When it comes to family-friendly beach destinations in the US, lots of people think about the Carolinas. Famous beach spots in North Carolina and South Carolina are popular throughout the year, whether you're traveling for winter getaways, Spring Break trips, or summer celebrations.
But if you're looking for a beach destination that's a little quieter yet still filled with local charm, then you need to know about the Brunswick Islands in North Carolina.
Where are the Brunswick Islands?
Located roughly halfway between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina, the Brunswick Islands are a series of 5 barrier islands separated from mainland North Carolina by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
These islands – which mostly became islands when the Intracoastal Waterway was built in the 1900s – feature 45 miles of beaches, fishing piers, and charming coastal towns.
The islands that comprise the Brunswick Islands are:
- Sunset Beach
- Ocean Isle Beach
- Holden Beach
- Oak Island
- Bald Head Island
Why visit the Brunswick Islands?
The Brunswick Islands have all the usual trappings of a US beach destination; you'll find the obligatory surf shops, mini golf courses, and ice cream parlors in each little beach town. But you'll also find uncrowded beaches, lots of interesting history, and not a single high-rise hotel or condo building in sight.
I visited the Brunswick Islands during shoulder season in late April, after the Spring Break trips were over but before the summer season fully kicked in. And it was SO NICE. Beaches were quiet, I didn't need restaurant reservations, and I had plenty of opportunity to soak up the laid-back vibes of each little beach town.
10 things to do in the Brunswick Islands
If you're considering a beach trip to the Brunswick Islands (and I definitely think you should!), then here are all the unique things you can do there.
Note: This post was written as part of a paid partnership with the Brunswick County Tourism Development Authority. But, as always, my content is based 100% on my own personal experiences and opinions.
(And I'm focusing on the main islands that you can drive to; Bald Head Island requires a ferry or private yacht to get to!)
1. Visit the main towns in the Brunswick Islands
Each island that makes up the Brunswick Islands has at least one or two beach towns on it. These towns include Caswell Beach, Oak Island, Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Sunset Beach on the islands themselves, and towns like Southport, Shallotte, Leland, and Calabash across the intracoastal waterway on the mainland.
You can easily visit all of these spots on a trip to the Brunswick Islands. And while most of these towns are made up of beach houses, fishing piers, and seafood restaurants, a couple have additional points of interest.
Southport, for example, sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and has hundreds of years of history to explore. In Southport, you can learn about local history at the Fort Johnston visitor center, take a movie and TV location golf cart tour with Southport Fun Tours (Southport has been used as a backdrop for dozens of films), and even go on on a dolphin-watching tour.
Definitely set aside one full day in the Brunswick Islands just to explore Southport!
2. Have a beach day
Obviously you can't go to the beach without having at least one beach day! And you're spoiled for choice in the Brunswick Islands.
Each of the islands has at least one or two public beaches, and while they are all pretty relaxed, they do each have slightly unique vibes.
A cool thing about the beaches on the Brunswick Islands? They're all accessible, and you can find beach wheelchair-friendly mats leading out into the sand near each of the fishing piers.
My top beach picks are:
a. Holden Beach
Holden Beach is one of the quieter islands in the Brunswick Islands. National Geographic Traveler has named Holden Beach one of the top family-friendly beaches in the country, and there are miles of soft, white sand to enjoy here.
One thing to note about Holden Beach is that the island is almost entirely made up of beach houses interspersed with public beach access points. Parking on the island is almost entirely paid, and you can't park along the main road here (keep an eye out for parking signs). The eastern end of the island has the most parking available – just be prepared to pay via an app on your phone.
b. Caswell Beach
Caswell Beach is the name of a community and beach at the eastern end of Oak Island. Along with enjoying the quiet beach here, you can also visit the nearby Oak Island Lighthouse.
The Oak Island Lighthouse is a concrete lighthouse dating back to 1953. Visitors CAN climb to the top of this lighthouse (and you climb up ship-style ladders instead of a spiral staircase!), but tours are only offered a couple times per week and advanced registration is required, sometimes weeks in advance.
There's a nice boardwalk here between the lighthouse and the beach (and a free parking lot at one end of the boardwalk).
c. Sunset Beach
The southernmost beach in the Brunswick Islands, Sunset Beach is just as lovely as its name makes it sound. There's lots of parking near the Sunset Beach Pier, as well as street parking available near public beach access points. (And parking is currently free, as of mid-2023.)
If you park near the public beach access at 40th street, a long wooden boardwalk leads you out to a relatively quiet stretch of beach. From here, you can walk to the nature reserve of Bird Island (which is also where you'll find the next spot on this list, the Kindred Spirit Mailbox).
There are also beaches with parking near the Oak Island Pier and Ocean Isle Pier.
3. Walk to the Kindred Spirit Mailbox
If you're up for a beach walk, you can visit a very special spot on Bird Island* called the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. It's a literal mailbox stuck in the sand that people visit and leave messages inside.
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox has been on Bird Island for 40+ years, placed anonymously by a local couple (the couple was only recently identified as Claudia Sailor and Frank Nesmith). Inside the mailbox are pens and journals, and visitors are encouraged to leave messages.
