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Coastal Escape | By Rebekah Sanderlin


The streets are lined with charming, gingerbread-style Victorian homes and inns, quirky boutiques and excellent restaurants. There are horse drawn carriage rides and an array of art galleries and antique stores. There are festivals nearly every month in a southern-gothic park where the live oak trees practically drip with Spanish moss. The hospitality is served up southern style in this waterfront town which can’t seem to decide if it wants to be coastal or colonial. But it isn’t Charleston or even Savannah. Not even close because, actually, Southport, NC is a lot closer, just a short and scenic two-hour drive from Fayetteville. Southport is close enough to Wilmington, via highway or the drive-on Fort Fisher ferry, that it is often eclipsed by the bigger city. It’s close enough to Myrtle Beach (a 45 minute drive) and Bald Head Island (a 20-minute ferry ride) that it gets passed by on the way to the famous vacation spot or the remote resort. It’s just five miles from Oak Island, so folks heading to the beach or wanting to fish are apt to not even venture into Southport, which sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. But for those who do, Southport makes a perfect romantic getaway. “Any town you can just putter around in is a good town for a romantic weekend,” said Karen Sphar, the executive vice president of the Southport Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce. Sphar suggests that newcomers to Southport stop by the visitor’s center to pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure, which will introduce them to the town’s history and places of interest. After that, there’s shopping in the town’s gift and jewelry shops, a visit to the nearby Oak Island or Bald Head Island light houses and a stop in the North Carolina Maritime Museum, where they’ll find information about the city’s boating past and lots of colorful stories about pirates. “On a romantic weekend you need to throw in something for the guys or else they’ll lose interest,” she joked. Finally, more adventurous weekend guests might try fishing, either by boat or from the pier or waterfront, or renting bicycles or kayaks from The Adventure Kayak Company, she said. And for the truly adventurous, she says that while a walk through the Old Smithville Burying Ground, with graves dating from the 18th Century, might sound spooky to some, for others it is positively beguiling. Sphar also recommends that travelers wile away some time in the town’s waterfront area, which seems to have been carved straight from a Nicholas Sparks’ novel. (And, in fact, Sparks’ latest novel “Safe Haven” is set in Southport.) A dozen front porch-style swings face the harbor, practically insisting that lovers stop and canoodle while gazing at the passing boats. One swing boasts plaques listing the dates and details of all the couples who got engaged while sitting there. Nearby is the Cape Fear Restaurant and Lounge, where the menu items go by names of famous Carolina shipwrecks. A short distance away in the marina would-be sailors can hone their skills — or leave their boats tied to the dock while they eat a fried fish sandwich in the Fishy Fishy Cafe. In fact, if you walk in most any direction from the waterfront you’re bound to amble past something historic and intriguing. A plaque on one building notes that acclaimed author and adventurer Robert Ruark wrote “The Old Man and the Boy” about living in Southport, his home town. Tiny gift shops, galleries and boutiques seem to appear in every nook and cranny, offering something for nearly everyone. Even kids can get in on the charm as The Christmas House and Bull Frog Corner both offer such a wide array of toys and candy that youngsters of every age feel transported to a magical land. The average temperature in Southport in February is about 60 degrees, meaning you’ll want to bring a jacket but can probably skip the scarf and gloves for your strolls through the maze of streets, where you’ll find a wide variety of dining options. You might stop in The Pharmacy on East Moore Street in the center of town for an elegant meal or Joseph’s Italian Bistro, a New York-style restaurant. The Live Oak Cafe offers a creative menu sure to please a foodie and has a casual and cozy atmosphere, while Mr. P’s Bistro and Provision Company both offer seafood staples and low-country favorites served alongside an inviting atmosphere. Southport is close enough to Fayetteville that you could easily drive down and back in one day and not need to spend a night, or could choose to make a night or a weekend of it. There are plenty of lodging options to choose between. In the center of town there are several bed and breakfasts and small inns located in restored Victorian homes and on the outskirts of town (which is just a couple of miles from the center of town) you’ll find several large chain hotels. Whether you drive down and back in a day just to enjoy a quick change of scenery or you stay and make a getaway of it, you just might fall in love with Southport. Or, better still, you might fall in love (again) while you’re there.