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Running on Coastal Time: Best Local Beach Vacations

Summer is here and we’re headed to the Atlantic Coast to find some of the best beach vacations.

When April Parker moved to Tybee Island, Ga., she moved for a lot of the same reasons other people move to the Southeast coast—warmer weather, shorter winters, and the beach. But once she settled into life on the barrier island, Parker discovered even more than the best beach vacations.

For this month’s roundup of some of the best beach vacations in our region, BRO spoke with local residents to find some of the best spots to visit. Whether you’re looking for summer fun or a more secluded fall stay, get a taste for life on coastal time. 

View from the beach of the light house located in the Tybee Island, Georgia, US. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Beach Biking

Tybee Island, Ga. – Best Beach Vacations

With the move from Atlanta complete, Parker started exploring her new home by bike. “I started riding all the time,” she said. “I was telling my friend, ‘I can ride this route every day and never get tired of it.’” At just 3.4 square miles with plenty of bike-friendly roads and pathways, it’s the easiest way to get around town. “I was able to appreciate that slower pace,” Parker said.

Although parking can be difficult, Parker found ease exploring the area’s shoreline by bike. “The beach is one of those places where you can get out of the house and you don’t have to spend a lot of money,” she said. “The vibe is real chill, laid back. Everybody is on island time.” 

With the amount of biking she was doing, Parker’s friends encouraged her to start her own bike tour company, and in 2018, she opened Tybee Beach Bike Tours. “It’s a friendly community so I plan my tour so [visitors] can experience it like a local,” Parker said. “After this tour, they can rent a bike and feel free to roam around the island with a general sense of where they are and what may be around.”

Tybee Beach Bike Tours
Photo courtesy of April Parker

Her Best of Tybee tour is a six-mile ride around to the area’s top spots, including a lighthouse, biking on the beach, parks, and local businesses, while the Tybee Back River Sunset Cruise is a 1.5-mile ride offered in the evenings. Parker is in talks with several restaurants to add a third tour, highlighting the food of the island. 

Local Favorites:

Parker’s favorite spot on the island? The Back River Fishing Pier overlooking Tybee Creek in the evenings. “I never get tired of the sunset,” she said. “I still make it a daily goal to go and try to see the sunset every day.” 

Top Spots:

Bike McQueens Island Historic Trail along the Savannah River, check out the view from Tybee Island Lighthouse, or learn something new from the Tybee Island Marine Science Center before heading into town for a meal from local favorites like Salt Island Grill, Huc A Poos, and StingRay’s Seafood. Just 30 minutes inland, Downtown Savannah offers a wide variety of history and walking tours, plus even more dining options like Sweet Spice Restaurant and The Grey. 

Davis Creek Paddling
Dianne Campbell and her dog, Fiona, paddle Davis Creek. Photo courtesy of Campbell

Down by Mobjack Bay

Mathews County, Va. – Best Beach Vacations

When Dianne Campbell moved to Virginia 13 year ago and took up paddling, she soon found herself visiting Mathews County almost every weekend. It wasn’t long before she relocated to Mathews permanently. “Other than the [Florida] Keys, Mathews is probably the best paddling I’ve ever done,” Campbell said. “Like the Keys, it has a lot of shallow water. If you choose your routes, you can pretty much paddle all day without coming into contact with a motor boat.”

As her love of kayaking grew, so did her passion for the waters of Mathews. After the area’s previous outfitter closed, Campbell decided to open Mobjack Kayaking to share some of her favorite spots with visitors. From early morning bird watching to full moon paddles, Campbell offers a variety of tours to see the area almost any time of the day or season. 

Winter Harbor offers a sheltered waterway with plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, especially during shorebird migration season, while paddles on the East River or out to the New Point Comfort Lighthouse provide a deep dive into the historical landmarks of the area. For the most experienced paddlers, Campbell recommends heading out to Wolf Trap Lighthouse, which is nine miles round trip in open water. “With the bigger, longer kayaks, you can get out to some really remote areas and just feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said. 

Local Favorites:

As someone in these waters day in and day out, Campbell knows the best spots around. “If I’m taking my dog, I like to go out in Davis Creek, which is where I live,” she said. “If I’m on my own, I like to circumnavigate Gwynn’s Island. It’s a huge area for paddling. I could go on and on and on.”

Top Spots:

Paddle up to the dock at Hole in the Wall Waterfront Grill for a creekside meal or head to Main Street to explore local businesses. Plan your visit for Mathews Market Days in September for local artisans, live music, and friendly faces. You can even stop by the Mathews County Visitors Center to see some of Campbell’s stained glass pieces, a trade she learned from her father. 

Outer Banks North Carolina
Aerial view of Outer Banks North Carolina, photo courtesy of Getty Images

Relaxation Station

Outer Banks, N.C. – Best Beach Vacations

James Melvin was hooked, literally and figuratively, the first time he visited the Outer Banks. “This is an artist’s paradise,” he said. “I felt a sense of peace and serenity here that weekend we came down. We caught a lot of fish, and I think that helped the decision as well.”

Soon after that first visit, he moved to Nags Head in 1981 and found the inspiration to really dive into painting and pursue art full time. Using oils, pastels, and acrylics, Melvin’s pieces capture the true essence of coastal living. “I love doing the old Nags Head cottages because they have great history,” he said. “To me, they represent the Outer Banks. I also love painting geraniums because they are symbolic of summer and rocking chairs because they’re a symbol of relaxation, which is what people come here to do.”

James Melvin Outer Banks Painting
“Heaven’s Declaration,” a scene of the Outer Banks, by James Melvin. Image courtesy of Melvin

In addition to his beach life scenes, Melvin has also illustrated over 40 children’s books with friend and fellow Outer Banks resident Suzanne Tate. “I love art,” he said. “I don’t see myself in a box, just painting one thing. I like seeing what you can do with it because there are so many different possibilities with the medium.” Featuring tales of all kinds of sea creatures, like Lindie Lobster, Harry Horseshoe Crab, and Jenny Jellyfish, kids of all ages will enjoy learning about the biology and history of the coast.

James Melvin
James Melvin

Recently, Melvin has been experimenting with some more abstract pieces and Caribbean scenes inspired by his wife’s home in Antigua. “I always liked just exploring color and getting to see the possibilities of what can happen when you don’t control it too much,” he said. 

Local Favorites:

When he’s not painting in his home studio (recently opened again to visitors) with the morning northern light, chances are Melvin is out fishing one of the area’s many waterways. Jennette’s Pier, stretching 1,000 feet into the ocean, and the attached North Carolina Aquarium research center is a popular spot for anglers. Since he regularly gets his inspiration from the nature of the Outer Banks, you can often find Melvin soaking up the sights. “I like to walk down to Bodie Island on the beach because it’s quiet, especially in the fall,” he said. 

Top Spots:

For more time by the water, you can find opportunities for hang gliding, kitesurfing, and primitive camping up and down the Outer Banks. If you’re looking to grab something to eat, Melvin recommends O’Neal’s Sea Harvest and Darrell’s Seafood Restaurant for a taste of the local catch. 

Sean Holmes
Sean Holmes on the waters of Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of Holmes

A New Perspective

Charleston, S.C. – Best Beach Vacations

As Sean Holmes was looking for a place to relocate his sunglasses company, Nectar, he knew he wanted to be somewhere on the East Coast near the ocean. “The water is healing in so many ways,” he said. “Ultimately, I had buddies in Charleston, came to visit, and just fell in love with this area, the marsh, the low country, and the people here.”

Surrounded by a maze of rivers, lakes, and the ocean, the area offers plenty of opportunities for surfing, fishing, paddling, and boating. “The best of all the worlds are down in Charleston,” Holmes said. 

Holmes, who built the company in Atlanta, Ga., and Richmond, Va., before moving to Charleston, wants to promote the East Coast adventure scene, believing this side of the country has as much to offer as the West Coast. “We still have sunsets, mountains, oceans, and lakes—all the things that they have,” he said. “We grew up surfing crappier waves and snowboarding on ice. But then if you put us on fresh powder or better waves, we can hold our own.”

Each pair of sunglasses in Nectar’s collections is named after an iconic East Coast landmark, paying tribute to the awe-inspiring places that call to us, from Harpers Ferry and Bear Mountain to Anna Ruby Falls and Emerald Isle. Many of these locations are places Holmes has visited on his adventures, like growing up surfing Hatteras and the Outer Banks. “It’s this really unique area on the East Coast that does produce some of the best waves and has so many different personalities to it, from the waves you surf and the people you meet there,” he said.

Nectar’s new premium acetate line is made from a thin resin block of wood pulp. “These are all blended and hardened, so when you cut out the frames with the CNC [router], each one is slightly different, which I think gives a little character to each one,” Holmes said. By 2022, the company aims to have all of the sunglasses in the classic collection made from recycled plastic bottles. 

Local Favorites:

For the full Charleston experience, it’s best to try multiple modes of transportation. “There’s just a whole different experience when you’re on the water in Charleston versus when you’re walking downtown, seeing the buildings and history,” Holmes said. “Both are equally amazing.” You can regularly find Holmes surfing the waves at Folly Beach or hiking in Francis Marion National Forest.

Top Spots:

From the convergence of the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando rivers out to the barrier islands, Four Hole Swamp, and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, you can’t go wrong no matter which direction you choose to go.  

Seaside Escapes

Check out these other coastal spots for more best beach vacations in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. 

Charles County, Md.

Paddle the remains of the sunken “Ghost Fleet” of Mallows Bay before heading into town for a drink at Patuxent Brewing Company, home of the official beer of Charles County—Sunken Sips. 

Virginia Beach, Va.

Spend your day exploring the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center and Lake Rudee or hang out by the boardwalk and beach for fun in the sun and waterfront dining experiences. These experiences make Virginia Beach on of the best beach vacations.

Bear Island, N.C.

At Hammocks Beach State Park, discover a world of coastal habitats from the barrier island and marshes to the maritime forest. Home to endangered sea turtles and nesting shorebirds, this is a wonderland of wildlife with plenty of opportunities for paddling and beachfront camping.

Murrells Inlet, S.C.

Between Huntington Beach State Park and Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll find some of the best birding on the East Coast in this stretch of South Carolina coastline. There are plenty of opportunities for fishing, paddling, and hiking these low country waterways.

Cover Photo: When he’s not designing sunglasses, find Sean Holmes on the water. Photo courtesy of Holmes.