Trip to N.C.’s Bald Head Island provides memories of a lifetime

Nothing could be finer…
Bicycles are the preferred means of transportation on Bald Head Island in North Carolina.
Bicycles are the preferred means of transportation on Bald Head Island in North Carolina.

My favorite summer vacation was spent with my entire family (and some of their friends) on a small island in the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina that is almost 80 percent nature preserve.

We stayed in a very large, well-appointed rental house after leaving our cars back on the mainland and taking a passenger ferry to Bald Head Island. No cars are allowed on the island, so golf carts and bicycles are the only means of transportation.

The island retains its maritime forest and large marshlands, as well as a dozen miles of beautiful beaches facing out into the Atlantic ocean. The 1817 lighthouse called Old Baldy is the state’s oldest lighthouse still standing.

The island has history, including locations used during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but is all about the natural, subtropical environment with sabal palm trees, live oaks, cedars, junipers and wax myrtle trees throughout. The 5.8-square-mile island has 260 bird species, including the relatively rare and colorful painted bunting.

There are no fast-food restaurants, no commercial high-rise hotels and no car traffic. Hiking, swimming, biking and relaxing made this vacation the best ever for me, especially being with my wife, my four children and our two beautiful granddaughters. The island is a nationally recognized nesting site for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Bald Head Island Conservancy has a variety of educational programs about the turtles and maintains special nesting sites on the beaches.

Long journey

After months of careful planning, my wife, Toni Marie, and I made the 12-hour drive from the Capital Region to Raleigh, North Carolina, and the home of my oldest son, Peter, his wife, Lana, and our two granddaughters, Reilly, then 7, and Reagan, then 5.

Pete and Lana discovered Bald Head when invited there some years ago by their close friends. Lana did the rental house search and made the arrangements for the one-week vacation. The Saturday-to-Saturday rent for a big, clean house with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms is in the $4,000 range, but when split among eight or nine adults, the cost becomes reasonable.

We met my three other sons, Michael, Ted and John (all in late 20s and 30s), and friends in Raleigh. They also made the long drive along the Jersey Turnpike and I-95 from north to the south.

Creating memories with the grandkids makes any journey worth the long hours of travel time. Here, the author’s granddaughter, Reilly, then 7, shows off some of her mermaid artwork.

The next morning our small caravan of cars headed from Raleigh on Route 40 to Wilmington, North Carolina, and another 30 miles to Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

We parked our cars at the Deep Point Marina in Southport after unloading many suitcases and plastic storage containers at the marina.

The luggage was loaded onto trams like you see at the airport and rolled onto the large ferry for the two-mile journey across Cape Fear to Bald Head Island.

My wife and I sat next to Reilly and Reagan on the half-hour voyage. We looked out the windows at the brown pelicans and seagulls and the fishing boats and pleasure boats near the coast. We were all excited as we pulled into Bald Head harbor.

“Once you get on that ferry, you leave all your worries behind. You leave normal civilization behind and focus on having a good time with your friends and family,” said John, my youngest son.

We got off the ferry and waited for the trams with our luggage to be connected to passenger carts that took us to our rental house. Our house was near a tree-lined fairway of the recently renovated Bald Head Golf Club. It was perfect, with several decks, an outdoor grill and two nice-sized golf carts and a couple of old but functional bicycles.

I just loved bicycling around the island from one end to the other, from one beach to another. I would follow the golf carts with other members of the family in them as we headed for a day at the beach or to one of the two beach clubs on the island with large swimming pools.

When we arrived at the house we unloaded our things, including some food and supplies we brought with us. When we needed more provisions, we would take a golf cart to the island’s well-stocked Maritime Market, where you can have breakfast and lunch or buy pretty much any type of food or produce you need.

When riding around the island in the golf carts almost everyone is friendly, waving to one another and relaxing on “island time.”

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Each night a different member of the family prepared dinner for the rest of us. For example, my wife Toni made her famous spaghetti sauce with meatballs. One of Pete’s southern friends, Mike York, prepared shrimp and grits for the whole gang.

