Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach is the playful hub of South Carolina’s Grand Strand: 60 miles of beaches and inviting inlets. The area is also popular for its more than 100 golf courses designed by celebrities such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Many rank among the nation’s top courses, and none are more popular than Caledonia Golf and Fish Club in Pawleys Island, just south of Myrtle Beach.
Built on an old rice plantation, Caledonia is studded with century-old twisted oaks, hanging Spanish moss and natural waterways.
“It’s got a great Southern feel to it, and golfers always say the course is relaxing and amazing,” said Dolly Chewning of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
For more experienced golfers, Chewning suggests Tidewater Golf Club, perched atop river bluffs with stunning views of the ocean below. It’s equally beautiful but more challenging.
The beaches connected to the long strip of Grand Strand hotels are rarely overcrowded, but a uniquely serene stretch of sand is Huntington Beach State Park. The park is also home to Atalaya Castle, the former winter home of philanthropist Archer Huntington and his sculptor wife, Anna. The couple left the park and the adjacent Brookgreen Gardens — sprawling gardens with more than 1,400 sculptures — as their legacy.
Within the city, groups can find several upscale shopping communities. Market Common is a traditional favorite, and Barefoot Landing arranges its shops in a natural bird-sanctuary setting. At night, Myrtle Beach comes alive with Vegas-style live performances and concert venues.
“The Carolina Opry is consistently one of our top attractions,” Chewning said, adding that the shamelessly sentimental Christmas show is a best seller.
And no trip to Myrtle Beach is complete without a walk down the beachfront boardwalk and a ride on the iconic SkyWheel, the tallest Ferris wheel on the East Coast, with an amazing view over the Atlantic.
Bordering the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida, Destin is famous for its sugar-white sands, emerald waters and laid-back personality. Because Destin originated as a small fishing village, the harbor is still the heart of the community, and anglers from around the world flock to the Emerald Coast to try their luck.
“We have the largest charter fishing fleet in the state of Florida, and there are so many species just outside our harbor,” said Sherry Rushing of the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That’s why we call Destin the luckiest fishing village in the world.”
Any size group can charter fishing trips for any length of time, day or night, and head out to the sea for red snapper, king mackerel, grouper, shark and bonito, or troll within Choctawhatchee Bay for an abundance of fresh and saltwater species, including Florida’s famed pompano.
To make the experience more fun, more than 30 restaurants along the Emerald Coast will prepare any catch the same day and serve it with sides.
Several adventure companies operate out of Destin Harbor and offer unusual experiences like flyboarding and Snuba, along with several usual offerings such as jet skiing, paddleboarding, kayaking, parasailing and dolphin cruises. For a small town, Destin also has a surprising number of specialty boutiques and upscale chains, as well as a popular outlet mall.
A few miles from the bustling harbor is Henderson Beach State Park, which includes more than a mile of pristine beach and a nature preserve with dunes, pine and oak trees, and an abundance of coastal wildlife. Park rangers offer group tours that Rushing calls a Destin must.
“Seeing this area in its natural state is something you absolutely can’t miss,” she said.
Santa Barbara, California
Blessed with near-perfect weather, Santa Barbara is tucked between a steep mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish Colonial city with stucco buildings and red-tile roofs sits 92 miles north of Los Angeles and spans several miles of pristine California coastline.
Though Santa Barbara has abundant beaches, East Beach is a favorite with visitors; the wide strip of white sand offers breathtaking views of the offshore Channel Islands. Western-facing Butterfly Beach is where locals and several celebrities watch the sun set over the Pacific.
“What makes us unique is that we’re a coastal destination with a mountain range near it, reminiscent of the Mediterranean,” said Michelle Carlen of Visit Santa Barbara.
Groups of any size can take in the dramatic coastline aboard the Channel Cat yacht, the largest vessel in the harbor, from which dolphin, whale and sea lion sightings are possible. More adventurous groups can catch a boat to the Channel Islands and kayak through the caves, or take in views of the mountains by horseback on the beach.
In addition to the views, groups are drawn to Santa Barbara because of boutique shopping, cultural offerings and big-city entertainment without all the hustle of L.A. Favorite shopping spots include State Street and boutiques in the Montecito community on the lower foothills of the mountains.
“We’re an intimate destination, but we’re also a cultural hub with world-class performances,” Carlen said, listing the usual A-listers who prefer Santa Barbara’s theaters and amphitheater. It’s not uncommon for entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld or big acts like the Lumineers to be in town.
Santa Barbara is also wine country and is home to more than 220 wineries and several tasting rooms close to the water. The urban tasting trail is growing in popularity, and along with grapes, local farmers specialize in citrus and nuts, which make their way to several farmers markets. Groups can collaborate with top chefs in the area, who will guide them through a market and help them pick out their favorites, which will go into a meal prepared at a restaurant later that evening.