Taking a guided tour by boat gives guests a new way to view and appreciate land and marine environs, and the Grand Strand boasts a bunch, all the way northeast into Wilmington, N.C. It’s an easy escape where sights from the water take on giant proportions.
An Independence Day weekend voyage from Wilmington Water Tours on the Cape Fear River by Eagles Island – named after an entrepreneurial family, not the national bird – south from downtown filled 50 minutes with a close-up ride by tugboats and N.C. State Ports Authority shipyards.
Just going under the 65-foot clearance of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, a vertical lift span connecting U.S. 17 between Brunswick and New Hanover counties, Capt. Ed Oeters said that when opened in the late 1960s, it carried 22,000 vehicles crossing daily, and that traffic has more than doubled since then.
Since the 1730s, when the river in this stretch averaged 15 feet in depth, gradual dredging has gone deeper, for a 42-foot minimum, and that task happens only in winter, to avoid disturbing fish-spawning patterns, Oeters said.
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He said the river downtown, about 30 miles north from the Atlantic, where it empties through a 2.5-mile-wide mouth by Southport, reaches beyond Fayetteville and touches 26 of the 100 Tar Heel State counties. No other river in the state drains directly into the ocean, either.
Changing topics as the cruise goes by tugboats, including some 105-foot-long, red vessels with McAllister Towing & Transportation, each with a few thousand horsepower, Oeters said each freighter in and out of the Port City’s river receives a two-tug escort.
The riverbank gets even more grand going by some docked freighters, some about the length of a football field. Oeters said he’ll notice a ship in the unloading stage easily because its level is higher in the water. He also pointed out the lifeboat stowed vertically on every freighter’s bow, and how each of those looks kind of small in proportion, because “the whole crew must fit in it,” illustrating how the team aboard a ship covers so much with few hands.
Oeters said small loads are dropped off in Wilmington, then the ships go oceanbound again for other ports such as Charleston, and Savannah, Ga.
On this day, the tour entourage saw steel rails being unloaded from the BBC California, from Europe, onto rail cars for the next step in transit.
The process also works both ways. A mountain of wood chips, processed from felled trees delivered on site by truck, was growing during this tour, to be loaded for shipment abroad as a source to burn for fuel, Oeters said.
Some ships tote their own cranes, Oeters said, for ease of access and movement, especially in small ports.
Wildlife sightings also add perks to these cruises, Oeters said, asking, “Anybody see my dolphin yet?”
On the return to the Wilmington Riverwalk, passengers moved up front with cameras in hand after Oeters shared his favorite view – and pitched a photographic moment – of the lift bridge and how it “frames” the city skyline.
Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.
If you go
What, where, when and how much | Two choices for cruising the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington, N.C.:
▪ Wilmington Water Tours, 212 S. Water St., between Orange and Ann streets, with various cruises such as: Eagles Island, 50 minutes, going north along downtown on even hours, and south under Memorial Bridge by shipyards on odd hours – each $10 ages 13 and older, $5 ages 4-12; Blackwater Adventure and Sunset Cruise, each two hours, 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. respectively, several days weekly, for $27 ages 13 and older and $13.50 ages 4-12. Also: aforementioned rides free for ages 3 and younger. 910-338-3143 or www.wilmingtonwatertours.net.
▪ Cape Fear Riverboats, 101 S. Water St., at Dock Street, with various cruises through October, including Sightseeing, 90 minutes, noon Mondays-Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, for $17 ages 13 and older, $5 ages 2-12; Lunch and Sightseeing, 90 minutes, noon several days weekly, for advance only, $28.50 ages 13 and older, $13 ages 2-12; and Murder Mystery dinner, two hours, 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays, for advance only: $47.50 ages 13 and older older, $26.25 ages 4-12. 910-343-1611 or cfrboats.com.
Easy to get there | Wilmington is less than a two-hour drive from Myrtle Beach, north on U.S. 17 through Brunswick County. Get details from the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau: 910-341-4030, 877-406-2356 or www.wilmingtonandbeaches.com.
Also | N.C. Ferry, taking about 35 minutes to cross Cape Fear River, with these departures daily on this schedule through Sept. 27, from:
▪ Southport – 5:30 (weekdays only), 7, 7:45 (weekdays), 8:30, 9:15, 10, 10:45 and 11:30 a.m., and 12:15, 1, 1:45, 2:30, 3:15, 4, 4:45 and 6 p.m.
▪ Fort Fisher – 6:15 (weekdays), 7:45, 8:30 (weekdays), 9:15, 10, 10:45 and 11:30 a.m., and 12:15, 1, 1:45, 2:30, 3:15, 4, 4:45, 5:30 and 7 p.m.
(Also, the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher is on U.S. 421, one mile inland, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, for admission of $10.95 ages 13-61, $9.95 seniors and military, $8.95 ages 3-12, and free ages 2 and younger. Also, “Lorikeets Land” continues through September, during business hours, with a 12:30-1:30 p.m. break for the birds, for $3 entry. Details at 910-458-7468 or www.ncaquariums.com/fort-fisher.)
How much (one way) | $1 pedestrian, $2 bicycle, $3 motorcycle/scooter/golf cart, $5 motorcycle with trailer or side car, and $5 vehicle and/or combination length less than 20 feet, $10 for 20-40 feet, and $15 vehicle more than 40 feet to 65 feet.
