The South's Best Beaches
This island draws nature lovers with beaches, birding, campgrounds, and bands of wild ponies. Connie Yingling of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development recalls the time when a docile pony somehow managed to sniff out leftover steamed crab from her campsite. "With seagulls, wild horses, and other roaming wildlife, you're bound to have some scavenging," she says, adding that even though she and her husband always follow the required "leave no trace" policy on beach adventures, now they're even more careful. Reserve campsites well in advance, and consider shoulder seasons in April and October. Check for campground amenities that suit you. (Hint: Yingling says the state park has bathhouses with hot and cold running water and showers.) If camping is not your thing, stay in Ocean City, Maryland, or Chincoteague Island, Virginia; both have access points to the island. Assateague State Park in Maryland runs alongside the Assateague Island National Seashore, which operates over the whole island, while the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge operates on the Virginia side. Don't miss the 92nd Chincoteague Island Pony Swim set for July 26, 2017, when "saltwater cowboys" will help move the herd of wild horses from Assateague to Chincoteague Island, as it was depicted in the book that made the islands famous—Misty of Chincoteague, published in 1947.
Bald Head Island
Take the ferry from Southport to reach what's called the Nantucket of the South. Past the charming marina, this golf cart community, sheltered by maritime forest, gives way to 14 miles of broad beaches that frame the southern, eastern, and western shores. Here, the Cape Fear River surges into the Atlantic Ocean, and visitors enjoy shelling where West Beach meets South Beach. At the convergence of East Beach and South Beach, you can stand at the tip of Cape Fear and imagine the Frying Pan Shoals stretching beneath the Atlantic's roiling surface 30 miles out to sea—one reason why the isle's Old Baldy Lighthouse was built back in 1817. After time on the sand, stop by the lighthouse for a requisite photo op, golf the island's recently renovated course, or rent a beach cruiser to enjoy an easy bicycle tour of the island or a shopping excursion to galleries and gift shops. Don't miss the work of the nonprofit Bald Head Island Conservancy, which monitors and preserves loggerhead turtle nesting grounds to protect this incredible endangered species.
An Eastern Shore town, Cape Charles fronts a public beach on the Chesapeake Bay with no entrance or parking fees. Quieter than better-known Virginia Beach on the Atlantic, this beauty of a town encapsulates bay pleasures, all backed by a growing array of boutique hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, galleries, cottage rentals, and more. Jen Lewis, a lifelong resident who coordinates the town's community events, marvels at Cape Charles' growing popularity but says her husband has a simple explanation for it: "Everywhere else you go is so busy. Here, you can relax—walk everywhere, or rent a golf cart." Cast a line from the Cape Charles Fishing Pier. Or stroll Bay Avenue, with beach access at every block. Stay at Bay Haven Inn of Cape Charles; it made a list of top 10 Virginia B&Bs with its notable breakfasts—always a good thing. Sweet potato biscuits with some Virginia country ham, anyone?
Cape Henlopen State Park
Serenity awaits at this award-winning state park in Lewes. A $6 million renovation upgraded the already stellar park, where 6 miles of hard-packed beaches invite sunbathing, bird-watching, sea glass-hunting, hiking, and more. The last phase of the park's update brought new camping amenities just in time for this summer's crowd. An extensive trail system suits hikers of all skill levels and includes the Junction and Breakwater Trail, which is part of a 16-mile loop from Lewes to Rehoboth Beach and back. "In our whole Mid-Atlantic region, there aren't a lot of places where you can go 16 miles without seeing the same stuff twice," says Ray Bivens, director of the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation. Another popular route, the Gordons Pond Trail, offers salt marsh and ocean views from an elevated boardwalk. History buffs can explore World War II bunkers, artillery, and observation towers where soldiers once scoured the horizon for signs of German warships. After a back-to-nature experience, get your fix of the bustling beach scene with a quick drive over to the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk for fudge, saltwater taffy, or popcorn at iconic Dolle's Candyland.
State 12 comes to an end at Bodie Island's Corolla community, but you don't have to stop there—as long as you have four-wheel drive. With many vacation home rentals accessible only via a sandy beachfront laced with canals, this unincorporated area of Currituck County on the northernmost end of the Outer Banks has a unique end-of-the-road appeal, particularly for multigenerational gatherings like family reunions and wedding parties. If you're a vacationer or a nature lover looking for seclusion, this beach is for you. Corolla shares its shores with roaming wild Spanish mustangs whose ancestors are believed to have shipwrecked here more than 400 years ago. Outfitters such as Corolla Outback Adventures can take you out to see them in safari-style trucks. In Historic Corolla Village, climb the 220 steps to the top of the redbrick lighthouse that stands sentinel. Find the perfect rental to serve as the base for your stay on this remote stretch of shore, and enjoy the other Outer Banks attractions in nearby Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head—all within easy driving distance.
