March 2008 Issue
For a well-rounded vacation, head for the Carolina shore.
While you can’t just type some random coordinates into your GPS to plot your dream vacation, it’s a sure bet you’ll find it somewhere along the Carolina coast.
Whatever your point of view, there are many points to view along the Carolina shore. For some, that dream vacation may be capped by a dive in the shipwreck-laden waters along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. For others, it might be sealed watching bottlenose dolphins break the water’s surface off Hilton Head Island. Or, it just might be as simple as feeling the sun on your face as you watch the ocean waves melt into the sand along the Grand Strand.
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Through the years, Vickie and Terry Knott have been drawn to the Carolina coast whenever they’ve felt the need to recharge their batteries. A favorite destination of the Middletown couple is Hilton Head, but they’ve explored many of the towns and villages that dot the shoreline from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the southern-most reaches of South Carolina. Just talking about their past journeys whets their appetite for a return.
“There’s a park along the coast in Charleston with all kinds of old-fashioned swings where you can just sit and swing for hours,” Vickie says. “It’s so peaceful and relaxing.”
Indeed, Charleston’s Waterfront Park is famous for its “porch swings,” which line the pier that juts into Charleston Harbor. There, you can watch as the ships roll in and out of port while the gentle rock of the swing erases any lingering thoughts of traffic jams and deadlines.
Of course, there’s plenty more in store throughout the historic and genteel city of Charleston, including the landscaped beauty of Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation and the natural playground that is Cypress Gardens, where you can explore the mysteries of the swampy depths from the dry comfort of a glass-bottom boat.
From Charleston, you can quickly make your way to several top-notch island beaches to work on your tan and frolic in the surf. For a more rustic approach, head to Folly Beach, where quirky surf shops and beachside cafes complement the “Washout,” which is touted as one of the best surfing destinations on the East Coast. Looking for wide beaches with pristine white sand? The private resort island of Kiawah delivers, and it’s just minutes away. If you’re not staying at a Kiawah resort, you can still plant your feet in the island’s sand by getting a day pass to the public Beachwalker Park on the west end of the island.
When you arrive on Hilton Head Island, you can’t help but notice all of the Ohio license plates. It’s not a coincidence. When the planners were laying out the island as a tourist destination years ago, they thought Ohio — because of its location and demographics — would be the ideal place to target its marketing efforts. Clearly, Ohioans recognize a good thing when they see it.
“Ohio is our No. 1 state,” says Charlie Clark, vice president of communications for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. “Sometimes, we wonder if there are any cars left in Ohio.”
While your car may have the ubiquitous Ohio plate, it should remain parked during your entire stay on the island. Hilton Head is designed so that you can have access to anything on two wheels or two feet. So, save your gas money for the trip home.
“You can go anywhere on the island on a bike,” says frequent visitor Terry Knott. ”
That includes the beaches, of which there are 12 publicly accessible miles. Unlike many beaches where your bike’s wheels would sink on impact, Hilton Head’s sand is hard-packed, which allows for a comfortable riding, jogging and walking surface. Don’t want to bring your bike? Don’t worry. You can find bikes of many varieties — including tandems and children’s — for rent from island shops.
Most visitors to Hilton Head stay at a villa on one of the island’s resort plantations, such as Sea Pines, which is home to three golf courses, including the new Heron Point track designed by the legendary Pete Dye. While villas remain popular, more and more travelers, including the Knotts, are choosing to bring their own accommodations — in the form of recreational vehicles — to destinations such as the Hilton Head Motor Coach Resort.
“It’s fully landscaped; just as nice as the other resorts,” Terry says.
One of the most compelling reasons to visit Hilton Head is for something it lacks — street lights and neon. On this island, romantic evening walks on the beach are guided by moon-lit, star-filled skies.
“The whole island is green,” Hilton Head’s Clark says. “Everything here must blend with nature.”
And, nature, indeed, is a big part of the show. Especially in the summer months, when you can see dolphins swimming in the shallow waters right along the shore. If you want an even closer look, several island companies offer charter excursions that get you right next to the dolphins.
Some 200 avian species are known to visit the island, so bird-watching is popular on Hilton Head. Bring your binoculars to catch a glimpse of an osprey, egret or sandpiper. Fish Haul Creek Park is a great place to begin your photographic hunt for a feathered find.
Whether you plan to spend the day on the water dancing with dolphins or hiking along the shore in search of a rare bird, you need to start the day with a full belly. Fortunately, one of the tastiest breakfast selections anywhere can be found at Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café, where the house specialty is decadent deep-dish French toast.
At the end of the day, plan a stop at the Salty Dog Café to wash down some shrimp toast and a bucket of crab legs with your favorite cold beverage. And, while you’re there, don’t forget to grab one of the Salty Dog’s popular T-shirts as a memento.
Myrtle Beach has long been known for its miles of sandy shore, gift shops and all-you-can-eat seafood buffets, but this spring, the South Carolina vacation destination is beating a new drum. In May, the world’s first-ever rock ’n’ roll theme park will open to the general public along the Grand Strand. The 140-acre Hard Rock Park will pay homage to all the popular contemporary sounds — from country to disco — and will even feature a signature roller coaster designed with the resonating riffs of legendary rock band Led Zeppelin in mind.
If rock isn’t your thing, Myrtle Beach has no shortage of theme parks to suit a variety of tastes. There’s the NASCAR Speedpark for everyone with a heavy right foot and the will to beat every traffic signal, and Ripley’s Aquarium that offers the opportunity to “Sleep with the Sharks” in its “Dangerous Reef Tunnel.”
And don’t forget that the Myrtle Beach area boasts 60 miles of sand — hence, the Grand Strand moniker.
Some know it as North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks, but all of the promotional materials bill it as the Crystal Coast … for good reason. With miles of pristine beaches and sun-splashed waters, this strand of barrier islands is clearly the place to go to enjoy all the fruits of a beach vacation without the crowds you might encounter elsewhere.
Because they’re heated by the Gulf Stream, the waters off the Crystal Coast are warm and clear. That clarity makes this a popular destination for divers looking to explore the depths of the so-called “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where around 2,000 wrecked vessels rest. Several shops along the coast, most notably in the beach communities on the barrier island of Bogue Banks, offer diving lessons and equipment rentals.
If you prefer to stay above the water’s surface, paddling a kayak or learning to sail might be better options for you. Lessons, rentals and guided excursions — lasting as little as a couple hours to as long as several days — are available.
One of the jewels of the Crystal Coast is the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is comprised of islands accessible only by boat and boasts 56 miles of undeveloped beach. On these islands, wild horses run free and children are can fill up their buckets with an assortment of colorful shells. The island of Core Banks is home to Cape Lookout’s signature lighthouse, which sports a black-and-white diamond pattern. Tours are available by reservation only.
At the end of the day, trade in your flip-flops for a pair of cowboy boots. The Crystal Coast Jamboree in Morehead City features a two-hour show full of back-to-back live country-music performances. After a day of splashing in the surf, it’s a good way to shake off all that sand.