Baltimore Sun, March 25, 2007
They say that a bad day at the beach is still better than a good day at the office (although I still have a hard time figuring out how you can have a bad time at the beach). In any event, there’s nothing like spending the day at the beach, allowing the pounding of the surf to hypnotize you into a deep sleep. The only question is: Which beach to choose? Ocean City, Md., and Rehoboth, Del., lie just over the Bay Bridge; however, this year, head south and discover the beaches of the Southeast, each one distinctly beautiful.
In the mid-Atlantic, Memorial Day weekend can still be chilly, but Virginia Beach – which attracts three million annual overnight visitors – usually boasts 80-degree weather, says Jessica Kraft, spokesperson for the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. While the resort town may be best known for its 35 miles of ocean and bay beaches and its historic Boardwalk, Kraft says what distinguishes Virginia Beach from other resort towns is the variety of activities – on and off the beach. “We have three historic homes, two state parks and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors can kayak, hike or enjoy birding, as we are part of the Virginia Birding Trail. We also have surf camps and three different beach areas – the resort district with many hotels, the Sandbridge area with rental condos and cottages and the Chesapeake Bay side. Whatever your idea of a beach vacation is, we have it.”
This year, there also are many events and activities commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlers at Cape Henry.
It’s difficult to choose which area of The Outer Banks to visit; however, just over the Virginia line is Currituck County’s Outer Banks. “Most visitors come for the beaches, which, if you have 4-wheel drive, you can drive on to explore different areas. Many also come for the wild horses at Corolla and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, one the few that you can still climb,” says Veronica Brown of The Currituck County Travel & Tourism Department.
Further south in the Outer Banks is Emerald Isle, the most prominent of the banks on the Crystal Coast, known for its quiet, uncrowded beaches, boutique shopping and great fishing. Named for the lush greenery that envelops much of the area, Emerald Isle boasts a variety of rental accommodations – from small cottages to large beach houses – set on sandy beaches that front the area’s trademark Caribbean-like clear waters.
Full disclosure: I grew up here and have vacationed at the South Carolina coast for almost 30 years, so I may be a bit biased. That said, South Carolina does have some of the most unspoiled beaches anywhere. Myrtle Beach, visited by over 13 million people each year, and it surrounding environs are a great place for families “on the go,” with its myriad family-fun activities, including amusement parks, 50 miniature golf courses, 100-plus golf courses, 300 outlet stores and over 450 hotels to consider. Exciting nightlife and cultural venues are a plus for Mom and Dad. Other nearby resort areas include quieter Litchfield Beach and Pawleys Island, which are both located near Murrells Inlet, the “Seafood Capital of South Carolina.”
At the southernmost tip of South Carolina is Hilton Head with its tony shops, upscale restaurants, countless golf courses and its iconic Harbour Town Lighthouse in Sea Pines. Located just 45 miles north of Savannah, Ga., Hilton Head also boasts an active cultural community of fine art, music and theatrical venues, including Hilton Head Playhouse, Hilton Head Orchestra, Hilton Head Dance School and the Coastal Discovery Museum. The island resort is also known for its fabulous resorts, bed and breakfasts and beachfront villas equipped with private swimming pools and tennis courts.
When travelers think of Georgia, they first think of Atlanta and then probably Savannah. However, further south are The Golden Isles – named for the Spanish explorers who came here more than 400 years ago seeking gold and home to a string of four historic barrier islands: St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island. St. Simons exudes history with its St. Simons Lighthouse (a working lighthouse in operation since 1872) and has great beaches, especially East Beach by the old Coast Guard Station. Little St. Simons Island is a private island, accessible only by twice-daily boats from Hampton Point on St. Simons Island’s north end, while Sea Island is home to the world-famous resort, The Cloister. The southernmost of The Golden Isles, Jekyll Island is an unspoiled area with quiet beaches and was once an exclusive winter retreat for some of America’s wealthiest families, including the J.P. Morgans, Rockefellers and Pulitzers. Mainland Brunswick also offers a historic downtown with grand homes, antique shops and restaurants serving fresh shrimp.
Sure, you can head south to sexy Miami or popular Ft. Lauderdale, but if you’re looking to travel to lesser-populated areas of Florida, check out the Ponte Vedra-St. Augustine and St. Petersburg-Clearwater areas.
Tony Ponte Vedra Beach is considered Florida’s playground of classic resorts and spas and a golfer’s paradise, as the beach town serves as the headquarters of the PGA Tour and the ATP Tour international headquarters. Meanwhile, history buffs will relish time in St. Augustine, the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States with 144 blocks of historic houses. The city’s Spanish history includes Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth and Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who founded the city more than 400 years ago. Visit the fort Castillo de San Marcos, the nation’s oldest masonry fortress with Spanish soldier re-enactors firing cannons.
Family fun can be had at the Augustine Alligator Farm, home to over 2,500 alligators and crocodiles, or at St. Augustine’s three state parks. Just across the Bridge of Lions from St. Augustine are the unspoiled beaches of Anastasia Island.
On the Gulf of Mexico side, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area boasts 35 miles of gorgeous beaches, bringing in more than a million visitors from other countries each year, making it an international playground. With about 361 days of sunshine a year, warm Gulf Coast waters and as the holder of The Guinness Book of Records for the most consecutive days of sunshine, it’s no wonder why the area is so popular nationally and internationally. Plus, the beaches are not only gorgeous, but they also are clean – 13 area beaches have received the Blue Wave Award for environmental beach certification given by the Clean Beaches Council.