Go out of your way to get to Dauphin Island, a lesser-known Gulf Coast town with a population of 1,250. A barrier island almost 15 miles long, Dauphin always feels uncrowded, says longtime mayor and third-generation resident Jeff Collier. "We only inhabit half of the island," he says. "The other half is still undeveloped. You can always find a nice spot for your chair and umbrella." Accessible by bridge and by ferry, Dauphin's public beaches offer all kinds of fun, from windsurfing to lounging, but there's plenty to occupy your mind as well. Spend time at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium, the public aquarium of this island's working marine-research center. Or stroll through a maritime forest, binoculars in hand, looking for the many different migratory species that stop over at the Audubon Bird Sanctuary as they travel north or south. If you should get a touch of island fever, take a ferry ride to the mainland and drive to more developed Orange Beach, Alabama, for lunch or dinner at The Gulf. This trendy outdoor eatery and bar, fashioned from shipping containers, overlooks bustling Perdido Pass and offers simple seafood with gourmet flair and mojitos that are worth the drive.
Grayton Beach State Park
This spot offers the famous stark white sands and turquoise-streaked waters of Scenic Highway 30A, along with a rare dune lake and easy access to kayaking, surf fishing, sunbathing, and more. A 1-mile nature walk and other hiking trails meander through pines and palms and over dunes to the Gulf. This au-naturel park contrasts with 30A's more upscale developments nearby—Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach—which will surely lure you away for shopping, dining, and cocktails. But Grayton Beach State Park provides the quintessential coastal experience that drew developers to 30A in the first place. Plus, it made Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman's 2016 list of Top 10 Best Beaches, catapulting it into the national spotlight. You can stay in one of 30 rustic, two-bedroom, one-bath, duplex-like cabins for less than you'd pay for chichi coastal lodging, but you'll enjoy breathtaking million-dollar views just the same.
Kiawah Beachwalker Park
What if you've enjoyed all of the antiques shopping you can handle in Charleston and need a day at the beach? Exclusive Kiawah Island has a secret: a public park on its southern end that makes its natural riches available to any day-tripper. This lifeguard-attended beach, with amenities such as changing areas and beach chair/umbrella rentals, makes it feasible and fun to spend a day on the Kiawah shore. "It's really pretty, and the lifeguards are wonderful," says Joan McMillan, a Charleston resident who frequents the park and often chooses it over other local beaches. Boardwalks over the dunes from the parking lot offer easy access, and the park has a wide swath of beachfront, especially at low tide. Kayakers can explore inlets, getting close to the deer and shorebirds that make Kiawah such a nature lover's destination.
Just south of St. Augustine, you'll find proof that the best beaches are the result of geography. Near the mouth of the Matanzas River, along State A1A and in the shadow of the inlet bridge, a channel guards a white-sand beach. Locals come here to avoid the crowds at more popular beaches nearby. This calm, out-of-the-way spot draws surfers, beachcombers, bird-watchers, and anglers. "It is a very special beach," says Barbara Golden, who works with the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau. "I caught some of the biggest flounder ever when I was fishing there." To the north is Fort Matanzas National Monument, which is a significant spot in Florida's maritime past, and a free ferry takes history buffs to Rattlesnake Island to see the 18th-century fort. Hurricane Matthew damaged the ferry landing site, but repairs are under way.
South Texas has scenic South Padre Island at its very tip. Houstonians flock to Galveston Island for its Victorian downtown and seawall-backed beach. Now Mustang Island near Corpus Christi is turning heads with new developments that have upped the vacation experience on this scenic barrier isle. Newcomers are discovering Mustang Island State Park and the beauty of undeveloped beaches that have been there all along. Palmilla Beach Resort and Golf Community has a links-style course that was designed by the late, great Arnold Palmer, and Cinnamon Shore feels like a quaint coastal village. In the heart of the island's longtime fishing town, Port Aransas, new eateries mingle with the vintage landmarks. "To me, it feels like a mini Key West," says DeAnna Macias, who owns a colorful vacation cottage near town. "One rainy day at the beach is better than a sunny day in the city!"
On the southern end of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke literally sets itself apart. The island is accessible only by ferry or by private boat or plane. With an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants in the shadow of the historic, charming Ocracoke Lighthouse, which was built in 1823, the walkable village has its own allure. In the high season, you'll find it teeming with families biking and walking through the coastal town, in between junkets to stunning beaches. "We have vacationers who come to the hotel and don't get back in their car for seven days," says Stanley "Chip" Stevens, who runs Blackbeard's Lodge. His family dates back 11 generations—to the 1700s—as residents on this island. "You can give your preteens and teens some autonomy here," Stevens explains. "They rent bikes and go up to the slushy stands, and you don't have to have your head on a swivel. You can really, really, really relax." However, it's the unspoiled yet lifeguarded beach just 3 miles from town that's the beach lovers' true relaxation zone. Noting the lack of condos or other urban development on the beach, Stevens says, "You can always find an open section of sand and make it yours."
