Sea breezes, nautical heritage await in Southport

CorrespondentJune 14, 2014 

A fishing boat returns to safe harbor at dusk in Southport. The Oak Island lighthouse stands in the background.

GARY MCCULLOUGH

One of North Carolina’s most charming towns is Southport, nestled on the western side of the mouth of the Cape Fear River, facing Bald Head Island. A few years ago, Rand McNally placed the town on its list of “Best Places to Retire,” and the town was more recently the setting for the popular movie “Safe Haven,” based on the Nicholas Spark’s novel of the same name.

Distance

From Raleigh, Southport is 159 miles, a 2-hour, 25-minute drive.

To see and do

Get oriented at its visitor center, housed in the last remaining building from Fort Johnston. You’ll find all the information needed to make yourself at home in this quaint Victorian-style coastal village. It also has some interesting exhibits dealing with Southport’s history.

Fort Johnston dates back to 1745, predating the town by a half-century. It was from there that displaced royal Gov. Josiah Martin attempted in vain to restore British rule in North Carolina at the outset of the Revolutionary War. The town, founded in 1792, was originally named Smithville. Since it was the state’s southernmost port, the name was changed to Southport in 1889. Until 1975, it was the Brunswick County seat.

Southport’s streets are lined with many fine examples of 19th-century coastal architecture, and several blocks of the town’s waterfront are included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The town’s strong connection to the sea is underscored at the Southport branch of the N.C. Maritime Museum. Showcased there are artifacts related to the nautical history of the lower Cape Fear area, including items salvaged from shipwrecks around Frying Pan Shoals. Other displays include Civil War memorabilia, ship models and a facsimile of Stede Bonnet’s passionate plea for clemency. Known as the “Gentleman Pirate,” Bonnet sailed with the likes of Calico Jack Rackham and the infamous Blackbeard. Bonnet and his crew were captured after a pitched sea battle only a few miles from present-day Southport. His plea for clemency went unheeded, and Bonnet was later hanged in Charleston. Visitors walking along Southport’s oak-shaded thoroughfares will also discover the Old Brunswick County Jail, built in 1904 and now home to the Southport Historical Society.

Look south from the town’s picturesque waterfront to spot two of North Carolina’s famed lighthouses. To the left is the Bald Head Island lighthouse; built in 1817, “Old Baldy” stands 91 feet in height and is the state’s oldest beacon. To the right is the Oak Island lighthouse. Built in 1958, it is the newest beacon on the coast, rising 169 feet.

Southport boasts numerous antique stores, gift shops, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Boating, fishing and golf are other activities. Brunswick Town State Historic Site is a few miles north of town, and a short trip by ferry across the Cape Fear takes you to Fort Fisher Historic Site, the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, and to popular Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. Since 1972, Southport has been the official home of the N.C. Fourth of July Festival.

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