By Teri Saylor
Another long, cold winter has come and gone, and as the pandemic lingers across the land, spring ushers in the promise of outdoor fun and exploration. A long weekend away may be just the medicine you need to cure cabin fever and satisfy your wanderlust.
Along the south Atlantic coast, tempting treasures and amazing adventures await visitors who crave the feel of the salty breeze on their skin, long to journey back in time to visit historic places, and seek to explore the nooks and crannies of coastal islands and watery places.
Here are five coastal getaways full of history, mystery and adventure within a five-hour drive of the Triangle.
The Outer Banks
Steeped in history, North Carolina’s Outer Banks will tickle your imagination when you celebrate the birth of flight, get a bird’s eye view of the beach from galleries atop lighthouses, explore shipwrecks that sleep in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and test your sleuthing skills to solve the mystery of Roanoke Island’s Lost Colony. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau offers a sampling of the many ways you can enjoy this beautiful part of the world.
Comprised of a 148-mile string of narrow barrier islands along the state’s northern coastline, the Outer Banks separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound. No trip is complete without a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial at the site where Wilbur and Orville Wright made history when they pioneered manmade flight in 1903. The Wright Brothers National Memorial sits atop the shifting sand dune that is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk, and you just might be inspired to take flight aboard a hang glider where you are guaranteed a soft, sandy landing and memories to last a lifetime.
History and mystery collide on Roanoke Island, where 115 English colonists disappeared more than 400 years ago after crossing the ocean in search of the New World. In Manteo, visitors can explore the Elizabethan Gardens, tour the Elizabeth II sailing vessel, and take in the Lost Colony outdoor play, an Outer Banks institution that has been bringing history to life since 1937.
Along the Outer Banks, the sea holds deep, dark mysteries too. In an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, more than 2,000 shipwrecks dating back to the 16th Century rest on the ocean floor. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island offers fascinating stories of their watery fate.
And if it’s seafaring lore you crave, the Outer Banks’ five iconic lighthouses beckon. Dating back to the 1800s, they offer stair-climbing excursions to their upper galleries where you can enjoy miles of panoramic views.
With its iconic red and white lighthouse, Harbour Town reflects the sumptuous environment Hilton Head Island has cultivated over time. If you crave luxurious resorts and spas, delightful boutiques, art galleries and cafes, and a few days under your beach umbrella, Hilton Head is all of that and more.
Hilton Head, along South Carolina’s southern shore, is named for English Captain William Hilton who sighted the island’s high bluffs in August of 1663, while exploring the Port Royal Sound. With more than 13 miles of pristine beaches, Hilton Head has no shortage of prime spots for sunbathing, swimming and beachcombing. One hundred miles of bike trails create an ideal environment for two-wheeled exploration, making Hilton Head a perfect place to stow your car keys and enjoy cruising under your own pedal power.
If you’re seeking water adventures, trade your bike for paddles and head out for an ecotour on a kayak or paddleboard. Discover your sea legs on the deck of a fishing charter or spend a day communing with friendly dolphins from a perch on your own rented skiff.
History buffs may find a haven in Hilton Head too. The island is in the heart of the Gullah Geechie Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area stretching from Pender County in North Carolina to St. Johns County in Florida. Celebrating its deep Gullah roots, the island offers visitors a chance to experience what life was like there before the bridge to the mainland was built in 1956, said Charlie Clark, vice president of communications at Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. With their ancestors having been brought to America as enslaved people in the 18th Century, the members of today’s Gullah community represent one of the most culturally distinctive African American populations in the United States, Clark added. After Emancipation, the Gullahs founded Mitchelville, a self-governing freemen’s village. Some of Mitchelville’s early buildings are available for touring.
“Hilton Head is the seat of Gullah culture,” Clark said. “Descendants of the island’s early inhabitants link the island to a rich and diverse history.”
For visitors longing to soak in the ambience of the Old South, Savannah is the place to be. The Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau points to a myriad of ways to enjoy Georgia’s oldest city, and travelers who crave history, mystery and adventure will find all that and more in what is widely considered the most haunted city in America, and one of the most beautiful.
Established in 1733, Savannah has been charming visitors for almost 300 years. Tourists flock to the city year-round to stroll through its 22 unique town squares, study the Gothic Revival architecture and snap selfies in front of centuries-old live oak trees, their branches dripping with Spanish moss.
