Southport attracts movie productions – and that draws tourists

Maps in hand, Nina Walsh and Mary Koehler gazed up at Moore Street Market, a popular cafe housed in a historic wood-frame building in this picture-perfect town on the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

“When we saw the movie, there it was, and I thought, ‘Hey, I ate lunch at that store!’ ” Koehler said. The friends, both living in nearby Leland, had made a return trip to Southport after seeing the romantic thriller “Safe Haven,” based on the book of the same name by syrupy scribe Nicholas Sparks.

“They told us about this tour in the visitor center,” said Walsh, waving a “Safe Haven Filming Locations” pamphlet. “Everyone walking in the door was asking about the movie.”

Because nearby Wilmington houses the largest film production facility east of Los Angeles, Hollywood is old hat in these parts. Southport’s credits include the 1986 film “Crimes of the Heart,” the TV series “Matlock” and the just-out HBO movie “Mary and Martha.” The highest-profile show filmed here was still in production: the Stephen King science-fiction series “Under the Dome,” to premiere on CBS June 24.

But “Safe Haven,” released in May on DVD, gets the red-carpet treatment because the town itself plays a leading role. If you’ve seen the sentimental film, in which Katie (Julianne Hough) winds up on the Carolina coast after fleeing a dangerous Boston cop and then falls for local shop owner Alex (Josh Duhamel), you’ll likely agree that Southport steals the show. With a few exceptions, everything depicted in “Safe Haven” exists – a picturesque harbor, retail shops dotting a lively downtown, streets lined with Victorian homes, stately oaks draped with Spanish moss, and bustling waterfront seafood restaurants. And, yes, the town of 2,900 really does host an exuberant July Fourth parade – the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival – which attracts 50,000 visitors. Last year’s parade was even re-enacted a month later for “Safe Haven” filming, using townspeople as extras.

Like Walsh and Koehler, I’d started my tour at the waterfront Southport Visitor Center and Museum, housed in the 1810 garrison house built for officers at Fort Johnson. Only the house, a plaque and small sections of crumbling tabby walls remain on the site.

One museum display is devoted to Southport’s literary luminary, Robert Ruark, who spent summers here in the 1920s with his grandfather, the inspiration for “The Old Man and the Boy” magazine series about their outdoor adventures. But the bulk of the space is filled with “Safe Haven” memorabilia, everything from on-location photos to actors’ clothing and an impressive array of props from pivotal scenes. Most items were handpicked by Southport tourism director and film liaison Cindy Brochure, who credits the film with the town’s skyrocketing popularity.

‘Safe Haven’ effect

“The movie came out on Valentine’s Day, and March blew us out of the water with about 3,500 people coming through instead of the usual 350,” she said. Since then, Brochure has calculated a whopping 75 percent increase in visitors. “Through August is our busy time, so it’s going to be crazy.”

I learned that two in-demand film sites could not be visited. “Ryan’s Port Market,” Alex’s shop, was built for the movie and later torn down, though Brochure managed to nab its charmingly stubborn door for display; and Katie’s shabby-chic home was squirreled away on private property miles from town.

I broke the news to Walsh

before directing her to the next best thing – the Ricky Evans Gallery, where I’d been lured in by a sidewalk cart touting “Safe Haven Art.” Inside the 1920s bungalow, I found Evans’ prescient handiwork – framed giclee photographs on canvas of Katie’s cottage, Ryan’s Port Market, Ivan’s Fish Shack (where Katie worked and in reality the Old American Fish Co.) and other scenes from the movie, which Evans got permission to shoot during filming.

Business is up more than 50 percent, said Evans, who can recite story after story of inspired customers.

Tour guide Rick Pukenas isn’t surprised by visitors’ reactions: He and his wife were similarly smitten during a search for a property to buy. Last year they took over the 1890 Robert Ruark Inn, the launching point for the late author’s work. The idea for Southport Tours grew out of Pukenas’ free golf-cart tours for guests.

“Southport is like a Norman Rockwell print,” Pukenas noted. “We’re not near a major highway. It’s not a great place for partying. It’s just a quiet, pleasant place.”

On the tour

I signed up for a basic history tour that included film sites – occasionally one and the same.

When we stopped in front of the restored Old Jail, the former 1904 county jail and now home to the Southport Historical Society, he asked, “Guess who the most famous prisoner here was?”

As I racked my brain for names of Carolina criminals, he answered, “Sissy Spacek. ‘Crimes of the Heart.’ ” Of course.

Across the street is the Old Smithville Burying Ground, the 18th-century graveyard bearing the original town name, where an obelisk honors lost river pilots. I later learned a scene from “Under the Dome” had been shot there.

We tooled down the main drag to Waterfront Park, where people filled the swings and benches facing the river.

As we passed the river pilots’ wooden tower, Pukenas pointed out radio call letters WYBS on the side – for the station in “Under the Dome.” Our final stop was Southport Yacht Basin, where the river meets the ocean. It’s home to several seafood joints with waterfront views, including Old American Fish Co., aka Ivan’s. The real Ivan’s doesn’t serve food, but, along with Fishy Fishy Cafe, a few buildings up, it’s the perfect spot for a sunset toast.

A block away, Pukenas showed me the 1879 Grey Burriss House, where “Alex” lived. Just as he pointed across the street to where Ryan’s Port Market had been, two women in a minivan inched past us scoping out “Safe Haven” sights. Pukenas handed them his card and they were waiting for his next tour by the time ours was finished.