If you're ready to shake off those work shackles and switch into relaxation gear, there are a few overlooked spots along the southern coasts awaiting your discovery. I grew up in North Carolina, and I've had a lifetime to search for getaways that meet my criteria of beauteousness and off-the-beaten-path allure.
We're going to be passing by all things neon and tacky and heading off to the quiet, low-key, undiscovered places where, if I could magically snap my fingers, I would be folded into a hammock with a dog-eared novel and a red-eye (that's light beer and tomato juice for the uninitiated). Damn the high gas prices -- full steam ahead to some serious summer indulgence.
1. Pawley’s Island, South Carolina
Just a half-hour down the highway from the honky-tonk hedonism of Myrtle Beach is a quiet, laid-back paradise where seekers of tranquil beaches and cool summer winds have been coming for three centuries. You will find nary a high-rise hotel. What you will find is the Sea View Inn, a rustic, old-school delight of a summer retreat with the Atlantic Ocean as your front yard. This is anything but your typical hotel experience, and if fancy frills are your thing, the Sea View is not for you. Think of it as summer-camp-at-the-shore, where down-home low-country meals --think fresh biscuits, grits and scrumptious local catch -- are served three times a day, air conditioning is the ocean breeze, and the use of laptops and cell phones is restricted to certain out-of-view areas (the WiFi works just fine, if you must have it).
The day’s activities consist of sitting on the pearly sand beneath an umbrella, strolling past weather-cured historic homes, and watching the sun put on a show-stopping display each evening as it sinks beneath the horizon. There’s a communal vibe among guests which is inviting without being oppressive. (I have stayed at Sea View both solo and with a friend, and have always found my quiet time respected and my desire to chat up fellow guests indulged.)
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, nearby Brookgreen Garden features an extensive outdoor sculpture collection and wildlife enclosures where you can meet owls, herons, otters, and other local beasts. Bonus: the area is known for the Gullah or Geechee culture associated with descendants of former coastal slaves, complete with its own creole language and fascinating traditions and foodways. If you want to take a short roadtrip, head to Charleston, an open-air museum of a city that boasts some of the finest walks and best-preserved historic homes in the country. To sample some of America's top regional cuisine, stop at the Hominy Grill for addictive shrimp-and-grits and buttermilk pie, or the fancier Peninsula Grill for fine wine paired with mouth-watering local specialties (the chefs here can make black-eyed peas taste like ambrosia).
One thing that often surprises visitors to the area’s preserved plantations is that it’s not all about the Civil War. At Middleton Place, near Charleston, you can behold the stupefying wealth of the southern signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Arthur Middleton, who had his garden designed by the very man who designed the pleasure gardens at Versailles. 'Nuff said.
2. Manteo, North Carolina
The ancient seafaring village of Manteo, whose history dates back to Elizabethan times, encircles Shallowbag Bay on the eastern side of Roanoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. I used to come here as a kid to watch The Lost Colony, the oldest continuously running outdoor drama in the country—written by a New Deal playwright and performed in a New Deal theater (thanks, FDR!). The play chronicles the mysterious English settlement that disappeared from Roanoke Island in the late 16th century. Manteo loves its rich history, which you can see reenacted at Roanoke Island Festival Park on the Elizabeth II, a replica of a 16th-century ship sailed by Sir Walter Raleigh to the New World. Costumed actors actually speak in Elizabethan English.
Among its many attractions, Manteo has a fantastic independent bookstore, Manteo Booksellers, where you can pick up your vacation read. If you want to explore the waterways, Carolina Outdoors/Kitty Hawk Kites will hook you up with a kayaking adventure in the bay, or for the more adventurous, an excursion on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where you may spy the eponymous reptiles sunning themselves on the bank. You can also set up a hang-gliding experience at nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park. I've done it, and while you won't go far your first time up, just getting airborne without a motor is a thrill. A short jaunt over the causeway will take you to eye-popping beaches stretching along 72 miles of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
3. Dauphin Island, Alabama
I toured the Gulf Coast extensively in 2010, and found myself astonished at the beauty of the beaches and the quaint attraction of some of the villages, all of which are supremely affordable. People were still reeling from the aftermath of the oil spill, but the drop in tourism was driven in many cases by unfounded fears that the beaches were spoiled. (There have been some tar balls and other signs of of the spill, but far fewer than you'd expect and the effort at clean-up has been massive.) The glorious stretches of pristine white sand and wonderful nature preserves I visited testified to the natural resilience of an area that has plenty drop-dead gorgeousness to offer the visitor. One of my favorite spots was Dauphin Island, a barrier island three miles south of Mobile Bay, where the vibe is chill and the beaches have that luxurious squeak-beneath-your-toes feel that only comes from super-fine sand.
On Dauphin, you’ll want to tour Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a year-round 65-acre garden estate where you can stroll along paths laced, depending on the season, with azaleas, Easter lilies, hydrangeas, and all manner of luscious flora. Birders will wish to flock to the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, where a 1,000-foot boardwalk leads from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake with a stunning view of 164 acres of beautiful woodlands. Miles of walking trails guide you through through pines, live oaks, magnolias, swamp and gulf beach. Egrets and herons hang out in the marshes and trees and you might even spot an occasional alligator taking an afternoon sunbath on the bank. History buffs can get a fantastic fix at Fort Gaines—famous for the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay and Admiral Farragut’s unforgettable command, “Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!”
Many beaches on the Gulf Coast are known for raucous partying, but Dauphin Island is a place for folks who just want to sit and watch the waves roll in. Houses available for rent are as luxurious or as basic as you want. There aren't many restaurants, but you can get great picnic fare from the Lighthouse Bakery, as well as Sunday omelets.
4. Beaufort, North Carolina
The little seaport village of Beaufort is often overlooked by folks heading to nearby Emerald Isle, where the beaches are admittedly lovely, but the T-shirt-shop tawdriness tends to spoil the ambiance. Beaufort is a favorite port of call, however, for sailors on the Intracoastal Waterway (Walter Conkrite used to like to stop in, and wrote about the pleasures of Beaufort his 1983 book Around America: A Tour of Our Magnificent Coastline). Folks in the know love Beaufort for its narrow, leafy streets, where 100 houses are more than a century old. (During the third week in June, residents throw open their wisteria-draped doors for the Beaufort Homes and Garden Tour.) They also love it for the Beaufort Grocery Co., where first-rate southern cuisine -- a far cry from the "whatever-it-is-fry-it" regime of many southern beach eateries -- is served to hungry locals and visitors. And they love it for the wild ponies, descendants of the mustangs brought over on Spanish galleons, who roam the dunes of Shackleford Banks, just a quick pedestrian ferry ride away.
I love Beaufort for its human scale and decidedly unglitzy charm. If strolling the boardwalk with an ice cream cone or popping into an antique store are the sorts of things that suit you on vacation, this is your spot. Be sure to check out the "warped weavers" (no, they're not insane) who show off their antique looms in the Safrit Historical Center and don't miss the ghostly Old Burying Ground on Ann Street, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can even hop aboard a red English double-decker bus to tour the historic district. There are several excellent inns to choose from in Beaufort, including the Ann Street Inn and the Inlet Inn.