Who knew a subtropical island just south of Cape Fear, North Carolina, once a hideout for bootleggers and the notorious pirate Blackbeard would become our family's favorite destination to relax and reconnect? Accessible only by ferry, Bald Head Island's remote, natural beaches, salt marsh and maritime forest provide a haven where families downshift to enjoy picturesque surroundings on what locals affectionately call, "island time."
At first, maybe it was the thrill of ditching their car seats as we cruised the island, untethered on a golf cart but now, 12 years later, our kids still look forward to falling asleep to the sounds of crashing waves and cicadas, the intoxicating sun, sand and cool shade of the maritime forest and of course our family's crazy, annual spoons tournament.
Architecturally meticulous, unpretentious but often luxurious, homes and other buildings on the island are designed to complement the natural environment, carefully tucked and clustered among the dunes and maritime forest. This eco-island resort includes club houses, tennis courts, a golf course, grocery store and small shops so subtle, their presence blends seamlessly with the more than 10,000 acres protected under a permanent conservation easement.
Explore the marsh on a paddleboard, canoe or kayak, patrol loggerhead turtle nests with the BHI Conservancy interns, geocache, run or bike the 15 miles of roadways, or climb 108 steps to the top of Old Baldy, North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse. These are just a few of the activities we enjoy when we're not on the beach, feasting on a delicious meal or taking a nap on the deck. Island time means long, lazy days to savor the tranquil surroundings before the ferry departs and we can begin the countdown until we return next summer.
HOW TO GET THERE
Bald Head Island Transportation, Inc. Ferry departs from Deep Point Marina in Southport, NC. Southport is 30 miles south of Wilmington and 60 miles north of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The ferry ride is 20 minutes from the marina to the island.
Round-trip tickets cost $24.75 for adults, $13.75 for children ages 3-12. Children ages two and younger ride free.
Ferry and tram reservations should be made by calling 910-457-5003.
The ferry leaves the mainland every hour on the hour and departs the island on the half hour. Extra service is added during peak vacation periods.
Parking in the General lot is $10/day during the summer ($8/day January-May and September-December). An annual parking pass is $1,000.
Parking in the Premium lot is $1,200 annually (a $200 discount is available for Shoals Club members).
TRAVEL TO AND FROM THE ISLAND
The BHI ferry and tram systems are fast and efficient but can be a bit overwhelming your first trip. At the drop off zone, you'll place all your baggage including duffels, coolers, beach chairs, etc. onto a wooden platform where the ferry crew in sharp looking polo shirts and khakis will load them into luggage bins and roll them onto the ferry. It's quite impressive to see how quickly they work. Follow these tips for smooth transport:
Make your round trip ferry reservations as soon as you confirm your rental home. During the busy season, ferries can fill up fast. The good news is if you get there extra early, you can usually take an earlier ferry as new space becomes available when other passengers switch departure times at the last minute.
Arrive at least 45 minutes early and be ready to board about 10 minutes before departure time. You'll need time to drop off your baggage, fill out tags for every piece of checked baggage, one person in your party can park the car in the pay lot and everyone else can head to the loading platform. Don't be late! The ferry service waits for no one. Even if you're only three feet from the gate, when it's time to go, they're gone. The good news is if you miss the boat, another one leaves within the hour.
When you arrive on the island, trams will be waiting at the marina to take passengers to their homes. This service is included in the price of your ferry ticket, but be sure to tip the drivers. A staff member will be waiting to give you your tram number. The rest of your party can begin collecting your baggage, which will be unloaded onto a wooden platform — although probably not all in one place so you may need to hunt around to get everything together. This process may seem a little chaotic at first but actually works well. Usually, you'll be on your way to your home within 30 minutes.
Bikes need a purchased ticket and special tag and are brought over on a space available basis so they may arrive on a later ferry. Bikes are unloaded on the dock where they can be retrieved after you check in and return on your golf cart. Some people pay young ferry workers to ride their bikes to their homes. It's a good idea to bring your bikes to the ferry dock for loading the night before your departure so you won't need to wait for them when you return to the mainland.
