March 2005 Issue
Bound for the Beach
The Carolina coast has a bounty of sun, sand, shopping and golf for winter-weary Ohioans.
Ahhh . . .It's the sound an Ohioan makes as he or she sinks into the sun-warmed sand of a Carolina beach after a particularly long, cold winter. No late-winter/early-spring ice to scrape off the windshield or snow to shovel off the walk here. Just mile after mile of sparkling blue water and emerald-green golf courses punctuated by the occasional shopping mall or theme park. The only question: Which seaside destination to choose? The answer depends on your own definition of vacation nirvana. The good news is that, whether you're looking for silence and solitude or a dizzying array of attractions to keep the kids busy, you'll find it in the Carolinas.
A drive down the North Carolina coast begins on the Outer Banks, a 90-mile string of barrier islands that are the stuff of which All-American vacation snapshots are made: windswept white beaches, sand dunes, sea grasses gracefully bending in the breeze. The main drag through the islands, St. Rte. 12, passes through towns with names such as Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, where locations are given by the number on the nearest milepost. At some points the islands are so narrow that drivers can see ocean on one side of the road, sound on the other.
Activities on these picture-perfect strips of sand range from the sedentary to the extreme. If you're a shell collector, try finding a scotch bonnet (the state shell), lightning whelk, banded tulip or keyhole sand dollar on the beaches. No luck? The islands' plethora of shops, boutiques and galleries sell everything from mint-condition shells, even sharks' teeth, to handcrafted decoys to batik sarongs and more fashion-forward items. There are even a couple of year-round Christmas stores.
Shopaholics who begin to sweat at the thought of going anywhere that doesn't have an honest-to-goodness shopping mall will find it comforting to know there's a Belk department store in Kill Devil Hills and an outlet mall - in this case, the Tanger Outlet Mall - in Nags Head. The latter houses 25 tenants, including Coach and Polo factory stores.
A must-see for tourists - especially for Ohioans - is the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills,
site of the world's first controlled powered flights by the Dayton inventors. Lighthouse aficionados will want to check out the eight lighthouses built on the Tar Heel State's shore, five of which were built on the Outer Banks during the 1800s. The barber-pole-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton, near the southern end of Hatteras Island, is the tallest and arguably the most famous in the United States.
Those who venture south to Cape Lookout National Seashore to view diamond-patterned Cape Lookout Light-house should also take the time to see the 130 or so small, sturdy equines known as the Shackleford Ponies that roam Shackleford Banks, the southernmost island in the park. The feral horses are believed to be descendants of those who managed to make it to shore after European shipwrecks and/or were abandoned by residents who moved to the mainland after the storms of the late 1890s.
The park also marks the northernmost edge of the endangered loggerhead turtle's range. The arrival of female loggerheads on Carolina beaches in May, when they begin depositing their eggs in the sand, is an event for volunteer turtle patrols who stand watch over them. Nature-lovers may be fortunate enough to witness a "boil," when the 2-inch-long hatchlings emerge from their nests en masse and make a run for the relative safety of the sea, during the peak hatching season of September.
Thrill-seekers, of course, need more than a great bargain on designer duds or a spectacular view to get their blood pumping. A number of shops and schools devoted to the extreme sport of kite boarding, a combination of windsurfing, wakeboarding and kite flying, have sprung up along the North Carolina coast. Vacationers who harbor a hankering to hang glide can sign up for a lesson at Kitty Hawk Kites, reportedly the largest hang-gliding school in the world. The basic dune-gliding method is taught at Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head, home of the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. The park also permits sand boarding, a beach variant of snow boarding, from October through the beginning of March.
Want to take a dip? The waters off Morehead City are a top destination for divers because of their warmth, clarity and variety of wreck sites. According to the web site maintained by the state's Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, the most-visited sites include U-352, the German U-boat that was torpedoed in 1942; the World War II tanker Papoose; and the World War I casualty the Schurz.
Putts and drives
Golf courses are the main attraction on the southernmost stretch of North Carolina coastline known as the Brunswick Islands. In fact, the area has been dubbed the state's Golf Coast because of the explosion of golf courses - the area now boasts approximately three dozen, to be more exact - that have been built there during the last 20 years. Some of the best have sprung up just north of Calabash, creating what one writer calls "a kind of Pinehurst by the sea." One of the most well known is Oyster Bay Golf Links in Sunset Beach, which is famous for its 17th hole, a scenic par-3 with an island green built on a mound of oyster shells in a lake.
