Carolina beaches are beautiful, with gentle slopes and creamy-colored sand, but there are differences among them. With 500+ miles of oceanfront, you can seek out a secluded stretch of oceanfront down a tiny dirt road, or across a ferry. Or, you can choose world-class pampering at an award-winning beachfront resort. Or something in between.
Any list of “The Best” is bound to stir up chatter from those who have a favorite not mentioned here. That’s ok. Send us your vote for beachy best. We’ll add it to this growing list which was compiled from several “best-of” sites and insider observations.
And to all who have a different idea, we applaud your spirit. Vive le difference!
NORTH CAROLINA BEACHES
CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE
The tides ebb and flow, the wind shifts the sandy beaches, and here and there, remains of shipwrecks can be seen. With about 75 miles of beach, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a treasure for those who like being out of the way. From South Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet, 30,000 acres include picnic areas, camping and interpretive programs.
There are lighthouses to be seen, shells to be plucked, fish to be caught and enjoyed, salt marshes to be photographed and maritime woods to provide shade. Locals have adapted alongside the wild critters and plants. Hint: thunderstorms move quickly through the area; take mosquito repellent during the warmest months; and pack your camera. Learn more about Cape Hatteras.
At the northern end of the Outer Banks, Duck’s development really began in the 70s and has been somewhat limited. The area has a certain “old beach charm,” and nature enthusiasts will enjoy the waterfowl and beautiful beaches. But there’s a bit more to Duck. Enough folks have decided to live here year-round to create a small town culture, with fine dining and unique shopping. Of course, everything revolves around the water and the sand, so water sports provide much of the recreation. And for an afternoon’s amusement, visit the Army Corps of Engineers research pier.
Some say that Duck is becoming one of the area’s most popular destinations. For sure, with resorts like the Sanderling, there are also upscale accommodations available. Learn more about Duck.
When descriptions note “primitive” pay attention. This beach, located on Bear Island and accessible by ferry or small boat, is open to camping year-round, but from mid-November through mid-March the facilities are winterized (aka, no bathrooms or running water).
One reviewer says this is the beach to visit if you’d like to see what a North Carolina beach looked like when Native Americans inhabited the region. You will see spotless facilities, and in season, friendly personnel from the park service. The shelling is legendary, and dolphin sitings are quite common. Walking the beach, shrimping and fishing are popular pastimes. Day trippers can bring a picnic. Canoeists and kayakers can explore the marsh in a designated canoe trail.
Pack lightly. You’ll bring everything in and out again, and spend at least 15 minutes walking across the island to the beach. Privacy is assured. For some aficionados, this is paradise on earth. Learn more about Hammocks Beach.
This family beach has so much to recommend it to all ages. First, the beach is beautiful, relaxed and friendly. In addition, Kure Beach Pier is the oldest of its kind on the Atlantic coast. Lifeguards help keep the water safe during the Summer, and Fort Fisher State Historical Site offers a short trail which winds around the remnants of an old fort. There’s also a NC Aquarium, NC Military Museum and Underwater Archaeology Center. Learn more about Kure Beach.
Trip Advisor #23 in US! Eleven miles of sand makes Nags Head the beach everyone loves. This Outer Banks town just south of Kitty Hawk offers ocean fans every sort of shoreline sport, from sailing and kayaking to snorkeling past shipwrecks or hang-gliding over the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park. Step into the past with a walk through the historic district and enjoy the area’s distinct architecture. Beautiful!
Its history is full of legends, myth and fact, (yes, Blackbeard actually died here as a result of a battle with forces from the U.S. Navy.) The island has a number of full time residents as well as summer devotees. It’s a bit of a step back in time, when vacations meant long, lazy days at play, and evenings included substantial family dinners dominated by the freshest of seafood. Visitors enjoy touring the English Cemetery and strolling quaint streets. Accessible only by ferry, it remains a bit apart from the rush of modern day life. Learn more about Ocracoke Island.
It’s very close to Wilmington, which is worth its own vacation. Today, however, we’re all about the beach. Wrightsville Beach is a beautiful destination with history that goes back more than 200 years. In 1853, its first structure was built, the Carolina Yacht Club. A reflection of the growing sport of sailing, Wrightsville Beach was becoming a vacation destination and that’s continued to this day. All sorts of water sports can be enjoyed, and a turnpike puts the mainland within easy reach. Small restaurants serve the freshest seafood, and families return year after year to rent houses, or to enjoy their own beachfront getaway homes. Learn more about Wrightsville Beach.
