Surf City And Topsail Beach
Working your way south on the island, when you leave North Topsail City limits you'll enter Surf City's mostly residential section and, before you know it, arrive at the island's only traffic light. Southbound at this traffic light, you're in plain sight of Soundside Park to the right near the swing bridge and, to the left about a block away, Surf City's oceanfront welcome center adjacent to a fishing pier.
It might not look like much to the big-city eye, but this ten-block strip contains almost all the restaurants and shops the island—and surrounding areas for miles around—has to offer in terms of seafood and pizza and burgers, beach wear and artwork and souvenirs. What you don't see are high-rises or very much in the way of neon signs. This district is typically low-key as tends to be the case with all downtown areas from Kitty Hawk and Nags Head on the Outer Banks down through Emerald Isle just to the top of north Topsail, on the so-called Crystal Coast.
Soundside Park has picnic tables and playground equipment and a boardwalk that curves around the water's edge. It is a fine spot to sit and watch the swing bridge opening, SUVs on the highway idling, tall boats parading through by motor and by sail.
A bike trail from the park takes you the short hop across the strip to Topsail Island's first ocean pier, built in 1948 and destroyed by a hurricane in 1996. It was rebuilt in 1997, at 937 feet long, with two fish cleaning stations, lighting on the pier and in the parking lot, an oceanfront grill, a screened dining area, a gift shop and a game room.
Surf City's welcome center is right next door to the fishing pier, a community recreation center with banquet facilities and classes ranging from ballroom dancing to boating. It's not every vacation destination that puts its welcome center at dead center of the attraction, but it makes for a good one-stop source of travel brochures and local publications coupled with an excellent view of the real thing—crashing surf, ocean anglers, and kids of all ages playing in the waves.
The pier is actually one of three piers on the island, one in each town. It hosts some annual events, such as Surf City's Surf and Turf Super Sprint Triathlon in mid-May, a 750-meter swim, one lap of the four-mile bike course, a two-mile run, another lap of the bike course, and a one-mile run.
The Dolphin Dip Extravaganza is a New Year's plunge into the frigid ocean waters. And the Christmas parade is usually the first week of December, also low-key, your usual run of local scout troops and church groups and such.
Surf City is home to Topsail Charter Fishing where you can charter half-, full- and three-quarter-day excursions to try your hand at clamming, crabbing, tubing, and catching tuna and dolphin in the gulf stream.
The attractions of Topsail Beach—public beach access areas, a bike path, a roller rink, a miniature golf course, and a handful of restaurants and shops—seem pretty standard beach fare. But don't cop the been-there-done-that attitude just yet. There are a few wrinkles here that are just a tad out of the ordinary.
An unusual sight virtually leaps off the left-hand side of the road as you leave Surf City limits: a lone white tower, ancient, abandoned, made of very old concrete block, maybe three stories tall. Here in the land of beach condos and cottages, it does not appear to be a guest accommodation and, further, seems to be one of the few structures in town that does not have a realtor's sign flapping in the wind from a second-story window.
By the time you're able to dismiss the question from your mind, unresolved, another such structure flares up on the right-hand side of the road.
So many historical markers are put up to mark spots that don't look like anything, in areas that raise no questions whatsoever in the minds of passing motorists. Here, where even the mildly curious might like to get the explanation, there is none. Visitors have to go to the Missiles & More Museum to learn about the towers.
In 1946 at the conclusion of World War II, the arms race was ramped up with the U.S. in keen competition with Germany and the Soviet Union. The navy selected Topsail Island as an ideal top-secret, classified military missile-testing site—remote, accessible only by boat, and inhabited by only a handful of ramshackle fishing shacks. At that time the island was known only as "the sand spit," and the missile program was called "Operation Bumblebee."
Working in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Research Laboratories in Laurel, Maryland, the navy constructed eight concrete-block towers as missile observation points and a large wooden building to assemble the missiles, now known as the Assembly Building. High-ranking dignitaries of every stripe supervised the missile assembly and, when all was ready, mounted the steps of those towers and studied through binoculars the deployed missiles from varying vantage points.
The buzz at the time was that Topsail Island was to jet flight development what Kitty Hawk was to propeller flight.
Operation Bumblebee was the code name because, according to an exhibit in the museum, "a bumblebee cannot fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to the total wing area. But the bumblebee doesn't know this so he goes ahead and flies anyway."
Maybe the missiles didn't know it either, but the partners in this venture must have figured something about this program wasn't flying quite right. The government packed up and moved out in two short years, in 1948, leaving behind this strange legacy. Those silent, crumbling towers serve as landmarks, if nothing else, and by the time you reach the third one, you're in the neighborhood. Make a right.