Bald Head Island, North Carolina: A Hopeful Vision of the Future
Picture a place with no noisy automobiles, just golf carts and other quiet electric vehicles. A place with no chain stores or neon signs or urban sprawl, surrounded by pristine beaches and coastal forests, where teams of volunteers stay up all night watching over the nests of sea turtles.
When the eggs begin to hatch, the nest is said to be ‘boiling.’ Word gets out, and people gather around to see that the hatchlings can skitter down the beach and into the ocean.
Imagine a place where kids unplug themselves from their electronic devices and learn about ecology in a hands-on biology laboratory/classroom, training to become the next generation of citizen-scientists to protect the natural beauty of the world and all the plants and creatures in it.
Think of an island community where people are having so much fun they gather on the beach once a month just to howl at the moon.
Sounds like a hopeful vision of the future, but it’s here in the present on Bald Head Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful unspoiled island as a guest of North Carolina Tourism, and I was well and truly charmed.
I had a chance to bike around the island, visit the historic lighthouse, and go sailing in the harbor. I also visited the Barrier Island Study Center, a state of the art research facility that hosts education and internship programs for students of all ages.
One of the Center’s most important projects is protecting and studying the nests of loggerhead sea turtles, which lay their eggs on Bald Head Island every year.
They also study and preserve a pristine section of maritime forest, which is a type of forest that is rapidly disappearing in the US due to beachfront developments.
And on top of all this, I found some clues about the disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston back in 1812, a mystery which has fascinated me since my college days long, long ago.
The Visionaries Behind the Vision
Behind every hopeful vision, there’s a visionary, and in this case there are two: George Mitchell and the late Cynthia Mitchell, two of the world’s greatest philanthropists.
The Mitchells have donated hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes all over the world, particularly in the area of sustainable development.
As the principal landowners on Bald Head Island, together with sons Kent and Mark, they laid the groundwork for the island’s systematic development that allows summer visitors and year-round residents to enjoy the white sand beaches, the estuaries and maritime forests, while preserving the island’s pristine environment.
This tradition has been carried on by the current owners through a strong landowners’ association, as well as village ordinances.
Bald Head offers a wide variety of lodging facilities from small condos and cottages to large estates, and it’s popular with retirees and summer visitors who come to enjoy the beaches, the fishing, the golf course designed by George Cobb, as well as the kayaking, paddle-boarding, biking, surfing, birding and many other activities.
Golf carts are available all over the island, many with trailers for additional passengers. Most rentals include the use of a golf cart.
The Bald Head Island Conservancy offers a wide variety of kid- and family-friendly activities and nature programs like turtle patrols, crabbing, a pirate ship, and a puppet theater for young children and wildlife research programs for older kids.
Visitors can also obtain temporary membership in the Bald Head Island Club and the Shoals Club, which offer all kinds of amenities for adults like golf and tennis, as well as a variety of recreational and educational programs for children of all ages. We dined at both clubs during our stay and the cuisine is superb!
You get to the island by catching a ferry at Southport, just south of Wilmington. After a twenty-minute ferry ride, you can pick up a golf cart at the dock and off you go! There’s also a grocery store on the island, so you don’t have to bring provisions.
Bald Head Island’s position at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and its proximity to the Atlantic Gulf Stream has played a key part in its storied history. Titanic heaps of oyster shells indicate that it was a popular gathering place for native Americans for centuries.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer sailing for the King of France, first made landfall here in 1524. The island was frequented by pirates of all nationalities throughout history, and the treacherous shoals provided a hiding place for famous buccaneers like Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, and Stede Bonnet, “the gentleman pirate.”
The British used the island as a staging area during the Revolutionary War, and during the Civil War a fort here defended the “Old Inlet” for Confederate ships running the Union blockade, although most of the fighting took place at Fort Fisher, which guarded the “New Inlet” about seven miles north.
Several lighthouses have been built on the island since 1794 to keep ships from running aground on the Frying Pan Shoals which extend southward. “Old Baldy,” a 110-foot structure built in 1817, is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina and one of the island’s most popular attractions.
The island takes its name from a large sand dune, since washed away in a hurricane, where pilots used to wait for ocean-going ships so they could guide them north to the port of Wilmington. Once a ship was sighted, the race was on as the pilots all tried to be the first one aboard.
Traces of Theodosia
During the War of 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr and the wife of former South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston, was lost at sea — either shipwrecked or captured by priates — on her way from Charleston to New York to visit her father.
For twenty years afterward, her father was presented with many different stories from pirates, mutineers and ‘wreckers’ (who preyed on stranded ships) about what happened to her, but the mystery was never solved.
On Bald Head Island, I learned, a portrait of Theodosia was found among the effects of a deceased ‘wrecker,’ and it may well be that it was here that she met her fate. You can learn more about Theodosia and other spirits of the island on RiverLanding1524’s Ghost Walks, which are scheduled throughout the summer.
Howling at the Moon
There’s a lot to enjoy on Bald Head Island, but it may be that what people enjoy most is what ISN’T here: congestion, pressure, traffic, deadlines… When you come here, they say you go on ‘Island Time’ or ‘Turtle Time.’
It would be hard to understate how passionately people love this little island, especially the 220-odd souls who live here all year. Their shared love of the island creates a bond that they celebrate every month with a ‘Howl at the Moon’ beach party. When there’s a blue moon, they have two!
These gatherings have taken place for years, but the first official one was in 2011 when Greg Guthrie, the chef at the Maritime Market Cafe hauled a giant pot of chili down to the beach. Now it’s a tradition; even in the wintertime they bundle up in coats and mittens and gather to howl at the moon.
Read more about South Carolina on GoNOMAD Travel