Stop (and Shop) Downtown
Southport, renamed in 1887 but established in the 1700s as Smithville, is a half-hour drive from Wilmington, a short ferry ride from Fort Fisher, and the gateway to two true beach resorts: Oak Island and Bald Head Island.
Southport was and is the base for river pilots who steer ocean-going ships up the river channel to Wilmington. It was also the site of Fort Johnston, originally a royal garrison, and later a U.S. Army post.
Southport is a favorite for shopping, historians checking out immaculately restored old houses and original cemeteries, and walkers who enjoy the broad streets lined with moss-draped live oaks. It's also a favorite shooting location for movie companies.
Southport—one of the few area cities with a true downtown—features art, craft and antique dealers, as well as restaurants in the commercial district. There's also a large marina and the historic Old Southport Burying Ground.
Southport was one of the first areas in the state to celebrate the Fourth of July and is widely regarded as the Fourth of July Capital of North Carolina. History records that in 1795, citizens gathered at Fort Johnston and observed a 13-gun military salute to the original 13 states.
In 1813, a Russian warship anchored in the harbor fired a 13-gun salute, and it was on this Fourth of July that fireworks were used for the first time to close the celebration. In 1972, the Fourth of July Festival was chartered and incorporated as the official North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, and it is now a popular four-day event.
Southport is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also ranked by both Rand McNally and Kiplinger as one of the most desirable places in the U.S. to retire. So it's no wonder that the town includes some of the area's most exclusive homes, with waterfront homes fetching prices of $300,000 and more.
In addition to the year-round golf, boating and fishing available, there are plenty of historic and interesting sites to visit.
Fort Johnston, the first working military installation in the state. Fort Johnston was commissioned in 1754 to command the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The remaining original structures house personnel assigned to the Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal, an ordnance depot a few miles north.
The Grove, a park filled with centuries old live oaks, as well as walls and entrances constructed of ballast stones used in ships more than 100 years ago. Set back among the oaks, stately Franklin Square Gallery displays art. You can even take a drink of well water from the old pump.
Keziah Memorial Park is a shady little park with a gazebo, benches and a partial view of the waterfront, as well as an unusually bent live oak. The tree, estimated to be 800 years old, is called the Indian Trail Tree after the legend that it was curved while a sapling by ancient natives who used it to blaze the approach to their preferred fishing grounds beyond. It later rooted itself a second time, completing an arch.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport is full of treasures rescued from local shipwrecks. Visitors can also learn about sharks' teeth, shrimping nets and more. Many of the exhibits are hands-on, and a Jeopardy-style trivia board is a favorite of history buffs of all ages. The museum houses a collection of memorabilia pertaining to the vast nautical history of Southport, the Lower Cape Fear, and southeastern North Carolina. There are self-guided tours through 12 designated stations, an on-site research library, and films and programs. The museum is within walking distance of Southport's restaurants and shopping.
The Old Brunswick Town State Historic Site/Fort Anderson was once the site of the first successful permanent European settlement between Charleston and New Bern. It was founded in 1726 and served as port and political center. In 1748, the settlement was attacked by Spanish privateers, who were soundly defeated in a surprise counterattack by the Brunswick settlers.
The Old Smithville Burial Ground, dating back to 1804, is a must-see. It has obelisks dedicated to lost river pilots, monuments to entire crews and families who lived and died by the sea, and stoic elegies that memorialize Southport's past as no other historic site can. Many of the names immortalized on these stones live on among descendants still in the area.
Orton Plantation is one of the region's oldest historically significant residences in continuous use. It's steeped in Cape Fear's history. It survived the Civil War despite being used as a Union hospital after the fall of Fort Fisher. It was abandoned for 19 years until it was purchased and refurbished. The gardens, both formal and natural, are among the most beautiful in the east. They consist of ponds, fountains, statuary, footbridges and stands of cypress.
Southport Trail is a two-mile-long walking tour that links 25 historic landmarks, among them the tiny Old Brunswick County Jail, Fort Johnston and the Stede Bonnet Memorial.
St. Philip's Episcopal Church is Southport's oldest church that has been in continuous use. Erected in 1843, St. Philip's stands beside Southport City Hall. The beautiful church offers solitude to visitors 24 hours a day.
Trinity United Methodist Church was built in 1890 for a total of $3,300. This is the third church to occupy this site and features two of the area's best stained-glass windows and a beaded ceiling. The clapboard exterior includes shingle-style detailing, a cedar-shingled roof and a gabled bell tower.
Waterfront Park features the convergence of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Other sights include Old Baldy Lighthouse, which is North Carolina's oldest lighthouse and located on Bald Head Island; Price's Creek Lighthouse, which guided Confederate blockade runners through New Inlet during the Civil War; and the Oak Island Lighthouse, the nation's brightest lighthouse.
The Winds of Carolina Sailing Charters offers four customized daily trips along the Oak Island shoreline aboard the 37-foot, twin-cabin sloop Stephania. All trips last three hours and include narration of points of interest and the history of Oak Island.
To get to Southport, take U.S. 17-74-76 west across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. At N.C. 133 exit, and turn left (south) toward Southport (133 joins N.C. 87). At Southport, 87 intersects N.C. 211. Turn left (east) on 211 to downtown Southport.
Another route that leads you to Southport is by taking U.S. 421 south to Fort Fisher. Take the ferry to Southport. Then take N.C. 211 into downtown Southport. Leaving Wilmington, take the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and turn left onto N.C. Highway 133 just off U.S. Highways 17, 74 and 76. If you miss it, you can also take N.C. Highway 87.
The Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry is not only a mode of transportation that saves miles of driving, but also one of the least expensive scenic tours. The Southport terminal is located on Ferry Road, just off N.C. Highway 211. On the approximately 30-minute cruise, the ferry provides a panoramic view of the mouth of the Cape Fear River above Southport. On the Brunswick County side, huge yellow cranes mark the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, the largest distribution center in the country for military supplies.
There are four area airports. Major airline service is offered through two - Wilmington International Airport and Myrtle Beach International Airport. Brunswick County is midway between both airports and about 45 minutes away from each. There are also two small airports in Ocean Isle Beach and Oak Island.