Few homes allow pets but if you're bringing your dog, be sure to bring a portable water bottle/dish combo, as there are no water facilities for pets on board the ferry or in the waiting areas.
Upon departure, you will be given a pickup time and all your baggage must be placed outside in front of your home to be ready for the tram to pick you up and take you to the ferry. You will follow the same loading and boarding process as you did on the way to the island.
The general rule is to pack as you would for a flight. Open bags must be secured in containers with secure covers.
Pack beach towels, wine, liquor, nonperishable food, small toys, laundry detergent, cereal and other items in two or three deep, 30- to 50-gallon size plastic bins with lids. You can pack quite a lot in these and they're spacious and sturdy enough for the voyage. Secure the lids with duct tape so there are no accidents.
Pack clothing and personal items in mid-size duffle bags, which fit better on the trams. Leave suitcases, especially hard shells at home. Except for the more formal club dining rooms where business casual is the norm, BHI is t-shirt and flip flop casual. Every home has a washer and dryer so you won't need a lot of extra clothes.
Each bike transported on the ferry requires a special oversize item ticket and ID tag. Bikes are loaded last and can arrive with scratches so be aware of that risk if you have expensive equipment that can be easily damaged. There are rental bikes available on the island by the hour, day or week and many homes come equipped with bicycles. Golf Clubs can be checked at no additional charge as regular luggage with an appropriate hood cover or placed in a hard container with an ID tag.
Perishable items may be packed in coolers and checked. Again, use duct tape to secure lids. Milk, eggs and most other items can be purchased at the family owned grocery store on the island but if you want to freeze a lasagna or another make ahead dinner to save a night of cooking, a cooler keeps it frozen and other items cold.
Beach chairs, beach umbrellas and other items can be checked as baggage on the ferry, but check with your property manager before packing — most homes are equipped with these amenities and many homes furnish bikes and sand toys. Generally, the fewer items you need to keep track of, the easier your voyage will be.
EXPLORE THE WIDE RANGE OF ACTIVITIES
For such a laid back, tranquil island, there are plenty of activities to keep the whole crew entertained. From water sports and guided nature walks to a museum, shopping and fishing, there is something that will appeal to everyone.
Join One or Both Recreation Clubs
There are two members-only clubs on the island, Bald Head Island Club, located near South Beach and the Shoals Club>, oceanfront on East Beach near the Point of Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals. Temporary, weekly memberships to one or both clubs are available for a nominal fee. Each club has its own unique amenities and requires a membership to dine in its restaurants.
Bald Head Island Club boasts a spacious swimming pool with a poolside food and beverage service, tennis courts, a workout room, and a croquet greensward. The golf pro shop is located here where golfers can reserve a tee time to play the highly acclaimed, George Cobb-designed course.
The oceanfront Shoals Club has two pools with poolside food and beverage service. There is a workout room, showers and changing facilities with lockers. A beach volleyball and bocce ball area is adjacent to the pool. The Shoals Club is a good option if you plan to spend the day on East Beach as they provide beach chairs, towels and restrooms.
Discover the Beaches
Fourteen miles of pristine beaches border three sides of the island from West Beach where you can watch ships and boats passing by the Cape Fear River to the fertile dunes, long, sandy beaches and ample waves of South Beach. East Beach is a treasure trove for shell seekers and promises active surf for boogie boarders. Bottlenose dolphins can be spotted often swimming along the shores of East and South beaches.
SPORT & ADVENTURE
Ride a Bike
Whether you’re pedaling along the sunny, oceanfront, or in the cool shade of the maritime forest, 15 miles of roadway provide plenty of places to explore. Riverside Adventure Company rents a wide variety of bikes from tandems to multi-speed beach cruisers and children’s bikes. They also rent baby seats, bike trailers and helmets. All are available by the hour, day or week. Riverside Adventure Company also rents battery powered Pedego electric bikes.
