From stargazing to shelling, here's how to plan a laidback family vacation to one of the Brunswick Islands.
For those looking for a non-stop, action-packed vacation, Oak Island, North Carolina, and the southernmost coast of the state known as the Brunswick Islands, is not for you. If you’re looking for something more low-key, though, paradise awaits on the other side of Swain’s Cut Bridge. Oak Island is situated about an hour south from of Wilmington and an hour north of Myrtle Beach and offers endless family-friendly adventures, like s'mores around the fire pit and listening to a beach band at the park. Whether your group wants to do everything or nothing at all, Oak Island is the perfect setting for a family getaway.
Enjoy A Beach Day
Oak Island’s eight miles of sandy shores are less crowded than nearby Myrtle Beach, so expect plenty of room for sandcastles. There are six beaches across all five of the Brunswick Islands: Oak Island and its sister Brunswick Islands of Ocean Isle, Holden Beach, and Sunset Beach. So even on a weeklong vacation to Oak Island, there are a variety of beaches to explore. Swimming, boogie boarding, and stand-up paddle boarding are popular activities, but watch for rip currents and check the daily water forecast. Naps are welcome, but be sure to come back before sunset. With the unusual distinction of facing the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Oak Island is one of the best beaches to watch the sunset directly over the water, especially in late fall through early spring due to the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes and the beach's orientation.
Paddle To An Island
After a day or two of relaxing in the sand, consider a kayak tour for a nice change of pace. The Adventure Kayak Company in Southport offers tours most days of the week based on the tidal schedule. Explore the salt marsh creeks of the Davis Canal or the Montgomery Slough, or paddle out to uninhabited Sheep’s Island. Led by knowledgeable guides with both single and double kayaks available, no experience is necessary, and children can participate. If you take the trip to Sheep’s Island, be sure to make the climb to the cross on the peak and enjoy the view of Holden Beach just over the inlet.
Climb OKI Lighthouse
Constructed in 1958, the Oak Island Lighthouse is the youngest of North Carolina’s seven active coastal beacons. Located at the Coast Guard station at Caswell Beach, visitors can tour the downstairs, but for those wanting to climb the 131 steps to the top of the 150 foot lighthouse, be sure to make reservations ahead of time. This free experience for ages 9 and up is available on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings from May 1 through September 3 based on tour guide availability. Reservations are not required for open house tours of the bottom levels, available on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Fish At The Pier
Oak Island was once home to the Long Beach Pier, aptly named because it was the longest in the entire state. Since it was demolished in 2006, only remnants of the original pilings remain. Today two piers, the Oak Island Pier and the Ocean Crest Pier welcome locals and visitors. The newly rebuilt, handicap-accessible Oak Island Pier is 880 feet long, and at 27 feet above the water, it is the tallest in the state. Guests can walk, sit, and watch the waves, or purchase day, or season-long fishing passes. Fishermen have access to 30 King fishing stations. Basic supplies, snacks, and refreshments are also available, along with the Koko Cabana restaurant that offers waterfront views.
Go Shelling At The Point
Olive, welk, and Atlantic cockle shells can be found at any of the beach areas on Oak Island, but one of the most popular shelling locations is no doubt The Point. The best shelling here is typically at low tide, especially on mornings after storms or strong winds. Even if you don’t fill your bucket, you’ll still capture some gorgeous views of Holden Beach just across the inlet. For those willing to make the thirty minute drive to Holden, a recent beach renourishment project means that beachcombers are likely to find more treasures including amazing sea biscuits, fossils, and beautiful shells.
Venture To The Kindred Spirit Mailbox
Whether you have a family of thrill-seekers or your idea of living dangerously is trying a new restaurant, a trip to Oak Island is a great time to try something out of the ordinary. For fans of Nicholas Sparks, a trip to the Kindred Spirit mailbox at Sunset Beach is a must. Park the car at the end of the island and make the 1.4 mile walk to the mailbox on secluded Bird Island made famous in Sparks’ Every Breath, or rent a bicycle to shorten the trip. The journey is the perfect opportunity to share your thoughts in one of the journals left in the mailbox for visitors.
Take A Day Trip To Historic Southport
Known for its white picket fences and boutique shops, the once quaint fishing village of Southport has attracted beach vacationers and Hollywood filmmakers for decades. Replay your favorite scenes popular movies like “Safe Haven” and “A Walk to Remember" on a golf cart tour of filming locations or sample fresh seafood straight off of the boat at one of the yacht basin restaurants like Fishy Fishy or Frying Pan. Since it's just 20 minutes away from Oak Island, you can spend as much time as you'd like exploring this picturesque North Carolina town.
Play Mini Golf
A far cry from the elaborately-themed miniature golf courses in larger beach towns, Oak Island Jungle Golf is a low-key, family-owned course featuring statues of zebras, giraffes, elephants, and even a gorilla near the waterfall. Complete with an old-school arcade featuring classics like Skee-ball, Ms. Pac-man, Whac-A-Mole, and air hockey, kids of all ages can try for a high score. Don't forget to trade in your tickets for prizes to remember their trip.
Tour Fort Caswell
Guided history tours of Fort Caswell, a 2,750-acre military reservation and former Civil War fort, offer a look into the essential role the fort played as a protector of the blockade runners of Fort Johnston and of the crucial port of Wilmington. Tours are only available for visitors at designated times, with reservations strongly recommended for at least a week in advance.
Rent A Golf Cart
Entire families can explore the island by riding around on a golf cart with the ocean breezes blowing their hair. During the summer months, the speed limit on Beach Drive is lowered to 35 mph and golf carts are allowed to drive on Beach Road. A convenient alternative to lugging the beach equipment to the beach, golf carts make getting there half the fun. Besides riding along the beach side for ocean views, be sure to cross over the Oak Island Drive to the north side of the island and ride along Yacht Drive to Veteran’s Park at NE 14th Street, where you can have a picnic, or sit in the swings to watch boats go by on the Intercoastal Waterway. Golf carts can be rented on the island by the day or week, and any licensed driver can drive them.
Tune Into The Summer Concert Series
From May to September locals and visitors flock to Middleton Park to enjoy some tunes after day in the sun. Most concert events are held on Fridays, from 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, but arrive early and bring a beach blanket or beach chair to stake out a spot close to the stage. The popular series features well-known performers including everything from beach music by The Sand Band and The Embers featuring Craig Woolard. An adjacent playground and splash pad ensure that there are plenty of activities for the kids too.
Savor Local Seafood
Local restaurants dot Oak Island, giving visitors lots options for enjoying a fresh catch. On the island, don't miss Swain’s Seafood and Cut, and shrimp tacos at the whimsical Kai-Joe’s are always a good idea. Locals know to make reservations to dine at Island Way to watch the sunset over the water at Ocean Crest Pier. At the Southport Yacht Basin, Provision Company is known for their peel and eat shrimp, and the shrimp burger at the Holden Beach location is legendary. If time allows, make the forty-minute drive to Calabash, known as the Seafood Capital of the World, to sample the lightly-battered and fried seafood style that is named for the tiny coastal town. Another popular option for families is purchasing fresh seafood at fifth-generation-owned Potter’s Seafood to make your own fresh feast.
If you miss the sunset, don’t worry because the view from the Oak Island beach just keeps getting better. Due to the area’s lack of light pollution and high rises, as well as its south-facing beaches, it is one of the best stargazing spots along the East Coast. During the Milky Way season, which peaks from late April to late July, epic views of the stars and galactic center can be seen from anywhere along the beach or from the deck of your vacation rental. Another popular spot for amateur astronomers is the Ingram Planetarium, in nearby Sunset Beach, where visitors can get an up-close-and-personal view of the constellations, planets, and stars in the area inside the planetarium’s dome ceiling.
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