Port of Call: Bald Head Island, NC
It was dubbed “bald” island by early river pilots searching for a landmark when entering the Cape Fear River. Devoid of vegetation, the headland stood out in contrast to the forest behind it on the island's southwest point. The marker still is essential in keeping ocean vessels from being run aground on the shoals below. The name Bald Head stuck.
In the 17th and 18th centuries pirates ruled the waters off the coast of North Carolina and unleashed untold terror and pillaging. The village of Bald was a favorite refuge and base for the notorious buccaneers. Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate,” camped here before his capture in 1718 near Southport. Rumors claim that Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, stopped by a time or two. During Prohibition, bootleggers and rum-runners used the island as a base.
In a nod to this colorful past, today's visitors are transported to Bald Head (pop. 2,500) aboard passenger ferries "Revenge" and "Adventure" - both ships appropriately named from Blackbeard's infamous fleet. Along the way visitors get captivating views of dolphins and a wealth of shore birds while the historic Bald Head Island Lighthouse appears in the distance.
Bald Head remains among the most unspoiled maritime forest and beach areas on the North Carolina coast, with much of the land under the protection of the Bald Head Island Conservancy. Of the island's 12,000 acres, 10,000 acres of beach, salt marsh and forest are protected and will remain undeveloped. It's a 20-minute ride from the Indigo Plantation in the charming riverfront community of Southport. Since cars are banned from the island, you get around by electric carts, bicycles or hoofin' it.
Bald Head boasts 14 miles of pristine beaches and 200 acres of ancient forests and tidal creeks. Nestled on the southernmost tip of the state, it's roughly 100 miles south of the Outer Banks. Out in the marshes lanky egrets and herons with their primal screams appear like sculptures in the marsh grasses, while autumn breezes usher in waves of migrating birds resting and feeding on the island.
Stands of oaks blanket the island with some as large as four feet in diameter. You will also find palmetto, dogwood, laurel cherry, wax myrtle, yaupon and American holly in abundance. Some biologists say that Bald Head marks the northern boundary of the East Coast semitropical zone and the northernmost point at which the sabal palm grows.
In the spring loggerhead and green sea turtles lay their eggs along the island’s beaches. The Bald Head Island Conservancy goes to great efforts to protect them, including “Adopt-a-Turtle” and “Adopt-A-Nest” programs. Several outfitters provide turtle walks, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, kite-boarding, birding, GPS scavenger hunts, as well as fishing, clamming, crabbing in salt marshes and creeks.
At Keeper’s Landing a wooden walkway extends 500 feet over the marsh with an observation deck at the end of the pier. It affords magnificent views of the Atlantic, the maritime forests, salt marshes and even a glimpse of Old Baldy, a lighthouse commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. With its distinctive offset lantern atop the 110-foot tower, Old Baldy is the oldest still-standing lighthouse in North Carolina.
In the 1880s brave and dedicated “surfmen” first manned the Cape Fear Life Saving Station. Captains and crews patrolled the shores day and night looking for signs of ships in distress. When a troubled vessel was spotted, a seven-man team would pilot its surfboat out to rescue the shipwrecked passengers. Those heroes are fondly remembered on Bald Head Island— one of six carefully planned and distinct villages.
The island’s inland and offshore waters are an angler’s delight. Inland creeks and rivers offer up red drum, speckled trout and flounder, while surfcasting brings in bluefish. Head boats ply the offshore waters to reel in Spanish mackerel, billfish and dorado. Nearby artificial reefs teem with snapper, grouper and king mackerel, while 50 miles off the coast, fishermen hit the Gulf Stream in search of wahoo.
Each September more than 500 boats take part in the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament where the winner takes home $25,000 for the largest catch. The Bald Head Island Fishing Rodeo is a billfish catch-and-release competition held the weekend after Memorial Day. Bald Head Marina serves as a convenient base for mariners cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. The 10-acre protected harbor is framed by floating docks where transient dockage is available for yachts up to 115-feet.
Overlooking the marina the Marsh Harbour Inn's 10,000 square foot property dominates the Harbour Village landscape. Open,common area decks and porches provide ample opportunities to soak in the ambiance of a seaside village and get to know your fellow guests. There is a great room for gatherings and an outdoor pavilion for grilling. In the morning enjoy breakfast in the dining room, or al fresco overlooking the marsh.
The village's architecture was influenced by the turn-of-the-century frame houses built for Charlie Swain--head keeper of the lighthouse for three decades-- and his assistants. Ravaged by time and tide, the houses have been carefully preserved and now surround a green, or common area. Two-story homes with gracious double wide porches on both levels, picket fences and cedar shingled siding recall elements of old fishing towns.
If you're coming in September, don't miss the Labor Day Beach Music Extravaganza, or the North Carolina Wine & Food Weekend.
Over at the Maritime Market you’ll find a full-service grocery store offering fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, fresh baked breads and an extensive wine selection. Delphina Cantina brings the fresh flavors of Latin cuisine to Bald Head Island. Located in the harbor in the former River Pilot Café, this lively restaurant serves Mexican food with a Spanish and Cuban flair. Try the Carnitas Al Horno—pork braised in house made adobo sauce served with braised jalapeno cabbage and Dijon mustard mashed potatoes.
Mojo's on the Harbor's signature dish is a steampot brimming with crabs, peel & eat shrimp or opt for the fresh fish entrées. There is also a sushi bar complete with a selection of à la carte options. Mojo's serves delectable desserts such as bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
Plan a visit to Bald Head where visitors revel in its relaxed pace, the beauty of its untouched beaches, maritime forest and salt marshes as well as a colorful history peppered with pirates, bootleggers and lighthouse keepers.