20 Southern Beaches and Islands for Dreams of a Tropical Getaway

McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach, FL
Photo: Jessica Sample

Some might argue that it is cruel to daydream about vacations yet unbooked. They might say it should be considered self-sabotage to let the mind wander to days spent with your toes digging in the sand, hand holding a hot-pink frozen daiquiri, and eyes pointed directly at crashing aqua-blue waves. But we say that's just the tincture needed on any vacation-less day, especially when fantasizing about these 20 Southern beaches and islands. When these beaches look like tropical destinations, daydreaming is definitely worth the wait.

Having something to look forward to is almost as satisfying as booking a trip. So go ahead and daydream about colorful beach chairs, crispy fried shrimp, and long bike rides. Heck, even let the mind wander to sunglass tans and cheesy beach reads. While we all have our beloved, basically-a-local spots, there isn't any harm in looking. Right? Start with these reader-favorite beaches and islands in the South and begin looking forward to your next trip, whenever it may land.

01 of 20

Anna Maria Island, Florida

Beach Bum Rentals on Anna Maria Island, FL
Jessica Sample

This slice of Gulf Coast heaven is as serene as a Caribbean escape with Old Florida charm. Clear green-blue waters will wash away any past worries or stress, if at least for the weekend. One of our writers said it best: "This coastal gem maintains a chill vibe, with plenty of telltale signs. Speed limits top out at 35 mph, flip-flops grace bare feet, and there's a taboo on high-rise buildings and commercialization. Perhaps one of the greatest draws for weary road trippers? The entire island is accessible by the free trolley that runs daily."

02 of 20

Islamorada, Florida

The Moorings Village in the Florida Keys
Hector Manuel Sanchez

If the Keys are off the beaten path already, consider this uncharted territory. Also known as the Village of Islands, this tropical town consists of six tiny Florida Keys islands. You'll find salty-dog charm around every corner beside the coral reef-filled waters and hammock-studded beaches. Near the Trading Post, a long-lived pastel market that has been family-owned and operated since 1966, discover shops, good eats, and a grassy plaza worth sitting a spell. Along the way, peep streets lined with white clapboard cottages with shutters in tell-tale shades of pastel. Ah, that's the stuff.

03 of 20

Cumberland Island, Georgia

Cumberland Island, Georgia
Wynn Myers

If you've never heard of this barrier island off the coast of Georgia, we wouldn't be surprised. After you learn it was the former playground of Thomas Carnegie (Andrew's brother) and his wife over a century ago, you'll be downright jealous. Greyfield, the mansion they built for their daughter, is now an inn with cozy charm and complete with custom daily picnic basket lunches to take out onto the quiet shores. Wild horse sightings and crumbling historic structures complete the attraction as Greyfield Inn is the only establishment on the premises. Total serenity. So...have you marked your calendar to buy a future ferry ride ticket over from Fernandina Beach yet?

04 of 20

Alys Beach, Florida

Alys Beach
Robbie Caponetto

The towering palm trees that flank each side as you drive into Alys Beach along Florida's beloved Highway 30A are almost enough to take you far, far away. And it's just getting started. The entire town—and by entire, we mean oh-so tiny—looks straight out of Bermuda or Capri, and visitors don't have to crane their necks to see the ocean from their dinner on the porch at George's or while on a sunset bike ride with treats from the town's health hut, Raw & Juicy.

05 of 20

Pawleys Island, South Carolina

Pawley's Island
UWMadison / Getty Images

How about an Atlantic Coast getaway that feels thousands of miles from hot spots like Myrtle Beach and Charleston but is actually within driving distance? Pawleys Island is known for its low-key flip-flop attitude and handwoven hammocks (from the Original Hammock Shop) as much as its surfing prowess and quiet beaches. The fact that it is also the hometown of Southerners' beloved Palmetto Cheese? That's just the pimientos on top of the spread, in our opinion. The tiny town consists of just more than 100 full-time residents and is also the birthplace of the renowned spooky "Gray Man" legend, which means you'll get yourself a dose of campfire stories.

06 of 20

Orange Beach, Alabama

The Gulf, Orange Beach, Alabama
Robbie Caponetto

There's a lot to love about this classic vacation spot and its neighbor Gulf Shores. It hits the coastal sweet spot for family-friendly fun between the powdery sand, blue Gulf waters, fried shrimp, and bushwackers. Some favorite seafood joints to lust after until your visit: Doc's Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar, Tacky Jacks, Mikee's Seafood, Original Oyster House, The Gulf (order the mojito), or Lucy Buffett's Lulu's (ask about The "Pa-Menna" Cheeseburger). While this humble beach town might not strike straight-out-of-the-Caribbean vibes, it sure does makeup with Alabama sunsets.

07 of 20

Marathon, Florida

Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon
Hector Manuel Sanchez

Since the Florida Keys are as close to the Caribbean as we will get down here in the South, we'll take full advantage. Marathon is the chosen pitstop for those driving along the Overseas Highway, albeit unassuming (don't blink, or you'll miss it!). Why? Because just a turn off the road leads you into a secluded world of mangrove labyrinths and pristine beaches as far as the eye can see. Outdoor adventures, such as kayaking and exploring mangrove forests, are easily the biggest draw between bouts spent lazily laying on the sand.

Our travel editor, Caroline Rogers, offers an insider's tip: "It's also home to No Name Pub, a mythic watering hole on most maps' outer reaches. Thick, decades-old layers of sea salt-crusted dollar bills cover this establishment's walls. Finding No Name Pub requires some searching, so dust off your map-reading skills because this fabled spot serves a plate of smoked-fish dip that's well worth your effort."

08 of 20

Assateague Island, Maryland

Assateague Island
Todd Wright

If your idea of a welcome committee is a herd of wild beach ponies, this windswept coastal paradise will muster quite the wanderlust. The horses have lived there for centuries, meaning they're the real ones in charge and expect to have the right-of-way. You're just visiting. The 37-mile-long island straddles the Virginia and Maryland state lines, and Assateague has everything from salt marshes to lush forests to unobstructed Atlantic Ocean views to draw the eye. Take in the breeze at this secluded locale and peep a pony or two while you're at it.

09 of 20

Vero Beach, Florida

McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach, FL
Jessica Sample

Vero Beach might quench your daydreams if you are the getaway goer who wishes to spend mornings watching fresh citrus squeezed into juice in front of your eyes and afternoons relaxing by a pool. It's a playground for those who frequent beaches such as Palm Beach and Miami down the coast. For the real Florida orange juice, head to fourth-generation Schacht Groves. Book a room at Costa d'Este Beach Resort & Spa for a pool chair. Between tasking commitments, shop and eat local to catch the tiny town's signature flair.

10 of 20

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

Padre Island (Texas)
Kenny Braun

They say everything's bigger in Texas, including this 70-mile span of protected coastline—the world's longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island. The unspoiled beaches are home to more than 380 bird species and the world's most endangered sea turtle species, the Kemp's ridley. Should you decide to camp in one of the park's five permitted areas, roughing it to stay overnight is worth it: stargazing here is spectacular.

11 of 20

Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Bald Head Island
Laurey W. Glenn

Forget the car—the only traffic you'll see on this nature-loving island is the occasional golf cart and lots of fat-tire bikes. Accessible only by boat, stepping onto this serene scene is like instantly taking a big breath of fresh salty air. For those looking for a laidback beach adventure, you can rent kayaks and surfboards at the Sail Shop or standup paddleboards from Coastal Urge. Or visit the Bald Head Island Conservancy to check out some wildlife and enjoy the quiet. It's your vacation dream; we're just living in it.

12 of 20

Grayton Beach, Florida

Grayton Beach
Robbie Caponetto

This beach village comes with an unofficial slogan: "Nice dogs, strange people." And if that isn't enough to capture your attention, the crystal-clear waters, powdered-sugar beaches, and friendly demeanor of all the locals will get you there. The oldest beach town along Florida's Scenic Highway 30A, Grayton Beach hasn't let the urban-planned pastel communities around it change its signature funk. The activity of the day: paddleboarding. The cocktail: a margarita from Chiringo. The dish: crab cakes from The Red Bar.