SOUTH CAROLINA BEACHES
Trip Advisor #1 in US! Myrtle Beach features some of the best beaches on America's East Coast with fabulous Atlantic Ocean views, calm waters and soft white sand. Ideal for swimming and sunbathing, Myrtle Beach also offers plenty of family attractions, making it a great vacation destination for beach-lovers with kids.
One of South Carolina’s most unspoiled areas, Edisto Beach has an island-wide top speed limit of 35 miles per hour, and showcases a true commitment to protect the wildlife. Its natural beauty that makes it a favorite of vacationing families, and for some, the perfect retirement location.
You can frequently see dolphin activity any time of the year and there are tours that increase your chances. This island is beautiful. The ocean laps the beach, the marsh grass waves near the creeks, and sea birds are plentiful. Restaurants are casual in dress, but upscale in their attitudes about food. The freshest seafood is prepared in so many ways – all of them mouth-watering. Canoe and kayak rentals are plentiful. On land, cycling and golf carts are the preferred modes of transportation.
It’s a private, gated community that has lured families for generations. Part of Fripp Island’s appeal is found in its commitment to nature. The island is a major loggerhead turtle hatchery, and island residents established an Audubon Club there in 1978 (the entire island is an Audubon-designated bird preserve).
Although cars and trucks are allowed on roads and streets, golf carts are the prevailing method of transportation on the island. Bicycles are also popular and are used among residents and visitors alike and several streets offer parallel bike trails to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles. There are several small boutiques on the island and a number of good restaurants. Learn more about vacationing on Fripp Island.
HILTON HEAD ISLAND
Trip Advisor #17 in US! With more than 12 miles of white sand and sparkling waters you can explore by boat, canoe or kayak, Hilton Head Island offers plenty of beachy options in a location that generations of families have enjoyed. What’s more, the island is a cut above many of its counterparts. Ride your bike almost everywhere.
Now this is the resort lifestyle. Twenty public golf courses and 300 tennis courts keep outdoor recreation accessible. Experts say the area has the best clay tennis courts in the Southeast U.S.
Visitors will notice a distinct lack of neon and tacky signage throughout the island and that’s by design. Bicycles and golf carts are abundant, and restaurants are world-class. The Hilton Head Island Harbor is frequently photographed and folks love the relaxed, upscale ambience of the resort. Boating enthusiasts frequently make a stop here on their way to somewhere else, and the homes are nothing short of spectacular. Sun City has a large retirement community here, and families look forward to four season fun here. Learn more about Hilton Head Island.
HUNTINGTON BEACH STATE PARK
Located near the charming fishing village of Murrells Inlet, this state park is considered by many to be the best birding location in South Carolina year round. The park’s Education Center provides a bird checklist that will help you identify our feathered friends. There are also a number of birding programs held. A magnificent Grand Strand beach is within the state park. Sea breeze camping is spectacular, and fishing is excellent. And, Huntington has something else. Atalaya is the picturesque, Moorish-style winter home of the late Anna Hyatt and Archer Huntington. In addition to birding programs, nature lovers will enjoy the park’s Environmental Education Center and wide variety of programming, including the chance to see loggerhead turtles and other endangered plant and animal species up close. The park’s freshwater lake is a sure-fire place to see alligators and sometimes even a mink or two.
Art lovers, meanwhile, flock by the thousands to the prestigious, juried Atalaya Arts and Crafts Festival held in and around the home every September. Each camping site, excluding the designated tent sites, has water and electrical hookups and is convenient to hot showers and restrooms. While tent campers may use the sites with water and electricity, the park also offers a designated walk-in tent site area which includes tent pads and central water. Learn more about Huntington Beach State Park.
Don’t even think about roughing it at this, one of the premier resorts you’ll find – anywhere. Located on a beautiful barrier island just a few miles from historic Charleston, South Carolina lies Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the Official Golf & Tennis Resort at Kiawah Island. Endless possibilities await in this most attractive destination, which readers of Golf World Magazine voted "#1 Resort in the U.S."
There are five award-winning championship courses, hard and clay courts available (also award-winning), and lots of recreational activities for all tastes and fitness levels. The Sanctuary Hotel has garnered its share of accolades, and there are lovely vacation rental homes and villas to provide more secluded family time. Consider the Spa at The Sanctuary for the ultimate pampering experience, in what has been called one of the best hotel spas in the U.S. Dining will be elegant and creative, the beach is absolutely beautiful and Charleston is a short drive away. Learn more about Kiawah Island.
So here you have ‘em. Very different, but all judged a cut above by a variety of folks who are in the know. What’s your favorite? Which beach paradise did we omit? Email Kathy Pettit and we’ll add to the list.
Share this article: