We were optimistic and made plans for a North Carolina beach vacation this summer. Instead, we madly helped the girls finish their online schooling so they could start their new year-round school for the first time.
And then we bought a house!
Thankfully, the girls get a three-week Fall break each year, so we etched a “Brunswick Island NC beach trip” with ink into our getaway calendar.
Fall is our favorite time to visit the beaches in North Carolina. It’s cheaper, has far less people visiting, the temperatures are still warm to hot, the ocean water is still warm, and sunrises are later and sunsets earlier. It’s my perfect beach vacation!
This was our first time to the Brunswick Islands region of North Carolina, which offers more off-the-beaten path experiences and those pristine beaches we all love.
Where are the Brunswick Islands and why go there?
The NC Brunswick Islands region is Brunswick County in the southernmost corner of North Carolina, just south of Pleasure Island (aka Carolina Beach and Kure Beach). It’s the last of the state’s coastal treasures you experience before heading south of the border to North Myrtle Beach, SC.
The Brunswick Islands is made up of about five barrier islands offering forty-five miles of broad, sweeping, uncrowded beaches.
You’ll find lush maritime forests, fresh local seafood, expansive saltwater marshes and inlets and our favorite Inter-coastal Waterway connecting them all.
That means you have endless water activities from the wilder ocean to the gentler sound area. Grab your surfboards, paddle boards, kayaks, fishing rods, and sand buckets.
PLUS, thanks to the Intracoastal water and barrier islands you can see the sunrise and sunset over the water!
As the beaches here run east to west, in some places you’ll be able to see sunrise and sunset over the ocean during late Fall when the earth is perfectly moving in a way that lines it up.
The NC Brunswick Islands region incorporates communities on the mainland as well, like Shallotte and Leland as the barrier islands. This area has the largest population of alligators in North Carolina – don’t be scared, just be aware!
If you are a golfer, you’ll be thrilled to know that this is NC’s Golf Coast. There are more than thirty championship golf courses in this region. Craig has it penciled in for a future trip!
We visited for four nights and did our best to experience the highlights of the Brunswick Islands beaches and communities while leaving room for things to do on a return visit.
We had our central location base on Ocean Isle Beach and used that as a base to explore the different islands, most being just a 15 to 50-minute drive away.
In this post, we’ll share our highlights of our Brunswick Island beach getaway.
Ocean Isle Beach Attractions
Ocean Isle Beach is at the lower end of Brunswick Islands and is midway between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach (approx. one hour to each).
Ocean Isle is considered to be the most family-friendly beach vacation area in the Brunswick Isles with its access to miles of coastline, acres of marshlands, mini-golf and arcade games, museums, zip line adventures and options for eating and drinking with waterside views.
You don’t even need to leave the island to have a wonderful time!
Start Each Day with a Beach Sunrise
You cannot take a North Carolina Beach vacation and not watch the sunrise each morning, and one of the best things to do in Ocean Isle Beach is watching the sun come up over the pier.
The NC beaches have some of the best sunrises I have seen around the world, and the most amazing thing is you’ll have it mostly all to yourself.
It’s that slow, gentle start to the day that sets the tone for the rest of the day of one of spectacular beauty and endless surprises.
Coffee & Bagels at 59 Causeway Grill
Whenever we’re on the coast we always try to incorporate our meals around water views, and 59 Causeway Grill offers quality lattes and tasty bagels with a stunning view of the waterway.
Besides a full coffee bar including specialty lattes, they also serve up smoothies, teas, pastries, bagel sandwiches and breakfast platters.
Drift Coffee & Kitchen
Another place we frequented on more than one occasion was Drift Coffee & Kitchen. A stones throw away from our hotel and the ocean, we enjoyed a morning coffee and avocado on toast on their elevated deck.
Paddle the Waterways
You can paddle board or kayak all over the waterways, salt marshes, rivers, and ocean shoreline of the NC Brunswick Islands region.
It’s a fantastic way to see a different side to the island.
We took our stand-up paddle boards out on the marshland area of Jinks Creek just behind our hotel, the Ocean Isle Inn. I loved the tranquil experience paddling with just the birds and a silence you normally wouldn’t find in a beach destination.
Only once was my serenity disturbed by a fish jumping out of the water onto the board. With unruffled Zen I watched with delight as it quickly flipped its way back into its home.
I did have one beady eye on the muddy low-tide banks for beady alligator eyes staring back but I only saw the jagged edges of oyster clumps.
There are outfitters across the islands that rent kayaks, paddle boards, or offer guided tours.