Coastal Urge rents beach cruisers with baskets, fitness bikes, tandems, kid’s bikes, and baby joggers. Coastal Urge is a full service bike shop with parts and a certified bike tech to make repairs. Coastal Urge will deliver bikes to your rental home.
Hike a Trail
Several guided and self-guided hikes provide visitors with scenic, informative views of the marsh and the maritime forest. Markers along many trails identify flora and distinctive trees such as the Timmons Oak, one of the largest live oaks on Bald Head Island. Fiddler crabs, deer, fox and a variety of birds may be seen along the way.
Bald Head Island Conservancy’s experienced naturalists lead organized hikes and nature walks or you can experience a day of adventure with kayak or skiff trips offered by the Sail Shop to explore Bluff and Kim Islands and the spectacular beauty of Cape Creek.
Paddle the Creeks
Whether by kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, even beginners can enjoy the thrill of floating just a few feet from egrets and herons. The Bald Head Island Conservancy and the Sail Shop offer guided tours to individuals, families and groups of all ages and skill levels. Many enjoy the sunset or moonlight paddle tours.
Standup paddleboarding is a new way to explore the creeks and marsh. Braver souls may venture out to West Beach where there are challenging, but manageable, waves. There are even specially designed boards for fishermen who are seeking more adventure when they cast their lines. Coastal Urge rents paddleboards by the day or week, providing basic instruction and will deliver them to your rental home.
Sail the Seas
The Sail Shop offers sailing experiences and instruction for beginners through experienced mariners. The fleet includes quality sailboats, including Olympic class sailboats.
For those who would rather relax, one of the Fun Sails aboard Jive or Joyride will take up to five passengers for a two hour scenic tour of the Cape Fear River and along South Beach.
For experienced sailors visiting the island, temporary memberships are available for the Bald Head Island Sailing Club where boats can be reserved for daily use.
Fly High with a Kite
Kiteboard lessons are available through Coastal Urge for those who are seeking the thrill of a surfboard with the added loft and speed of a giant kite. All equipment is included.
Catch your Dinner
Great fishing ranges from red drum, speckled trout, blue fish, mullet and more in the creeks to offshore mackerel, tuna, or blue fish to pompano or flounder in the surf. The Bald Head Island Conservancy, the Sail Shop and a variety of outfitters provide instruction, tips and gear. Fishermen are covered on charter boat excursions but independent fishermen will need to purchase a NC fishing license which is available online at
GPS enabled devices such as your smartphone are programmed to track down a box or “cache” hidden at specific coordinates. Each box is filled with a “treasure” such as a small toy, a collectible, a magnet, or a button. You can create an account at www.geocaching.com to upload to your phone the 12 geocaches hidden on BHI.
Join the Turtle Patrol
Loggerhead sea turtles return to BHI each summer to lay eggs. From June until the first week in August, the turtle patrol alerts Bald Head Island Conservancy interns that a nesting turtle is about to lay her eggs. Local residents and vacationers assist with 24/7 nest monitoring that begins in mid-August and continues through late September. When the nest begins to “boil”, the sand above the eggs begins to move as the turtle hatchlings wriggle their way out of the sand. Nest monitors and Conservancy staff protect the hatchlings from predators as they make their way to the ocean. You may notice that all homes near the ocean are required to have shaded exterior lights so the turtle hatchlings don’t confuse the lights with the moon and head the wrong direction.
Play a Round
The 18-hole golf course, designed by George Cobb, winds through the forest within view of Old Baldy and out to the dune ridge where there are sweeping views of the ocean. The course was renovated in 2010 by Tim Cate with redesigned bunkers, expanded fairways and enhanced landscaping.
The course has a high slope rating — 143-115 for men’s tees and 144-118 for women. It’s not unusual to encounter deer, wild rabbits and even a stray alligator along the course. Ample signage reminds golfers to be respectful of the wildlife. If your Titleist goes into the drink, it belongs to the gator. Take the mulligan.
Hit the Greensward for Croquet
Although the championship croquet greensward at the BHI Club hosts prestigious tournaments sponsored by the United States Croquet Association, beginners and seasoned veterans are welcome. All white attire is required, however tan attire is allowed for guests.
Four tennis courts, resurfaced in 2009, are open to BHI Club members by reservation. Social activities, group and private lessons are available during the summer months. An on-site tennis pro shop sells tennis attire for men and women, racquets, balls and racquet stringing services.
Everyone into the Pools!
BHI Club pool includes a slide for children under 10, a playground and beach volleyball court adjacent to the pool area. Daily times are set aside for lap swimming. The Shoals Club has an extra shallow pool for younger children, an adjacent beach volleyball court and bocce ball court.
JUST FOR KIDS
The Bald Head Island Conservancy offers a wide range of educational, entertaining camps for children throughout the summer.
Camp Pollywog – Ages: 4 through Rising 1st graders
Kids catch bugs, hold snakes, and create island-themed crafts.
Conservancy Camp Ages: Rising 2nd - 6th Graders
Kids will learn about BHI's unique eco-system while they kayak, hike, crab and collect shells. They will learn how to identify native plant and animal species.
C-Patrol Ages: 11-14
Through bird watching adventures, kayaking and hiking through the maritime forest kids will learn how to help the Bald Head Island Conservancy protect the island's eco-system.
HISTORIC SITES AND TOURS
History buffs will love the stories and legends of Bald Head Island. Involved in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, there are historic markers all over the island to describe where significant historic events took place.
Old Baldy Foundation Historic Tour
This 90-minute tour takes visitors from the island’s first appearance on maps in the 1500s to development of the island in the 1980s.
Smith Island Museum of History
Bald Head Island is also known as Smith Island. Climb the 108 steps to the top of Old Baldy for a most spectacular view of the island. The final ascent includes a ladder into a tight space — not a venture for the claustrophobic. A small museum displays historic artifacts of the island.
Mojo's on the Harbor
Order breakfast, lunch, dinner or just drinks on the waterfront deck where you can watch the boats entering and leaving the harbor and enjoy a sunset. Fresh seafood, including Mojo's signature steam pot filled with clams, shrimp, oysters, crab, kielbasa, potatoes and corn are plentiful on their eclectic menu. Generous portions of sandwiches, wraps, burgers, fish tacos and more are available for both lunch and dinner. A full bar stocks a wide selection of bottled beer, local and craft brewed beer on tap and an extensive wine list. Low key, live music accompanies your lunch or dinner during the summer months.
Will o' the Wisp
A casual and relaxed harbor respite for beer, wine or mixed drinks along with snacks like gourmet popcorn, this is the perfect place to unwind after a round of golf or a bike ride across the island.
The Grille and Grille Terrace
Located in the Bald Head Island Clubhouse and open for lunch and dinner, the Grille and Grille Terrace overlook the golf course and practice range. The dinner menu offers a variety of specialty dishes from seafood to steaks. Desserts include freshly made Frangelico crème brulee and freshly baked brownies topped with homemade ice cream and other delicious sweets. Diners near the windows may spot an alligator crossing the course from one pond to another. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
This pub-style restaurant with a full bar overlooks the croquet greenswards and the golf course. Upscale pub food such as smoked salmon "nachos" — smoked salmon on wonton chips topped with a vodka dill sauce, gingered arugula and wasabi tobiko is a real treat as well as the grilled chicken wings, a variety of fresh salads, Carolina BBQ pork and other specialty sandwiches.
The Shoals Club Lounge
Less formal than the dining room, the Lounge has a full bar and a smaller but delectable menu of selections such as crab and avocado parfait and balsamic, jalapeno and molasses-glazed hangar steak. Sweeping views of Cape Fear Point make this a relaxing place to unwind. Shoals Club membership is required and reservations are recommended.
