My recipe for a perfect beach vacation is two parts beach, equal parts kitschy beach village, and plenty of time to soak it all up. As a Californian, I was skeptical that my ideal beach escape could exist outside my home state -- that is, until I packed my bathing suit, flip-flops, and paperback and headed to the beaches of the Southeast.
I had low expectations, but I was dead wrong. The southern Atlantic coast is dotted with beautiful beaches and charming historic towns -- so many, in fact, that it will take me years to soak them all up.
Check out these eight beach towns in the Southeast where life slows down and the modern world slips away as you surf, read, kayak, eat, drink, shop, and rest in the sunshine. These are towns where pirates once walked -- what more can I say?
1. Beaufort, North Carolina
Beaufort, North Carolina, one of the Southeast’s oldest and most charming beach towns, is at the southern tip of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. Pronounced “Bowfort” (not “Bewfert” like its South Carolina namesake), this colonial-era village embraces its pirate history. Time your visit for early August and shiver your timbers at the Beaufort Pirate Invasion Festival, a reenactment of the 1747 Spanish pirate invasion.
You can spend a long weekend exploring the town and beaches, but there’s so much to do here that you really need a week or two. Bring your picnic and beach paraphernalia on the ferry to the Cape Lookout National Seashore to swim, read, and watch for the wild horses living on some of the southern Outer Banks. Climb the 12-story Cape Lookout Lighthouse between mid-May and mid-September. Or hit the beach at Fort Macon State Park and tour the Civil War-era fort. When you’re ready for a day off from the beach, explore the shops in town, visit the NC Maritime Museum, or kayak in the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve.
2. Ocracoke, North Carolina
At the northern tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks -- accessible by ferry, private boat, or small plane -- is Ocracoke Island. At the southern end of the island, you’ll find the 4-square-mile beach and fishing village of Ocracoke, dripping with Southern charm. It’s the perfect place to spend leisurely days exploring on a fat-wheeled beach bike or golf cart. Isolated from the mainland, it’s a unique beach experience that’s ideal for a summer break. The little fishing village is full of art and craft galleries, unique shops, cafés, and restaurants. At the surrounding beaches, you’ll find great surfing, shelling, and fishing. Plan on taking at least a day to drive the length of the wild and mostly undeveloped 16-mile island.
Ocracoke’s summertime events are worth planning a vacation around. First is the Ocracoke Festival, three days of music, storytelling, and craft displays in early June. Next is the three-day Fourth of July extravaganza that kicks off with the famous Ocracoke Square dance and fireworks over Silver Lake.
3. Duck, North Carolina
One of the youngest villages in the Outer Banks, this charming beach haven didn’t blossom until the 21st century. Although Duck, North Carolina, existed for years with little more than a convenience store, tackle shops, and a few houses, it was finally developed into a quaint, walkable beach destination. There are 7 miles of wide beaches accessible only to residents and their guests, and summertime crowds at the beach are nonexistent.
Tourists do, however, visit Duck to enjoy the shops, excellent culinary scene, and spas. The village is on the Currituck Sound side of the island and has a long waterside boardwalk that is home to many shops and eateries. The town is the perfect spot to drop anchor for a long Outer Banks beach vacation. There are water sports to enjoy in the ocean and in the sound, miles of walking trails, and even surf fishing. Visit in early October to catch the famous Duck Jazz Festival, held rain or shine.
4. Pawleys Island, South Carolina
About 70 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, is Pawleys Island, a barrier island known for its sand dunes, beaches, golf courses, and rope hammocks. The island is 4 miles long and offers vast and unspoiled beaches, and water sports like kayaking, paddleboarding, and surfing are popular. Shelling and crabbing are also big on this low-country island. Since there’s little to no commercial development, you can easily spend a quiet weekend or a long, relaxing beach vacation here.
In the quaint village of the same name, you’ll find shabby-chic cottages alongside historic homes. The village offers three shopping areas and authentic low-country food.
5. Folly Beach, South Carolina
Looking for a beach vacation in a place with a “global-village-loving hippie vibe” that’s “famously funky” and very near Charleston? Then you’ll want to visit the quirky, fun beach town of Folly Beach, South Carolina.
Known for its Folly Beach Pier, which stretches 1,045 feet into the ocean, Folly Beach is full of souvenir shops and surf shops and offers fantastic fish tacos and nightly live music. But the beach is the star of Folly Beach’s show, and there’s public access at the end of every block. Spend your days on the beach, enjoying kayaking, surfing, and fishing and viewing the inaccessible Morris Island Lighthouse.
Between May and September, you can see loggerhead sea turtles come to the beach to lay their eggs. It’s also common to see pods of dolphins swimming and playing offshore.
This beach town would be ideal for a long weekend or extended summer vacation.
6. Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina
Even closer to Charleston than Folly Beach is the 2.5-mile-long barrier island called Sullivan’s Island. Its small-town charm dates to the 17th century, and the island was prominent in both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
Today, you’ll find wide beaches, water sports, shops, restaurants, and the remains of Fort Moultrie to explore. Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie in the early 1800s and used the island as a setting for a few of his short stories. Another must-see is the 90-acre maritime forest that can be accessed via a nature trail.
You can pack a lot of Sullivan’s Island into three days, making it a perfect long-weekend getaway.
7. Saint Simons Island, Georgia
The barrier islands along the coast of Georgia are known as the Golden Isles. Saint Simons, the largest of these barrier islands, is a mix of wide-open beaches and large, Spanish-moss-draped oak trees. Life moves at a slower pace on this island, and you can spend many days enjoying seafood and cocktails on the beach. The key to a great experience here is to take advantage of the more than 30 miles of bike trails to get to Saint Simons Lighthouse, Frederica’s Christ Church, Fort Frederica, and the remains of Cannon’s Point Plantation and nature preserve.
Charming and quaint Pier Village is on the south end of the island. It’s full of shops, restaurants, and great places to stroll while enjoying some ice cream on a summer night. In June, the famous Georgia Sea Islands Festival celebrates Gullah Geechee music, food, and crafts. If you’re visiting on the Fourth of July, head to Neptune Park for fireworks.
This is the perfect island on which to spend at least a week balancing history, shopping, and eating with beach time.
8. Tybee Island, Georgia
If you’re looking for a beach town with lots of kitschy charm, head to Tybee Island. The 5-mile-long island combines wide beaches, marshy waterways, biking, kayaking, shops, and food in a perfect, laid-back package.
Just like its barrier-island neighbors, Tybee is home to some significant American history. Visit the Tybee Lighthouse, Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse; Fort Screven; and the nearby Fort Pulaski National Monument. The movie theater in the Fort Screven Historic District was one of the first theaters in Georgia to show “talkies,” or movies with sound.
Little Tybee Island is a great place for a daylong or overnight camping adventure. This uninhabited nature preserve is south of Tybee and accessible only by boat or kayak. Pirates once roamed these shores, and if you visit Tybee Island in October, you can catch the Pirate Festival, which celebrates the island’s swashbuckling heritage with costumes, food, and revelry.
Tybee Island is a perfect spot for that long, relaxing beach vacation, but you can pack a lot into a weekend there as well.