Epic Sunset at Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill
Welcome to one of my favorite sunset views on the Carolina coast.
There was something so magical and magnetic about these expansive views over the intra-coastal waterway marshland in Ocean Isle.
I felt like I was in Africa and hippos were about to poke up their heads!
Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill is the place to soak up this view. Head on up to the Tiki Bar with enough time to grab front row seats.
Grab your margarita and shrimp and grits and enjoy! Get there early for a seat! Note it down as one of the top attractions in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands.
Jinks Creek is on the higher priced side for meals (you can eat in the tiki bar or downstairs). If you want something cheaper, head across the road to Ocean Isle Fish Company, another tiki bar with river views and seafood, or Sharky’s, offering the same views with great (gluten free) pizzas and inexpensive meals.
Taste the Tropical Spirit at Makai Brewing
What kind of beach trip would it be without experiencing local craft flavors?
Makai Brewing has around a dozen rotating taps featuring their own brews and those of other breweries in the Cape Fear region.
They also had a gluten-free beer in a bottle, which excited me! Beach lovers will appreciate the Hawaii vibe of this brewery, whose name Makai means “toward the sea” in Hawaiian.
Learn at the Museum of Coastal Carolina
The Museum of Coastal Carolina located in downtown Ocean Isle has interactive and engaging experiences such as creating volcanoes, sea life art that comes to life, and touch tanks where you can touch or hold a sea star, an urchin, or a hermit crab.
A scavenger hunt will guide kids to various displays in the museum and help them connect more deeply to the flora, fauna and native American history of coastal Carolina.
Admission also includes the Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach.
Zip-line over the Swamps
Not only do you have oceans and river-ways for your outdoor adventure in the Brunswick Islands, you also have swampy fun to. The Shallotte River Swamp Park offers a range of outdoor fun from the ground up over the trees.
Craig and Kalyra took on the cypress canopy tour, zipping through the trees and over sections of the 300-year-old cypress swamp (look out for wildlife!). The zip line tour lasts approximately 2 – 2 ½ hours and includes 10 zipline stations, three bridges and more than 1.25 miles of cable.
It claims to have the longest, fastest, and tallest zip line on the East Coast.
As Savannah was too light for the zip line, her and I headed for the Aerial Adventure Park; a series of rope course obstacles high in the tree line. We had two hours here to move between the three different levels of height and difficulties. It was one of the best treetop adventure courses we have done.
I loved navigating around the giant gorilla, climbing over kayaks and jet skis, and rock climbing over a fish wall suspended in the sky.
The red level was for 14 years and over as the safety belays were a little more difficult to connect to. I left Savannah on the greens while I took on the highest of the rope courses.
They also have guided cypress swamp cruises.
Stay at Ocean Isle Inn
The accommodation options in NC Brunswick Islands region are mostly vacation rental properties. We were lucky to get beachfront accommodation at the Ocean Isle Inn on Ocean Isle.
It’s ideally located to explore the Brunswick Islands and you cannot beat taking a few strides to your own piece of sand near the beach. (The perfect place for daily sunrises!)
If you want a break from the salt and sand, there’s an oceanfront pool waiting for you – still with views. Do your best to book an oceanfront room as the expansive views up and down the island are pretty special.
We also loved how it was within walking distance to the small Ocean Isle downtown where you’ll find restaurants, bars, and cafes.
Fun fact: We only realized during our stay at the Ocean Isle Inn when its familiarity jogged our memory that we stayed here for our good friend’s wedding back in 2008. So, brides to be, consider this Brunswick Islands hotel for your wedding venue!
Oak Island Beach + Attractions
Oak Island has the reputation for being the Laid-Back Island of Yesteryear, with more of a neighborhood feel than a vacation destination.
On the eastern side of the island, you’ll find lessor visited Caswell Beach, home to the lighthouse and a maze of waterways and inlets on the marsh side.
As the names suggests, you will find old live oaks and other shady trees. It is the largest of the Brunswick Islands.
From our vantage point up at the lighthouse, we could see the protective barriers around loggerhead turtle nesting sites. They feel safe in the NC Brunswick Islands and travel great distances to lay their eggs on the shores from May to August.
Sea turtle hatching’s begin in July and may continue into October.
As a way of giving back to the wonderful Brunswick Islands region, we donated $50 to the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program.
Climb the Oak Island Lighthouse, Caswell Beach
Ready for an adventure of a different kind?
One that won’t feel too scary until you’re standing on the ship ladders that lead you up the middle of the lighthouse to the viewing platform 131 steps later.
Oak Island Lighthouse is the only known lighthouse that uses this ladder configuration the entire way, rather than the typical spiral staircases.
While not as beautiful on the outside as some of the other North Carolina lighthouse’s, it’s the most adventurous and exciting lighthouse to visit on the NC coast.
You won’t be pushing it aside with, “Just another lighthouse” grumble.
I don’t have a fear of heights but I do of ladders, so I found this top attraction of Oak Island to be very unnerving, surprisingly even more so when Savannah froze up on the viewing balcony and somehow told me to be scared!
Get over it because the views up here are magnificent. So together, with backs to the wall we shuffled around to take in the views out of Oak Island’s beaches and marshlands.
We were able to climb one more rung of ladders to the see the beacon light. In 2020 the Coast Guard installed the first rotating LED light fixture in a US lighthouse. It’s cheaper, brighter, and more energy efficient than the old light bulbs and has a ten-year warranty, whereas the previous old-style ones needed replacing after a month!
They even have capabilities to operate it via solar power.
There is a boardwalk across form the lighthouse with an observation deck, interpretive panels, and access to Caswell Beach.
The 153 ft Oak Island Lighthouse tours are FREE (donations happily accepted and encouraged) and the tours run year-round in the morning. Tours do require advance reservations and climbers need to be at least 9 years old.
READ MORE: The 13 best things to do on the North Carolina beaches (includes the Oak Island Lighthouse Climb, Jinks Creek Sunset, and the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
Lunch at Koko Cabana
After your climb, head to the Oak Island Pier for an Ahi Nacho and Mezcal Paloma and beautiful views of the ocean.
I loved the Caribbean Island theme of the Koko Cabana restaurant, designed with a vibrantly pleasing atheistic that contrasts with its aged wooden pier exterior. Its Surf & Turf menu and signature cocktails pair perfectly with its beachside location.
From there, walk straight to the beach for a refreshing swim and beachside fun.
Things to do in Southport
One of our favorite finds on our NC Brunswick Islands vacation was not the beach, but the charming, small town of Southport located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
As it converges with the Atlantic Ocean and the Intra-coastal waterway, you can imagine the diverse options of water activities.
But you’ll find live oak tree-lined streets, ornate Victorian homes, historic buildings, and vibrant riverfront restaurants.
Southport is one of the fastest growing towns in the USA and frequently tops the “best small town” variation lists. It has also been named America’s “Happiest Seaside Town” by Coastal Living.
Looking out from Southport, you’ll see the locally endeared and slow-paced Bald Head Island. You can only reach it by ferry or private boat, and once on the island you can get around by golf carts and bicycles – we have it on our list for a return trip.
You can also catch the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher Recreation Area at the end of Kure Beach and Carolina Beach giving you a much faster access to Pleasure Island.
Golf Cart Tour with Southport Fun Tours
The picturesque harbor town has been a favorite location for Hollywood, featuring in scenes from many films and TV shows, including Safe Haven, A Walk to Remember, Weekend at Bernie’s, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
A fun way to see the beauty of the town and hear colorful stories of the town’s history and culture, natural beauty, and filming locations is on a oversized golf cart with Dan from Southport Fun Tours.
This relaxing 45-minute guided tour is all experienced with refreshing salty breezes and stunning coastal views.
Walk around town
Once you have finished your golf cart tour, you’ll have an idea of where you want to walk and explore more.
There is a self-guided walking tour though Southport where you can see historical landmarks like City Hall and the Old Brunswick Jail as well as early 1700 churches and homes.
We walked around the waterfront to the boardwalk over the marshland. The views here looking over the salt marshes and back to the colorful riverfront restaurants was beautiful.
Admire the many stunning Southern homes along the way with their gorgeous oak trees merging with the homes. Many of the homes have cutaways around the trees to accommodate them.
Along the riverfront and main street are plenty of places to eat or have a sunset drink. We stopped in for a really cheap, and huge serving of delicious ice cream at Flava’s Ice Cream Shop.
We chose the most recommended restaurant for our sunset dinner on the water.
Sunset Dining at Fishy Fishy Cafe
This vibrant aqua blue and yellow outdoor restaurant spreading out over the wooden pier and overlooking the coastal marsh is the Southport restaurant recommended to us the most.
There is plenty to look at within the Fishy Fishy Cafe itself with its quirky sayings, wall hangings, and hand pointed signs showing the way to locations near and far.
The main event is the fresh local and calabash style seafood (don’t miss the Bacon Wrapped Stuffed Shrimp), and, more importantly, the sunset.
Arrive plenty of time before sunset so you can get a table in the prime location of the restaurant edge. I’m so glad we did that as our table was perfect for the sunset show!
