is a luxury resort island with permanent residents, vacation homes and rentals available, as is real estate and new homes. Its marina (910 457 7380, www.baldheadisland.com) is within a protected basin and is just inside the inlet. Many boats traveling up and down the coast duck inside here for a convenient stopover for the night.
Nature trails, beautiful beaches, marshland, historic sites, golf, tennis, several restaurants and shops, rental golf carts and bikes (great for exploring) and other attractions invite a much longer stay. To me, one of the highlights of the island is to stand on the beach and look out over Frying Pan Shoals spectacularly reaching far into the ocean. Waves and currents from all sides send confused seas leaping into the air in the far-reaching shallows.
If you don’t dock there, you can reach this island from the mainland by its ferry which travels a daily schedule carrying passengers. There are no bridges; access is only by boat. The beaches on Bald Head are open to the public.
The Seaport of Wilmington is around 23 miles away by land, with its famous charm and Southern atmosphere. I’ve particularly enjoyed visiting the Battleship North Carolina, carefully preserved in the water and open for touring, directly across the river from Wilmington’s historic downtown. She was one of the most decorated US battleships of WWII with 15 battle stars (910 251 5797, www.battleshipnc.com). We stood on her towering bow and looked down at alligators swimming around in the water!
We’ve spent many pleasurable nights at the Wilmington Marine Center (910 395 5055, www.wilmingtonmarine.com), which is on the river to your starboard shortly before you reach the city’s historical waterfront area. The marina is completely enclosed and protected and it also has a huge repair facility. Docked here, you shouldn’t have to worry about the weather or the fast moving river as your explore one of the South’s favorite cities, a short taxi ride away. Also a short distance from Southport is the North Carolina Aquarium (the state’s largest), Historic Fort Fisher (with Civil War Museum) and Fort Fisher State Recreation Site.
We’ve stopped here many times since that first evening, sometimes coming in from the Atlantic and sometimes while running the ICW up or down the coast. It’s a great place to visit when you make the trip.
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale