My husband and I have cruised all over the world, from Turkey to Tahiti, but the ICW remains one of our favorite itineraries. From the challenges of the shallow sounds to the barging-through- France ambiance when the waterway narrows to the proverbial ditch, the Waterway delivers tiny little towns, bustliIng cities, history, honky-tonk and unsullied vistas that give way to crowded pathways lined with enticing restaurant docks. Almost every stop deserves a lay day — and some of the side trips could easily fill a week. Resist the temptation to put on blinders and barrel down the magenta line — the rivers and sounds beckon with uncrowded ports of call that offer fresh and intriguing experiences that most of us might have never even considered when we were driving. There’s so much to see and do! Before heading south, go west. A cruise up the storied James River in the wake of John Smith is a pain-free course in early American history. Start in Hampton, home to venerable and beautiful Hampton University, the country’s first African American college, and to the Air and Space Museum, a do-not-miss monument to man’s wish to be "out there." A little farther upriver, several marinas provide easy access to the superb Mariners Museum, as well as Williamsburg and Jamestown. Beyond Jamestown, the stretch of tobacco-rich colonial plantations that line the river bank reverberates with legends and tales.
Back at mile marker one, the Elizabeth River starts the ICW journey south; it flows past rows of towering warships while skirting historic Portsmouth to the west and newly energized Norfolk to the east, both chock-a-block with shops, provisioning, world-class museums — and even baseball. Then head east through the Virginia Cut to Coinjock or south through George Washington’s Dismal Swamp Canal to warm, welcoming Elizabeth City. The sometimes rolly Albemarle Sound begs for a few extra days — sweet little Columbia and celebrated Edenton, North Carolina’s Colonial Capital, guarantee compelling strolls for boat-weary legs.
Explore the Outer Banks, another off-the-beaten-track cruising destination, starting with Manteo (pronounced MAN-te-o) where Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first English settlement. Today there’s the replica of "Elizabeth II," a waterside play that tells the story, gorgeous gardens, an aquarium, elegant B&Bs, and enough maritime lore to keep cruisers busy for days. Croatan Sound promises sleepy little fishing villages that rarely see pleasure craft and high-end sport fish venues at Oregon and Hatteras Inlets — with miles of spectacular ocean beaches. And Ocracoke — everyone’s favorite island — is the cherry on the top of this fun and eclectic side trip. Go adventuring at the National Seashore or peddle the paths looking for the perfect café patio.
Back on the Waterway, the Alligator River flows into Pamlico Sound and — for those looking for more adventure — up the Pamlico River. Past fun, funky Belhaven, tiny Historic Bath, the state’s first town, makes a lovely afternoon stop and farther upriver, Washington, NC has become a renaissance town.
As you reach the foot of Pamlico Sound, consider a trip up the Neuse River, stopping at Oriental, where the daily confluence of winds makes it N.C.’s sailing capital, and then on up the Trent to lively New Bern — the Tar Heel state’s first capital. The beloved, beautiful Tryon Palace and the birthplace of Pepsi are the lures, but stay for the restaurants, shops and the energetic vibe. Back on the ICW track, head down Adams Canal and Core Creek to the state’s true nautical heart — Beaufort (BO-furt) and Morehead City. Beaufort delivers the heritage part with a great maritime museum, fun dinghy destinations and some truly fine dining. In Morehead City, sport fishing is the raison d’être.
Across Bogue Sound, the engaging village of Swansboro makes a pleasant stop and then it’s down the New River into one of the narrowest stretches of the ICW — Wrightsville Beach. Look beyond the line of restaurant docks — there’s lots to do on both sides of the water just a few blocks away. As you head south, postpone the turn-off at Snow’s Cut for a day and continue down Myrtle Grove Sound for a taste of a 50s-style beach town and another great beach. Or head through the Cut and up the Cape Fear River to surprising Wilmington where Hollywood meets history. A 300-square block historic district rubs shoulders with the largest production facility in the east — the restaurants and attractions match the demanding clientele.
Just beyond the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Bald Head Islands’ impressive amenities are a marked contrast to the largely unspoiled barrier island — another perfect lay-day destination. Back on the mainland, pretty little Southport is awash in charisma — fishing boats, historic walks, good food, galleries … plus some outlying marinas that range from full scale resorts to funky beach stops. Forests of moss-draped live oaks, magnolias, and long stretches of marsh signal your arrival in the Deep South.
