Beaches And Links That Cater To Your Wallet

Perhaps life is a beach, as the bumper sticker claims. But enjoying the coast

can be costly. From finding the right accommodations to golfing and amusements for the kids, expenses for a seaside vacation can mount quickly.

That's what makes the Brunswick Islands along North Carolina's southernmost shore such a treasure. Nestled between tony Cape Hatteras to the north and bustling Myrtle Beach to the south is a 50-mile necklace of lovely barrier-isle beaches. The living is easy. The golf courses are spectacular. And there's plenty for the kids without the schlock that has overwhelmed many Atlantic beaches. The area remains steadfast to its motto: "Leisure with dignity."

But here's the best part: They're practically giving it away. From the $1,700-a-week beach mansions on Bald Head Island and Caswell Beach to the $750-a-week fishing cottages along Holden Beach, rents run a third to half of the price of similar accommodations on the Outer Banks. And everything, it seems, is reasonably priced, from fresh seafood to miniature golf and water slides.

Quality doesn't suffer, either. The small communities clustered on the five barrier islands between Southport, N.C., and Calabash on the North-South Carolina border simply offer a quieter alternative with an authentic Southern accent. Unlike most of the Atlantic shoreline, the beaches here face south, cutting down on treacherous currents and providing a flatter, more gradual incline into the sea. The result is a safe, fun ocean beach for children, plus extended riding waves for surfers.

Golfers? Behold paradise. On the mainland, the area boasts a half-dozen links from the "best course" lists of leading golf magazines. Try The Gauntlet at St. James Plantation near Southport, with its tight, wooded fairways and expansive marshes. Or Lion's Paw Golf Links, near Calabash, an open, undulating swath of deep green fairways diabolically laden with water and sand traps. The Rees Jones course at Sea Trail Plantation is reminiscent of the luxurious courses at Hilton Head. After a match, take a drive nearby through mossy oaks across a pontoon bridge to Sunset Beach, where you can explore the sea-turtle sanctuary.

Invariably, the courses are pretty, well-kept, and uncrowded, though you'll have to call ahead to schedule tee times. With many courses tied to leisure-home developments, greens fees are priced to attract buyers. Check newspapers and real estate offices for discount coupons. It isn't hard to play a round for $25, including the riding cart.

The restaurants lean toward "Calabash cuisine," which means batter-frying. But with fresh tuna priced at $5.99 a pound and shrimp harvested out of the bays, you may want to broil some fish back at the beach house.

SAND DOLLARS. For a day trip, take the ferry to Bald Head Island, the easternmost key in the Brunswick chain. A private island where cars aren't allowed, Bald Head has wild ponies, a restored lighthouse, and a lovely golf course of its own.

The seaport town of Southport, established in 1792, has antique shops and guided tours of its antebellum mansions. In Calabash, you can watch fishermen unload their daily catch. But mostly, you'll find yourself hunting for sand dollars in the surf or lollygagging in the ocean breezes on the deck.

The South Brunswick Islands Chamber of Commerce (910 754-6644) has information. The nearest sizeable airport is in Myrtle Beach. All in all, the Brunswick beaches offer a trip you and your wallet won't want to miss.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.