The South's Best Beach Towns 2021
Beach towns don't have to work terribly hard to convince people of their appeal. With warm sunshine, seafood dives, and salt water on their side, they are inherently persuasive. But there is a special kind of charm that could only belong to a Southern beach town, where the region's signature hospitality mingles with the easygoing nature of life by the water. It's an intoxicating combination, and one that draws us back to the Gulf, the Atlantic, and even the Chesapeake Bay time and time again.
This year, we are celebrating 10 beach towns that highlight the best our Southern shoreline has to offer. And just like the grains of sand on their gorgeous beaches, no two destinations are the same—except that they all have nostalgia and natural beauty in spades. From historic, bay-fronting Lewes, Delaware, to colorful, surf-loving Folly Beach, South Carolina, these are the South's Best beach towns for 2021.
Bay St. Louis
After being all but leveled by Hurricane Katrina about 15 years ago, this coastal enclave around 60 miles from New Orleans is back and better than ever. While the white-sand beaches are an undeniable draw, the Old Town (with its Creole cottages, galleries, antiques shops, and eateries) is the heart of this place. On the second Saturday of each month, join locals for the area's popular Artwalk.
They don't make beach towns quite like this Eastern Shore jewel anymore. Here, the wide, bay-fronting public beach offers free entry and parking; local shells are sold for $5 with only an "honor box" left to oversee the transaction. The main street, which is lined with mom-and-pop spots, bustles with souvenir shoppers and sandy-toed children during the day but falls quiet when the sun goes down, even on summer weekends.
South of Charleston, this island hamlet shakes off mainland sophistication in favor of flip-flops and cash-only dive bars. Stop by McKevlin's Surf Shop, South Carolina's oldest surfing outfitter, before catching some of the area's best waves at The Washout. Plan to make a return trip in 2023, when the beloved fishing pier is set to reopen after extensive renovations.
This centuries-old seafaring community fosters an idyllic two-for-one vacation, in which culture and nature complement each other perfectly. Discover local maritime history at the Cannonball House museum, browse the brick and shingled shops of Second Street, and revel in the pristine shoreline of Cape Henlopen State Park, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The South's Best Beach Towns
Beyond its quartz-sand beaches, the tiny town's real charm belongs to its Mayberry-esque approach to hospitality. Even as it slowly recovers from near-total devastation caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018, the community has been quick to offer a helping hand to other places struck by natural disasters: They organized a book drive for victims of Hurricane Laura after it tore through Louisiana last August.
Sunseekers have flocked to this stretch of the Outer Banks since the 1830s, when it was established as the state's first tourist colony. The barrier island destination's natural beauty has always been the main attraction: In addition to 11 miles of dog-friendly beach, Nags Head is also home to Jockey's Ridge State Park, the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. Take kites to the park during the day, and stick around for sunset too.
The Gulf gem took a beating when Hurricane Sally hit last fall, but even a Category 2 storm couldn't crush its freewheeling spirit for long. Within a week, the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge had flung open its doors to serve Bushwackers again, and now the beaches are just as inviting as ever.
Situated on Mustang Island across the bay from Corpus Christi, the Fishing Capital of Texas makes good on its moniker. Charter a guide for a deep-sea excursion, or cast a line from one of the town's four public piers. Those less inclined to bait a hook can venture a mere 29 miles south to Padre Island National Seashore; it's the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.
Nearly 70% of this 12- by 3-mile paradise is protected—a rare feat for Florida waterfront real estate. But Sanibel doesn't just lure with its natural riches. What brings loyalists back time and again is the sense of community. Throw a dart at a map of the island, and you'll likely hit a local business with deep roots.
St. George Island
The 22-mile barrier island is Old Florida at its best, favoring low-slung inns and cozy home rentals over sparkling high-rise hotels and offering 9 miles of immaculate (pet-friendly!) beaches in lieu of attraction-packed boardwalks.