Little River welcomes you to South Carolina and flows south into the heart of Myrtle Beach. Once an uninteresting stretch for most boaters, Myrtle Beach has come of age — the funky air is still there, but more subdued and overwritten by new high end marina resorts that have really stepped up the offerings at the golf capital of the Carolinas. Restaurants abound and marina shuttles make the famous Grand Strand boater-accessible along with a half-dozen home-grown, top caliber entertainment venues. Next, the bucolic Great Pee Dee River flows to the Sampit where shrimpers mingle with small marinas along historic Georgetown’s Riverwalk. It’s a lovable, picturesque town and a perfect precursor to the jewel of the ICW — Charleston.
Storied steeples define the Holy City’s low-rise skyline. Perched above the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, Charleston’s legendary Battery Row’s perfectly turned-out antebellum mansions hide exquisite gated gardens. Touristed? Yes, but touristy? Not so much. Charlestonians are passionate preservers of their city and their lifestyle. Tours, museums, attractions, superb restaurants and long walks along the leafy lanes South of Broad provide a peek into this closely guarded but hospitable culture.
The cruise south to Beaufort (BU-furt) is a bit of an "air lock" — rivers cut swaths through miles of heady, pristine salt marshes, an ever-changing sea of waving grass. A stroll through the historic district makes clear why so many films have been shot in this elegant little town — find the "Big Chill" house! Then shift gears a bit and cruise over to Hilton Head — the 12-mile-long barrier island was the site of the first ecologically-sensitive planned community. Now there are more than a dozen upscale communities called plantations, interspersed among large undeveloped tracts riddled with lagoons and creeks. Twenty-three golf courses and 12 miles of gorgeous beach are the big attractions — but there’s a whole lot more including hundreds of restaurants and all manner of eco-adventures.
Between Hilton Head and Savannah, Daufuskie Island — a center of Gullah Culture and home to some top resorts, is a compelling community of contrasts; new transient dockage makes it much more accessible. Consider a detour up the Savannah River where you can dock right downtown in the heart of our favorite southern city. Twentytwo beautiful leafy squares, edged with antebellum houses, anchor the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country. Manageable, romantic Savannah’s impeccably preserved house museums rub shoulders with storied restaurants and ghostly haunts. Alternatively, stay on the ICW and dock in Thunderbolt on the Wilmington River near the famous Bonaventure Cemetery (Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil) — and take a cab into town.
As you head south, a must-stop is Isle of Hope, a strikingly pretty 19th century neighborhood, awash in moss draped live oaks, azaleas and magnolias, rimming the riverfront at Skidaway Narrows. From there, the ICW meanders through gorgeous, wild, unspoiled salt marsh, fringed with maritime forests that stretch to the horizon. The only signs of civilization are up the snake-like rivers, including Darien, where the Blessing of the Fleet is a world-class event each spring.
The final stretch of the Georgia ICW winds through the Golden Isles. St. Simons and Jekyll Islands plus Brunswick (on the mainland) are special places for us. My father-in-law has deep roots in this region so many a family reunion has brought us here. St. Simons promises beaches, bike trails, a fun downtown in the shadow of the 1872 lighthouse, and more history. Jekyll Island, now owned by the state, was once a winter retreat for some of the country’s wealthiest families. Their summer cottages and original clubhouse are an intriguing look into a fabled lifestyle.
The final stop heading south, perched just above the Florida border, is St. Mary’s, an inviting small southern waterfront town, with most anything a boater might need, that does double-duty as the access point for Cumberland Island, a must-visit federally protected bridgeless barrier island. Take the ferry to wilderness areas, untouched beaches, nesting habitats and almost a hundred historic structures.
We hope you have an opportunity to sample some of the off-track and offbeat history, culture, cuisine and laid-back lifestyle of the Intracoastal region — and its Rivers and Sounds. It’s been a great deal of fun to explore this remarkable coastal area and to discover how much lays just a short hop off the magenta line. To help with your decision-making, we’ve included not only all the critical information about the marinas (with ratings, reviews, rates and, on the DVD, 5000 photos), but also extensive data on nearby restaurants, on-shore accommodations, provisioning, boatyards, recreation, entertainment, sightseeing, medical and transportation. We also hope you will share your experiences and opinions with your fellow boaters through Cruiser Comments on www.atlanticCruisingClub.com or with me via email email@example.com.
Fair winds and following seas,