From marshes and bayous to rivers and barrier islands, the South has much to offer when it comes to waterfront appeal. Group travelers can board boats for wildlife-watching cruises or take guided kayaking adventures along some of the marshes and water features that pepper the area.
These five Southern waterfront destinations also feature some world-class attractions, including aquariums, botanical gardens and museums.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Not only is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a prime golf destination with nearly 100 golf courses to choose from, but the area is part of the Grand Strand, a string of 14 communities spread out along 60 miles of beautiful coastline. Visiting groups wanting to get out on the water have plenty of opportunities, from sunset cruises and dolphin-watching trips to group kayaking adventures. Swimming, boating and water sports are huge. There are also several great ways to enjoy the water from land.
The Murrells Inlet MarshWalk is a half-mile-long boardwalk along a natural saltwater estuary that is lined with restaurants and shops. The area also offers live music, charter fishing expeditions, kayaking and water sports.
Ripley’s Aquarium is a huge hit with groups. It offers an indoor glass-bottom boat adventure atop a shark tank, which allows guests to see these denizens of the deep closeup.
Brookgreen Gardens sits on four former rice plantations and showcases natural and cultivated landscapes. Live Oak Allée comprises 250-year-old live oak trees that were planted on the former plantations in the early 1700s. The gardens feature a collection of more than 2,000 sculptures and artworks. Several tours are offered, including a creek excursion that takes groups out on a pontoon boat past historic rice fields, alligators and other wildlife as they learn about the role enslaved Africans played in the cultivation of rice in the area.
Myrtle Beach is also home to several theaters with daily shows and two state parks with interpretive centers and prime bird-watching.
Biloxi, Gulfport and 10 other small towns along the Mississippi coast are fantastic getaways for fans of the water. The beaches in the area are protected by a chain of barrier islands that stretch 160 miles from Mississippi to Florida. The waters are calm and perfect for swimming, sunbathing and paddle sports. Coastal Mississippi also has 62 miles of scenic shoreline with pine forests, swamps, bayous, beaches and the Pascagoula River.
Gulf Islands National Seashore offers fishing, biking, hiking and bird-watching. Ship Island is the only island accessible by public ferry. It takes about an hour to reach the island by boat, and passengers are sure to spot dolphins and other wildlife during the crossing. The island is home to Fort Massachusetts, a brick fort used during the Civil War that is open for tours. The other five nearby barrier islands can be reached by charter boat.
Gulf Coast Gator Ranch and Airboat Tours allows visitors to feed alligators, hold baby gators and take an airboat tour through the swamps.
Top attractions include a ride on the Betsy Ann Riverboat out of Biloxi, as well as the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art and the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, which features wildlife from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, wetlands and marshes.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Three of TripAdvisor’s top beaches in the U.S. are near St. Petersburg, including St. Pete and Clearwater beaches, with their crystal-clear turquoise water and soft sugar sand. The city itself sits on Tampa Bay and is considered the arts and culture hub of Florida.
Clearwater Beach has a beach walk with restaurants and shops along the waterfront; Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill is the home of St. Petersburg’s famous grouper sandwich. The $92 million St. Pete Pier juts out into Tampa Bay; its offerings include restaurants, bars, art installations, a splash pad for the kids to enjoy and two museums. Groups can learn about the founding of St. Petersburg and its place in history at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, or they can visit the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, which tells the story of Tampa Bay’s vast estuary. The discovery center also offers ecotours that explore Tampa Bay history and the marine life, which includes manatees and dolphins, living in the area.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Dali Museum, which holds the largest collection of Salvador Dali artwork outside of Spain, and the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, which features more than 400 works of art, including sculpture, paintings and jewelry. The city has more than 500 street murals. Every year, the city adds 15 to 20 more, making the entire downtown a colorful place to visit. There are walking and biking mural tours, and many of the murals have QR codes to give enthusiasts additional information about the painters and their artwork.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight for the first time in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Visitors to the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina will want to tour the three national park sites within a short drive of Nags Head, the largest town in the Outer Banks and one of the oldest beach communities in North Carolina.
Roanoke Island is between Nags Head and the North Carolina mainland. Groups can learn about the native Algonquian people and European colonists who settled the area at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. North Carolina Aquarium Roanoke Island is another popular group stop to see native animals, including alligators and sea turtles.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is a museum and monument to the Wright Brothers and their first flight at Kitty Hawk, and groups can tour Cape Hatteras National Seashore, one of the largest stretches of undeveloped beaches on the East Coast.
The Bodie Island Lighthouse is a few miles outside of Nags Head and is open for climbing from April to October. Nearby, the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center organizes fishing charters in the Gulf Stream to hunt for blue marlin, tuna and grouper.
Nags Head is home to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, a giant mountain of sand in the middle of town that encompasses 426 acres of natural dunes that rise nearly 90 feet above sea level. Groups visiting the park can take hang gliding lessons through Kitty Hawk Kites or hike to the top of the dunes for beautiful panoramic views of the Outer Banks.
Colonial Beach, Virginia
The town of Colonial Beach has the second-longest sand beach in Virginia and is only 65 miles from Washington. Founded in 1651, it is on a peninsula surrounded by the Potomac River and Monroe Bay and is split into several distinct beach areas. Downtown is the busiest waterfront area, with a boardwalk, boutique hotels, water sports, a pier, food trucks and restaurants. North Beach/White Point is a smaller, quieter beach within walking distance of downtown to the north, and several narrow strips of beach extend to the south. The town is in the midst of a $25 million redevelopment that includes townhouses, waterfront condos, a hotel and retail space.
Two state parks nearby offer water sports, hiking, tours and events. Westmoreland State Park has a beach, a picnic area and a bathhouse with restrooms and showers. The park offers several guided and self-guided walks, including hikes that take visitors on a hunt for fossils and ancient shark teeth at Fossil Beach. Guided kayak tours take visitors out on the Potomac River to learn about the cliffs, birds and area history and include a stop at Fossil Beach.
Caledon State Park is known for its old-growth forest and the American bald eagles that make the park their home during the summer months. The visitor center has bald eagle exhibits, several picnic areas and trails that lead to the Potomac River.