On a Friday morning last summer, my husband and I handed our luggage to a porter and stepped aboard the lovely double-decker ferry that would deliver us to Bald Head Island, N.C. It was a place I’d wanted to visit for years, after hearing about its three wide white sand beaches, pristine maritime forest and exceptional array of wildlife— not to mention its complete lack of cars. Now, we were on our way for a weekend escape, surrounded by families and couples who planned to stay a week or longer on the island, lucky them. The grandfathers and fathers talked about fishing while the mothers and daughters chatted about watching a mother loggerhead lay her eggs the previous summer. A young couple on their honeymoon sat side by side on the deck to catch the wind in their hair, gaze at the sea and discreetly smooch.
When the horn sounded and our little ship left harbor, my husband and I felt the real world melt away. As we approached the island about a half-hour later, we could see West Beach and an impressive array of homes with wide, wrap-around porches. Several sailboats floated past; a group of pelicans spread their wide wings and flew mere inches above the waves, on the hunt for breakfast. To our south was a swath of marsh grass wide as a prairie. I couldn’t recall the last time a journey made me unwind so completely. We pulled into the harbor and, as our luggage made its way from the ferry to the home we’d rented for the weekend, we got into a golf cart and set out for a tour.
Bald Head Island is a 12,000-acre barrier island located about 30 miles off the coast of Wilmington, N.C., poised at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Its location gives it a unique natural splendor, one preserved by the conservation restrictions put in place by the island’s owners and developers that ensure that only 2,000 of the island’s acres will ever be altered by humans. The result is simply paradise: clean, white beaches; thousands of acres of marsh; and a pristine forest of palmetto and ancient canopied live oak trees bearded with Spanish moss. On our tour, we, along with several other families, pulled our cart to the side of the road and sat in hushed awe as two red foxes trotted up the road and scurried into the forest.
Bald Head Island has all this, and plenty of creature comforts, too. There’s the Shoals Club on South Beach, with its Olympic-size pool, championship golf course and fine dining. There you can view both the sunrise and sunset and watch the dramatic clapping waves formed by the confluence of ocean and river. There’s a variety of eating options, from fine dining to casual beach grills. There’s an art gallery, a gourmet market, a charming B&B and a new spa. The island even boasts its own historical museum (Smith Island Museum of History, which is housed in the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage) and a nature conservancy (the Bald Head Island Conservancy and Smith Island Trust). There are about 1,000 private residences and approximately 215 year-round residents.
Long before brothers Kent and Mark Mitchell bought the island in 1983 and transformed it into an upscale escape, its proximity downriver from the Port of Wilmington made Bald Head Island (known at the time as Smith Island) a prime hangout for marauding pirates, including Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. In addition, the island housed Fort Holmes, which during the Civil War helped ensure the safe passage of blockade runners and protected the river from the Union Army. My husband and I parked our cart outside Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, which marks the entrance of the Cape Fear River, and climbed the 108 steps to the top. There we were treated to a splendid view of the marsh, which is marked by a flowing maze of creeks. We made a mental note to rent kayaks to explore it the next day.
When we arrived at our vacation home on East Beach, we found it to be as delightful as the rest of the island. The front porch faced the ocean, the long windows in the dining and living rooms offered a view of the river and the ocean both, and a lush maritime forest was just outside our bedroom. Our home was part of a little neighborhood, yet the arrangement of the houses was such that I never felt like I had neighbors. Vacation home options on the island are varied. You can choose a home high on a bluff that overlooks the ocean and has no neighbors nearby, select a home tucked in the maritime forest under a canopy of 200-year-old live oak trees, stay on the harbor in a one-bedroom bungalow or rent a home in the Hammocks, which has a neighborhood pool and is popular with families. Each home comes with its own golf cart or two and a small carriage house for parking.
My husband and I had toted a few provisions over from the mainland but Bald Head’s maritime market has everything you need. So unlike other beach vacations, we didn’t have to worry about packing food for the whole weekend. We simply walked into our home and enjoyed cocktails as a brief summer storm blew through. Later, we took the golf cart over to Eb and Flo’s Steam Bar for a lovely meal followed by a walk on the beach. The beach was lit only by the moon and the stars, except for the flashlights held by a small group of folks from the Bald Head Island Conservancy who were hoping to see a mother loggerhead crawl from the ocean and lay her eggs. The island is one of the East Coast’s most important nesting grounds for the massive turtles. Between May and October they swim ashore at night to nest, and about eight weeks later, the nests “boil” and more than 100 baby turtle hatchlings scurry to the sea. One little boy said if they didn’t get to see a turtle, they would at least see the amazing phosphorescent plankton farther up the shore. My husband and I trailed behind the group and, sure enough, there were areas where the plankton-rich water seemed magically lit from within.
The next day we rose for a sunrise paddle through the marsh, spotting pelican, heron, egret, ibis, American oystercatchers— and, most impressive, a red-tailed hawk teaching her two juveniles to hunt. We stopped for brunch at the River Pilot Café, then strolled through the Woods Gallery and the little stores along Maritime Way before heading home, grabbing two beach chairs from our house and strolling down the wooden walkway for an afternoon of sunning and swimming at East Beach.
We capped off our weekend with a romantic dinner at the Shoals Club, perched high on the sun-kissed dunes that overlook Cape Fear. I felt a little wistful when we boarded the ferry for home the next day. Bald Head Island’s pace and charm make you want to stay as long as you can. I’m already planning to bring the whole family back.
The ferry leaves Deep Point Harbor in Southport, N.C. (30 miles from Wilmington International Airport) every hour on the hour (off-season schedule is abbreviated). Round-trip tickets, $15. Ferry reservations should be made in advance. 910-457-5003, baldheadisland.com/contact/ferry
The accommodations on Bald Head Island run the gamut from cozy homes and condos to expansive oceanfront beach homes. Rates start about $250 per night and go way up. The most straightforward way to arrange lodging is at 800-432-RENT or vacations.baldheadisland.com.
>You can also check in to Theodosia’s Bed and Breakfast, a beautifully appointed Victorian-themed B&B on the harbor. Rates start at $225. 800-656-1812 or http://www.theodosias.com.
>Smith Island Museum of History, 910-457-7481, http://www.oldbaldy.org
>Bald Head Island Club Golf Shop, 910-457-7310, http://www.bhiclub.org
>Island Retreat Spa, 910-457-5003, http://www.baldheadisland.com/explore/spa
>Riverside Adventure Company, 910-457-4944, http://www.riversideadventure.com
>Eb and Flo’s Steam Bar, 910-457-7217
>The Pelicatessen, 910-457-0266, http://www.bhiclub.net
>The River Pilot Café and Lounge, 910-457-7390
>Shoals Club, 910-454-4850, http://www.shoalsclub.com