CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Axios) - One morning last summer, I went out on a run along the beach of Ocean Isle at sunrise, curled around toward the Intracoastal Waterway, and found myself alone.
For a person whose two main jobs are being the parent of a toddler and working on the internet, the rare moment of silence, here in the marshy and muddy backside of Ocean Isle, was divine.
Let me let you in on a little confession: We lie to you. Sorry, but we do, with every list of “Best Of” This or “Top” That. Because the truth is, the best of anything is the One That’s There For You When You Need It.
The beaches of Brunswick County, specifically Ocean Isle, have long filled that role for me. They’re among the rare places on this planet where at certain times of the year you can see sunrise and sunset over the ocean on the same day, and be reminded that this ball we’re on is much bigger than each of us.
- I have, on the beaches of Brunswick, shoved my father’s wheelchair a hundred yards into the sand to let him see the waves crawl toward him once more, and I stared at those same waves the morning after his death and swore I heard him speaking to me.
- And now I’ve watched my son run toward those same waves, crashing against the same shore, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear my dad again.
- I spend every Thanksgiving here with my wife’s family, gratitude growing with each passing year.
- I’ve spent months researching the story of Hurricane Hazel, which swallowed the beaches whole in 1954.
- And I’ve stood on the beach alone the night before Hurricane Florence, wondering what it would bring.
“We only get so many evenings in a life span,” I once wrote, “and this place about four hours east of Charlotte could have a lot of the rest of mine.”
And now I have, against my better judgment, volunteered to write a guide to a trip to to this treasure. I’ve focused on Ocean Isle Beach, but at times I venture out to places near three of the other main Brunswick islands: Oak Island, Holden and Sunset.
- It’s one of the most special places. I’m honored to share it with you, but if you go, please take care of it.
Quick beach tips
The beach is meant to be simple, but here are a few hints for a smoother experience.
- 🏖 If you don’t have an umbrella, call ahead and rent one from Beachway. They’ll put it in the ground for you every day.
- 💵 Bring a little cash with you to the beach and get some Sunset Slush when the cart comes by.
- 🧉 And, while I can’t recommend drinking alcohol on a beach where it’s prohibited, if you do, don’t be a knucklehead: put it in a cup and never bring bottles.
- And if you see a bunch of Shibumi Shades, remember that they were invented and made here in North Carolina.
Food + Drink
59 Causeway Coffee and Bagels: Opened only a few years ago in the old ABC store, 59 Causeway has lines most mornings. Go early, grab coffee, pick a flavor of bagel, add some egg and cheese to it, and sit in the window and watch the fishing boats go out.
Location: 59 Causeway Dr., Ocean Isle
Drift: Now with four locations in southeastern N.C., Drift started on 2nd Street in Ocean Isle. The light menu was developed by a food director trained in Australia, and it’s highlighted by smashed avocado toast and an açaí bowl, both favorites of my wife. There’s also a breakfast burrito and memorable banana bread.
Location: 20 E. 2nd St., Ocean Isle
Location: 4647 Main St. #1, Shallotte
Most important tip: It’s the beach in summer. If you wait until after 6pm to head out for supper, good luck to you. The line will be at least 30-45 minutes at most places. My advice: Pick the nights you’re going out, go early, and go here:
Ocean Isle Fish Company: Head straight to the third floor, sip a late-afternoon beer and watch the boat traffic roll in off the waterway. If there’s no place to sit up top, go downstairs and sit in the chairs next to the dock. Then choose from a hearty menu slammed with a few twists on traditional coastal food.
Location: 65 Causeway Dr., Ocean Isle
Coastal Wine Room: It has six beers on tap, wine, cheese plates and live music several nights of the week on the patio.
Location: 20 E. 2nd St., Ocean Isle
Location: 61 Causeway Dr., Ocean Isle
- If you like Sharky’s, you’ll also be a fan of Pelican’s Perch.
- And Jinks Creek is the place to go for a summer sunset.
Island Seafood is the spot for local seafood to cook at home. Get some shrimp and boil or steam it. Or a pick up piece of fresh fish, rub some good olive oil and Old Bay it, and cook it for 20 minutes at 400 and eat it with some asparagus.
- Perfect light beach meal, eating fish straight off the boat. Honestly, it’s my ideal night.
Elsewhere around Brunswick County
Bennett’s Grill in Calabash, 20 minutes south of OIB. Get the Calabash Burger.
- I’m a crab cake snob who grew up on big, fat Chesapeake crab cakes. The one here’s thin and fried and pumped with filling — just the kind of crab cake I’d normally turn my nose up at. But Bennett’s taught me a little life lesson: If you put Calabash fried shrimp on top of an OK crab cake, add a little slaw, drop it on a burger bun and smash down, you’ll have a new lunch addiction.
Location: 10009 Beach Dr. SW, Calabash
Inlet View near Shallotte, 10 minutes from Ocean Isle. Three story restaurant where we used to take my dad all the time. If you can get a seat upstairs and it’s not too hot, the view is beautiful.
Location: 1800 Village Point Rd., Shallotte
Oyster Rock in Calabash, 20 minutes from Ocean Isle. Nicest restaurant in the county, with a main dining room on a hill, and a bar with oysters down on the waterfront. Go here for a date night.
Location: 9931 Nance St., Calabash
Location: 4802 Main St. Shallotte
Location: 150 Yacht Basin Dr., Southport
Most folks going to Ocean Isle and the surrounding beaches do full-week rentals and plan months in advance.
- But VRBO and Airbnb still have a few places for long weekend trips later this summer, from a condo on the west end to a six-bedroom home with a hot tub, to a quirky and colorful cottage just off the island at Ocean Isle.
If you can’t find a spot on the beach and want to stay in a small town, Southport has several bed & breakfasts. I’ve stayed at the Robert Ruark Inn and it was most peaceful.
🏎 OIB Super Track for go-karts. $9 for a five-minute ride, $43 for five rides.
🌅 Ocean Isle Fish Company for jet skis. $100/hr.
🎣 OIFC also has charter fishing options, ranging from about $400 for a half day for four people, to $2,400 for a full day for six people going way out in the ocean in search of tuna, wahoo and mahi.
At any rate, what are you waiting for? It’s summer.
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