You won’t be rushed away for a quick table turn here. Servers will encourage you to linger long after the last of the pink sky disappears into darkness.
The southern-most beach, Sunset Beach, was probably my favorite of the Brunswick Islands beaches.
This is the magic you are looking for in a beach destination: miles of pristine white sand bordered by sand dunes instead of high rises.
It is where your soul comes to exhale and connect more deeply to Mother Nature.
We saw plenty of relaxed smiles on the people sitting on their chairs guarding their fishing poles hoping for a catch, groups of friends whizzing by on their fat tire bikes, and couples holding hands as they walked the flat packed sand.
Time moves slowly here, and we soaked it up riding a few tiny waves on our body boards with Savannah, and lying in the sun with Kalyra reading.
It’s no surprise Sunset Beach made National Geographic’s 2017 list of 21 Best Beaches in The World.
The protected Bird Island Reserve is the southern end of Sunset Beach with pristine sandy white beaches, high natural dunes, and more than 1,200 acres of salt marsh and tidal creeks.
This natural area is one of ten sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. As you could imagine from the name, Bird Island is a haven for many bird species like the Reddish Egret and Wood stork. The endangered loggerhead sea turtles can safely nest here.
A nature trail leads from the beach and loops around the Bird Island Reserve.
The most notable thing to do in Bird Island is the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
Walk to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, Bird Island
If you are a Nicholas Sparks fan, I am sure you know about the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. It’s what led me to search where it was when I first read his novel “Every Breath” which features the secret mailbox.
It’s a great NC Brunswick Islands attraction to incorporate into your vacation.
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox lies in the sand dunes on Bird Island about 1.4 miles from Sunset Beach Pier. It’s an easy and beautiful walk along the beach to find it.
People have been coming here for over 40 years to share their wishes, thoughts, prayers, and dreams through letters in the mailbox. First “planted” on the island by a man named Frank Nesmith in the late 1970’s.
Savannah and I wrote our own before leaving our hotel. She wrote her dreams for the future and I shard our manifesto for travel – which really applies to living a full life.
The mailbox is filled with notebooks and pens so you can write your stories when you arrive. Or you can just spend time reading them. There is a seat waiting for you.
Moved by what I read, I was reminded again how humans are so similar in the range of emotions that we feel. All the stories showed how much we all hurt, fear, and long for something deeper and more purposeful from our lives with the hope that it will be wrapped with love.
And they’ll be some messages to make you laugh like. P.S. Please get rid of the flies!
Another bonus to an NC beach vacation in the Fall – we had no flies bothering us. And with the lack of crowds, we had the bench mostly to ourselves to absorb the spirit of these messages and its tranquil home.
We added this experience to our North Carolina Bucket List.
From Trawlers to Table at Calabash
When we asked our community their top tips for our Brunswick Islands beach vacation, “Go eat seafood in Calabash” was a frequent suggestion with exclamation points!
Calabash is a tiny fishing village just near the South Carolina border. It’s home to world famous fresh seafood, lightly battered and fried in the Calabash style of cooking.
You may like the laid-back charm of the Waterfront Seafood Shack dishing up fresh local, wild seafood prepared to order where you can sit outside and watch the busy river life.
Or, for a fancier seafood experience, The Oyster Rock has a beautiful outdoor seating section with views over the Calabash River. Their seafood was the best we had during our time on the NC Brunswick Islands. They are most known for their oysters, but also their fresh catch of the day.
We enjoyed Ragin Cajun Oysters topped with andouille sausage, bacon, crawfish and shrimp and fresh, locally caught tuna and mahi mahi.
Calabash Creamery Ice Cream
Follow up the signature Calabash seafood with a delicious homemade ice cream at Calabash Creamery. What makes their ice cream so delicious and creamy is the quality of their fresh ingredients used, including 16% butterfat.
I enjoyed sitting on the rocking chairs with our tasty treat chatting to a few locals.
We did not get much time to experience the quieter, Holden Beach. I’d like to return to explore the tidepools, relaxed pace, paddling opportunities and biking around the island.
Head down to the far eastern side of the island near the Lockwood Folly Inlet for what I felt was a much better beach – whiter sand and less people.
Another local’s favorite recommendation for us was grabbing a shrimp burger from Provision Co located on the Intra-coastal Waterway – the views here are hard to beat!
I hope this post gave you inspiration and information to start planning your own Brunswick Islands vacation.
If you’ve already been, please leave your own tips in the comments below and hopefully we can experience them on our next visit.
You can listen to our podcast recording of our time at Brunswick Islands.