Spend Your Sunny Summer on Southern Beaches

June 9, 2016
Candyce H. Stapen

Southern beaches offer traditional beach trappings of sun, sand, and seafood, but with a special blend of southern charm and culture.

Surfers on Virginia Beach's Grommet Beach. Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

Beach resorts, like ice cream, come in different flavors. What you order depends on what you’re craving at the moment. Similarly, sometimes you want a bustling boardwalk, other times a manageable, oceanfront resort with services and surf, and still other times you feel like more golf than waves. South Carolina’s Wild Dunes Resort, Virginia’s Virginia Beach, and Georgia’s Golden Isles, all deliver southern charm, but in various configurations. We’ll cover the three beach areas in two parts. This week, we’ll look at South Carolina and Virginia. Next week, we’ll tackle Georgia. Match the shore destination to your mood and enjoy a great beach vacation.

South Carolina

Children building sand castles at Wild Dunes Beach. Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

Wild Dunes Resort

At 1,600 acres, Wild Dunes Resort on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms, offers miles of shore as well as a variety of lodgings and restaurants, but still feels like a beach getaway instead of a small town. For off the beach fun, the resort offers golf, tennis, and eco-adventures. For those who crave a city day, Charleston is 15 miles, or a 30-minute drive away.

Beaches and Pools

The resort’s dune-bordered beach stretches for miles. No souvenir shops or pizza joints mar the vista of sand and sea, making the beach perfect for strolling. Wide enough, especially at low tide, the beach offers ample space so that you don’t feel like you’re sitting elbow-to-elbow with fellow guests. For tots, the ocean’s gentle slope creates a good-sized shallow area, perfect for play.

The gazebo-like Grand Pavilion comes with an eatery, convenient for lunch. Two small pools flank the dining area. Serious swimmers and kids who seek space to splash use the outdoor Swim Center’s 25-meter pool.

Eco-Adventures and Family Adventures

On a 3.5-hour cruise to undeveloped Capers Island, you wind through salt marshes where you’re likely to see osprey, pelicans, herons, egrets, and even bottlenose dolphins. On a kayak trip from Shem Creek to Bird Island, we saw shrimp trawlers in the harbor and paddled past manatees and dolphins. To explore Wild Dunes Resort on your own, the Bike Shop rents adult, children’s, and tandem bicycles as well as trailers for little ones to sit in.

Golf and Tennis

Golfers can swing through two, 18-hole courses, the Links and the Harbor. You can improve your strokes at the golf clinic, which also offers two-hour sessions for ages 6 to 16. The resort’s extensive tennis program provides drills, clinics and private lessons.

Restaurants

Popular Hudson’s Market sells sandwiches as well as wine, beer, cheese, and ice cream. Like many resort groceries, this one is convenient but also pricey. If you can, stock up on items at a supermarket before arriving on Isle of Palms. Outside the resort on the Isle of Palms and nearby Sullivan’s Island, cheap eateries and pizza places abound. Some good restaurants worth a night out include the Boathouse on Breach Inlet and Coda del Pesce. Both serve tasty seafood.

Lodging

Wild Dunes offers centrally located hotel rooms and condominiums as well as townhouses and private homes. At the Village at Wild Dunes, situated in the heart of the resort’s “village,” choose from hotel rooms or studio to three-bedroom suites, each of which have kitchenettes and washer/dryers. Although our studio room, like most of the units, lacked an ocean view, the room proved comfortable for two people. If traveling with children, request a one-bedroom or two-bedroom suite. The nearby Boardwalk Inn offers upmarket hotel rooms and a small pool. For some seclusion, consider a townhome or condo that’s away from the central Gazebo hub.

Virginia

Virginia Beach's Boardwalk and iconic Neptune statue. Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

Virginia Beach

A classic beach resort complete with a great “boardwalk” (a paved seaside path), plus 20 miles of continuous sandy shores, Virginia Beach offers options: a bustling see-and-be-seen boardwalk area, less crowded beaches in Sandbridge, or the refuge of sparsely populated sands in Back Bay. The fun comes from mixing experiences.

Beaches, Pools, and Lodging

The boardwalk stretches for three miles along the ocean from 2nd to 39th streets, serving as the heart of the town’s bustling beach life. An impressive 28 feet wide, the boardwalk provides lots of space. Strollers take the lanes closest to the ocean and on the other side of a divider of plants, trees, and flowers, rollerbladers and cyclists pedal. Along the way, whimsical sculptures of crabs and critters enliven the path and benches provide respite for walkers. Since most souvenir, T-shirt, and sundry shops are a block away, the boardwalk remains a place for ambling, sitting, gathering, cycling, and with all the musical entertainment, partying.

At 2nd Street and the Boardwalk, Grommet Island Park uses 15,000 square feet of ramps and decking to be accessible to children with and without disabilities. At the cleverly designed playground, kids can use their arms for pulling themselves along and kids can build castles on raised-bed platforms that make reaching the sand easy for kids in wheelchairs.

When we want to be at the epicenter of the resort area, we stay at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. The 31st Street Stage, one of the venues hosting nightly, free concerts all summer long, adjoins the hotel and is steps from the boardwalk’s Neptune, the iconic Virginia Beach statue. The Hilton’s rooftop deck offers panoramic views and hotel has an outdoor and an indoor pool. Although small, the pools, especially the indoor one, are a bonus on rainy days. If traveling with young kids who bed down early, choose a room facing south away from the stage or select a property such as the Wyndham Virginia Beach that’s in the less busy north end of town.

Residential Sandbridge, a rental home area of homes and condos about five miles south of the boardwalk, is popular without the noisy crowds that converge on the boardwalk. For some the quiet is worth the drive to Virginia Beach’s center. Factor in that parking in high-season in the boardwalk area can be difficult.

When we crave more isolated shores, we drive 40 minutes to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and through there we go to False Cape State Park. Back Bay Refuge’s 9,000 acres feature beaches, marshlands, and wooded areas. While the refuge prohibits swimming and sun bathing, you can stroll the beach or hike and bike on the interior trail. On a recent shore walk, we saw two bald eagles as well as scores of cormorants and gulls.

To reach the 4,321-acre False Cape State Park, a mile-wide barrier spit between the Chesapeake’s Back Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, you must either hike or bike five miles through the refuge or board a tram that follows the interior woodland trail through Back Bay to False Cape. To explore the beach, disembark at the Barbour Hill area and catch the tram back about two hours later. Check the schedule and reserve ahead.

Restaurants

Catch 31, the Hilton hotel’s oceanfront restaurant, serves some of the area’s best seafood, including tasty crab cakes. With a bustling bar, Catch 31 is noisy or lively, depending on your point of view. Watermen’s Surfside Grill makes great fish tacos, and Lynnhaven Fish House continually receives rave reviews for its seafood, especially the crab soup, and Tautog’s Restaurant flounder gets high marks.

What are your favorite spots in South Carolina and Virginia? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter, @familyitrips.