I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine. The beach is better in the winter. Gasp and bemoan all you like, it’s true. Don’t give me that “it’s too cold” nonsense. I’ve enjoyed sublime 70-degree beach days in the heart of January. Instead of wasting away on a hot summer’s day, getting that awful sand and sweat coagulation in crevices you didn’t even know existed—imagine a quiet, cool walk along a deserted beach. Gone are the raucous radios blaring top 40 tunes. Gone are the never-ending lines of neon bright umbrellas to block your view. Maybe you’re strolling hand-in-hand with that special someone. Maybe you’re scouting for shells along the dog-friendly beach, your canine continuously rushing at the waves. Imagine sand and sea stretching for miles, inviting you into the rhythmic crash and tug, push and pull, the peace of consistency, of solitude.
This is the piece of pure heaven awaiting you on Brunswick Islands, a strip of south-facing beaches hugging the North Carolina coast. Separated from the South Carolina line by a solitary inlet, the collection of coastal communities boasts 45 miles of pristine beach and is an easy 4.5-hour escape from the Upstate.
For one accustomed to the Lowcountry’s natural beauty, its northern neighbor provides similar feels. On Sunset, the Brunswick beach closest to the state line, visitors climb a bridge to unhampered views of poetic marshland. The scene extends the Intracoastal Waterway, crossing over rows and rows of pastel painted beach homes and on to the Atlantic beyond. For Sunset, this concrete behemoth is a recent construction. Until 2010, the island was only accessible by a wooden swing bridge—now memorialized at the Old Bridge Preservation Society.
Preservation is a common theme for these islands—a push-back from the rising threat of extensive coastal development. Adjacent to Sunset is Bird Island, a nature reserve protected by the state and home to hundreds of native species. While navigating a kayak through its creeks is an excellent way to observe herons, egrets, skimmers, and oystercatchers—a bike ride along the beach is a pleasant winter alternative. Shorebirds are still in abundance, and there’s also the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, a lone post preserving the hopes and prayers of thousands of the island’s enthusiasts.
But the true gem in the conservancy crown is Ocean Isle Beach’s efforts to protect loggerhead sea turtles. Yes, I know, the best time to catch a hatch is in the heart of summer—but you can come back for that. The Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization (OIBSTPO) works year-round to guarantee these cute little guys survive—from tracking nest locations in the spring to “sitting” on them during summer. When it’s close to hatch time, local residents volunteer to watch nests—that way when babies start waddling to the water, experts are on hand to help them get there.
Beat the Crowds
While these islands thrive during the summer—their slow season’s easy atmosphere reflects the true spirit of the permanent residents. Easy-going and oozing hospitality, Brunswick Islanders are eager to share the best their beaches have to offer. And recreation certainly doesn’t wear off in the winter, just the crowds.
Wannabe golf pro? Brunswick Islands is simply another way of saying “NC’s Golf Coast.” The county’s more than 30 courses boast a variety of designs and playability, not to mention the stunning marshscenes from the fairways. Toddlers to entertain? Head to the Ingram Planetarium or Ocean Isle’s Museum of Coastal Carolina, where kids can literally get their hands on sea stars, urchins, and a few hermit crabs. Angsty teenagers you say? The Swamp Park’s zipline canopy tour is sure to thrill the most apathetic of adolescents. While zooming through the treetops, be sure to search the swamp floor for the area’s natural wildlife, including owls, beavers, deer, turkey—maybe even a wild boar. Movie fanatic? The coastal town of Southport, across from Bald Head Island, is a popular filming spot. It’s shops, restaurants, and quaint houses have been featured in blockbusters like Crimes of the Heart, Nights in Rodanthe, A Walk to Remember, and Safe Haven. And, just in case you need one more, The Oak Island Lighthouse is the ideal spot to catch scenic views of the entire stretch of islands. Book climbs in advance.
But perhaps winter’s best pitch for this piece of paradise rests in the Earth’s rotation. When you stand on a Brunswick beach and look out on the Atlantic, the closest landfall is south, towards the Bahamas, not east, towards Britain. This unique position allows eastern sunrise and western sunset views. It’s one of the few places on the East Coast to offer such a sight, and the wide winter skies, blushing in brilliant tones, are exceptional. It seems fitting that this beauty is showcased exclusively during the slow season. There’s no hustle and bustle, no schedules to book or appointments to fill, just an opportunity to stop and sit down for a spell. It’s as if the islands are applauding the slow serenity, the pause, the rest that winter brings, and rewarding the wanderer ambitious enough to recognize the secret—the beach is truly better in the winter.
Ports of Call
Exquisite global cuisine ranging from classic paella to pan-seared salmon. Extensive wine list included. 7116 N Howe St, Southport, NC, (910) 457-4544, portsofcallbistro.com
Drift Coffee & Kitchen
Chic coffee joint with white walls and turmeric lattes, but don’t miss the avocado smash. 20 E 2nd St, Ocean Isle Beach, NC, (910) 579-3664, driftcoffee.kitchen
Jinks Creek Waterfront Grille
Enjoy the finest of local seafood fare with the best marsh views around. Get the scallops. 14 Causeway Dr, Ocean Isle Beach, NC. (910) 579-9997, jinkscreek.com
Homemade ice cream in seasonal varieties. In the summer, lines are out the door. 9910 Beach Dr SW, Calabash, NC, (910) 575-1180, calabashcreamery.com
Old Ferry Seafood
For the best fresh catch, Phil and Anna Robinson offer the ocean’s finest. Oyster beds are just down the waterway. 1069 Songbird Ln SW, Supply, NC, (910) 842-6278.
The Sunset Beach Inn
A 14-room B&B with exquisite views of the marsh and Intracoastal Waterway. 9 North Shore Dr E, Sunset Beach, NC. (888) 575-1001, thesunsetinn.net
Holden Beach Vacations
Family-run rental company offering a wide range of comfortable beach homes. 3 Ocean Blvd, Holden Beach, NC. (800) 842-6949, holdenbeachvacations.com
Kindred Spirit Mailbox
Leave your hopes and dreams among the dunes at this isolated mailbox. Public beach access West 40th St, Sunset Beach, NC. 1.5-mile beach walk away from pier, thekindredspirit.net
NC Golf Coast
The islands’ offer more than 30 championship courses, several designed by the likes of Arnold Palmer and Willard Byrd. Packages available. ncbrunswickgolf.com
Oak Island Lighthouse
Not for the faint of heart, this 131-step climb sports unbeatable views from the lighthouse balcony. Book online in advance. 300 Caswell Beach Rd, Oak Island, NC. oakislandlighthouse.org
Shallotte River Swamp Park
Zip through the area’s natural beauty and wildlife at this local adventure park. 5550 Watts Rd, Ocean Isle Beach, NC. (910) 687-6100, shallotteriverswamppark.com