Information | 910-457-6942 (Southport), 910-458-3329 (Fort Fisher), 800-368-8969, or www.ncferry.org
Some Grand Strand boat outings
Barefoot Princess Riverboat
What, when and how much | Various cruises on Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, including for rest of July:
▪ Sightseeing, 90 minutes, 2:30 p.m. July 21, 28 and 29; 12:30 p.m. July 22, 23 and 25; and 3:30 p.m. July 27. $21 ages 12-59; $19.95 ages 13-54; $19 ages 60 and older, and locals with ID; free for one child age 2-11 with paying adult, and $12 for additional children.
▪ Sunset, 90 minutes, 9 p.m. July 20, and 8:30 p.m. July 27. $23 ages 12-59; $22 ages 60 and older; $19.95 ages 13-54; $19 ages 60 and older, and locals with ID; $14 ages 2-11; and free ages 1 and younger on lap.
▪ Dinner, two hours, 5:30 p.m. July 16 and 20; 5 p.m. July 21; 6 p.m. July 22; and 4:30 p.m. July 23. $42 ages 12 and older, $25 ages 2-11, and free ages 1 and younger on lap.
From | Barefoot Landing Marina, on U.S. 17 in North Myrtle Beach.
Information | 272-2140, 272-6796 or www.mbriverboat.com
Capt. Jim’s ‘River Memories’ Scenic River Tours
What | 90-minute sightseeing cruises on electric yacht on Waccamaw River and Kingston Lake in downtown Conway
When | 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
From | Conway Marina, at end of Elm Street, by Conway Marina Store.
How much | $15 ages 13 and older, $10 ages 3-12, and free ages 2 and younger.
Information | 246-1495 or www.rivermemories.org
Waccawmaw Cooter Airboat Tours
What and where | 45-60 minutes, on any combination of Waccamaw, Black and Pee Dee rivers.
From | Wacca Wache Marina, 1950 Wachesaw Road, Murrells Inlet, along the Waccamaw River, west of U.S. 17, between Waccamaw Community Hospital and Brookgreen Gardens.
When | Schedule depends on tides and weather; call 651-2994 for times.
How much | $45 ages 13 and older, $35 ages 5-12.
Also | Waccamaw Lady sightseeing cruises, about 2-2.5 hours, on Waccamaw River, by Arundel, Chicora Wood, Exchange, Hasty Point, Squirrel Creek and Willbrook plantations. $30 ages 13 and older, $15 ages 6-12, and free ages 6 and younger.
More information | www.plantationrivertours.com
What | 60-75 minutes, geared to children, each with one accompanying parent.
Where | On Sea Gypsy, from Crazy Sister Marina, 4123 U.S. 17 Business, Murrells Inlet.
When | Available daily into early September, then limited schedule in fall; call for times, 651-3676.
How much |
▪ $25 ages 3 and older – or $19 local rate with ID from Horry/Georgetown counties.
▪ $12 ages 2 and younger.
More information | www.myrtlebeachpirates.com
Pontoon boat rides
What | Rides on 48-foot-long vessel in creek
▪ Daily sightseeing trips, through November, along historic rice fields amid habitat for myriad species of wildlife, 11 a.m., noon, and 2 and 3 p.m. daily.
▪ “A Pirate Adventure at Brookgreen” creek excursions for families, at 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Thursdays, as part of “Cool Summer Evenings,” when gardens stay open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays through Aug. 7.
Where | Brookgreen Gardens, on U.S. 17, between Murrells Inlet and Litchfield Beach, across from Huntington Beach State Park.
How much | Each $8 ages 13 and older, and $4 ages 4-12, sold only same day at Lowcountry Center, near departure point, plus garden admission, which lasts seven days: $15 ages 13-64, $13 ages 65 and older, and $7 ages 4-12, and free ages 3 and younger.
Gardens open | 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
Information | 235-6000, 800-849-1931 or www.brookgreen.org
What | Guided tours of a salt marsh just north of Huntington Beach State Park, near Murrells Inlet.
When | Park is open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Where | Meet at 8:45 a.m. at park nature center, on U.S. 17, between Murrells Inlet and Litchfield Beach, across from Brookgreen Gardens, then caravan to Oyster Landing, one mile north on U.S. 17.
How much | $35
▪ Rides are designed for ages 9 and older, but anyone younger than 16 needs adult accompaniment.
▪ Bring drinking water, sunscreen and lace-up shoes that can get wet and muddy.
Information | Reservations due at 235-8755 by 4 p.m. the previous Sunday.
More park information | 237-4440 or www.huntingtonbeachsp.com
Cap’n Rod’s tours
What and where | Mondays-Saturdays:
▪ Lighthouse Shell Island Tour, to North Island, lasting four hours around low tides.
▪ Plantation River Tour, for three hours, around high tides.
From | Front Street harborwalk in downtown Georgetown, behind Town Clock and the Rice Museum, 701 Front St.
When | By reservation, at times based on tides; call 477-0287.
How much | Each: $35 ages 13 and older, $30 ages 4-12, and free ages 3 and younger.
More information | www.lowcountrytours.com
Wallace Sailing Charters
What | Sailing cruises by appointment.
From | 525 Front St., Georgetown.
How much |
▪ Rates start at $300 for two hours for as many as six guests, with additional hours $100 each.
▪ Sunset cruises start at $350 for two hours and additional hours at $100.
▪ Two-hour sunset cruise with overnight stay on boat is $600, and with six-hour sail the next day, $1,150.
Information | 902-6999 or www.wallacesailingcharters.com