Brunswick Beaches and Calabash Seafood

The vivid cerulean blue of a wide open coastal sky filled my senses as I stood on the balcony of The Sandpeddler, taking in the view one last time.  The past few days in Wrightsville have been therapeutic and fun!  We loved our suite and the easy walking access to the beach and restaurants.

Before heading back to Raleigh, my mom and I decided to spend the day exploring neighboring Brunswick County.  We drove southwest amid forests of long leaf pine, swamps and live oaks dappled in Spanish moss, rivers and mystery.  My ancestors once settled in this area in the 1600s-1700s.  Orton Plantation, located in the vicinity, was build by my great-grandfather up the line Roger Moore.  Orton is a beautiful historic plantation known for its spectacular gardens.  Another descendant of Roger Moore has purchased the plantation and is working with conservationists to protect the land and once again turn it into a working rice plantation – pretty cool.

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I have always been in tune with history – I feel my ancestors echo in the air of the landscape.  My passion for history is one reason I’m transitioning to a career as a Social Studies teacher.  Brunswick County is ALIVE with history from the old port of Southport to Brunswick Town to the creaking piers amid the barrier islands and whistling dunes of the sand cliffs – Brunswick County is the sort of place you can dig your teeth into allowing the coastal atmosphere, history and thunder of the ocean tide to inspire.  This is a rural area that has numerous towns and is bustling and has diversity.  At the heart of the economy is the water and tourism.  Brunswick County is renowned for its dynamic beaches perfect for any family getaway.  The ambling pine forests and open marshland and sea prairie setting is still largely undeveloped – I pray it stays that way because this land is home to biological diverse ecosystems and industry in fishing demands a balance of harvesting and spawning.

We ambled in the shadow of the verdant spiked bristled pine, tall and skinny as the sky with the burst of color drawing your eyes to look upward.

We detoured from the main stretch to cross the bridge to Oak Island.  As we crossed the bridge a thick fog descended on the landscape – so ethereal and deep, the atmosphere of humidity hanging in the balance.  We drove slowly, the road visible and the outline of sea cottages one stilts surrounding each tire rotation.  No one was on the road, except a loan garbage truck – it was a peaceful eerie calm – the sort of scene ideal for a Daphne du Maurier novel.  As a writer this is the sort of experience you soak in in wonder.  Brigadoon of the sea.

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We found a small nook of public beach access, the waves crashing almost to the wooden stairs – high tide.  Salt air filled my senses, I breathed in deep – remembering this moment for a lifetime.

Oak Island has an interesting history.  In 1836 Fort Caswell was built on the eastern end of the island.  Named after former governor, Richard Caswell, the fort was designed with brick walls and large earthworks in a pentagonal design.  Fortified with over 61 gun emplacements it was a guardian of the Cape Fear River, helping to reinforce the defense of Wilmington 20 miles upriver – which at the time was the state’s largest city.  In 1861 during the Civil War it was seized twice by rebel Cape Fear Minutemen, ordered to be returned to the federal guard by Governor John Willis Ellis before it went to the confederates with the advent of NC’s secession.  The Confederate Army made it and nearby Fort Fisher – part of the most elaborate defensive system in the world at the time, helping blockade runners to keep Wilmington’s port open longer than any other.  The fort was destroyed during a Union assault on January 17.  The 100,000 pounds of powder ignited in explosive force so strong – it is reported that the explosion could be heard 100 miles away in Fayetteville!

The loss of the Confederacy’s last port was a major factor in Robert E. Lee‘s decision to surrender at Appomattox.[2]

The U.S. Army built a full military reservation on the site in the 1890s, complete with coastal artillery batteries, but would be abandoned after World War I. Most of the buildings at the Assembly were built at this time, as well as the sea wall. From 1937-1941, it was unsuccessfully converted into a resort, with the gun emplacements used as swimming pools (two artesian wells, producing hot mineral water, were used to fill the pools). In 1941, the Navy purchased the fort for use as a small anti-submarine base during World War II.[2]  (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The fury of ferocious Hurricane Hazel nearly wiped out settlement of the island in 1954.  Only five buildings were left standing on Long Beach in the hurricane’s wake.  The island recovered in 1955 the towns of Long Beach and Yaupon Beach were incorporated – they consolidated to be renamed as Oak Island in 1999.

Leaving Oak Island we continued along the myriad of state byways and US highways to reach Ocean Isle.

Ocean Isle is one of the most popular haunts on the NC coast, it is the perfect blend of recreation, sea side cottages, bed and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants.  Ocean Isle has continued to develop since I was last here nearly twelve years ago – still it is a peaceful spot with lots of activity and accommodations.  We took time to enjoy the sea breeze and seventy degree balmy weather by meandering along a sidewalk parallel to the beach.  We stepped onto the shore for a reprieve, content to let the ocean wash away all negative energy and fill our spirits with hope.  Something about the ocean has the power to cleanse, humbling us as we stand on the edge of the continent – while opening up the imagination to possibilities.

Still eager for a back country excursion, we continued onto nearby Calabash NC, which is a few miles north of the SC border.  Calabash is known as The SEAFOOD Capital of the World, and for good reason.This small town on the Little River, near the mouth of the Atlantic – is a fishing hub – which translates into over 30 homegrown restaurants serving up only the freshest of NC seafood.  Once you have had fresh seafood – you won’t go back to frozen catch from packaged plants in China.  Calabash continues the tradition of sustainably caught – sea to table fare.

What makes Calabash seafood so good – its fresh, but also because the town specializes in Calabash style of seafood cuisine. Crispy and moist hush puppies accompany every meal, golden brown, so hot the butter melts instantly into the corn, creating a symphony for the taste buds.  While the fish is lightly fried in cornmeal – not heavy just perfectly delicious.  I grew up on this style of seafood because my Grandma Ruby grew up in rural Chadbourn on a farm and cornmeal was the only method for her southern fried goodness – she rarely used flour in frying, except for a pinch – making the fish not greasy, but crisp, moist and delicious.

Sadly we are Celiac – so we were content to have delicious fresh broiled shrimp and flounder, accompanied by NC grown sweet potato fries and a baked potato and cole slaw – and of course sweet tea (not too sweet, just perfect Carolina tea).

It is hard to go wrong when you pick a seafood restaurant in Calabash, they have so many great options.  We settled on the riverfront, down home spirit of staple Captain Nance’s.  The restaurant reminds you of a lodge buffet, with open air no fuss decor, but that gives it character – the focus is the open windows on the river and the nearby boats docked ready for fishing.  The staff is friendly with NC charm and the food was excellent.  The flounder was moist and the sweet potatoes full of flavor.  The price was just right too – a stuffing amount of food for only $20 for two people.  Right on the money Calabash.

I will break up my journey into another post…for now meditate on the deliciousness of homespun NC seafood and beautiful beaches.

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Calabash comes from a Native American word meaning gourd.

A few of the other great Calabash food haunts are Ella’s and Beck’s – each restaurant cooks in the calabash style but with their own flair and hues of taste and excellence.

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