So Close, Yet So Far Away
A trip to Bald Head Island means a relaxing time on the beach or a fun day of golf, but also a step back in time with its commitment to nature conservancy
By JAMIE PENN Photos by GARY BREECE
When climbing onto the Bald Head ferry in Southport, North Carolina, looking back toward the parked cars of passengers and down at the few belongings brought aboard, a sense of mystery hangs there. In a time where connection is everything, and the race from commitment to commitment prevails, just getting on a slow-moving boat, knowing that there are no cars, no chain grocery stores, no big box shops, no busy streets awaiting these passengers, can feel a bit like clicking your heels, because there just aren’t many places like this glorious island.
Island Time One of many nice things about the once deserted island, while tranquil and maximally preserved, is that Bald Head’s not so deserted anymore. 18th century pirates had a tough time escaping the perilous frying pan shoals that protect this barrier island. But, today, the transportive trip by ferry from Southport is a quick twenty minutes. Visitors from Wilmington, Carolina Beach and many surrounding areas can step onto the island within a couple of hours.
And, once they arrive, hours are no longer so defined.
“When you hop off the ferry, a tram whisks you away to your accommodations, where a golf cart is waiting for you. No traffic on the island means you can kick back and be on island time,” said Christi Golder, with Bald Head Island Limited.
Andrea Pitera, resident and co-owner of Mojo’s On the Harbor, a casual-dining restaurant less than a block from the ferry landing and Old Baldy, Bald Head’s famous lighthouse, said the allure of the island is both easy to understand and hard to explain. Whatever “it” is led her and her husband, Joe, to sign a contract on a piece of property within the first 24 hours of setting foot on the island.
“I stepped off the ferry and felt I had come home,” Pitera said. “Bald Head feeds something in my soul. It was totally a decision made in my heart. I have never regretted it.”
Charlotte Dunlap, one of the first 19 residents to inhabit the island in the 1970s, told Michael Kruse, writer for Our State magazine, that once she landed here, there was no decision to be made. Dunlap was part of the “generator generation”, inhabitants that lived sans electricity on the island in the “powerless” years. She said that even without navigable roads, or anywhere to buy anything, this diverse little island, with its jungle-like maritime forests and ten acres of beaches just did it for her. She simply knew, she said that she must live there.
“I loved it from the minute I stepped on the island,” Dunlap said.
Preservation is Key Development, anywhere, is generally not that limited as a result of the potential impact it could have on the existing flora. On Bald Head, though, it’s quite the contrary.
Deep in the heart of the island in the maritime forest, it can be hard to see the houses for the trees. Houses only occupy as much space as construction requires, so existing natives, such as the red cedar, native hollies, loblolly pines, live oaks, and cabbage palmettos growing within a foot of where the house will be built, all stay. For good.
“It’s one of the most environmentally sensitive developments on the East Coast,” Golder said, “where nature takes center stage.”
Gucci bags and haute shoes have undoubtedly made their way to the island. But, flip flops, hiking shoes and tank tops still take precedence, and all visitors, couture-clad, or otherwise are encouraged to tread lightly.
Cars are not allowed on the island, cutting down on noise pollution, and decreasing toxic emissions.
Strict ordinances are in place to keep non-native planting and native plant removal in landscapes to a minimum.
Avian and turtle nesting areas are guarded by the BHI conservancy, which is not only a huge advocate for island wildlife and its habitats, but a leader in nature education. The conservancy hosts bird watching tours, nature tours, camps for children and several conservation-based programs throughout the year.
Community is Everything While there are only 200 year round residents on the island, there is an heir of communal welcome that greets visitors. Locals, like MoJo’s On the Harbor owners, Joe and Andrea Pitera, have an authentic calm about them that’s not particularly common in restaurant owners. Their essence mirrors their surroundings and infuses guests with intrigue and comfort.
Joe Pitera said it’s pretty easy to feel comfortable here.
“The community here is amazing. If you need help here, they come out in droves. In the winter, if somebody sneezes, someone will call them up to say ‘bless you’,” Pitera said with a big, broad smile.
Until the last few years, nothing on the island was privately owned. One by one, the developer has sold businesses to private owners, adding to the tight weave that already exists among residents.
Joyce Nelson, resident and co-owner of All About Art, a local art gallery featuring works of local artists like Pam Toll, Peter Quinn (an architect who lives on Bald Head), and Michelle Conolly, says that privatizing businesses has only enhanced a sense of community.
“It just makes supporting each other that much more important,” she said.
All About Art hosts “Wining About Art” meet-ups for locals and visitors, and hosts many classes and summer camps for adults and children.
A community favorite, in place for years, is the monthly, “Howl at the Moon” party. The community pitches in to provide a potluck style dinner and beverages. Families come out in droves.
“We’ve had 60 people in January,” Joe Pitera said. “We’ve had as many as 600 in June and July. It's on East Beach at access 39. And believe it or not, when the moon comes up, they actually howl.”
Bald Head’s history injects it with character; it’s diverse, well-revered habitats enhance a relationship to nature; and it’s sense of community lays out a welcome mat.
Whether it be for endless nature exploration, days on the beach, 18 holes of golf on the 7th top golf course in the state, or all that and more, Bald Head Island is the closest thing to paradise so close to home.