One of the best ways to experience Savannah’s spooky side is on a ghost tour. For hardy souls who aren’t afraid of a little paranormal activity, a variety of bone-rattling excursions will provide plenty of chills and thrills.
A vision of architecture and design, Bonaventure Cemetery is one of Savannah’s most iconic destinations. Made famous by John Berendt’s book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” this multi-acre plot of good fortune (which is Bonaventure in Italian) has been captivating guests with its beauty since its establishment in the late 1700s.
If you’re looking for great shopping and delicious dining, River Street is one of Savannah’s most popular destinations. And just steps away from the Savannah Riverfront is a hidden gem called Factors Walk, a collection of red brick buildings that once composed the commercial epicenter for Savannah’s cotton factors – or business brokers. Today, Factors Walk still bustles, but instead of a cotton market, you’ll find unique shops, cozy cafes and historic hotels. Be on the lookout for the many plaques commemorating the factors and Savannah’s once-booming cotton industry.
With its low country cuisine and southern hospitality, Charleston is known as one of the best cities for foodies in the United States. Whether it’s shrimp and grits you crave, creamy she-crab soup, or a platter of locally grown oysters, there’s no better place to dine than in Charleston. U.S. News and World Report ranks the city’s cuisine sixth in the nation for its iconic dishes and southern gourmet restaurants.
Flaunting its rich 300-year history, Charleston is a beautifully preserved architectural and historical treasure, often called the Holy City for its many churches of all denominations. Travelers flock to Charleston to walk the neighborhoods and enjoy the array of charming front doors, some adorned with elaborate ironwork.
If you go, don’t miss your chance to stroll along the historic Battery, a fortified seawall and one of downtown Charleston’s most visited spots. The Battery, bordered by historic mansions on one side, offers gorgeous views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, the USS Yorktown, Fort Moultrie, and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse.
Springtime in Charleston ushers in the renowned Spoleto Festival, now in its 46th season. This year’s Spoleto marries history with culture as it opens with a world premiere opera co-written by Rhiannon Giddens, a North Carolina native and award-winning singer and songwriter known for roots and blues music and her exploration of African American folk traditions.
The opera, titled “Omar,” is based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim African man who was brought to Charleston in 1807. The opera’s story traces his spiritual journey from Africa to his capture, and enslavement in the Carolinas. Doug Warner, a spokesman for Explore Charleston, is excited about bringing Omar’s story to the world stage.
“This is a truly local production that’s going to make a global impact, and it’s another reason to come to Charleston during Spoleto,” he said. “Spoleto opens on May 27.”
Charleston Area Beaches
After spending days shopping, touring, and eating your way through Charleston, take a break to put your toes in the surf, partake in balmy ocean breezes and relax on one of the area’s beautiful public beaches, just a short drive from the heart of the city.
If great golf is your idea of an adventure in paradise, Kiawah Island is the place to be. The Kiawah Island Golf Resort, host of the 2012 and 2021 PGA Championships, is also home to The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, a luxury destination with five championship golf courses and a 10-mile beach. If it’s a day trip you are seeking, Kiawah Island delivers. Day visitors can enjoy the island’s only public beach, Beachwalker Park.
Folly Beach, the closest beach to downtown Charleston, is a throwback to vintage family beaches of simpler times. From surfing to building sandcastles, Folly Beach promises fun in the sun for adults and kids of all ages. Casual dining, fishing, and biking are all part of the beach’s laid-back ambience.
Life moves slowly on Sullivan’s Island. From long walks on the beach, to biking along the marsh, Sullivan’s Island is the place to go for a relaxing change of pace. If it’s a history lesson you want, check out the Fort Moultrie National Historic Park. The Explore Charleston visitor’s bureau offers an interesting tidbit: Author Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie from 1827 to 1828, and used Sullivan’s Island as the setting for his famous short story, The Gold Bug.
Isle of Palms pairs a laid-back residential lifestyle with a welcoming environment for visitors. If you go, be sure to get there early and catch a gorgeous sunset. Enjoy the island lifestyle when you play a casual round of golf at the Fazio-designed golf course, take a refreshing swim in the ocean, and cycle along the beach.