Text by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
As my husband and I enter Southport, North Carolina, a 30-minute drive from Wilmington, we come upon a world bursting with color, from the soft blue of the water to the vibrant hues of the shops, many of which resonate with bright shades of turquoise, pink and green.
We can’t help but smile. No wonder this small coastal village was recently dubbed “America’s Happiest Seaside Town” by Coastal Living magazine.
We’ve been in Southport less than five minutes when a man we’ve never met invites us into his home to see the view from his back porch. While the view is amazing — a mesmerizing expanse of pier, sand and water — his warm hospitality is equally charming. He laughs when I tell him this. “This is a friendly place,” he says with a smile, “and we like to show it off to visitors.”
Southport has a lot to show off. Its 3,000 residents live in a village that many would consider a throwback to a halcyon (if mythological) past, a small enclave where a sense of community prevails, the food is fresh and the pace is relaxed. Indeed, it’s so relaxed that people often putt around downtown in golf carts rather than cars.
As for the weather, it’s delightful year round. Summer’s highest monthly average is a bearable 89º in August and winter’s lowest is a near balmy 49º in February.
Back in the late eighteenth century when the town was founded, only the weather was idyllic. With its location at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, folks expected it to become a major port, but big ships preferred something larger. The port moved north to Wilmington, and the original settlement of Smithville (named after a Revolutionary War General) became Southport, which really wasn’t much of a port at all. It was simply a small fishing village.
Art and Antiques
“Today we’re known as the town with all the antique shops,” says journalist Larry Maisel, author of the book Before We Were Quaint.
“But that old furniture people are selling for a bunch of money and calling antiques was all we had. We didn’t think we had antiques. We just had old stuff because we couldn’t afford new.”
We spend the better part of a day wandering through shops, some of which are filled with “old stuff,” others with new stuff made by regional artists, and still others crammed with recycled stuff made by folks who turn weathered windows into classy mirrors and bits of scrap into funky sculptures.
Southport is technically a waterfront town rather than a beach town, but Caswell Beach is only a few miles away. There we amble along a stretch of un-crowded sand that offers plenty of room to build sandcastles, fly kites, find seashells, and catch fish. Later we visit two historic lighthouses — Oak Island, the state’s newest lighthouse, and Bald Island, its oldest.
Wilmington may have “stolen” the port from Southport, but now it’s a major reason why folks in the smaller town are so happy. As the largest city on the eastern seaboard between Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington provides Southport with a wealth of big city vibes.
We stroll through one of the largest historic districts in the United States, one that encompasses more than 100 blocks of shady streets. During a tour provided by the Historical Society, we see Bellamy Mansion as well as a home outfitted with an eighteenth century version of today’s nanny cam — a mirrored box, purportedly developed by Benjamin Franklin, that allowed parents to spy on romantic dalliances that might be taking place on their front porch.
Then it’s on to Thalian Hall, a true glory of a building both inside and out. Built in the 1850s, the theater has long served as both a seat of local government and a venue that has made Wilmington a center for the performing arts, one that showcases everything from dance extravaganzas and musical performances to grand theater productions.
Thalian Hall is dark the night we’re in town, but we have a choice between attending a show at the Brooklyn Arts Center, which occupies a renovated church built in 1888, or seeing a ballet at the Wilson Center, a technologically advanced venue that opened in 2015. By the time we decide, both shows are sold out, so we opt to visit another of Wilmington’s applause-worthy venues, the mile-long Riverwalk that borders the Cape Fear River.
The wooden walkway is crowded with folks of all ages. Some are moseying, others are jogging, many are licking a huge cone of Kilwins’ ice cream and, to no one’s surprise, virtually all are smiling. It seems that whether in Southport or Wilmington, the southernmost stretch of North Carolina gives visitors a lot to be happy about.
For more hints on traveling in North Carolina, see the Napkin Notes of this website.