Travelers are familiar with North Carolina’s Outer Banks and South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach, but between the two popular beach destinations is a charming coastal getaway with fewer crowds, lower prices and beautiful beaches: the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina.
Ten cities on the southeastern coast of the Tar Heel state make up the Brunswick Islands. Six of the 10 barrier island towns – Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, Caswell Beach and Bald Head Island – have their own beaches. Southport, Calabash, Shallotte and Leland are coastal towns.
In the Brunswick Islands, the seafood is fresh and most of the attractions focus on the beaches, lagoons and ocean, though there are plenty of shopping, food and historical experiences to be had too. Read on to learn more about North Carolina’s best-kept beach secret.
When is the best time to visit the Brunswick Islands?
The busiest time in the Brunswick Islands is summer, when the temperature is in the mid to high 80s°F on the shore and anywhere between 79°F and 82°F degrees in the ocean. Because summer is the most popular time to visit, the beaches may be more crowded and hotels more expensive, but you’ll be able to see loggerhead turtle hatchlings and experience a wide range of festivals and events throughout the 10 communities.
During the off-seasons, particularly fall and winter, the Brunswick Islands are a lot quieter, with fewer tourists, and it can be a very affordable time for budget travelers to visit. You’ll have to be okay with chillier weather, though – 69°F to 77°F degrees in the fall and 55°F to 65°F degrees in the winter – and many businesses shut down or have limited hours.
Having said all that, you may be swayed to visit the Brunswick Islands in the off-season to experience a natural phenomenon that only happens during this time. Because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, it should rise over the ocean in the morning and set behind the Brunswick Islands in the evening. But here, between late fall and early spring, it both rises and sets over the ocean.
This occurs because the beaches of the Brunswick Islands face south, and between fall and spring, the sun has moved far enough south that it appears to rise and set over the ocean. The phenomenon produces a dazzling array of colors on the ocean and beaches that’s unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere in the US.
How do I get around the Brunswick Islands?
Visitors to the Brunswick Islands have two airport choices. Our favorite is Wilmington International Airport in Wilmington, North Carolina. Not only is it small enough to easily navigate, it’s just a 40-minute drive from the Brunswick Islands. South Carolina's Myrtle Beach International Airport isn't far either, about a 70-minute drive, but keep in mind it’s likely to be more crowded with Myrtle Beach tourists.
You'll need to rent a car upon arrival at either airport. While you may find a taxi to take you from the airport to Brunswick Islands, the price will be steep, and booking a taxi back to the airport will be a difficult task, especially if you have an early morning flight. A rental car allows you to explore all 10 communities with ease.
Once you arrive in the community of your choice, you’ll find that many of them are walkable. This is especially the case in Southport and Ocean Isle Beach. The rideshare and taxi options within the Brunswick Islands are limited, especially in the off-season, and don’t necessarily run in the late or early morning hours.
Why should I visit the Brunswick Islands?
Some beachy destinations only have one thing going for them, but that’s not the case with the Brunswick Islands. This charming collection of communities offers plenty for visitors to do, like wine tastings at Silver Coast Winery and lighthouse climbs at Oak Island Lighthouse, plus antiques shopping, art-gallery walks, outdoor activities like kayaking, and eating some of the best seafood on the east coast.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about the Brunswick Islands is that they’ve served as a shooting location for Hollywood films and TV shows since the 1980s. Southport has the biggest concentration of film sites – it was the setting for 1990s favorites Dawson’s Creek and I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1986's Crimes of the Heart and romantic film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ books like Safe Haven and A Walk to Remember. TV shows Under the Dome and Sleepy Hollow shot scenes here too.
Elsewhere, Weekend at Bernie’s and Sleeping with the Enemy were filmed on Bald Head Island, scenes from Iron Man 3 were filmed on Oak Island and sections of the comedy Tammy were filmed in Shallotte. The Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority has a list of all the film sites throughout the Brunswick Islands, which is a great way for movie buffs to plan a self-guided tour.
My favorite thing to do in the Brunswick Islands
There are six beaches and more than 45 miles of sand in the Brunswick Islands, so it’s no surprise that one of the most enjoyable parts of a visit is spending the day on the beach or in the water. These white sandy beaches are magical – and not just because you can see loggerhead turtles laying their eggs from May to August and baby turtles hatching from July to October.
