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Get the Tar Heel lowdown with our insider's guide to cruising
Southeastern North Carolina

With apologies to James Taylor, I’m going to Carolina in more than my mind. I’m going there in my boat, and my destination of choice is the grass-filled low counrty of the state's southeastern coast.

When I think of Tar Heel blue, I think of blue--and sometimes black--water. Stretching from Virginia to South Carolina, the coastline of North Carolina features thousands of miles of cruising, fishing, and watersports areas--and the southeastern section offers some of the best possibilities.

Starting in the Beaufort and Morehead City area and running in a generally southwestern direction about 140 standard miles down to the Cape Fear River and the state line, this stretch features practically any kind of trailer boating you could want. With an abundance of public and private ramps, plus lots of boater services, it’s easy to see why James Taylor plays more than mind games in this part of the Carolinas.

Boater Friendly

Southeastern North Carolina features hundreds of miles of Atlantic and inland waterways; outlying islands that protect the coastline (many deserted and awaiting boater-only visits), varied Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) passages, world-class inshore and offshore fishing, several small towns that are incredibly boater-friendly. So there's a lot to do when you’re not on the water.

The twin towns of Beaufort and Morehead City are a great place to start. Lots of ramps, marinas, services and outlying islands make this region a great boating destination. Add the area's rich history and deliciously fresh seafood, and it's just icing on the cake.

Heading southwest, you can take the Intracoastal Waterway to Surf City, Topsail Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Carolina Beach to the famed Cape Fear River. Here, Bald Head Island, Southport, and even Wilmington are all convenient destinations for boaters.

In addition, four outlying islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway welcome boaters before they hit South Carolina. From east to west, these include Oak Island, Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Sunset Beach. All four have definitely arrived on boaters radar screens, but Oak Island (full disclosure--I live there), which is closest to historic Southport, has become a boater favorite.

Tantalizing Twin Cities

You could spend weeks on and off the boat in and around Beaufort and Morehead City. These cities team up to tantalize with an array of on-the-water experiences, marinas, restaurants, shopping, and sightseeing.

Basically, Beaufort is the more historic and established of the two, while Morehead City is a bit more utilitarian (it’s the state’s second largest commercial port behind Wilmington). Both should be visited on any trip to the area, which is considered by many to be the hub of the North Carolina boating scene.

Located along Taylor Creek, Beaufort’s delights include several bustling marinas (Beaufort Municipal Docks is the most convenient), a charming historic district that's great for walking tours, and the excellent North Carolina Maritime Museum. (The museum's fascinating Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center across the street focuses on traditional North Carolina designs). When it's time for a meal or shopping, you'll delight in an eclectically upscale dining scene (locals swear by Spouter Inn, Front Street Grill, and Beaufort Grocery Company), as well as equally unique shopping (don’t miss Scuttlebutt Books & Bounty).

To the west, Morehead City’s waterfront bustles with a large charter fishing fleet, several marinas (Morehead Gulf Docks is most convenient), The History Place (featuring great local history exhibits), and a waterfront boardwalk with several restaurants (Sanitary Fish Market has been there since 1938). Just outside downtown, the helpful Carteret County Tourism Development Bureau’s office offers lots of great information on the area, plus a bustling four-ramp North Carolina Wildlife Access point for boaters, which is the only visitor center/boat ramp combo we’ve seen along the Atlantic coastline.

Wild Horses

Though Morehead City and Beaufort are ideal bases, the uninhabited outlying Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout Bight offer two of the top boating experiences to be found in the Southeast. As part of the federally protected Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks is famous as a home to wild ponies--but there’s also great primitive camping (no special permits needed), as well as wild dunes and valleys that have remained completely undeveloped.

Cape Lookout features the distinctive black-and-white diamond pattern of Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and offers more than a dozen miles of undeveloped beachfront and dunes. When the wind is down, the wide area that makes up Core Sound is great for the skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing sets. Those who don’t want to take their own boat to either destination can take advantage of ferry services out of Beaufort and Harkers Island.

Along with excellent inshore fishing for popular species such as speckled trout and spots, Morehead City is also world-renowned for offshore action with sailfish, tuna, king mackerel, and more. Like Wrightsville Beach, Southport, and other towns further down the coast, the Morehead City is also a hotspot for fishing tournaments and other fishy events.

Heading west out of Morehead City along the ICW, beach communities such as Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle are mostly for sun-worshipping landlubbers. After transiting Bogue Sound (which is wide and nice for watersports), you'll come to the charming waterfront town of Swansboro, a popular stop for boaters. Though not nearly as developed as Beaufort, downtown Swansboro has more than adequate marina facilities, dining and shopping.

Let 'er Run

As you travel farther along the ICW, the 17-mile stretch from Swansboro to the New River is among the quietest and longest sections in the state. It’s pretty much a straight and well-marked channel, though tidal currents can be quite heavy at times.