This is a place defined by dramatic contrasts: classic Lowcountry vistas of marshland with wavering grasses on the interior, versus beaches bracing against the always murmuring, sometimes roaring Atlantic. Known for the Original Pawleys Island Rope Hammocks still woven on its shores, Pawleys has the kind of beaches that probably inspired riverboat captain Joshua John Ward to design the rope slings as a way to relax and linger here many decades ago. Enjoy an old-school island experience at the oceanfront Sea View Inn, established in 1937. Its classic beach-cottage design includes a rocker-lined porch that overlooks the surf. With rustic charm and three home-cooked meals a day for guests, it's hard to find a reason to leave this haven at the shore—except to take a walk on the beach.
Sand between toes. It's any beachgoer's goal—and one that can get thwarted by scalding sun. But on the wide, self-sustaining, confectioners' sugar-like sands of Siesta Beach on Siesta Key near Sarasota, you can walk without flip-flops. "It's cool to the touch," says Ann Frescura of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce. That's because the powdery, white Siesta sand is 99% quartz, which won't absorb heat. The practically pure crystals inspired the name for an annual event, The Siesta Key Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival, which is set for November 10 through 14, 2017. The pristine beaches create an iconic backdrop for a vibrant community known for its art scene. The shores even earned a rare second appearance on Dr. Beach's Top 10 list. Be sure to visit Crescent Beach, which is also on Siesta Key and is perfect for sunset strolls.
St. George Island
Restaurant co-owner George Jaonos estimates that his Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe sold 15,000 grouper sandwiches last summer. The only beachfront eatery on this slim barrier island attracts droves of diners with its shimmering lights, a new beachside tiki bar, and views of St. George Island's pristine sands. St. George offers 20 miles of Gulf-facing beaches and miles of marsh and bayside inlets to explore, along with undeveloped spans of sand, fishing grounds, and trails at Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park. The only high-rise? The St. George Island Lighthouse. "The island's just like it used to be," explains Jaonos, a Tallahassee native who appreciates the coastal community's slow-paced lifestyle and low development. "Now, going to Tallahassee is like going to Manhattan." He sees a batch of new faces every Saturday when families check in and out of the island's many rental units, along with campers who come and go—all drawn here by chalk-white sands, stellar bay and Gulf fishing, wildlife, and more. And if you want a little more variety in your vacation experience, Apalachicola and Alligator Point are nearby, adding to St. George's appeal.
Where do Atlantic Coast residents vacation? Whitney Wise Long, who lives on oak-draped St. Simons Island, Georgia, founded a digital community of in-the-know entrepreneurs called The Southern Coterie, and she recommends Tybee Island. Also known as Savannah's Beach, it has a mom-and-pop vibe—"locally owned and laid-back," Long says. From the oceanfront DeSoto Beach Hotel to bed-and-breakfasts, the island has a range of accommodations. Landmarks such as the Tybee Island Light Station and Museum on the north end and the pavilion and beach-flanked pier to the south give beachgoers a variety of destinations to shape lazy island days. "I get in the car twice a month," says Karen Kelly, owner of Beachview Bed & Breakfast, noting she cruises around in her golf cart the rest of the time. "It's just a lifestyle." She loves the beaches with their picturesque sunsets but says it's the locals who give Tybee soul. "It's the community that America's missing," she says. "Tybee has it—that sense of helping each other. Nobody cares if you have $10 or $10 million."
Virginia's Barrier Islands
Leave crowded, beach umbrella-staked sands behind for a day trip to this collection of 23 shifting, uninhabited, wild Atlantic isles below Assateague Island. Most are accessible only by boat, and many are protected by the Nature Conservancy. Some are open to the public, but some absolutely are not. If you don't know the area, hire a professional ecotour guide to explore this fragile coast by boat, kayak, or even on foot where permitted. "The islands are special because they're the first line of defense against Mother Nature," explains Rick Kellam of Broadwater Bay Ecotours. Six generations back, his family lived on these islands before development died out, and now he shares an old local saying with his clients: "The Barrier Islands today must look a lot like they did 15 minutes after God created them." That primordial aura they exude is the draw. "When you go out with a party, you have the whole island to yourselves," says Kristen Dennis, director of operations at the Barrier Island Center, which explores the islands' history. "It's your paradise."