Explore Carolina Beaches to Find the Best Fit for Your Family

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One of the many benefits of living in beautiful North Carolina is the opportunity to visit a variety of beaches within just a few hours' drive. When putting together beach vacation plans, it's a good idea to consider the different activity interests of all members of your family.

With the abundance of sandy spots in both North and South Carolina, you're sure to find beautiful shorelines filled with as much activity (or inactivity) as you desire. Here's an overview of a few of the popular areas to help you make the best choice for your family.

The Outer Banks

For families looking for uncrowded beaches and plentiful outdoor activities, the Outer Banks of North Carolina is a good pick. Rich with history, the 200-mile string of barrier islands is home to the first flight of The Wright Brothers in 1903, and the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred off the coast of the Outer Banks have earned it the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic."

Whether you choose to stay on Bodie, Roanoke, Hatteras or Ocracoke Island, you'll find plenty of sand for building sandcastles, shopping in the charming town of Duck, dunes to climb at Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head and entertainment at The Lost Colony outdoor drama open late May through late August. Look for wild ponies on the beaches of Corolla or Ocracoke (accessible only by ferry). If four-wheeling interests you, take a trip on Carova Beach, a designated beach near Corolla, located in the farthest northeast corner of North Carolina.

What to do when you've had too much sun: Visit the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island, open daily year-round. Or climb to the top of the Currituck Beach and Cape Hatteras lighthouses.

Brunswick Islands

Families also looking for a break from the frenetic pace of their everyday lives head to the Brunswick beaches each year to enjoy good food, shopping, recreational activities and relaxation. Here you'll find eight smaller islands, each unique in their own individual ways.

Once a commercial fishing center in the 1920s, the largest of the islands, Holden Beach, is on 11 miles of beaches. It maintains a commercial-free atmosphere by keeping all buildings smaller than 35-feet tall.

The popular Ocean Isle has eight miles of beaches and is home to the Museum of Coastal Carolina and a fishing pier and arcade at the center of the island. Golf enthusiasts can choose from an array of courses, all within an hour's drive of the Brunswick Islands. Day trips to North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach are 30 minutes to an hour away.

For a serene and private beach vacation, take the ferry from Southport, N.C., to Bald Head Island, where visitors can explore the island only on foot, by bike or golf cart. The island is a safe haven for wildlife and has 10,000 acres dedicated to nature preserves. Other Brunswick Island beaches include Oak Island, Sunset Beach and Caswell Beach.

What to do when you've had too much sun: Plan a visit to the quaint town of Calabash for dinner at one of the local restaurants for "Calabash-style" seafood, which involves a cornmeal batter and hush puppies. Visit Callahan's Calabash Nautical Gifts to pick up everything from souvenir T-shirts to saltwater taffy to yummy fudge in a variety of flavors. The Christmas shop inside the store is the perfect place to stock up on ornaments, with 100 decorated trees and more than 3 million ornaments.

The Crystal Coast

Whether your family loves historical sites or just spending quality time together on calm, sandy beaches, The North Carolina Crystal Coast offers affordable accommodations in Cape Lookout, Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, Morehead City and Beaufort, a popular backdrop for best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks.

Beaufort, the third oldest town in the state of North Carolina, is home to a popular waterfront historic district that is particularly lively on summer evenings. Emerald Isle, with abundant outdoor activities and water that is often described as more green than blue, is typically the most popular locale for visiting families.

The Cape Lookout Ferry gives passengers the opportunity to explore uninhabited beaches along the Cape Lookout National Seashore as well as a lighthouse. Share the scenery with the wild horses on Shackleford Banks.

The Crystal Coast represents one of the only natural barrier island systems in the world, providing a picturesque coastline edged with maritime forests. Tour Fort Macon, one of North Carolina's most visited state parks. The five-sided service fort was used in both the Civil War and World War II, and also includes a recreation area with lifeguard-protected swimming, a bathhouse and picnic area.

What to do when you've had too much sun: Check out the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort to learn about maritime history, culture and the environment of coastal North Carolina. Or stop by the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, between Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach. The aquarium hosts family nights during the summer with special evening activities. For more traditional fun, visit Mac Daddy's in Cape Carteret, an entertainment complex with bowling, billiards, a sports bar and grill and the largest arcade on the Crystal Coast.

Hilton Head

Named one of America's healthiest beaches by Health magazine, Hilton Head Island, S.C., can be described as a fitness enthusiast's dream come true. There are 20 public golf courses to choose from and 200 tennis courts. Even if you normally don't bike, you'll fall in love with cycling on quaint bicycles with your family on more than 50 miles of paved trails. Rent your bikes before your trip and they will be waiting at your cottage or condo when you arrive. Horseback riding, outlet shopping and dolphin cruises are other options.

Hop on a trolley on the grounds of The Sea Pines Resort for an evening excursion through Harbour Town, and enjoy cool breezes, outdoor dining, live music, a lighthouse, quaint shops and a large outdoor playground built right into the existing trees. Popular family restaurants in Hilton Head include The Crazy Crab (with two locations) and the Salty Dog Café. Fun day trip ideas include taking a ferry ride to nearby Daufauskie Island or driving to Savannah, Ga., to take in the rich architecture and mysterious history of the city.

What to do when you've had too much sun: Enjoy a free family movie Wednesday mornings at Coligny Plaza or take the kids to The Sandbox, an interactive children's museum for children ages 8 and younger that also offers weekly parents nights out. www.thesandbox.org.

Myrtle Beach

If your family enjoys soaking up the sun but also wants to balance miles of beaches with plenty of attractions, outdoor amusement parks, sports, shopping and dining, look no further than Myrtle Beach, S.C., also known as "The Grand Strand."

For the adventurous, there is surfing, scuba diving, kayaking and parasailing. A variety of water parks offer a different kind of fun in the sun. Plan to shop and take in a meal at Broadway at the Beach (home of the Ripley's Aquarium) or Barefoot Landing.

You'll find an array of oceanfront resorts to choose from, along with beach homes and other vacation rentals in nearby North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Garden City. In May, the city opened a pedestrian and family-friendly oceanfront boardwalk spanning 1.2 miles in the heart of the Grand Strand.

What to do when you've had too much sun: Dine at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction or the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. At Dixie Stampede, each ticket includes an opening show, the main show in the expansive arena, and a four-course dinner with dessert included. Like Dixie Stampede, Medieval Times is a family-friendly dinner show with four courses served inspired by 11th century medieval battles. www.dixiestampede.com and www.medievaltimes.com.

If your family is itching to explore the Carolina coastline this summer, it's not too late to take advantage of all the beaches have to offer. No matter your budget or desired activity level, you'll find suitable travel options that every member of the family will love, and it could be the start of a new annual vacation tradition.

Renee Roberson is a freelance writer specializing in health, parenting and pop culture. She lives in Huntersville, N.C., with her husband and two children.

This article was originally published on Aug. 2, 2010, and has been updated.


Categories: Day Trips, Family, Family Life, Parties & Holidays, Seasonal, Things To Do, Travel