When I think of the beaches of the Carolinas, I envision scenes from the movies. I hear the thick, melodic southern drawls of beach goers, feel the salt laden air that lingers on your skin, picture a couple, hand in hand, slowly shuffling through the sand, a Ferris wheel spinning in harmony with the music, and Shag dancing on the boardwalk. I conjure up a family sipping sweet tea on a wrap-around front porch with sea grass whispering in the wind, waves crashing on the shore, and a lighthouse in the distance. It is a magical scene in my mind’s eye.
So what makes a beach the best? It depends on who you ask. We all trek to the beach for different reasons: perhaps a family reunion, to find peace and tranquility, watch a sunrise or sunset, or to surf and swim. There are as many different styles of beach in the Carolinas as there are beaches to visit.
From umbrella-blanketed beaches to isolated island treasures, the Carolina coastline is one of my favorite escapes to sand and sea.
Here is a look at some of the best beaches in South and North Carolina.
More golf courses than you could play on one vacation, a calabash on every corner, Shag dancing, and family friendly brown sugar sand beaches make Myrtle Beach a sought-after summer destination. It is the place that families hold reunions year after year creating memories that will last a lifetime. The Grand Strand is a summer resort, lined with condos and hotels, not the kind of place you go to get away from it all, but you head there because it’s where the action is. There are no shortage of activities to do here, and they range from concerts and concessions on the beach to water sports, and to an over-the-top oceanfront water park with slides, flumes, and a lazy river.
Huntington Beach State Park
Sixteen miles south of Myrtle Beach you’ll find Huntington Beach State Park, three miles of pristine, undeveloped beach for swimming or surf fishing. There are boardwalks, salt marshes, and hiking trails in this 2,500 acres of dog-friendly park that is open year-round; it has a campground with over 100 campsites and complimentary Wi-Fi, a park store, and gift shop. Be sure to visit Atalaya, a National Historic Landmark that was once the winter home of renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband, philanthropist Archer Huntington. It was built in the early 1930s in Moorish style architecture of the Spanish Mediterranean coast and is open for self-guided or docent-led tours. The park is also a favorite spot for birders with over 300 species.
World-class golf with breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean is only one reason people vacation in Hilton Head. With 12 miles of unsullied beaches and an average daily temperature of 61 °F, this is as close to perfection as you can get. Beach season official opens on April 1 and runs through September 30. Nature abounds, and dolphins can be seen from the shoreline frequently throughout the summer months, and 400-pound Loggerhead sea turtles bury their eggs in the sand after nightfall.
Less than 10 miles south of Wilmington is Wrightsville Beach, hailed as a pioneer in East Coast surfing and is host to some regional and national surfing competitions. Don’t know how to surf? No problem. They have an abundance of surf shops that offer lessons, or you can attend a surf camp. You’ll hang ten in no time. Wrightsville Beach is a mecca for all kinds of water sports: boating, kayaking, kiteboarding, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), sport fishing, and scuba diving. Wrightsville Beach is the perfect beach vacation for those who lead a high-energy, active lifestyle. Tip: Look for the Kindred Spirit mailbox in the dunes at the north end of the beach. Thousands of visitors have written down their innermost thoughts in the notebooks that are in the mailbox. It is a unique insight into the heart and soul of humanity.
Viewfinder Tip: Rise and shine! Bring your camera and get up early to catch a spectacular Carolina sunrise.
The Outer Banks are barrier islands that separate the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean, natural beauty with wide open, uncrowded and unspoiled beaches from Currituck to Ocracoke.
One of the highlights on this secluded beach is the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, built using one million red bricks. It was first lit in 1875 and is one of nine lighthouses still in service. Climb the 220 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, Currituck Sound, and Outer Banks.
Bold and beautiful, wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs have roamed the beaches here for almost 500 years. Today, these gorgeous untamed horses are limited to an 11-mile stretch of the north beach, about 7,544 acres where North Carolina Highway 12 ends in Corolla. The only way to go farther is on foot or in an off-road vehicle. For a memorable and exciting adventure, there are several tour companies with seasoned, knowledgeable guides, giving you the best chance of spotting the mustangs.
If it is solitude you are after, then Duck is for you. There are no hotels, resorts, or campgrounds here, just one small inn and vacation rentals, giving you beach access and making it ideal for a quiet getaway. This pet and family-friendly beach is a 7-mile stretch of sand that has lifeguards on duty from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. between May 1 and October 31.
If a remote beach is what you seek, Ocracoke Island is your perfect fit. Accessible only by boat or plane, Ocracoke’s 16 miles of naturally beautiful beaches are owned by the National Park Service as part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Three ferry routes transport cars, people, and their pets. Experience local flavor with no chain restaurants or shops, but locally owned and operated businesses are serving up daily fresh caught fish, clams, crabs, and shrimp.
What are your favorite beaches in the Carolinas?