13 of 20

Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

North Carolina: Beaufort
Cedric Angeles

Accessible from nearby Beaufort and Harkers Island, these barrier islands in the Southern Outer Banks are reachable only by boat, but the views are worth the three-mile trip. Sunbathe on the wide swaths of sand or swim in the sparkling emerald waters. Then mark your calendars for a return trip in 2023, when the Cape Lookout Lighthouse will reopen for climbing after two years of renovations.

14 of 20

Folly Beach, South Carolina

Folly Beach, South Carolina
Riddhish Chakraborty

You won't find white sand or cerulean waters in this spot 12 miles south of Charleston (that's not the nature of the beach in this part of the world). What the area lacks in Caribbean-style looks, it more than makes up for with its come-as-you-are vibe. As one of our editors puts it, "The salty little town of Folly Beach ditches the Holy City's refinement in favor of an easygoing, barefoot sensibility that feels a bit more California than Carolina. Known to locals as the Edge of America, Folly is everything a beach town should be. Surf shops line the main drag, cover-ups count as appropriate lunch attire, and nobody takes themselves too seriously (they drop a pair of LED-lit flip flops to celebrate New Year's Eve)."

15 of 20

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Jekyll Island: Driftwood Beach
Peter Frank Edwards

The southernmost of Georgia's Golden Isles can claim an embarrassment of riches. One of them is Jekyll Island Club Resort, a storied hotel that once catered to turn-of-the-century millionaires like the Astors and Rockefellers. But its most valuable assets are its natural treasures, like Driftwood Beach, where ancient, gnarled trees sprout from the sand like grand monuments.

16 of 20

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Dauphin Island, Alabama
Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

From the oceans to the skies, Alabama's barrier island has what you are looking for in a destination. For a family-friendly locale packed with sites and scenes, the public aquarium, the Estuarium, provides a personal connection to the surrounding natural wonders. There's always a reason to look up in this Gulf Coast town as migrating bird paths cross over the island. Deep-sea fishing, kayaking, and public beaches are all within reach in this town at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

17 of 20

Little St. Simons Island, Georgia

Lodge on Little St. Simons Island in Georgia
Peter Frank Edwards

You may have heard about this barrier island's older brother, but Little St. Simons Island is a privately-owned wilderness and an environmentalist's paradise. After opening in 1979, the salt marshes, unspoiled beaches, and natural wildlife of this Georgian's Golden Isles are accessible only by boat. Visitors can stay in historic cottages while dining on fresh foods and exploring the gardens and orchards of this untouched landscape.

18 of 20

Ship Island, Mississippi

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: West Ship Island
Courtesy of Ship Island Excursions

This island is only accessible by boat, but a public ferry departs from Gulfport, Mississippi, from March to October. As part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the protected beaches are great for birding and shelling or swimming in the warm, shallow waters. Off the coast, dolphin spotting cruises and snorkeling trips are delightful ways to explore marine life.

19 of 20

St. George Island, Florida

St. George Island State Park
James Randklev / Getty

Located off the Florida Panhandle, there are no high-rises on this 22-mile barrier island. The dog- and family-friendly town exudes relaxation in the air as local seafood restaurants, boutique shopping, and trips to the historic lighthouse will keep you entertained. There are also great ways to feel good while giving back during your visit to St. George's Island. Charity events such as the annual Chili Charity Cook-Off, catering to more than 5,000 chili fans, raise funds every March.

20 of 20

Hatteras Island, North Carolina

Hatteras Island, North Carolina
Courtesy of The Outer Banks of North Carolina

Wedged between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, this Outer Banks beach town is home to some of the best birding on the East Coast. Historically the site of "The Lost Colony," Hatteras Island is known for its boat building and is even home to many shipwrecks dubbing it "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." Submerged in all of this history is a very active community that offers sports fishing, windsurfing, and horseback riding.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles