Though it has lent its name to two of the most terrifying movies ever made, Cape Fear is not at all a scary place—as long as you stay on land. The name was given to it by sailors who feared its shipwrecking shoals, and hundreds of vessels have indeed been wrecked off the cape, including dozens of Confederate blockade-runners sunk during the Civil War embargo of Wilmington harbor.
South of Wilmington, US-421 runs along the east bank of the Cape Fear River through typical barrier island beach resort towns like Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. Near the south end of the island, Fort Fisher State Historic Site features remains of the earthen fortification that enabled Wilmington harbor to remain open to ships throughout most of the Civil War. The fortress looks more like a series of primitive mounds than an elaborate military installation, but its simple sand piles proved more durable against Union artillery than the heavy masonry of Fort Sumter and other traditional fortresses. A visitors center (910/458-5538, Tues.-Sun. summer, Tues.-Sat. fall-spring, free) describes the fort’s role, with details of the war’s heaviest sea battle, when Union ships bombarded Fort Fisher in January 1865. Surrounding lands have been left wild, apart from a nice outpost of the NC State Aquarium (910/772-0500, daily, $10) which has tanks of local sealife.
On the west bank of the Cape Fear River, Hwy-133 winds up at the pleasure-craft harbor of Southport, which is the halfway point between New York City and Miami, attracting sailors traveling the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s also the site of the large Brunswick nuclear power plant.
Between the east and west banks of the Cape Fear River, a ferry (910/458-3329) runs about once an hour between Fort Fisher and Southport.
Cape Fear itself is formed by Bald Head Island, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, reachable only by boat from Southport. The Old Baldy Lighthouse on the island is the state’s oldest, built in 1817.