Journey: The Brunswick Islands

It's easy to see why North Carolina's Brunswick Islands provide the setting for books, movies, and works of art.

Authored by Susan Fornoff

Courtesy Winds Resort

In the only pictures I’ve seen of my mother when she was carrying me, we were at the beach. I was born under a water sign and grew up looking forward to summer vacations in Ocean City, Md. Every zero birthday (or other excuse I could find) called for an escape to some sea. So it’s not surprising I would love North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands. What’s surprising is that I had never heard of them. Had to go to the map to find them, lined up along the coast just above the South Carolina line. Had to Google to learn about them, 10 communities sprinkled among five narrow islands containing a beach (Sunset Beach) that National Geographic named fourth best in the world. Even had to postpone one trip when Hurricane Florence slammed nearby Wilmington, the destination for most Denver air travelers via Charlotte or Atlanta.

The islands themselves, however, eluded the worst of Flo, and serve as the anti- Myrtle Beach and Boca Raton. There is not much nightlife here, zero pretense, and little in the way of luxury except for the carefully maintained and creatively designed golf courses. High-end visitors can rent a beautiful house right on a beach and book pampering treatments in Sacred Willow Spa’s serene new property. But forget about valets and 24- hour room service.

Courtesy Winds Resort

And, if you can do it, forget about the rest of the world for a few days. That seemed easy for our all-woman group as we explored the area—the marshes, birds, and other natural features are a hallmark of the current bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing and this is the place where Nicholas Sparks set his latest novel, Every Breath.

- Advertisement -

We were housed on Ocean Isle Beach, in four-bedroom “cottages” at The Winds Resort Beach Club, where each of us had our own spacious, hotel-style bedroom and bathroom plus a share of a common space with full kitchen, living room, and deck. We golfed most mornings, at Brunswick Plantation, Tiger’s Eye, and, most challenging but also most stunningly scenic, Arnold Palmer’s Rivers Edge. At night, before dinner, we chose the most indigenous cocktails—oh my, the Burning Ship at the Oyster Rock in Calabash (bourbon, elderflower liqueur, Cointreau, and smoked sugar cube, covered with a wood top that retained visible, tasty smoke). Then we ate seafood—and though the regional style is fried, the daily fish specials were always the winners. For dessert, we conducted a Key lime pie contest. Oyster Rock won the latter, but honorable mentions go out to the Boundary House, Ocean Isle Fish House, and charming Southport’s Fishy Fish. (The pie did not deter us from making a furtive stop at the Calabash Creamery for a must-try sweet scoop.)

Historic homes and quaint shops line the streets of Southport, which has provided the setting for such films as Crimes of the Heart and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Highlights of our day there included tasting the wines of Silver Coast Winery, made of grapes from North Carolina and Georgia (you can also visit the winery), and climbing the 131 steps to the top of the nearby Oak Island Lighthouse for a 169-foot view of the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway, and all of the wondrous Brunswick Islands in their marshy, beachy glory.

Photo by Susan Fornoff

This distant view put in perspective a magnified one from earlier in the trip, when we had stopped at a modest-looking storefront in Calabash. As we stepped inside the Sunset River Marketplace, jaws dropped at 10,000 square feet of galleries housing thousands of works of art and crafts by, at any given time, 150 to 250 artists and artisans—all of them from the Carolinas and many of them either depicting or evoking the region’s natural beauty.

The beach lover in me delighted in the creativity inspired by the setting of the Brunswick Islands. I felt inspired to return.

Where to stay

The Winds offers a wide selection of accommodations, most of them oceanfront. The coveted Penthouse Double Suite, for example, ranges from around $300 a night in winter to around $800 in summer, with shoulder season rates about halfway between. A sample golf package for a foursome at Brunswick Plantation: $199 per person for two nights’ lodging and three rounds of golf. Small hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts abound, but if you hope to find the most luxurious beachfront house, you may want to turn to a local vacation rental company for personal service, rather than VRBO/Airbnb. All are listed on

What to do

Walk miles of beaches, fly kites, build sand castles, surf, dodge waves, bird watch, study sea critters. On the western side of the islands, you’ll find fishing charters, kayak and canoe rentals and excursions, and cruises. Take a golf lesson at any of the 30 courses in the county. Explore a swamp park, take a zipline, visit a brewery or winery. And don’t miss the Sunset River Marketplace.

Planning your trip

Summers draw families from the region and beyond. Couples, gal pals, and golf buddies who can wait should go in September and October for a quieter experience, better weather, off-season rates, and summer-warmed surf. There are beautiful guides available for free at, which will give you a feel for which of the 10 communities sprinkled over the islands best suits your band of travelers.