In the South, when it comes to vacation destinations, most states are blessed either with mountain retreats or soft sand beaches, often protected from the Atlantic surf by barrier islands, which themselves offer an entirely different beach experience.
Even if you worked your way down the Atlantic coast and around onto the Gulf coast for an entire summer, changing beaches each day, you could not take in all of the different — and unique — beaches the South has to offer.
Some, such as summer darlings Virginia Beach and Key West, brim with umbrellas, music and festivals; others, like National Park Service (NPS)-protected Ship Island in Mississippi, play home to endangered species that use the tranquil shoreline to raise their young. Still others, such as Georgia’s long-hidden treasure Jekyll Island, are so stunning that our nation’s rich and famous have long insisted on keeping their charms all to themselves.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
The Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic at Cape Henry, where the men who would go on to found the first permanent English settlement in America first made landfall.
Virginia Beach today is a popular summer spot as much for its seafood and water sports as its history. In the spot where the first settlers ventured onto American soil, it’s impossible to separate the present from the past. Visitors can see the Naval Aviation Monument Park looming in the distance as they walk on one of the country’s best-loved beach boardwalks. While kayaking with dolphins, they can see the lighthouses at Fort Story and Cape Henry, the oldest government-built lighthouse in America, glint in the background.
Take a quick trip through time touring the 17th-century Adam Thoroughgood house and the 18th-century Francis Land House to see how average settlers lived during Virginia Beach’s early days before turning to the city’s proudest history: its military heritage.
“Dolphin watching and kayaking with dolphins are can’t-miss activities,” said Kelli Norman, director of tourism marketing and sales for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A group visit to Virginia Beach, with dozens of historical landmarks packed into just under 500 square miles, lends itself better to a long weekend or three or four weekdays than a one-day itinerary.
“It’s a motorcoach-friendly town; designated motorcoach parking instructions and maps are available on our website,” Norman said. “Overnight parking for coaches is available for a fee if the hotel does not have ample space.”
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Ever since the formation of the Jekyll Island Club, an elite organization of America’s movers and shakers who united on the island to compare notes and discuss the direction of the nation’s economy, this small island off the coast of Georgia has held a certain allure that extends far beyond the vibrant apricot sunsets over Jekyll Creek.
“There’s so many great stories from the era of the millionaire’s club,” said Eric Garvey, chief communications officer for the Jekyll Island Authority. “We just had the 100th anniversary of the first transatlantic phone call. The president of AT&T was on Jekyll Island, and he was supposed to travel back to New York for the call; but he fell ill, so he had the phone line brought to Jekyll, and we hosted it here.”
Though the first families arrived on Jekyll by boat, the current causeway allows groups today to reach the island using buses, which drop off at the Jekyll Island Museum just outside Jekyll’s historic district.
“Touring the exhibits at the museum, which takes 35 to 40 minutes, is a great place to start your journey on Jekyll, followed by a 90-minute historic tram through some of the family cottages,” Garvey said.
Groups can dine as the millionaires once did in the Jekyll Island Club or the Latitude 31 seafood restaurant on the historic wharf, where club members would arrive with their luggage. The club features a variety of private dining spaces to suit different- size groups.
After lunch, visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, also in the historic district, which has turned a former power plant into a rehabilitation facility for loggerhead sea turtles. A presentation on the turtles and the center’s preservation efforts runs about an hour and offers an incredibly rare opportunity to see the endangered animals up close.
Elsewhere on the island, golf, a historic pastime there, is available 12 months of the year, as weather, even in winter, is very mild.
“Another big part of the experience is to get out on the water,” Garvey said. “Wander a bit, have a meal, and then take a dolphin trip around the river and see the island from that viewpoint.”