The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway—also affectionately known as the ICW or The Ditch—is a protected inland waterway route that runs 1,243.8 statute miles from Norfolk, VA, to Key West, FL. Originally built to ensure a secure means for shipping goods up and down the Atlantic Coast, today the ICW is used not just by commercial vessels, but also by a large number of recreational boaters. Many of these boaters are cruisers who use the ICW as a highway, traveling south to escape the cold of winter or north to seek relief from the blistering tropical sun. Demarcated by mile marker numbers, there are many interesting ports and towns along the way. If you’re planning a trip down The Ditch, plan on paying a visit to at least a handful of the following ports.
Norfolk, VA, Mile Marker 0
Home to the largest naval base on the planet, the city also is a great place to stop, tie up, and prepare for the long slug down the ICW. Once you’ve utilized the excellent shore-side facilities, consider visiting Nauticus, where you’ll find an excellent maritime-themed museum and the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, which you can walk on and tour. Most folks tie up at one of the excellent local marina facilities, but plenty of folks anchor out at Hospital Point on the Elizabeth River right near the official start of the ICW at quick flashing red buoy #36. Norfolk International Airport is nearby, which makes crew changes or quick flights home and back easy.
Elizabeth City, NC, Mile Marker 50
To get to Elizabeth City you’ll need to take the Dismal Swamp Canal route, one of two branches of the ICW. The other branch is called the North Carolina Cut. The Dismal Swamp Canal runs through miles and miles of deciduous hardwood forests before opening up into the Pasquotank River. Elizabeth City will eventually show up to starboard when traveling southbound, and is quaint and welcoming. A group of locals called the “Rose Buddies” greet new visitors to the town docks every evening. Ashore there are a handful of good restaurants, basic provisioning opportunities, and historic homes.
Beaufort, NC, Mile Marker 203
Most folks visiting Beaufort tie up at the city-run docks, which provide a great view of the harbor, or at city-run moorings and at anchor, where permitted. A great walking town, there are also several great restaurants in town. Morehead City, NC, is just down the ICW a bit, and is home to some of the most well-equipped marine service business on the entire ICW. This is also where you can find The Sanitary Restaurant, a must-stop for great seafood and amazing sunset scenery. You’d also be missing out if you didn’t try some local barbecue. The pulled pork sandwiches in these parts are divine.
Wilmington, NC, 13 Miles North of Mile Marker 297
Here you’ll find an energetic small city with a great music scene, lots of historic buildings, and more places to grab a bite to eat than you can visit in a week. Wilmington also is home of the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina, which is permanently moored in a small lagoon just off the Cape Fear River. It’s open for tours and is an interesting way to spend an afternoon. Though there are not many places to anchor here, there are several excellent full-service marinas where you can securely tie up for a quiet night’s rest or facilitate repairs.
Charleston, SC, Mile Marker 469
Charleston is a place where you’ll want to put aside a few days to see it properly. A large city loaded with lots of culture and history, it’s also home to a burgeoning culinary scene. There’s a large and popular anchorage just off the municipal marina, and plenty of marinas ashore that welcome transients. To get a feel for the city, consider taking a walk down The Battery, a long waterfront park that lies on the Ashley River. The Slave Market is a fun place to browse for unique handcrafted gifts, and the U.S.S. Yorktown is another interesting diversion across town on the Cooper River. It’s a 15-minute Uber or Lyft ride.
Savannah, GA, Eight Miles West of Mile Marker 576
Like Wilmington, Savannah is off the beaten ICW path, but so interesting and entertaining that it merits a short eight-mile diversion. Tie up at the riverfront docks and then start wandering. Lining the waterfront are several excellent restaurants and a ton of unique gift shops with everything from fine art to touristy tchotchkes and T-shirts. Savannah was made famous by the book “Midnight in the Garden and Good and Evil,” which depicts a famous Savannah resident and a mysterious murder case. You can take tours of the city that feature scenes from the book. It’s a blast, even if you haven’t read it.
Fernandina Beach, FL, Mile Marker 715
Fernandina is literally the first place you can stop in Florida on the ICW. A great diversion is in store for those who grab a ferry over to Cumberland Island, a largely unpopulated and wild barrier island that was once home to the Carnegies. The ruins of the old mansion and service houses still remain. In Fernandina-proper there are lots of shops and restaurants within a few blocks of the waterfront marina. We recommend walking around and enjoying the historic homes and buildings before grabbing an ice cream and having a seat street-side to relax. Seafood is where it’s at, food-wise, and there are a handful of restaurants that prepare it well here.
Vero Beach, FL, Mile Marker 952
This town has an array of excellent marine services, and its white sand beaches are only a short distance away. It’s not a town of gastronomic delights or the center of culture in South Florida, but most cruisers aren’t here for those things. Most are simply interested in resting, relaxing, facilitating repairs, and preparing for offshore hops to the Bahamas or the long chug south towards the Keys. Kick back, relax, and enjoy the scenery is our advice. If you’re lucky you’ll catch glimpses of manatees patrolling the city marina or mooring field.
Miami, FL, Mile Marker 1089
Miami is big, bold, loud, and it makes no apologies for it. It’s also the epicenter of boating in South Florida and a hop-off point for many cruisers headed toward the Bahamas. If you’ve got the time and budget, consider putting a few days aside to tour around the city. A visit to Miami wouldn’t be complete without enjoying some Cuban cuisine and the city’s streets are lined with shops that know how to cook this stuff the right way. If fishing is your thing you can grab a charter and do everything from fishing the flats to heading offshore for sailfish, mahi-mahi, and wahoo, among other species.
Key West, FL, Mile Marker 1243
The end of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Key West is the finish line and reward for 1,243 miles of hard cruising. Where do we start? Catch a taxi down to the southernmost point in the United States and take a selfie at the marker. Tour Ernest Hemingway’s house and go back in time to a different era. Belly up to the Bar at Hog’s Breath Saloon and enjoy some suds and a plateful of tasty bar food. Or head down to Mallory Square an hour before sunset and watch the street entertainers, replete with cats that jump through flaming hoops. No, we’re not joking. If you can’t have fun in this town, you’re doing something wrong.