Each beach in the Brunswick Islands offers a different experience. You can stay in a beachfront hotel, such as Ocean Isle Inn, and have a front row seat when the sun rises and sets over the ocean. Some of the beaches have dunes or natural reserves with walking trails. Because the beaches are long and wide, many rent bikes to enable you to explore from one end to the other. Pets are welcome at many beaches, which is a nice perk – just be sure to check the hours they're allowed, and the local leash laws before turning your dogs loose on the sand.
If you’re interested in a quiet and secluded respite, head to Caswell Beach or Bald Head Island, which is only accessible by boat or ferry. Families are more common on Sunset and Ocean Isle Beaches.
There are stunning lagoons and swamps with rich biodiversity near many of the beaches, like those in Ocean Isle and Caswell – for those who want a more active experience than sunbathing, kayaking through them is especially popular.
How much money do I need for the Brunswick Islands?
The cost of visiting the Brunswick Islands depends on the time of year you visit. Unsurprisingly, prices for accommodations hit a peak in the high season. The hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals and golf resorts start as low as $150 per night, and the closer they are to the beach or coast, the more expensive they are.
Vacation rentals further away from the beach can drop to about $100 per night. However, if you choose this option, you'll have to drive to the beach and pay for parking or be comfortable carrying your beach gear on a long walk. Perhaps the most budget-friendly accommodations are the RV parks and campgrounds near Holden Beach, Oak Island and Caswell Beach. Most of these campgrounds – besides Waterway Campground – require a walk to the ocean or beach. During the off-season (fall and winter), you can generally find more affordable rates for hotel rooms and vacation rentals.
Even though the Brunswick Islands are a lesser-known beach destination in North Carolina, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the food and drink prices. It's on the coast, so seafood reigns supreme, hence the higher costs. Most appetizers cost about $10 to $12, while entrees range between $14 to $30; even pizza, salad or a burger averages about $10 to $12. Prices are slightly lower at some of the low-key fish shacks, though not considerably so. You’ll save money if you book a vacation rental with a kitchen and cook your own meals, or seek out happy-hour deals at certain restaurants.
Which of the Brunswick Islands is right for me?
With 10 different cities making up the Brunswick Islands, it can be difficult to know where to stay or even which community to visit. We’ve focused on four wonderful places to help you choose the vacation spot to fit your needs.
Family fun in Ocean Isle Beach
Families love Ocean Isle Beach. With an array of hotels, motels and vacation rentals right on the beach, you have easy access to the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other. Expect sunny days playing on the beach, fishing off the pier, swimming in the ocean, kayaking on the lagoon or heading to nearby Shallotte River Swamp Park, an eco-adventure park with boat tours, zip lines and an aerial obstacle course.
Many people walk, bike and ride in golf carts through the slow-moving streets of Ocean Isle Beach. While plenty of the restaurants are family-friendly, there are some adult-focused spaces too: parents can have a romantic wine tasting at Silver Coast Winery or sample artisanal beers at Makai Brewing Company.
Love is in the air in Southport
Film lovers will have a blast searching for the settings of their favorite movies and films in Southport, and in general, it’s the perfect destination for a romantic getaway – though it doesn’t have a beach, Southport is beloved by couples for the charming downtown area.
Book a stay in a historic bed-and-breakfast and spend the day visiting art galleries, shopping at boutiques and antique stores and walking through the neighborhoods to admire historic architecture and colorful homes. The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport and Fort Johnston-Southport Museum and Visitors’ Center are also fun diversions.
Calabash is for foodies
Calabash is known as the seafood capital of the world, making it the perfect Brunswick Islands destination for those who appreciate good eats.
Calabash seafood – which is lightly breaded and fried – is named after this fishing village, and Waterfront Seafood Shack and Oyster Rock are perfect spots to taste shrimp, clams, fish and oysters cooked up in the local style. Round out your stay with a deep-sea fishing trip or a dolphin adventure cruise with Calabash Fishing Fleet.
Outdoor adventures in Sunset Beach
Outdoorsy types will have a great time staying at Sunset Beach. Known as one of the more naturally wild beaches in the Brunswick Islands, Sunset Beach is lined with vacation rentals, though they’re pretty far back from the ocean. You have to walk from these rentals to the beach via wooden paths built over a large swath of dunes.
Some spend the day in the ocean or lying on the beach. Others rent a bike, walk down Sunset Beach to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, a fun attraction where you write your fears, hopes and dreams in journals and place them in a mailbox, or visit Bird Island Reserve, which has a walking trail through 1200 acres of beach, sand dunes, tidal creeks and more. If fishing is more your thing, there's a great pier where you can throw a line into the ocean. Finally, with six golf courses, Sunset Beach is the perfect place to practice your swing.