The journals are filled with hopeful love letters, grief-filled farewell notes, words of wisdom, confessions, and everything in between. It's cathartic to sit down and hand-write an anonymous message like this, as evidenced by how quickly the notebooks fill up.
(A Nicholas Sparks novel called Every Breath was inspired by this mailbox, too, which I'm assuming made it even more well-known!)
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox is watched over by a team of volunteers, who take the mailbox down when hurricanes approach, and empty out the notes/replace the journals about once per week. All the notebooks are currently being preserved in a collection at the University of North Carolina Wilmington – and I really hope they eventually design a museum exhibit around them!
You cannot drive to this mailbox; it requires either a 2-mile (one way) walk from the Sunset Beach Pier, or a 1.4-mile walk (one way) from the 40th Street public beach access at Sunset Beach. The walk is flat along the beach, though there's zero shade so definitely bring enough sunscreen and water with you. (And the mailbox is marked on Google Maps if you need help finding it.)
This was one of my favorite things I did in the Brunswick Islands. I visited on my own, and enjoyed sitting on a bench and soaking up the views as I pondered over what message to leave.
There are a couple similar mailboxes (three of them, in fact) on Holden Beach, known as the Holden Golden Memory Mailboxes. You can find one on the west end of the island (in a gated community), one on the east end, and one in Sailfish Park (which you can drive up to). I personally would visit the original on Bird Island, though!
*Bird Island is connected to Sunset Beach, and not a separate island. (They used to be separate, but a hurricane joined them together.) The entire island is a nature reserve, though, so you cannot drive to it. You can walk to it from Sunset Beach, and within it are a couple walking trails through the dunes.
4. Visit a coastal museum
There are several coastal and maritime museums you can visit throughout the Brunswick Islands. Perfect for a rainy day, or if you need a short break from the beach.
Southport has two museums next to one another. The Southport Visitor Center inside Fort Johnston has museum exhibits on the history of the town and its role in various films. And right next door the North Carolina Maritime Museum has exhibits on local maritime history, pirates, storms, and more. Both of these Southport museums are free to visit!
In Ocean Isle Beach, the Museum of Coastal Carolina is also worth a stop. This museum has exhibits that cover everything from coastal ecosystems to sea turtle nesting to the Indigenous peoples who once called this area home. There are also exhibits on local marine life, including one room that resembles a “dry” aquarium that you can walk through, and a touch tank. (Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for kids.)
And just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Sunset Beach is the Old Bridge Museum, a small and free museum on the site of a former swing bridge.
5. Go fishing
Saltwater fishing is also popular in the Brunswick Islands, and there are three different ways you can do it. (Just be sure to get yourself an appropriate North Carolina fishing permit first!)
The first is to fish right off the beach – all you need is a rod and reel and some basic tackle, and you can cast right into the surf.
The most popular place to fish that doesn't require a boat is to fish off one of the piers in each beach town. Most of the piers offer fishing licenses and bait for sale, and several even rent rods and tackle if you don't have your own. The piers you can choose from include:
- Sunset Beach Pier
- Ocean Isle Pier
- Holden Beach Pier
- Yaupon Pier/Oak Island Pier
- Ocean Crest Pier on Oak Island
- Southport Pier
Several of these fishing piers charge visitors to walk out and watch the fishermen, but the $1 fee is worth it!
The third way to go fishing is to head out on a fishing charter boat and do some inshore or even deep-sea fishing. Find a great list of local fishing charters here.
Some of the fish you can try to catch around the Brunswick Islands include flounder, redfish/red drum, speckled trout, mackerel, bluefish, and grouper, among others.
6. Get out on the water
Want to get out on the water without doing any fishing? You can – and should! – do that, too, with a quiet paddle, sightseeing boat tour, or even dolphin-watching tour.
You can book a private sunset charter with Southport By Seaside, a dolphin-watching tour with Calabash Fishing Fleet (they take you out to look for dolphins in shrimping boats!), or a sightseeing cruise of the mouth of the Cape Fear River with Southport Water Tours.
There's a lot to see on the water, from pods of resident bottlenose dolphins to migratory birds (I visited during white ibis nesting season!).
You can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards from several local places, which are great for exploring the salt marshes, rivers, and waterways all around the Brunswick Islands. Some companies (like Summertide Adventure Tours and The Adventure Kayak Company) offer guided kayaking tours, as well, if you're not fully comfortable going out on your own.
7. Have an adventure in the trees
If you're looking for something a little more adrenaline-pumping, head inland a few minutes from Ocean Isle Beach to The Swamp Park. This fun outdoor park offers zipline tours (and has the tallest, fastest, and longest zip line on the East Coast!), ropes courses up in the trees, and even guided ATV tours.
They also offer more relaxed eco tours of the swamp by boat, so you could take the whole family here and find something for everyone.
8. Eat all the fresh seafood
You can't visit the coast without indulging in some seafood – or perhaps lots of seafood! And the Brunswick Islands have a unique style of seafood that you have to try: Calabash seafood.
