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Shortly after crossing over the bridge onto the Brunswick Islands in North Carolina, you begin to unwind.

Or you should.

This is the place to unplug and let the wavelets wash over your feet.

Six barrier island towns — Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, Caswell Beach and Bald Head Island — are all part of the Brunswick Islands, famous for secluded beaches and a laid-back lifestyle. On the nearby North Carolina coast, Calabash, Shallotte and Southport are home to numerous restaurants, galleries and shops.

What makes this area special — and a great vacation spot? I heard the same sentiment over and over: Family memories are built here. People return for a reason. The leisurely pace is just right.

Although the Brunswick Islands are only 30 minutes north of North Myrtle Beach, the two areas are worlds apart. These islands are not filled with crowded strip malls and car-choked roads. City ordinances prevent buildings from being more than two stories high. The result is that you can’t pack in as many visitors onto the islands at one time. It feels less like Manhattan and more like home.

Joe and Katie Giordano from Boone, North Carolina, have been coming to Sunset Beach for years.

“We got engaged here in the spring of 2008 and then we came back for our honeymoon,” Kate Giordano said. “After that, we came back right before our baby was born.”

Their 3-year-old son, Gabe, ran down the beach toward the water, clearly feeling right at home.

“We love the quiet family atmosphere, and we stay at the same rental every year,” Kate Giordano said.

So much to do

Is there enough to do on a slow-paced stretch of coast, you may wonder?

Oh, yes.

Traci Corrigan lived in St. Louis, Missouri, when she was a kid. When she was 12, her parents rented a house in Ocean Isle.

“It was a 16-hour drive, but we came back here year after year,” she said. “We stayed in the same little house each time.”

Now that Corrigan lives in Pendleton, she plans to bring her two children to the Brunswick Islands more often.

Because of the wide variety of rentals and hotels, the Brunswick Islands are ideal for family reunions. In addition, there are many activities available within a short drive. There is plenty to do and see.

I started my visit at the Sunset Inn on Sunset Beach. Its wide, deep screened-in porches are the perfect spot to watch the sun go down. The bedrooms were scrupulously clean and in the morning, the mini-quiches were hot and delicious. Southern charm and hospitality are in full force here.

After breakfast, wander down the beach to the Bird Island Reserve to find the Kindred Spirit mailbox. Read the messages left inside and write a message of your own.

Some were joyful: “I came here as a child and now I get to show my children the island!” Some were heartbreaking: “My mom just died. We made many happy memories here. I can feel her spirit.”

The notes are part prayer, part praise and always interesting to read.

Take a day trip to the Battleship North Carolina in nearby Wilmington. Explore this World War II ship from stem to stern and listen to the crew tell stories about the South Pacific battles. It’s perfect for adults and children.

Another option: Take the Southport Ferry to the Fort Fisher Aquarium where your kids can touch aquatic wildlife. The volunteers at the museum pack just the right amount of detail into their information, depending on the age of the participant. My son and I especially enjoyed the Hurricane Machine, where we got to experience gale-force winds. My hair wasn’t right for the rest of the day, but it was worth it to giggle with my boy.

The Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach has laser light shows, and the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach incorporates crafts or activities into its Saturday programs. Across the street from the museum is a playground with canopies for needed shade.

See the light(house)

There are two lighthouses to climb in Brunswick County: the Oak Island Lighthouse and Old Baldy.

To reach Old Baldy, take the ferry from Southport to Bald Head Island, where you can tour the lighthouse keeper’s cottage and then climb to the top of the lighthouse.

At night, saunter down to the beach with a blanket and sweatshirt. The Milky Way is a wash of stars overhead. While your children spot the constellations — the star chart says it’s the Big Dipper, but my imagination tells me otherwise — they can also guess which lighthouse is flashing its warning. Each lighthouse has a different light signature and a different paint scheme and shape. Ask your kids to identify each lighthouse by its colors during the day and by its flashes at night.

Be careful not to step on the tiny ghost crabs on the way back!

But wait, there’s more

The next day, try your hand at pole fishing at the Oak Island Pier. They have poles and bait. Bring sunscreen and a cooler.

The man next to me kept catching and releasing all kinds of fish. I only caught a croaker.

Vicki and Joey Ashley from Raleigh, North Carolina, loved their Oak Island visits so much they bought a house. Between work and their children’s sports schedules, they needed a haven, so they visit as many weekends as they can.

Their children Mary, 11, and Alex, 10, ride their bikes all over the island.

“I like being on the island because we can go anywhere and it’s peaceful,” Mary Ashley said.

If your family is still itching for a challenge, mosey up the road a bit to the Shallotte River Swamp Park Adventure. With 10 zip lines, an aerial adventure park and swamp boat eco-tours, a family could spend an entire day right here. Staff members are very knowledgeable about the ecology of the area. The park provides all the safety equipment and makes sure you know how to use it before they allow you to continue on to the activities.

The aerial adventure area has three levels, and kids ages 10 – 16 can only do the first two levels. There are several challenges within each level, so you’ll be active the entire time. I’m less than fit and afraid of heights, but I was able to complete both levels. You are always harnessed into guide wires, so even if you slip, you aren’t going anywhere.

This safe but daring experience made me feel I could compete on American Ninja Warrior. When you need a break, rest in the shade in rockers on the deep porch. A Kiddie Park gets the littlest visitors ages 4 – 9 moving.

Ready for a quieter challenge? Go kayaking on the Intracoastal Waterway. Instructors from The Adventure Kayak Co. in Southport accompany you, so you won’t get lost, and they provide safety equipment too. The tour guides take you through quiet marshes, estuaries and swamps. Because it’s a relatively quiet activity, it’s possible to see a lot of wildlife from the kayak.

After you leave the water, wander into the Dead End Saloon, also in Southport. While you wait for your food, enjoy the terrific view of the marina.The crab dip was a winner with everyone in our party and my friend raved about her Bloody Mary. Kid-centric dishes include grilled cheese, chicken tenders and cheese quesadillas.

Just for Mom (and Dad)

Adults need play time, too. There are over 30 championship golf courses along the Brunswick coast. Spending a day on the links is never a hardship, especially when the setting is so amazing.

Go for a wine tasting at Silver Coast Winery, where you’ll enjoy award-winning wines — 300 awards at last count — and a relaxing atmosphere in the beautiful gardens.

After your wine tasting, sample the remarkable seafood at many local restaurants. While the surroundings may be casual, the food is fantastic.

At the Provision Company restaurant in Holden Beach, pelicans perched on the dock and boats floated past on the Intracoastal Waterway. I tried conch fritters and Calabash shrimp.

There are hamburgers and chicken fingers on the menu too, in case your child balks at more adventurous choices.

Twin Lakes Seafood Restaurant in Sunset Beach served the fattest, freshest and tastiest scallops I’ve ever eaten. Key lime pie is one standard by which I judge a restaurant, and this pie hit it out of the park.

I eased into my last morning with a truly delicious café au lait made at Drift coffee in Ocean Isle.

Freshly made sandwiches outnumber the pastries here. Try the Avocado Smash. The couches beg you to sit, there are big windows and locals come in frequently. Choose an album to play from the big selection of vinyl records. At night, Drift hosts live music acts.

When you leave the Brunswick Islands, it’s a safe bet you’ll be back for a future vacation. Or, you might just move here like Jenny Walsh, who moved to the Brunswick Islands seven years ago.

“I’ve been coming here since I was 2 years old,” she said. “Our extended family would come down from New York and New Jersey and we’d rent a big house. After a while, I moved here. I couldn’t be happier.”

If you go

If you and your family plan to vacation in the Brunswick Islands area, start out with a visit to to the North Carolina Brunswick Islands website, which is run by the Brunswick County Tourism Department Authority. Here, you’ll find general information as well as trip-planning resources: http://www.ncbrunswick.com. For more information about places mentioned in this story, visit these websites.

Lodging

Activities

Food and Drink

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