York also brought his ocean fishing gear with him. One afternoon we went down to the South Beach, and York and Pete took turns trying their luck catching some nice ocean fish for dinner.

Reilly and Reagan and I watched and waded in the surf. At one point my son, Ted, caught a small shark. The girls and I were amazed.

I will never forget the sight of the guys fishing, the girls wading, the sky gray and blue and the ocean rolling in. The more time we spent at the ocean, the more we relaxed.

In the evening we played board games, drank beer and wine, and listened to three of my sons play their guitars and sing songs. One of my favorites is their rendition of the Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” about a group of struggling musicians playing a weekend gig.

My son Pete knows almost all the lyrics to Grateful Dead songs and the boys played some of these.

The next day my son Mike took Reilly to an art class at one of the island’s little buildings. She painted a really nice mermaid.

“When you step off the ferry you are in another world. Simple and fresh. You breathe in the island air, sun and sand,” Michael said. He said he loved “scooting through the maze [of trees along the narrow roads] early in the morning” on the golf cart. “Finally out of the marsh, the sun the earth and thrashing water at the tip of the shoals beckon [me] to swim,” he recalled recently.

History, nature

The Frying Pan Shoals (shallow sand bar areas) extend 30 miles out from the island into the Atlantic. This was why Thomas Jefferson had the Bald Head Island lighthouse built to alert ships to the offshore hazards. The island was named Bald Head from its view from out in the ocean from ships approaching Southport.

My wife and I took our granddaughters up into Old Baldy and climbed the 108 stairs to the top of the lighthouse, where small windows offer a thrilling, bird’s-eye view of the whole island.

We also took Reilly and Reagan to a lecture for kids on the various animals on the island, with a portion of the program devoted to the loggerhead sea turtle. At various locations around the island beaches there are areas marked off where the large sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.

Female sea turtles nest in early summer. Then a few months later the baby turtles hatch and race to the ocean.

The Bald Island Conservancy offers guided nature outings to see the turtle nesting areas and ride on sea turtle patrols at night, when the turtles generally come up from the ocean.

Late one night (actually early one morning about 1:30 a.m.), my son, Ted, and I decided to make a sea turtle patrol on our own in a golf cart. The moon was almost full and shining on the ocean as we drove along the beach. No sea turtles were sighted, but we managed to get lost for a time, laughing all the way.

The island also has its share of alligators. We saw a huge alligator, at least 20 feet long snout to tail, sunning near a pond on the golf course. There is also an alligator viewing area on another pond.

The 1817 lighthouse dubbed “Old Baldy,” on Bald Head Island in North Carolina, is the oldest lighthouse still standing in the state.

Bald Island has about 1,120 private residences with only 220 people living on the island year-round. Many of the homes are also rental units. The developers of the island, back in the early 1980s, decided to leave all the natural maritime forest as it was and build the homes among the trees. The more expensive rental units are right on the ocean, above the pristine beaches.

The history of the island, officially known as Smith Island, includes a British fort built by the redcoats called Fort George. During the Civil War the confederate forces built Fort Holmes as a base for shipping. Portions of the forts can still be seen along some of the island’s many nature trails.

It was not unusual to see a fox or two cross the narrow tree-lined roads. No hunting is allowed on the island, so the animals become somewhat tame. One of my favorite sightings was a painted bunting (blue, green and red), described as “uncommon” in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds.

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My best and treasured memory of our visit in June of 2013 was when my wife and I took the granddaughters out to the west beach in one of the golf carts. It was about 7 p.m. at the end of a beautiful, sunny day. We parked the cart and walked the path up and over to the beach.

The sun was starting to go down a bit on the horizon, reflecting on the ocean. We got the towels, sand pails and little shovels out, and Reilly, the 7-year-old, began building a sand castle. Reagan, 5, and I decided to go wading in the ocean waves as pelicans were dropping down to get fish only 20 feet away from us. This tickled Reagan, and she and I started laughing, playing in the waves.

I looked up at my wife and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” She agreed with a big smile on her face.

That memory will always be with me. I lost my wife to cancer in 2017, but she lives on in my heart and on the sunny shores of Bald Head Island.

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