The Shoals Club Dining Room
Whether in the well appointed dining room or on the breezy veranda, enjoy the beautiful views while you dine on an extensive menu that includes such choices as citrus-roasted halibut and mussels served with shrimp risotto. Menu items change seasonally to bring you the freshest selections. The Shoals Club hosts special wine dinners and holiday buffets in addition to the regular menu. Shoals Club membership is required and reservations are recommended.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here seven days a week. Located next to the BHI Club pool, a menu of sandwiches, pizza, salads and kid friendly items like grilled cheese sandwiches, PB&J and chicken tenders provide quick lunch choices while on a swim break.
Enjoy fresh burgers, salads, sandwiches or fish kabobs and local mahi-mahi next to the Shoals Club pool. A full bar is available where sodas, beer, wine, mixed drinks and frozen drinks are served. Shoals Club membership is required.
Maritime Market Café
Breakfast and lunch are served in this café located inside the Maritime Market. Traditional breakfast fare such as pancakes, eggs, bacon and oatmeal are served but you may want to try a local seafood omelet or banana crepes. Lunch selections include salads, sandwiches, and specials such as taco salad, grilled shrimp and arugula salads. Eat in or take out. The Café sometimes hosts special event dinners on the beach or theme buffets. Check the event listings in the market for days and times. The Café has an ice cream window where you can order ice cream cones, cups and shakes to enjoy on a shaded, tree-lined outdoor patio. Brownies, pastries and cookies are baked fresh daily.
TheMaritime Market Seafood/Meat Counter
In addition to being a full service grocery store, the market will steam shrimp and other seafood by the pound for you to take back to your home. There is a good selection of wine, fresh produce, fresh meats and prepared foods. The Market also has a section with t-shirts, hats and other reasonably priced souvenir sundries.
The Maritime Market is a family owned, full service grocery store that sells fresh milk, eggs, cereals, fresh meat, seafood, produce, frozen foods, prepared foods, paper products, wine, beer and most anything else you might need to prepare delicious meals. Magazines, sunglasses, t-shirts and pharmacy items such as pain medication, band-aids and sunblock are also sold here.
Small shops can be found on Maritime Way near the grocery store and at the marina. Island Hardware is a small store with essential tools, fishing supplies, grills, paint and much more. Coastal Urge, Riverside Adventure and the Sail Shop are where you’ll find bike, canoe and other recreation rentals. Canopy Outfitters and Maritime Passage sell trendy and classic clothing, shoes and accessories by well-known designers. The Silver Peddler and Gift Accessories shop features sterling silver designer jewelry and fine gifts for the home and garden. The Turtle Central Gift Shop features unique gifts, green gear, toys, apparel jewelry and more. All sales at Turtle Central support the BHI Conservancy.
Throughout the year the island celebrates annual special events and theme weekends that can make your stay even more fun. Visit www.celebratebhi.com for specific dates.
Memorial Day Weekend - May
BHI officially kicks off summer with parties, special kids' activities and events around the island.
Bald Head Island Fishing Rodeo - June
Enter your own boat or watch harbor side as sport fisherman from all over test their skill and luck casting a line in the open waters.
Fourth of July Celebration - July
The annual golf cart parade is one of the most popular events on the island. Visitors and residents celebrate with wild, patriotic, and sparkly, red, white and blue décor on their golf carts, all vying for a prize. The BHI Conservancy sponsors an annual picnic and you won't want to miss the fireworks ferry cruise.
Pirate Weekend – August
These mischief making scoundrels arrive by tall ship and take over the island for several days of good spirited trouble. Proceeds benefit the Old Baldy Foundation.
Labor Day Music Extravaganza – September
Superb food, great, live music and plenty of dancing make this weekend an entertaining way to say farewell to summer.
Find a Home on Bald Head Island
Debby Girvan is a freelance writer and President of Flair Communication, a local business that specializes in website design and integrated digital marketing for healthcare, higher education and small business. She lives in Fredericksburg with her husband Ross, son Alex, daughters Emeleigh and McKenzie and dog, JoJo.