By Shane Sharp,
CALABASH, N.C. - As you drive north on U.S. Highway 17 from North Myrtle Beach and over the state line, tourist traps and miniature golf courses give way to Mom-and-Pop seafood restaurants, quaint beach cottages, and rustic roadside gift shops. Anchoring the coast of this pristine region are the Brunswick Islands - a group of barrier islands that run from the world famous "seafood capital" of Calabash, North Carolina, all the way north to the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington. The scenery is unrivaled, as Carolina Oaks and Pines blend together to give the area a true mid-Atlantic feel.
This is Brunswick County, one of the undiscovered gems of the Grand Strand and truly North Carolina's "Golf Coast." This bucolic setting is home to nearly a third of the Strand's golf courses, ranging from bargain level public access tracks and mid-range surprises to high-end daily fee and semi private layouts. With marshland layouts such as Marsh Harbor and Oyster Bay, Brunswick County lays claim to some of the most scenic courses in the entire state.
A slew of new high-end daily fee courses such as Arnold Palmer's River Edge, Tim Cate's Tiger's Eye and The Thistle, Rick Robbins' Crow Creek, and Willard Byrd's Farmstead have opened their doors over the past three years. Now, with over 30 golf courses, Brunswick County has clearly established itself as one of the east coast's premier golfing destinations.
With affordable family owned and operated facilities like the Calabash Golf Links, The Meadowlands Golf Club, and Brunswick Plantation, Brunswick County can cater to the budget-minded golfer as easily as it can the affluent. There truly is something for every level of golfer, economic and skill, in Brunswick County.
Yet somehow, the numerous golf courses of the area have eluded hordes of golfers from the Midwest and Northeast over the years. Is it because of the county's remote location and rural infrastructure and position just outside of the shadow of Myrtle Beach? Or is it simply because the locals have remained tight-lipped about their little jewel so as not to spoil its shine? It's hard to say. But one thing is for sure: Brunswick County has not been overlooked because of the product being offered.
So if you seek a golf trip that revolves around thirty-six holes a day, a beer and a bed, then Brunswick County is the prescription for what ails you. Unlike its commercialized cousin to the south, this area once described by early settlers as "some trees and some marshlands" is more likely to overwhelm you with wildlife than nightlife. Between the seafood restaurants, the unspoiled beaches, the offshore fishing and a handful of eclectic shops and restaurants, Brunswick County offers golfers and nongolfers a myriad of other recreational opportunities.
Brunswick County is refreshingly short of "all-you-can-eat" joints and chain restaurants, but is chaulked full of local eateries that will keep you pot bunker deep in seafood and steaks. For seafood lovers, Calabash awaits with an endless array of fried Grouper, Snapper, shrimp and scallops. In between the fishhouses you'll find some of the Grand Strand's most original Italian restaurants, and plenty of "cheesburgers in paradise" in the local taverns.
Nightlife Brunswick County is not totally non-existent - you just have to seek it out. For some local flavor head to Victoria's Sports Bar or Sharky's in Ocean Beach across the Ocean Isle Beach Causeway. Or, pack up the crew and head for Myrtle Beach where you won't run out of things to do at the plethora of bars and restaurants at Broadway at the Beach, or North Myrtle Beach's Barefoot Landing.
Take a minute to peruse our "area-by-area" guide to the Carolinas "Golf Coast" - Brunswick County.
The southernmost point in the Brunswick Islands, Calabash has earned the nickname "The Seafood Capital of the World." Over a dozen seafood restaurants, built along the docks of this quaint fishing village, feature local seafood delivered fresh off the fishing boats right to their back doors. The area's method of cooking has become known far and wide as "Calabash-style" You may spot a number of golfers at the neighboring tables, as Calabash has several courses that rank among the best in North Carolina.
One of the first areas settled in the county, Shallotte has been the center of activity in the South Brunswick Islands for over a century. This small inland town is brimming with retail shops, restaurants, and accommodations. The river pilots of the 19th century determined that Shallotte's location, approximately halfway between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, and central to all the islands, made it the ideal site to serve as the commercial hub of the South Brunswick Islands. Just minutes from beaches, golf courses, and other recreational activities, the same holds true today.
With seven miles of quiet beaches and a peaceful quality of life for its residents and visitors, the friendly village of Ocean Isle typifies the Brunswick Islands experience. Visit the Museum of Coastal Carolina for an in-depth look at island life. You'll also find unique shops, as well as marinas, deep-sea fishing, and canals with backyard crabbing and fishing. The well-kept private lodgings, hotels, condos, and golf resorts make this laid-back island community very inviting to visitors and vacationers. And, at certain times of the year, you can watch the sun both rise and set over water.
Perhaps demonstrating how little things change in this area, the smallest of the Brunswick Islands is reached by driving across the only remaining pontoon bridge on the East Coast. The last area island to be developed, Sunset Beach boasts remarkably wide snow-white beaches, huge dune ridges, and marsh areas, with a very natural and secluded feeling. Large pastel cottages set back behind the dunes make this island a favorite return haven for family gatherings and vacations. At dusk, Sunset Beach puts on a show worthy of its name, with spectacular sunsets made more dramatic by the unusual east-west alignment of the island.
After prospering as a commercial fishing center in the 1920s, Holden Beach evolved into a full-fledged family vacation spot in the 1930s. Not surprisingly, Holden Beach is still known for its excellent offshore fishing and features a full-service fishing pier for both casual and serious anglers. Fishing season is still celebrated with both a spring and a fall festival. Until recently, the island was accessible only by ferry, but now a two-lane, elevated bridge connects it to the mainland. Visitors will enjoy 11 miles of tranquil beach, unique retail shops, amusements, and restaurants.
While the most populous town in the Brunswick Islands, Oak Island enjoys a small-town atmosphere that has attracted visiting families for generations. Oak Island was founded with a strong sense of community and public access. Public beach accesses (most with parking), public boat ramps, canoe and kayak-friendly areas, as well as parks, playgrounds, extensive sidewalks, and pedestrian and recreation trails, make Oak Island an ideal haven for the active nature lover.
While Fort Caswell saw action in several wars and eventually gave the island its name, your "action" may consist of the gentle surf and mild tides of the south-facing beach, situated at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The cylindrical Oak Island Lighthouse, the brightest lighthouse in the United States, easily identifies this quiet, 4-mile-long family beach.
Visitors return again and again for the serenity of Bald Head Island, though not by car. Bald Head is accessible only by a private passenger ferry departing from Southport. Once on the island, your transportation is limited to golf cart, bicycle, or foot. A renowned safe haven for wildlife, water fowl, and loggerhead turtles, this island resort setting features natural beauty, 14 miles of unspoiled beaches, a maritime forest, and world-class golf, all overlooked by the weathered sentinel "Old Baldy," one of the Atlantic's most striking lighthouses.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.