The New River is a highlight for both locals and visiting boaters, thanks to 15-plus miles of largely undeveloped shoreline that runs pretty much right up to Jacksonville. The reason it’s undeveloped is because it’s part of the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, so landing is generally not allowed. Old Ferry Marina, located just past the Sneads Ferry bridge, is a great stop for services and upriver information--as well as recommendations for the best fishing, boarding and tubing spots along the wide New River.

Jacksonville is well worth the run up the New, thanks to the friendly husband-wife operation at the city’s Tideline Marine, as well as lots of dining, shopping that are within walking distance. Docking for dinner is also allowed at tasty Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant.

Swan Point is the next stop past the New River, with South Point Marina offering a perfect place to pull in for services and information about the run to Wrightsville Beach. About 19 miles further down the ICW, Harbour Village Marina is another popular stop. Access to outlying islands like Surf City and Topsail Beach is available, but these are mainly beach destinations.

Wrightsville Beach is well worth visiting, however. This area offers numerous ramps and marinas, lots of restaurants within walking distance (don’t miss Causeway Cafe), and some interesting cruising. Deep sea fishing out near the Gulf Stream is also popular for boats launching out of Wrightsville.

Historic Cape Fear

After passing Masonboro Inlet’s busy Masonboro Boatyard and Marina, bustling Carolina Beach is the next point of interest along the ICW. Owing to the area's development, boat ramps and marina facilities are limited, but if you can swing it, Carolina Beach State Park and Civil War-era Fort Fisher are well worth exploring.

Like the New River, the wide Cape Fear River is definitely a cruising and watersports highlight. Despite its fierce name, there's little to fear about this stretch. The Cape Fear offers numerous ramps, and a short 10-mile run upstream will take you to the charming city of Wilmington. Cape Fear's fascinating history includes the dreaded pirate Stede Bonnet, the 1725 town of Brunswick, and stunning Orton Plantation. Reached only by private boat or ferry, Bald Head Island is a great place to explore. No cars allowed, so visitors and residents alike use golf carts for transportation -- all under the watchful "eye" of the landmark Old Baldy lighthouse.

The shoreline up to Wilmington is largely undeveloped, making for a generally quiet trip. However, be warned: This is the state’s largest port, and commercial traffic--including huge container ships--can prove daunting to skippers of smaller vessels. Once there, however, downtown docking and some of the region’s best dining (Pilot House is a waterfront favorite), shopping, and history await. Across the river from downtown, visiting boaters shouldn’t miss a tour of the huge battlehsip USS North Carolina.

Back at the mouth of the Cape Fear, Southport is surely one of the top boating hotspots in the region. Be sure to grab a meal and enjoy the boater-friendly vibe at famed Yacht Basin Provision Company. Other worthy attractions include a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum of Southport, followed by a warm welcome at Southport Marina and the Fish Tales Tiki Bar, where there’s also a convenient launch ramp.

Further down the line, South Harbor Marina has developed into a popular stop, due in part to Joseph's, which serves up creative Italian cuisine along with a clientele of friendly locals who know their area's boating. If your'e looking for a ramp, you'll find one about a mile down Dutchman's Creek--which also offers quiet cruising and anchorage.

Hopping Spot

Just across the ICW, 14-mile-long Oak Island has grown into a hopping vacation spot. Boaters can take advantage of the beach and more by heading to Blue Water Point Marina, where full services, a ramp, and The Fish House Restaurant await. The beach is just a short two-block walk. Southport and Oak Island are both popular launching spots for fisherman, thanks to consistent runs of king mackerel and more.

After passing by the community of St. James Plantation and through the mouth of Lockwoods Folly River (where you'll find great upstream cruising for smaller craft), the next few outlying islands offer a busy passage along the ICW. Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Sunset Beach are all worthy of exploration, but Calabash should definitely be on the menu of every boater in the area.

Following the ICW, you briefly detour into South Carolina before Calabash Creek leads you back into North Carolina and into the village of Calabash and its inordinate number of restaurants. This, friends, is a classic place for seafood and a great boating destination. With restaurants dating back to the 1940s, Calabash-style seafood is now known all along the coast and inland. The tone is casual and seafood tends toward the lightly battered, deep-fried style--served with coleslaw and hush puppies, of course. A seafood dinner washed down with a sweet iced tea seems like an ideal way to end (or start) an exploration of southeastern North Carolina. Maybe the restaurant will even play JT’s “Carolina In My Mind” for you.

Get the Word

*For further information about boating southeastern North Carolina and the rest of the coast, North Carolina’s Coastal Boating Guide is a great place to start. This fold-out map (and more) features: a detailed map (which should never replace proper charts); a list of around a dozen public boat ramps (there are also countless fee-based ones at marinas); listings of agencies for boating, tourism, fishing, and more; information on more than 140 marinas and boatyards; and super summaries of more than 50 points of interest. It's available by calling 877/DOT-4YOU or logging onto ncwaterways.com.

*Those interested in fishing should start by searching ncfisheries.net or by contacting North Carolina Marine Fisheries in Morehead City at (800) 682-2632.