Photos by Dori Arrington
Nothing to Fear
While the name alone is enough to strike terror in the heart of the uninitiated, Cape Fear’s coastal towns are anything but frightening.
Cape Fear looms large in the imagination. Just the name is enough to strike terror in the heart, whether it’s being depicted in a Hollywood thriller or spoken by sea captains who have actually braved the often dangerous estuary. But just behind the famous North Carolina Cape and its renowned Frying Pan Shoals, the sea islands and nearby coastal communities are anything but frightening. They’re actually quite enchanting.
Where the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway traverses the southern end of the Cape Fear Estuary, two villages await the passing boater: Southport to the northwest and Bald Head Island to the southeast.
Stepping ashore in Southport, North Carolina, feels like taking a step back in time. The Victorian mansions built centuries ago by sea captains and river pilots have been lovingly maintained, and many serve as inns and guesthouses today. Residents and visitors mingle along Bay Street from the town fishing pier to the yacht harbor, watching the ship traffic heading to the Port of Wilmington upriver, and the parade of boats moving along the ICW in the spring and fall. Patrons on the deck of the American Fish Company are so close to the ICW, they could almost hand boaters a beverage as they pass by. In downtown Southport, Mayberry meets Nantucket, with small-town Southern charm gracefully overlapping a setting more akin to a prosperous New England seaside village.
Residents and visitors never tire of the views across the salt marshes from Southport’s Bay Street, with a prominent feature in the distance being Oak Island Lighthouse. Located on Caswell Beach, Oak Island Light was the last major lighthouse built in North Carolina, with construction completed in 1958. For the first five years of the lighthouse’s operation, its beacons were the brightest in the U.S. and the second brightest in the world. With North Carolina’s coastal waters being the original “Graveyard of the Atlantic”—a nickname for the treacherous waters off the Outer Banks—the bright light is a reassuring sentinel for passing mariners.
More than one first-time visitor to Southport has remarked that the town seems vaguely familiar. It is likely because you’ve seen the town in a favorite movie or television show. North Carolina ranks third in the country for film and television production behind California and New York, with much of the filming taking place in coastal communities. Screen Gems Studios, located in nearby Wilmington, has produced more than 300 film, television and commercial productions, many of them in Southport.
As much as Southport is a worthy destination unto itself, it also serves as a launching point for other Cape Fear adventures. Leaving on the hour daily from Southport’s Deep Point Marina is a passenger ferry to Bald Head Island. When looking at Cape Fear on a chart, you’re actually looking at Bald Head Island. It is the submerged point of Bald Head that makes up Frying Pan Shoal.
The 30-minute ferry ride to Bald Head provides just enough time to switch gears to the slower island pace, because you are required to leave your car behind. Island transportation is limited to bicycle or golf cart. Not to worry, though—the 12,000-acre island is mostly flat and a pleasure to navigate without the hustle and bustle of car traffic.
Named for the bare dunes prominent on the island, Bald Head was once essentially a large sand hill. In the early days of commercial ship traffic, Cape Fear River pilots would climb the dune to get an early view of inbound vessels heading toward the mouth of the river. By the late 18th century, ship traffic had become so heavy, with many casualties succumbing to Frying Pan Shoals, that North Carolina officials built the state’s first lighthouse, located on Bald Head Island. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, today “Old Baldy” is the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina and one of the most beloved on the Eastern Seaboard.
Development and nature coexist in symbiotic bliss on Bald Head Island—of the island’s 12,000 acres, 10,000 are protected from development. The island’s small year-round population of approximately 220 residents swells considerably in the summer, with approximately 5,000 visitors and seasonal residents moving in. With the ability to spread the summer population out amongst the dense maritime forests and miles of beaches, the island never feels crowded. Rental homes and two small hotels act as the primary vacation housing.
While there is a highly acclaimed golf course, premium shopping and history to explore on the island, most visitors come for the spectacular beaches and to commune quietly with nature. Bald Head Island has one of the largest and most pristine maritime forests of its kind on the East Coast. The island is also one of the East Coast’s most important nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles. The nonprofit Bald Head Island Conservancy invites interns and hundreds of volunteers each summer to monitor loggerhead nesting on the island.
So, don’t fear Cape Fear. Visiting boaters are welcome in South Port and Bald Head, with local marinas offering slips for transient vessels. Just remember to consult local cruising guides for safe navigation in the swift currents and coastal shoaling that’s prominent in the area.