Two miles off the coast near Southport there’s another world. You can see Bald Head Island from the mainland, low and tree covered, the geometry of the lighthouse—Old Baldy—rising above the green and leaves. A 20-minute ferry ride will take you there, and on the way you’ll shed the weight and troubles of the mainland to find yourself transformed by the time you arrive.
Named for a high dune that once stood on the southeastern tip of the island, Bald Head Island feels like 1,000 miles away. There are no cars, only electric golf carts, bicycles and your feet to take you from place to place. It’s the home of sea turtles and crabs, fox and deer, a hundred score birds, and alligators.
Only 220 or so people live here full time, everyone else comes to visit. They come for the 14 miles of beaches and the winding marsh creeks. They come to bike through the forest, fish in the marsh, surf, and climb the 108 steps to the top of the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina. They come to relax, to draw closer to family and friends, to escape the noise and speed of modern life. And it’s the perfect place for each of those things.
Once upon a time, pirates—Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, most notably—lurked in the river behind the island, waiting to sight ships to attack. During the Revolution, the British kept a hospital here; in the Civil War a Confederate gun emplacement guarded the mouth of the river. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the building of Old Baldy in 1812; a United States Lifesaving Station and another lighthouse, the Cape Fear Light, called Bald Head Island home.
Through the years, a few intrepid souls lived here, some just for the summer, inhabiting fish camps on the marsh; others made more permanent homes, going so far as to hauling generators over from the mainland and building a society for themselves.
Plans were laid to build a bridge to the island and commercialize it, turning it into a little Miami, complete with high-rise hotels. But you won’t find that here now. In the 1980s, developers purchased the island and saved it from this fate, instead, they designated more than half the island as a nature preserve and limited growth on the rest. They sold houses and the residents fell in love with the place, establishing the Bald Head Island Conservancy, an organization devoted to studying and preserving barrier islands and the nesting habits of loggerhead sea turtles.
You can visit today, book a ferry ticket and leave Deep Point Ferry Terminal in Southport and in 20 minutes be there, on Bald Head Island, in another world. Before you go, there are some things you should know.
In the marina, you’ll find the hub of the island. Here you’ll rent a golf cart or bicycle, grab a bite to eat at Delphina Cantina or MoJo’s on the Harbor, enjoy a glass of wine from Will o’ The Wisp Café, or arrange for all sorts of outings through Riverside Adventure Company. Riverside and its sister business, The Sail Shop, will take you sailing (or teach you how), get you on the marsh in a kayak or canoe, provide you with bikes, even take you on an all-ages ghost tour.
Just a short walk from the boat is Old Baldy and the Smith Island Museum of History. For $6 (adults, $3 kids) you can tour the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage turned museum and climb to the top of the lighthouse.
Further down the island, you’ll find the Bald Head Island Conservancy, where you can take Turtle Walks and patrol for sea turtles in summer, and a trio of picturesque cottages that once housed Captain Charlie and his crew of lighthouse keepers. From there, it’s a hop and skip to The Shoals Club, which overlooks the Point and Frying Pan Shoals, a harrowing shoal system that extends 30 miles into the Atlantic, where there’s a pool and a pair of restaurants (one formal, one poolside).
Near the center of the Island is a grocery, Maritime Market and small collection of shops, but nearby is the Bald Head Island Club, where there’s a golf course that provides both a challenging and beautiful day, and a trio of restaurants.
Both Shoals Club and BHI Club are members only, but if you visit for a weekend or longer, many rental homes (and there are a lot on the island) give you the option of temporary memberships and access to these two facilities.
Bald Head Island Limited (www.baldheadisland.com) and Tiffany’s Beach House Rentals (www.tiffanysrentals.com) rent homes and apartments, and The Marsh Harbour (www.marshharbourinn.com), the only Inn on the island, rents rooms. Rentals include golf carts, so there’s no need to arrange for a cart rental, in fact, most cart rentals are for day-trippers.
Day trips, weekend getaways, weeklong family reunions, or escapes from civilization all fit the bill for Bald Head Island, just bring some sunscreen and be prepared to slow down because you’ll be on Island Time until it’s time to head home.
Written by Jason Frye | Photos by Kelly Starbuck