What To Do When It’s Too Hot To Hike: Part II
In our last post we talked about some of the ways to beat the heat in the Carolinas. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it’s awfully hot and buggy to be indulging in the sport of hiking. We do it anyway to keep in shape, trying to go as early or late in the day as possible to avoid the midday heat. But there’s no question there is far more to be had from hiking the Carolinas — and any adjacent southern state — in Fall and Spring. And the well prepared hiker can take advantage of a minimal snow winter (in most places and times) as well.
What to do in summer, then?
Well, here’s some more of our other favorite summer places to take a break from the heat…our favorite North Carolinas coastal “inlet” towns. IE, those that face the river estuaries, inlets, and sounds behind the barrier beaches.
Though further from the actual beach, being at a slight remove insulates these places not only from the raging hurricanes which batter the Outer Banks from late summer to mid fall, but also from the huge crowds and often garish development the beaches attract. Some of these are among our favorite places to visit at any time of the year.
Topping any list of Carolina coastal towns is Southport, which retains a level of actual charm that is almost unique in the Tidewater. Most of the coastal dots on the map tend either toward high end ‘mansion on stilts’ style waterfront properties/golf resorts or beach abutting slums of the Jersey Shore variety. If you want the former, try Bald Head Island. If it’s the latter you want, Oak Island will suit your fancy.
Southport gets it just right. Very careful and judicious zoning has kept the town’s wonderful historic center and waterfront almost entirely free of unfettered development. It is quite scenic and charming, with a vibrant downtown which maintains a small-town feel. Its streets are lined with oak trees and the houses are actual historic homes…not modern art masterpieces with massive roof decks that look like they just rolled off a truck.
One of the things we like best about Southport is that (with the very notable exception of the Fourth of July celebration when some 40,000 people might descend on it) we have seldom seen its streets crowded. In fact, go there late on Sunday or on most weekdays, or out of season, and you’ll find it quite empty, a virtual sleepy hollow.
We visit almost every October to celebrate Sylvia’s birthday and to take in the Monarch Butterfly migration, which passes right through town. During summer it’s a little more crowded and expensive, but still great, being sheltered from the terrible storms that almost yearly destroy the beaches of the Outer Banks, and the stilt mansions with them. You can lounge on the swinging chairs by the seaside here for hours.
There are also many great places to eat here. But if we had to pick one you absolutely MUST try, it would hard to outdo the dockside Provision Company for location, food or the uniqueness of its service.
Bald Head Island
On the extreme end of the scale toward the ‘mansion on stilts’ end of the spectrum is Bald Head Island, which is actually a peninsula just north and east of Southport, at the very end of Cape Fear. And when we say mansion, we mean, full on Thurston Howell special. If you are even reading this it is unlikely you can afford to stay here…the sorts of people who stay here have people who read things for them. Bald Head Island is a retreat for the very well off.
However, most can afford a day visit. It isn’t exactly easy to reach this place (you can’t bring your car) but for the adventurous, it’s a fine way to spend a day. You need to hop on the passenger ferry (the 20 minute ride costs $23 at last check; did you expect it to be free?) Those who own your own yacht or private plane can of course drop in any time they please.
(Note that the island can theoretically be reached by 4WD vehicle from Wilmington when the tides allow, but you won’t be allowed to drive it onto the roads here.)
Once on the Island, you need a rent some means of transportation. Except for service vehicles and shuttles owned by the high-end resorts, no cars are allowed here, which helps the island maintain its peaceful character (and yes, helps to keep out the ‘disadvantaged.’)
Most rent a golf cart, as we did, and trundle about the island at a speedy 15 mph on battery power. It’s a fun day so long as you obey safety rules don’t run yourself off the road. Those in solid shape can also easily tour the island by bicycle. Note that if you don’t have a means of transport, this is not a very walking friendly island. Though its small (just four square miles) there are some 15 miles of road on the island, the interior of which is surprisingly dense woodland. Those without wheels will quickly exhaust the available things to do right by the ferry terminal.
One of the biggest attractions of the island is Old Baldy, the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. Completed in 1817, 110 feet tall, it has been inactive as a lighthouse for sixty years but very active as a tourist destination since. Old Baldy is probably one of the few attractions on the island you could walk to from the ferry terminal, being just a short distance away. You can climb the 108 steps all the way to the top of the light, but you’ll have to pay for the privilege.
The best thing about Bald Head Island though are its great beaches. We recommend East Beach at the very eastward tip of the island, right at the very end of Cape Fear. This is a very beautiful, usually uncrowded but VERY windy beach.
Washington By the Sea
While Brian and Sylvia live in fairly close proximity to the nation’s capital (4+ hours) we are even closer to another Washington – the one By the Sea. Like Southport, Washington is a small and charming town located on a tidal estuary; its location is removed from the beach, and this has helped to spare it the ravages of rampant commercialization. While not exactly undeveloped, Washington, like Southport, retains most of its original charm.
One of the best things about the town is its long boardwalk, which is fun to walk around.
Once you’ve visited Washington, it’s just a short drive up the road to tiny and historic Bath, North Carolinas first town, established in 1705. Bath is tiny even in comparison to Washington, but what it does have is a number of very historic buildings.
Down the opposite end of the crystal coast from Beaufort is Swansboro. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention it; Swansboro is yet another charming little inlet facing town that has managed to preserve its character without descending into full on ‘beachieness.’ Swansboro is home to several festivals during the year, and though it is small, thousands can descend on it during these days. The Arts by the Sea and Mullet Festival are probably most popular, and then Sylvia and Brian visited during the former.
Nearby Swansboro is Hammocks Beach State Park, whose signature attraction is mostly undeveloped Bear island. At four miles long, with a nearly wild south facing beach and extensive dune ecosystem run in the length of it, Bear Island is only reachable by a short boat ride through the narrow, winding tidal estuaries that separate the island from shore. Camping is allowed here, but it’s quite primitive, there being no fresh water and very limited facilities on the windswept little island. Bear Island is one of Coastal Carolina’s true jewels.
(Also note that while almost all NC State Parks do not charge admissions, there is a small charge for the ferry, about six bucks last check.)
That’s some of our favorites of the Carolina Coast…next we’ll check out someplace inland where you can stay cool.