North Carolina's Brunswick Islands: Great golf without the glitz, just north of Myrtle Beach

By Katharine Dyson, Special Contributor

North Carolina's "Grand Strand" -- running along the coast down into South Carolina -- may be all about high rises, shopping malls and great golf deals, but at the top end of Myrtle Beach, Brunswick County and Cape Fear play a different hand.

Ocean Ridge Plantation - Tiger's Eye golf course - hole 2
Tiger's Eye at Ocean Ridge Plantation is one of the northern Grand Strand's must-play tracks.
Ocean Ridge Plantation - Tiger's Eye golf course - hole 2Sandpiper Bay Golf & CC - Bay CourseFarmstead Golf Links - hole 18Cape Fear National - hole 7Fishing boats in CalabashSandpiper Bay Golf & C.C. - alligatorBrunswick Plantation & Golf Resort
If you go

Here, it's more about a kickback lifestyle, fresh seafood and top-caliber golf on more than 30 courses. It's a difficult task to narrow down which tracks to play, but we suggest you start with these.

Brunswick Plantation & Golf Resort in Calabash, N.C.

Three classic nines, Azalea, Magnolia and Dogwood, settle in amid estate homes, townhomes and luxury villas on the 1,750-acre setting at Brunswick Plantation & Golf Resort. Each course offers a different golf experience. Water threatens, especially on the Dogwood and the Azalea, while bunkering and mounding create challenges on the links-style Magnolia Course.

Cape Fear National at Brunswick Forest in Leland, N.C.

In the Brunswick Forest development near Wilmington, Cape Fear National plays through marshes, wetlands and acres of wiregrass and pampas plus a good slug of sand. This Tim Cate design has a windswept rustic feel echoing the surroundings, and you seldom see houses or even other fairways. You may spot an alligator lurking in the waters, but what is scarier are Cape Fear's deep fluffy bunkers like those on the fifth hole. Also, hole no. 8, a dogleg right, has a green tucked in behind water, and the second hole, a par 5, requires a carry over a ravine on your second shot.

Sandpiper Bay Golf & Country Club in Sunset Beach, N.C.

Dan Maples, who is known for his friendly resort golf layouts, designed three pretty nines at Sandpiper Bay Golf & Country Club, aptly named Sand, Piper and Bay. Cut through natural pine forests and wetlands, here you find good playable golf with excellent Miniverde Bermuda greens. Both the Sand Course and Piper Course have three par 3s, with some fun tests where water comes into play. Sandpiper's Bay Course has water on every hole, so accuracy counts. For example, miss the seventh green on your approach and your ball will probably get wet. On hole no. 8, someone with a quirky sense of humor, no doubt, planted a black flag on the other side of a scrubby waste area, a sinister warning to those tempted to cut the corner. Fun stuff.

Farmstead Golf Links in Calabash, N.C.

Playing 7,242 yards from the tips, Farmstead Golf Links was designed by Willard Byrd, who created a wild, windswept inland track in his minimalist style with wide landing areas and a whopping 767-yard, par-6 18th hole that actually crosses the North Carolina/South Carolina border. Big hitters may be tempted to use their drivers on their second shot then go for the green to set up their birdie (five). Although this quirk grabs a lot of press, Farmstead should be known as a solid track with excellent TifEagle Bermuda greens. Wind plays a major role, especially on no. 3, a par 3 over water. Here's a tip: you'll want to stay out of the wicked love grass.

Ocean Ridge Plantation in Sunset Beach, N.C.

Stay at the Ocean Ridge Plantation and play four exceptional "Big Cats," three by Tom Cate and one by Willard Byrd. The Tiger's Eye Course is one of the northern Grand Strand's must-play tracks, cutting through towering long leaf pine groves, natural grasses and striking coquina rock formations, while elevation changes and huge waste bunkers create drama. Another award-winning Cate layout, Leopard's Chase, marries natural and manmade features with carries over wetlands and stunning coastal views. Cate's Panther's Run Course hugs the perimeter of a nature preserve, while Byrd's Lion's Paw Course fuses magnificent scenery with a rugged touch. The newest course, Jaguar's Lair by Cate, is in the works.

Bald Head Island Club on Bald Head Island, N.C.

Just getting to this remote, windswept island by a 20-minute ferry ride is part of the thrill. Designed by George Cobb in 1974, then battered by the elements for a few years, this course has been restored by Tim Cate, who added new Miniverde greens, bunkers, lagoons and an irrigation system. Bunkers were reshaped, and more than 1,200 tons of sand was brought in while bulkheads were constructed around semi-island greens. Playing here is like playing on another planet. As the northernmost semitropical island, Bald Head Island Club is home to native Sabal palms and an ancient maritime forest that serves as a stunning canvas for the track. Freshwater lagoons, salt marshes and sand dunes further enhance the landscape.

Sea Trail Resort & Golf Links in Sunset Beach, N.C.

The three nines at Sea Trail Resort & Golf Links include one by Rees Jones, the Jones Course, which is characterized by wide fairways, lots of water, mounding and tough pot bunkers. Sea Trail's Willard Byrd Course is built around several lakes and lined by tall trees, and the Dan Maples Course is defined by old oaks, pines and sprawling waster bunkers.

Katharine DysonKatharine Dyson, Special Contributor

Katharine Dyson is a golf and travel writer for several national publications as well as guidebook author and radio commentator. Her journeys have taken her around the world playing courses and finding unique places to stay. She is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, Metropolitan Golf Writers of America; Golf Travel Writers Organization and Society of American Travel Writers. Follow Katharine on Twitter at @kathiegolf.

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