Driving along the Virginia and Carolina coastline — surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and a series of bays, harbors, inlets and sounds — it’s hard to keep your eyes off the watery views and on the road ahead. It’s certainly an adventure … and just the first of many you’ll discover in this nature lover’s paradise.
To the Hilt
If it’s beaches you want, you’ll find them — 12 sandy miles of them — on Hilton Head Island. But this favorite destination for many Ohioans offers more than just a day at the beach. It’s blessed by Mother Nature, and strict local development standards have helped protect this South Carolina island’s abundant natural treasures.
One of the best ways to experience Hilton Head’s vast beauty is on two wheels. Rent a bicycle and zip along more than 50 miles of paved paths to explore the wooded and watery wonders of the island. And you can even bike on the beaches’ hard-packed sand without fear of sinking.
If you want to keep on pedaling, check out Water-Dog Outfitters in Broad Creek Marina. There, you can sign up for a two-hour bike tour of the nearby Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, a former plantation that’s home to wood storks, woodland salamanders and several other endangered critters.
No trip to Hilton Head is complete without catching a glimpse of a flying flipper or two. If you want an up-close-and-personal view, no fewer than a dozen island charters offer dolphin-watching tours.
Parks and Recreation
Myrtle Beach is probably best known for its high-rise beachfront hotels, all-you-can-eat seafood buffets and abundant shopping. But this long-time tourist favorite has a green side, too.
If you want to get away from the hotel scene — but not too far away — check out Myrtle Beach State Park. Located smack in the middle of the Grand Strand, it’s a little island of natural serenity that’s been spared from development. Cabins and campsites are available for rent. And, once you’re settled in, you can take a hike through the park’s maritime forest and see the oak, wax myrtle, poplar and magnolia trees that were once prevalent all along the South Carolina coast. Or, drop a line from the fishing pier and catch some striped bass or coldwater trout. If you decide to do that, remember to buy a South Carolina fishing license first.
Huntington Beach State Park is another camping option on the Grand Strand. Stroll along a couple of short hiking trails and several boardwalks, or consider renting a kayak to explore Huntington Beach’s beauty. Two-hour guided kayaking tours of the park’s salt marshes are available.
Adjacent to Huntington Beach is Brookgreen Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. To simply call this a garden is an understatement. It’s a sprawling property with more than 9,100 acres that include 250-year-old live oak trees, 1,200 sculptures, a wildlife preserve and a zoo. And, throughout the month of April, Brookgreen will offer guided excursions aboard its trekker to explore graveyards located throughout the property.
Travelers won’t want to miss an amazing site along North Carolina’s Outer Banks that changes whenever the wind blows. It’s Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head — home of the tallest natural sand dunes on the East Coast.
While the dunes are impressive at eye level, another great way to view their magnificence is from high above. If you’re feeling adventurous, head across from the park to the Kitty Hawk Kites store and ask them to hook you up with a tandem hang-gliding lesson. Before you know it, you’ll be riding the wind — with an instructor, of course — 2,000 feet over Jockey’s Ridge. For an experience closer to earth, you can try a beginner’s lesson consisting of five short flights that lift off about five to 15 feet above the sandy surface.
You can always stay on the ground — and get a good workout — traversing the various trails, like Tracks in the Sand, a 1.5-mile hike up a path and over the dunes, or the Soundside Nature Trail, a mile-long loop overlooking the Roanoke Sound Estuary. There’s also a 360-foot boardwalk, complete with informative displays, for folks who choose to keep their toes out of the sand.
From the Outer Banks, travel north to Virginia Beach, where you’ll find several of the most spectacular natural environments on earth all in one location.
Late last year, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center unveiled a new $25 million exhibit that allows you to explore four habitats from around the world. The 12,000-square-foot Restless Planet exhibit simulates the sights, sounds and feel of a swamp in Malaysia, a coastal Saharan desert, the depths of the Red Sea and a volcanic Indonesian island — all environments that were present in Virginia millions of years ago.
While you (thankfully) won’t encounter Komodo dragons on Virginia Beach, they are the stars of Restless Planet’s Indonesian display. And the children in your group can come face to face with the world’s largest lizards by crawling under the exhibit and peering through a clear plastic bubble located right in the middle of their habitat.
The Red Sea display features one of the most breathtaking and colorful 40-foot walks you’ll ever take. Step into the tunnel surrounded by a 100,000-
gallon aquarium and you’ll be dodging schools of tiny fish and massive eagle rays with six-foot wingspans.
If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, the aquarium offers several boat excursions, including a 30-minute cruise of the adjacent Owls Creek Salt Marsh from April through mid-October. And, in the summer months, you can take a 75-minute trip out to the Atlantic and watch aquarium staff collect sea life from the ocean’s floor.
Some attractions have seasonal hours and require reservations. It is advisable to call before traveling.
WHEN YOU GO...
More information on Virginia Beach and the Carolinas is available from the following: