Courtesy Cape Fear Coast CVB
From the lighthouses of the Outer Banks to the historic waterfront of Charleston Harbor, the sea has carved out a distinct identity for the cities and towns of the Carolina coast.
In both North Carolina and South Carolina, seaside towns are among the most popular destinations in the state. Visitors come for the pristine beaches, the flora and fauna of protected natural areas, historic waterfront communities and the array of maritime attractions in these areas.
For groups, the variety of possibilities in the coastal Carolinas is vast: sightseeing cruises and guided kayak tours offer opportunities for both the timid and adventurous, while the cuisine, history and architecture in the area all reflect a seaside charm. So the next time that the road brings you and your group to North Carolina or South Carolina, take some time to enjoy the nature and ambiance of these coastal towns.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Because of the area’s position near the middle of the country’s Atlantic Coast, the Outer Banks of North Carolina has seen more than four centuries of significant historical events, including the failed Roanoke colony from the 1500s.
“Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was the site of the first English settlement in the new world, dating back to 1585,” said Aaron Tuell, director of public relations for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “It was the site of what we refer to as the Lost Colony; they had 116 men, women and children that were never heard from again.”
Today, visitors to the site can learn about the history of the ill-fated colony and explore the Elizabethan gardens at the fort, which include one of the largest collections of camellias on the East Coast. Next year, the historic site will open a new welcome center and museum.
For nature lovers, the area’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers a wealth of options.
“Cape Hatteras was America’s first established national seashore,” Tuell said. “It spans three islands and is a little over 70 miles long. In between the seven villages on those islands, there are large stretches of undeveloped oceanfront. There are bird watching opportunities, collecting shells on the beach and all kinds of recreational activities.”
Boat operators in the area can take groups out on deep-sea fishing expeditions or dolphin-watching tours of Hatteras Inlet. More active groups can work with local outfitters to put together kayaking tours, kiteboarding lessons or paddleboard adventures.
Many groups that visit the Outer Banks also take time to see the area’s four lighthouses. The popular Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has a garden and museum open to the public, and the Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in the country.
Wilmington, North Carolina
It’s all about the water in Wilmington, a scenic town known for both its river and its ocean coast.
“We have a unique geography in that we’re kind of on a peninsula, and we have the barrier islands and beaches too,” said Connie Nelson, public relations director for the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Within a 30-minute drive, you can be from the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean. So we have a lot of different bodies of water that come together on our coast. It opens up a lot of opportunity to see things on the water.”
On the river, two different boats take groups out on sightseeing cruises, which can also include, lunch, dinner, dancing and murder mysteries. The Battleship North Carolina is also moored on the river as a World War II memorial, with nine decks open for public tours.
The river banks are also home to Caroline Beach State Park, one of the only places in the world where you can see the famous Venus flytrap plants, which grow only within a 75-mile radius of Wilmington.
On the ocean side, groups can take boat tours that introduce them to some of the riches of the sea.
“There’s a company down there called Carolina Ocean Study that teaches you about the ecology of the ocean,” said Mikie Wall, the bureau’s vice president of sales. “He can take you five miles out and teach you how to fish or take you out to an uninhabited island and show you how to crab.”
At Kerry Beach, the North Carolina Aquarium staff runs a number of special programs for groups, including an exploration of the salt marsh behind the property and a surf-fishing demonstration on the beach.
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
In addition to its dinner theaters and other modern entertainment spots, North Myrtle Beach boasts a bevy of attractions that take advantage of its position between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. In addition to common fare such as a fishing pier and banana boats on the beach, the area has some more interesting features.
“We have an artificial reef off of our shore,” said Jennifer Prince, communications specialist at the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. “We have hundreds of tankers that the army reserve sank into the ocean. It’s created a huge artificial reef. It’s a great attraction for divers and fishermen, who catch really large flounders off of that.”
Groups can go out with charter fishing boats to try their luck along the artificial reef or to fish in the Intracoastal Waterway. Kayak tours, pontoon boat rentals and other outings are available both in the ocean and the waterway.
Many groups that come to town enjoy a trip on the Pride of the Carolinas.
“It’s a dolphin eco-tour, conducted by a marine biologist who takes you out on the boat,” Prince said. “You can see the dolphins, and they feed the turtles and alligators as well.”
Myrtle Beach. South Carolina
A combination of beaches, inlets, salt marshes and rice plantations gives visitors to Myrtle Beach plenty of options for enjoying the coast.
Huntington Beach State Park preservers a lagoon, a maritime forest, salt marshes and three miles of beaches. Groups can take wildlife tours of the park, during which they are likely to see alligators and some of the more than 300 species of birds that have been recorded in the area.
Other options include visits to an education center, boardwalks and nature trails. Also in the park is Atalaya, the former winter home of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington.
Fourteen former rice plantations make up Hobcaw Barony, a 17,500-acre wildlife refuge on the southern end of the Myrtle Beach area’s Grand Strand. Universities in the state use the area to teach and research forestry and marine biology, but groups can also visit for a day tour to learn about the native flora and fauna of the region.
For an interesting look at historic and modern plantations, Captain Rod Singleton operates Lowcountry Plantation Tours, a boat tour that includes a mix of antebellum history and personal experiences on the water. The 56-foot pontoon boat can take groups on tours of plantations along the river or to area lighthouses and supposedly-haunted harbors.
In nearby Murrells Inlet, a marsh walk area allows visitors to get out and see the wildlife and scenery of the area’s saltwater estuary. The marsh walk is built alongside some of the town’s many seafood restaurants and is the gateway to numerous boating, fishing and water sports activities in the inlet.
Groups will also enjoy exploring the Waccamaw Riverwalk, which winds along freshwater riverbanks in the town of Conway. Guides can accompany your group on tours of the boardwalk, as well as canoeing, pontoon boat and fishing expeditions.
Charleston, South Carolina
Many people think of Charleston as a historic destination, with beautiful architecture and iconic southern plantations. But the Charleston Harbor and surrounding wetlands are an equally intriguing part of this city.
In Charleston Harbor, a number of boat cruises offer visitors a way to see downtown from the water or to explore nearby historic sites including Fort Sumter, site of the first battle of the Civil War and now a national monument. Some of the cruise tours stop at the fort, allowing passengers to get off and take a guided tour of the site.
Also on the harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium has wildlife from both the local area and more exotic oceans. The staff gives groups special tours of each exhibit area, sharing information about the animals on display.
In the wetlands, there’s an entirely different picture to behold.
“A lot of our groups take advantage of kayaking through the marshes or around the plantations where the rice fields were,” said Angie Day, a sales manager at the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Often times they’re led by naturalists, so they’re getting a lot of history and nature as well.”
At Magnolia Gardens, groups can experience the wetlands without getting in the water themselves. A nature tram takes guests through the marshlands, where they often see alligators, native birds and plant life indigenous to the area.
Some companies in the area, such as Barrier Island Eco-Tours, offer trips to nearby islands, which can be accompanied by traditional meals.
“You can do a low-country boil, or if it’s a cool evening, you might make chili,” Day said. “A lot of groups like to have food that’s locally influenced.”