A big part of boating’s appeal is the ability to get to places you can’t get to any other way, or can’t access without major effort, discomfort or expense. Here in the Cape Fear region we have some wonderful destinations that are easy to reach by water.
They range from the luxurious, such as Bald Head Island, to the wild and primitive, like Masonboro Island. So while we are big fans of long-distance travel by boat, we also love to direct our customers and friends to some of these easy-to-reach local destinations.
Bald Head Island is at the Cape Fear River’s mouth and is accessible only by boat. Its attractions include luxurious accommodations, fine dining, excellent golf, unspoiled nature and beautiful beaches. It’s also home to the historic “Old Baldy” lighthouse, dating to 1817. The island’s southernmost tip is Cape Fear itself, which gives its name to the river and to our entire region.
While most visitors must ride a private ferry from Southport, boat owners can stop in for a day trip, overnight or an extended stay by using the Bald Head Island Marina.
It’s easily accessible from the river’s main shipping channel, which in turn connects to the Intracoastal Waterway. All of these are federally maintained routes with easy-to-follow navigation markers. The marina welcomes guests; you can reserve a slip by contacting the dockmaster by phone, email or VHF radio. Contact details are on the Bald Head Island website.
Boaters can get electrical service, fuel, even cable TV hookups, and have access to the marina’s bathhouse, laundry, store and casual dining. The marina accommodates boats up to 100 feet.
Once ashore, visitors will find that Bald Head is a unique mix of luxurious and wild. No cars are permitted on the island, so golf carts or bicycles are standard transportation. Those who prefer to spend their nights ashore will find accommodations ranging from expansive beach houses to a waterfront inn. Rare subtropical forests, emerald-green marshes and wide, uncrowded beaches are all part of the island’s appeal.
At the other end of the luxury scale are two pristine barrier islands within easy reach from Wrightsville Beach. Best known is Masonboro Island, which stretches eight miles between Wrightsville and Carolina beaches. Now protected as an estuarine reserve, this unique expanse of beach, dune, sand flats and marshes is a paradise for beachcombers, bird watchers, fishermen, surfers and anyone who loves nature and solitude.
The most popular access is a deep-water anchorage just across Masonboro Inlet from Wrightsville Beach. Most boaters start their Masonboro expeditions there. And some choose never to go ashore, but just join in an impromptu floating party on many busy summer weekends. Another easy access point is at the island’s south end, at Carolina Beach Inlet. For more intrepid explorers with shallow-draft boats, tenders, or maybe canoes or kayaks, a myriad of tidal creeks and basins give access to several points along the island’s mid-section. This should be attempted only at high tide, and in relatively small craft, but gives access to beautiful spots that very few people ever get to see.
Any visitor to Masonboro should bring plenty to drink and protection from the sun. The island is completely undeveloped, with no facilities of any kind.
A similar undeveloped beach is the Lea-Hutaff Island complex, between Figure Eight Island and Topsail Island. Like Masonboro, these barrier islands – now connected since a shallow inlet closed some years ago – are wildlife preserves and protected from development. Access is easy at either end, from Rich Inlet on the south or New Topsail Inlet on the north.
Whether on Masonboro or Lea-Hutaff islands, visitors should be alert to wildlife. Sea turtle nests will typically be protected by wire fencing. Nesting areas for endangered seabirds may also be marked with “keep out” signs. But those restricted areas will still leave plenty of space for humans to stroll, sunbathe or otherwise enjoy some of the most beautiful beaches around.
If your preference is for recreation, many folks like to anchor along the many sheltered sandbars, tidal flats and other features that dot our waterway to swim and play in warm, shallow water. One fun example of this is the so-called Palm Tree Island. This is in the Intracoastal Waterway at Wrightsville Beach, just a few hundred yards north of the public boat ramp. You’ll spot it by the fake palm tree and the parking meter stuck in the sand!
A great waterfront destination for those who like small-town charm is Southport. This historic river town is a couple of miles from Bald Head and an easy boat trip from either Wrightsville Beach or Wilmington. Its history dates to Colonial times. The remnants of old Fort Johnston right on the waterfront are now the town’s visitor center. Broad streets shaded by huge live oaks and lined with beautiful Victorian houses, unique shopping and fine dining, and an intriguing Maritime Museum are all within easy walking distance from the waterfront.
From the river you’ll see the lighthouses, old and new, on Bald Head Island and Caswell Beach, as well as the old pilot tower from which Southport’s river pilots once spotted ocean-going ships approaching the harbor. You may well recognize that, and other street scenes, from the many movies that have used Southport as a filming location.
Finally, I have to mention the attractions of historic downtown Wilmington and its extensive waterfront. A number of marinas and public docks line the Cape Fear River downtown, and invite visitors to tie up for a few hours or for a more extended stay. Enjoying an after-dinner drink on board while watching the sunset, strolling along the city’s extensive Riverwalk, or exploring downtown’s eateries and night spots are great ways to spend a day, evening or weekend.
These are just a few outstanding examples of the many outstanding destinations that only boaters can reach, or that boaters can appreciate in a special way. They are part of why I firmly believe a boat is an essential part of our region’s lifestyle.
Thom Cross is the general manager of MarineMaxWrightsville Beach. Headquartered in Clearwater, Florida, MarineMax is the nation’s largest recreational boat and yacht retailer. Focused on premium brands, MarineMax sells new and used recreational boats and related marine products and services as well as provides yacht brokerage and charter services. For more information, visit www.marinemax.com, find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MarineMaxWrightsvilleBeach or call (910) 256-8100.
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