Coming from the town of Calabash just inland from Sunset Beach, Calabash seafood is locally sourced fish, shrimp, oysters, or other seafood that's lightly battered and fried to a golden brown. It doesn't get any fresher.
A few places to try local seafood in the area include:
- Waterfront Seafood Shack – This seafood market and laid-back eatery is located right on the Calabash River where the shrimp boats from the Calabash Fishing Fleet are docked. The seafood travels less than 50 feet from boat to plate.
- Sharky's Restaurant – The oldest restaurant in Ocean Isle Beach, Sharky's sits right on the Intracoastal Waterway and serves up things like grouper tacos and a tasty shrimp burger.
- Provision Company at Holden Beach – Overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway near Holden Beach, Provision Co is a relaxed bar and eatery serving up things like steamed seafood plates and grouper sandwiches.
- Koko Cabana – Located right on the Oak Island Pier with an excellent view of all the fishermen, you can enjoy all sorts of fresh seafood here, from coconut shrimp to tuna poke bowls. (Their sister restaurant Kai-Joe's is also worth a stop for Hawaiian-inspired tacos – try the North Shore shrimp taco.)
- Fishy Fishy Cafe – With ample open-air seating overlooking the Southport Yacht Basin and marsh, Fishy Fishy is one of the best spots to go for fresh seafood and drinks in Southport – you can even arrive here by boat!
There are lots of other options, too, especially in Southport where you can't throw a fishing net without hitting a seafood restaurant.
9. Go wine tasting or to a brewery
While the Brunswick Islands mostly market themselves as a family destination, there's plenty to do even if you don't have kids in-tow.
For wine lovers, stop in to Silver Coast Winery in Ocean Isle Beach, which has a lovely art-filled tasting room and outdoor patio perfect for sipping. Silver Coast makes award-winning European-style wines with grapes grown in the mountainous areas of North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, with their head winemaker hailing from the Finger Lakes wine region.
Tastings at Silver Coast cost just $10, and come with a souvenir wine glass.
Or, if beer is more your speed, stop in to Makai Brewing Company (also in Ocean Isle Beach). This Hawaiian-inspired brewery brews a wide range of craft beers to suit all tastes, and has family-style tables indoors, as well as an outside beer garden.
10. Watch a sunrise or sunset
Since the Brunswick Islands run east-west and face south towards the Atlantic Ocean, it means that at certain times of year (late fall through early spring) you can actually see the sun rise AND set over the ocean, which is pretty cool!
During other times of year, it's still worth getting up early for a quiet beach sunrise, or heading to the beach or a restaurant patio to enjoy a sunset.
Bonus: See the Milky Way
Due to the Brunswick Island's location (facing south) and the fact that there are no big cities throwing off light pollution nearby, this is also an excellent spot to do some stargazing, and to see the Milky Way!
The Milky Way is the galaxy that our own solar system is a part of, and a wide band of it is visible in the night sky at certain times of year.
The Milky Way is visible in the northern hemisphere from February-October, with the “best” viewing months generally being April-September. In order to see the galaxy, you'll need clear skies and as close to a moonless night as possible.
The time when you can see the Milky Way above the ocean from any of the Brunswick Islands beaches changes throughout the year (axial tilt and Earth's rotation and all that), but you can find a nice chart here that gives you an idea of when it will be visible each month. Generally, the Milky Way is most visible (basicaly all night) from June-August.
Where to stay in the Brunswick Islands
My favorite thing about the Brunswick Islands is how “local” they still feel. You won't find any chain hotels or high-rise condo buildings on the beaches here; it's mostly beach houses and a few family-run hotels.
During my own trip, I stayed at the Ocean Isle Inn in Ocean Isle Beach, a family-run hotel with both an indoor and outdoor pool and direct beach access. The hotel was comfortable and homey, and Ocean Isle Beach is in a perfect base for visiting all the major sites in the Brunswick Islands.
There are also lots of B&Bs inside historic homes in Southport (see a list here), as well as lots of beach vacation rentals to choose from in the Brunswick Islands.
Brunswick Islands FAQ
The Brunswick Islands are a series of 5 barrier islands that stretch for about 45 miles in the southwestern-most corner of North Carolina. They are located roughly halfway between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina.
Both Myrtle Beach and Wilmington have airports you can fly into – I flew into Myrtle Beach and drove to the islands. And speaking of driving, all of the Brunswick Islands (except for Bald Head Island) are connected to the mainland via large bridges, so you can reach them all by car.
If you're wanting to visit all the different beach towns and spend time on multiple islands, then you're going to want to have a car with you. You can rent a car from whichever airport you fly into. (Check Discover Cars for rental car options.)
If you're mostly going to stick to one island and beach town, you also could opt to rent a golf cart or bikes for your time there, as these are generally much easier to park near beach access points.
If you want to tick off everything listed in this post, you'll need at least 3-5 days in the Brunswick Islands. But you could also easily visit the area for a day or two as part of a trip to another nearby destination, or you could book a beach house for a week for a laid-back coastal getaway.
Who's ready to plan a relaxing beach trip to the Brunswick Islands?
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