From the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, the coastal region of the Carolinas appeals to a variety of family interests. The beaches and the salt-water fishing are justifiably famous, as are the golf and tennis resorts. Even if none of these activities appeal to you, there’s still much to see and do. Furthermore, the climate is appealing for fall and winter vacations: daytime highs in the 60s through November and mid-winter days no colder than the 50s are the rule.
The Outer Banks include roughly 125 miles of narrow barrier islands and peninsulas. At Kill Devil Hills, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first manned flight on December 17, 1903. The visitors’ center has replicas of that plane and of an earlier Wright glider. Markers show the distances covered by their first four powered flights. Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nag’s Head is a popular hang-gliding venue today.
On Roanoke Island, near Manteo, is Fort Raleigh. An English colony established in 1585 mysteriously disappeared between 1587 and 1590. The park includes recreated earthworks, a gallery of artifacts and an Elizabethan garden. During the summer, an outdoor pageant entitled “The Lost Colony” is performed. Manteo also houses a branch of the State Aquarium.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserves the longest stretch of undeveloped U.S. Atlantic coastline. It’s memorable for the scenery, and Pea Island is a great bird watching location, especially for wintering waterfowl. All along the National Seashore, look for dolphins. At Cape Hatteras stands the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S., at 208 feet. Its black and white spiral design makes it one of the most distinctive landmarks in the country.
North Carolina runs an extensive ferry system. Besides being the only way to continue south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, they are great fun. Inquire ahead about schedules and reservations.
Moving to the Crystal Coast region, Beaufort (pronounced BO-fort) is a beautiful town, with an extensive historic district. The North Carolina Maritime Museum is excellent. It has exhibits of ship models, small craft and decoys, plus displays on birds, fish and fossils. Both Atlantic Beach and Kure Beach boast Civil War forts (Fort Macon and Fort Fisher, respectively) and branches of the State Aquarium (at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher). The magnificent Tryon Palace is the reconstructed colonial capitol, in New Bern. This town also has a fire museum and a Civil War museum. New Bern is another showcase of early 19th-century architecture.
Wilmington is North Carolina’s principal deepwater port, on the Cape Fear River. It boasts a variety of attractions, most notably the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina. There are several outstanding gardens in town, in addition to a zoo, a railroad museum, Confederate earthworks, historic buildings, an art museum and sightseeing cruises.
Crossing into South Carolina, the first 60 miles or so of its coast is called the Grand Strand. The Gulf Stream runs only 40 miles offshore, warming the climate. Myrtle Beach is its best-known resort, offering a dizzying variety of options for lodging, dining, entertainment and recreation. Ocean bathing, boating, deep-water fishing, golf, tennis, country music, amusement parks, circuses, air shows, ice shows, stage spectaculars, water parks and a zoo are all part of the mix. The Dixie Stampede is a dinner theater with a twist: the entertainment is not a play, but a horse riding competition.
Brookgreen Gardens in Murells Inlet occupies the site of an 18th-century rice and indigo plantation. It marries one of the South’s most beautiful gardens with over 500 sculptures. Its founders, Archer and Anna Huntington were, respectively, an heir to a railroad fortune and a sculptor. Huntington Beach State Park includes their mansion, Atalaya, and 2,500 surrounding acres with an extensive system of trails and boardwalks. Go here to observe birds and alligators.
Charleston is an architectural treasure chest that owes its survival, oddly, to the Civil War. The economic depression that gripped the region after the war limited new construction for decades thereafter. Thus, the old prewar homes survived. In Charleston Harbor sits Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the war were fired. No trip to the city is complete without a harbor cruise and a stop at the fort. Just northwest of Charleston, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens offer a truly stunning blaze of color. It’s a must-see even for those only marginally interested in gardens. Middleton Place is yet another old plantation with a marvelous set of gardens.
Beaufort (pronounce this one BEW-fort) has a long history as a seaport, and boasts its own collection of charming antebellum buildings. Close by is Parris Island, known for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. The Parris Island Museum recounts the history of the Marines on the island. The York W. Bailey Museum on St. Helena Island covers the history of the Gullah people, descendants of slaves who live on this and adjacent islands, and who have preserved a unique language of their own.
Hilton Head Island is justly famous as a golf and tennis resort, with elegant accommodations, shopping and dining. However, it offers much more to see and do. There are riding stables, bicycle trails and marinas. The island also bears the ruins of plantations and forts, in addition to several wildlife refuges. Those interested in Gullah culture should consider a boat tour to Daufuskie Island.
For more information: • Outer Banks (NC), www.outerbanks.org • Crystal Coast (NC), www.sunnync.com. 1-800-SUNNY-NC
• Cape Fear Coast (NC), www.cape-fear.nc.us. 1-800-222-4757
• NC Ferries, www.ncferry.org. 1-800-BY-FERRY
• Myrtle Beach (SC), www.mbchamber.com. 1-800-356-3016
• Charleston (SC), www.charlestoncvb.com. 1-800-868-8118
• Hilton Head (SC), www.hiltonheadisland.org. 1-800-523-3373