The friendly volunteer at the Fort Johnson-Southport Museum and Visitor Center described Southport perfectly: “This town reminds me of a New England fishing village that has been transplanted to the scenery of the South.”
Sounds like an ideal destination for a 36-hour vacation. You’ll want to arrive early and stay late – there’s that much to do, in a low-key way, of course.
Begin your adventure with a room in one of Southport’s charming B&Bs.
Robert Ruark Inn is a good choice. This beautiful home was built in 1890 by the grandfather of famous author and Hemingway-esque world traveler Robert Ruark. We suggest the Captain Adkins room, with its king-sized bed, period pieces, and luxurious private balcony.
Or, consider Bell-Clemmons House, built during the Civil War, with a long history of entertaining interesting guests. Completely renovated in 2004, it offers a full range of amenities in an appealing historic setting. Ask for the Newport Suite, which has its own, private screened porch.
You may be tempted to stay put for a while and drink in the ambience of your surroundings. Resist the urge, if you can, because there’s much to do and see nearby, and you can return and take a break later.
First get your bearings at the Fort Johnston-Southport Museum & Visitor Center on the waterfront at 203 E. Bay Street. Check out the movie memorabilia. The helpful staff includes transplants who are enthusiastic about Southport and its considerable charms. If you’re mobile, pick up the brochure that describes a self-guided walking tour. The Southport Historical Society has done an excellent job of describing the downtown sites.
You’ll pass by the Northrop House, where portions of the movie Crimes of the Heart were filmed. Among 23 points of interest are many beautiful old homes and churches, cemeteries and an old jail. Other movies filmed, at least partially in Southport include Weekend at Bernies (1989), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Night Flier (1997), A Walk To Remember (2002) and Safe Haven, a Nicholas Sparks film shot in Southport in 2015.
When you complete the tour and reach Waterfront Park, you’ll be able to see the water and two lighthouses. The Bald Head Island light was built in 1817 and is the oldest in the state. The Oak Island light is a relative newcomer, built in 1958. It shines the brightest lighthouse beam in the U.S.
As you walk, you’ll see families working in their yards, or walking babies and dogs. Southport is very much alive and well and folks lovingly tend homes that have been in the family for generations, or have been bought and rescued by appreciative newcomers. Along the way, you’ll pass a number of shops and galleries. A favorite is the Franklin Square Gallery, home of the Associated Artists of Southport, a non-profit organization dedicated to the cultural enrichment of the community.
The building was constructed in 1904 and originally used as a school. Now, it’s an art gallery run by volunteer artists. On the first Friday of almost every month the gallery teams up with other Southport businesses from 5-7 pm. Enjoy free wine and cheese, exotic drinks and a carriage ride between venues as you shop and chat and enjoy the evening.
There are other galleries and boutiques, including Lantana’s Gallery & Fine Gifts and Duck, Duck Goose (where children of all ages can unleash their imaginations and their creativity). If shopping’s your passion, you can spend hours enjoying antiques, water-themed gifts, beach clothing and collectibles of every description.
The NC Maritime Museum, houses a collection of memorabilia that will delight boating enthusiasts.
You’ll also pass a number of restaurants, so stop and check out their menus before deciding where to have lunch. For casual waterfront atmosphere, Fishy Fishy and The Provision Company are family favorites. We dined at Fishy Fishyrecently and enjoyed the sea creature metal sculptures on display by artist Jonathon Bowling. The lime green and aqua walls are appealing, and the shrimp and grits distinctive.
At the very laid-back Provision, you’ll order off the chalkboard which is disconcerting to some folks. Others rave about the steamed shrimp and tuna sandwiches. Personal experiences at both revealed interesting seafood, friendly staff, and affordable prices, with killer views.
The Live Oak Café offers very creative cuisine in a cozy atmosphere. We’re intrigued by the Oysters benedict – fried oysters, asparagus, and pan-fried quail egg over toasted ciabatta bread and béarnaise aioli. We’ve been told the crab dip is yummy, and the Lowcountry gumbo features shrimp, chicken, andouille and venison sausages.
Thinking of a nap? Not a bad idea in picture-perfect surroundings. But if you’re ready to tackle more adventure, you have options. For golfers, there are more than a dozen courses nearby, and many more along the Grand Strand.
Or, stop by The Adventure Kayak Company on Howe Street and check out their kayaking lessons and tours of black water, salt marsh, and special excursions. They’ll teach beginners and provide expert assistance to intermediate kayakers.
Another excellent option is to contact Priority Sailing and choose a wonderful way to spend an afternoon (no sailing experience is required, but you’ll learn a lot while enjoying the ride). Priority Sailing has programs to help all ages enjoy the thrill of sailing in a beautiful locale. They offer classes and cruises on a 26' Colgate, Carolina Breeze.
Back from whatever adventure you chose, dining becomes the next issue. Mr. P’s Bistro is downtown and offers excellent and imaginative seafood, in addition to other menu items. Upscale and some might say romantic, reservations are recommended.
Joseph’s Italian Bistro, has a cozy atmosphere and features an extensive (and affordable) wine list. Diners rave about their shrimp scampi, as well as other traditional Italian favorites, from land or sea.
Oliver’s Restaurant is a recent addition to the dining scene on the waterfront. It’s a great option for a beautiful, fine dining experience. The views of the harbor are delightful, and reports are that the filet is divine. 910.477.9299.
Depending on when you visit, there may be a concert outdoors in the park, or impromptu entertainment. Or, walk around the waterfront and enjoy the twinkling lights as this waterfront village goes to bed.
Enjoy breakfast at your inn, or consider Burney’s Bakery and Ice Cream, where the filled croissants are superb, as are the cronuts and chocolate tarts. Whatever you do, stop by during your time here.
By now, you’ve found your favorites, and probably earmarked shops and restaurants for a return trip. Should you want a bit more of the water experience, we recommend two options. The Southport Fort Fisher Ferry (call 1.800.by.ferry) takes you and your car, bike, or motorbike. Pedestrians welcome. There’s much to do in the Fort Fisher area, and the ferry runs back and forth all day, crossing in about 35 minutes. There’s a Fort Fisher Civil War battlefield, with knowledgeable guides and a movie. The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher is entertaining for all ages, and a Pleasure Island safari (on a barrier island nearby) is great fun for those who love to explore.
Or, choose the Bald Head Island Ferry and spend the day wandering a beautiful island in a golf cart (no cars allowed). Explore on your own (climb the lighthouse if you dare). Day visitors to Bald Head Island have many options for getting around: on foot, by bike or by electric cart. Stroll the beaches, kayak the creeks, or take a historic tour. Join in on a Conservancy program and help support their efforts to nurture and protect the local turtles, or shop (you’ll be surprised at what you find).
The harbor features restaurants, but if you fancy a picnic, try out the grocery store, which sells fabulous meats, cheese, wine and anything else that’s tasty and upscale.
There are other activities nearby, from wineries to fishing charters and much more. A number of families have part-time homes in the area, and more than a few have decided to live year round here. Visit first, and before you leave, you’ll be planning a return trip. We know from experience.