I don't want the whole seashore to myself―just enough of it to find tranquillity. I want to hear the thunder of the surf, not the drone of a CD player on a beach blanket 10 feet away. I want to inhale the salt air, not the scent of suntan lotion. That's why I went searching for some of the South's best undiscovered beaches. Here are three I found where vacationers go to break away from the crowd.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida
Late one afternoon, park manager Anne Harvey drives her pickup along a trail past dwarf pines and palmettos that cover the wilderness area running up the center of St. Joseph Peninsula. The sand is so blindingly white that the wind-stunted, centuries-old forest looks like a snow-covered ridge in New Mexico.
"We're remote," Anne says. "That's why we don't get the big crowds and the city hubbub." It's 22 miles to Port St. Joe, the nearest town with a traffic light. That saves the park on the eastern edge of the Florida Panhandle from being overrun, even though its pristine 9-mile stretch of beach draws raves from everyone who sees it. Last year Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the Florida International University professor and oceanographer known as "Dr. Beach," picked it as the second-best beach in the United States. It was topped only by Poipu Beach on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.
Reservations for the eight rustic loft cabins that nestle in the palmettos on the bay side are about as hard to get as Super Bowl tickets. But if you're lucky enough to snag one, or if you come to camp, you'll taste the natural beauty that makes the park so special. I spent the night in a cabin and awoke before sunrise to watch a deer splash across the bay while I sipped coffee and savored the moment in a rocking chair on the screened porch.
On its busiest days, the park gets only about 450 visitors--that's all the parking lot can hold. Day-trippers come over from Mexico Beach, about 30 miles away, and others drop in by boat. The Spanish had more people here in the early 1700s when they garrisoned presidio San José with 1,200 soldiers and conscripts.
After breakfast, I followed a wooden walkway across massive sand dunes to look out on the wide beach that arcs into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Without any cars or buildings to mar the view, the sand dunes are magnificent. They soar up to 55 feet, some of the tallest in all of Florida. This morning, except for a few other early risers strolling in the distance, the only inhabitants I see are flocks of shorebirds, a squadron of pelicans, and a starfish as big as a salad plate, set down by the surf at my feet. Welcome to paradise.
The Quiet Resorts, Delaware
Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, Delaware, like to call themselves "The Quiet Resorts." Crowds throng the busy boardwalk in neighboring Ocean City, Maryland, but the pace is slower in these small towns. Children bicycle along the main street in Bethany and race to haul kites aloft on the beach.
The two towns got their first lodging chain last year when a Holiday Inn Express opened, but almost 80% of visitors stay in rented beach houses. "We've kept it family oriented. It's nice to see stretches of open beach," says lifelong resident Amy Vickers, who runs the Seaside Country Store with her husband, Stephen. Pint-size customers line up at the counter to buy old-fashioned rock candy, licorice, and homemade fudge.
There aren't any go-cart tracks or bungee towers in Bethany and Fenwick. Dale Clifton, owner of the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum--one of the area's biggest tourist attractions--doesn't even bother to charge admission. Nautical treasures, recovered from ships that wrecked off the Delmarva shore, fill the museum. Precious cargo from the Faithful Steward still washes up along Coin Beach, north of the Indian River inlet. The ship sank in 1785, with 400 barrels of British coins aboard. Dale holds one of the barnacle-encrusted relics in his palm to show what the coins look like before they are cleaned. "People often pick up coins on the beach, without knowing what they are," he says, "and skip them back into the water."
Tranquillity is the true treasure here. I saw a sample of it one afternoon when I stopped at Bethany Beach Books, one of a handful of local booksellers. In front of a sunny bay window at the back of the shop, a woman who looked like Katharine Hepburn sat on the floor patiently showing a large book of seashore photography to her granddaughter, a girl of about 3, not old enough to read. They both sat barefoot, oblivious to the world, lost in the pleasure of each other's company.
"Rest and revitalize," reads the neighborly sign on a bench outside the Rockport Center for the Arts in Rockport, Texas. Nearby, Kent Ullberg's new large bronze sculpture of a whooping crane mating dance pays homage to the rare birds that winter at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. In summer, vacationing families migrate to Rockport to enjoy the beach and small-town atmosphere, but they don't flock here in droves like they do to the beaches of Mustang Island and Corpus Christi.
Children splash in the water at Rockport Beach Park. It nestles on Aransas Bay, so it doesn't get crashing waves. Last year, the beach won Texas' first Blue Wave award from the Clean Beaches Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The designation is based on water quality, habitat conservation, litter control, and other criteria.
At the Texas Maritime Museum near the beach, I climb up to the third-floor observation deck to look out on the silvery water and feel the salt breeze. I can see most of Rockport from here. Art galleries and seashell shops line the quiet main street, and weathered wooden boats rest languidly at the marina where a hand-lettered sign advertises Mom's Bait Shop. It all looks so peaceful and inviting. I'm glad to be able to slow down and enjoy it. "Rest and revitalize." Yes, indeed.
Hit the Beach
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park:
8899 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe, FL 32456; (850) 227-1327 or www.floridastateparks.org. Admission: $3.25 per vehicle for up to eight people. Cabin rentals are $70 per night during the peak season, March 1-September 30, and require a two-night minimum stay. For cabin and camping reservations, call 1-800-326-3521.
The Quiet Resorts and the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce:
P.O. Box 1450, Bethany Beach, DE 19930; 1-800-962-7873 or www.thequietresorts.com.
Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce:
404 Broadway, Rockport, TX 78382; (361) 729-6445, 1-800-242-0071 or www.rockport-fulton.org.
This article is from the June 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.