Southport, N.C.: Where the visiting is easy

Photo by Bill Thompson Fishy, Fishy Café lives up to its rep as a favored spot to drink and dine.

SOUTHPORT, N.C. — Good things, small packages. You know the homily.

If Beaufort is Charleston in miniature — more relaxed and easily navigated, with far less traffic — then the appealing hamlet of Southport, hard by North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, is Beaufort of several decades ago.

There is the customary historic district, the wide range of architectural styles, the inevitable array of curio shops and wine- tasting rooms one expects of a tourist draw.

Here, too, are all the other “actors” from Central Casting: boats undulating gently at their moorings, the beautiful sunsets, friendly locals, unpretentious waterfront restaurants and opportunistic birds trying to look nonchalant while sizing up your plate of food.

A long-standing maritime heritage goes without saying.

So, what is different from two dozen other “quaint and charming” coastal communities with an eye peeled for visitor dollars? The scale, for one. Downsized. Easy. And the atmosphere: quiet, unhurried, amiably “aimless.” Which is to say, nothing is pressing. No itinerary necessary, no obligatory list of can’t-miss sights to see.

You simply amble past graceful homes and the waterfront, breathe the fragrant air, and indulge the whim of the moment.

Adding variety is the proximity of Bald Head Island and Kure Beach, both a ferry ride away, as well as nearby St. James Plantation. But once in town, you probably won’t care to stray too far from the hub of this admirable weekend getaway.

Chartered in 1793
Apart from native people, Spanish explorers were among the first to assay the area in the 1500s. Pirates and privateers used it as a base to plunder British settlements along the Carolina coast before the arrival of fortifications. In 1748, the North Carolina Legislature appropriated funds to erect Fort Johnson near the mouth of the Cape Fear River (South Carolina’s governor was generous enough to lend 10 small cannon to the effort). And gradually, the village of Smithville, chartered in 1793, grew up around the fort. It was renamed Southport in 1887.

From 1808 to 1977, Southport was the seat of Brunswick County. And, yes, the dispute between this eastern North Carolina county, Brunswick, Ga., and Brunswick County, Va., as the birthplace of Brunswick Stew is still joined. Foreign heretics claim it actually comes from Braunschweig, Germany, but locals aren’t convinced.

Lured ‘from off’
Like Beaufort, Southport has been popular with feature film and television production companies, and in recent years, the town has supplied desirable locations for such movies as “Crimes of the Heart,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Safe Haven,” “Summer Catch,” “Domestic Disturbance” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” as well as the TV series “Dawson’s Creek.”

Not surprising, given the sweeping, uncluttered views and “throwback” feel of the place. That said, you may want to schedule your visit when a film crew’s not in town. You don’t come to Southport for hubbub.

Southport is the site of the proposed North Carolina International Port (just north of town), and while officials say it is unlikely that this concept will take shape in the foreseeable future, you may want to plan your visit sooner rather than later.

You can always get your sea dog fix at the small but well-curated North Carolina Maritime Museum (204 Moore St.).

Dining and quaffing
Customer reviews of restaurants and inns are always subjective, but among those getting a thumb’s up are Fishy, Fishy Cafe, 106 Yacht Basin Drive; The Provision Co., 130 Yacht Basin Drive; Mr. P’s Bistro, 309 N. Howe St.; Loco Jo’s Bar & Grill, 602 N. Howe St.; Dry Street Pub & Pizza, 101 E. Brown St., and The Pharmacy, 110 E. Moore St.

Silver Coast Winery maintains a handsomely stocked tasting room on South Howe Street, just off the main drag.

As for lodging, options include a half-dozen attractively priced small inns and B&Bs – the Southport Inn, 119 N. Davis St., gets Trip Advisor’s top rating — in addition to a trio of chain hotels.

Getting there
It’s a 31/2-hour drive from Charleston, following U.S. Highway 17 and picking up N.C. Highway 211 at Supply, approximately 29 miles from the S.C./N.C. border. Couldn’t be simpler.

For ferry rates and schedules, visit Southport Ferry Services online at http://southporttimes.com/ferry.html.

Yes, Wilmington and its urban experience is just a hop, skip and a jump away, but save that for another jaunt. Savor Southport.

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