The bounty only continues to grow south of the border. Twenty-one of the 25 courses listed in the 2003-2004 Golf Digest best-in-state rankings for South Carolina are located on or near the coast; four made the magazine's "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" for the same time period. Robert Trent Jones' Dunes Golf & Beach Club is only one of more than a hundred golf courses in Myrtle Beach, many of which were designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.
The Dye-designed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort - site of the famous 1991 Ryder Cup "War on the Shore," when the Americans won back the trophy from the Europeans, and the 1997 and 2003 World Cup of Golf - is the most celebrated of golf offerings on the resort islands off Charleston. And Harbour Town Golf Links at Sea Pines Resort, a Dye/Nicklaus gem that serves as home to the PGA Tour's annual MCI Heritage tournament, along with the private Long Cove Club, grace Hilton Head Island. Visitors to Hilton Head will find their options are not limited to the two-dozen-plus tracks on the island - in recent years challenging courses have sprung up on the low-country mainland and neighboring islands.
The South Carolina shore, of course, is famous for far more than golf courses. For vacationers seeking more fun in the sun than peace and quiet, Myrtle Beach is the ultimate beach destination, a sort of family-friendly Vegas by the sea (minus the casinos and gambling, of course) on a 60-mile stretch of beach known as the Grand Strand. Even the nearly 50 miniature golf courses are fantastically kitschy, outfitted as they are with four-story mountains, life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, a 30-foot fire-breathing dragon - you get the idea.
The mega-entertainment complexes here are a sometimes unlikely combination of theme-park attractions, shopping and dining. Broadway at the Beach casts a NASCAR SpeedPark, water park, aquarium, IMAX theater, NASCAR Cafe, Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe among a host of other restaurants, nightclubs and specialty shops.
At Barefoot Landing, located on a 27-acre freshwater lake in North Myrtle Beach, there's the Alabama Theatre (opened by the country supergroup of the same name) and a House of Blues as well as waterfront eateries, specialty shops and outlet stores. Next to Barefoot Landing is Alligator Adventure, with its exhibits of albino American alligators, giant Galapagos tortoises, and black and green mambas, and "serpentarium" housing pythons, anacondas and king cobras.
Shoppers who can't find what they want at these locations head to the Tanger Outlet Centers (one's on U.S. Rte. 17, one's on U.S. Rte. 501) and Waccamaw Factory Shoppes, a trio of outlet malls that together offer deals on everything from Zales diamond jewelry to Bose audio components, or the Coastal Grand, a year-old, 1.5-million-square-foot retail behemoth billed as the state's largest mall. Those looking for a local product to take home will find it down on Pawleys Island, where The Original Hammock Shop sells the island's famous hand-woven export.
At the other end of the South Carolina coast is Hilton Head Island. According to legend, the island got its name from 17th-century English explorer Capt. William Hilton, who raved about the island's rich soil, plentiful game and, more importantly, high headland to the north. This kinder, gentler oceanside retreat is known for its environmentally sensitive developments, where bright streetlights, as one tourist guide puts it, "are as rare as snowstorms."
From the number of golf courses and tennis courts in the island's four main resort communities - Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes, Port Royal and Shipyard Plantation - it isn't hard to deduce what many people spend their time doing here. Visitors who aren't interested in picking up a golf club or tennis racquet can explore the island on a rented bicycle (Hilton Head has more than 20 miles of public paths), saddle up for a horseback tour of the 600-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, board a dolphin-watch tour or fishing charter, try their hand at parasailing or kayaking, or browse the island shops and galleries. (The Mall at Shelter Cove is anchored by Belk and Off 5th, a Saks Fifth Avenue outlet.)
The island also advertises a thriving arts community, complete with an orchestra, dance troupe and arts center that hosts theatrical productions, concerts and gallery exhibitions. History buffs will want to take a carriage ride through nearby Bluffton, a charming old town where antebellum plantation owners summered to escape the low-country heat. Calhoun Street is lined by retail stores and restaurants. Also in Bluffton are Tanger Outlet Centers I & II, where the approximately 84 outlets include Brooks Brothers and Seiko among their numbers.
When you go ...
The following web sites offer details on attractions along the Carolina coast: