Here in the southeast, there are a few things synonymous with summertime. Outdoor cookouts/BBQs, days on the lake, country music concerts and of course...the beach. Fortunately for us in the Carolinas, only a few hours stands between us, a chair in the sand and the summer breeze through our hair.
In this series of our travel guide, we are focusing on the fantastic coastline of North and South Carolina. Together, this stretch of coastline makes up close to 500 miles of some of the best beaches in the country, and we are here to share a few key spots that are near and dear to our hearts. Being from North Carolina, we grew up going to our home state's coastline, and so for the South Carolina portion of our guide, we have brought in someone with deep roots to the region...writer/photographer Andrew Saucier.
North Carolina: Bradley Rhyne
With a coastline that spans over 300 miles, there are numerous destinations that are personal favorites among fellow North Carolinians. Starting at the top of the state, one of the most well known regions is the historical Outer Banks. A 200-mile string of barrier islands that are not only the site of the first flight by the Wright brothers, but also home to some of the most breathtaking views in the coastal region. Add in some historic landmarks like the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Lost Colony, and you will see why this is an area that attracts those from all over the country for their summer vacations.
(The Lonely Beach - Bradley Rhyne)
Another pristine area is the Crystal Coast, an 85-mile stretch that is home to some equally great shores. Not only is this an area you can find legitimate wild horses (Shakleford Banks), but it is also home to some of the best fishing and diving. Being the closest location to the gulf stream (other than Florida), the warm water offers the longest fishing season on the eastern coast, and is also home to one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world (Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament), based out of Morehead City.
Rounding out the bottom of the state is the Cape Fear Region. Featuring the largest port in the state (Wilmington), this area also transitions into a stretch of beaches that are my personal favorites. Ever since I can remember, my family has gone to the low-key beaches of Oak Island and Holden Beach. With no frills or major attractions, I have certainly grown to appreciate the serenity that atmosphere creates. These beaches are family destinations, and offer the relaxing kind of getaway that has become considerably hard to find in this day and age. During my recent family trip to the N.C. coast, I took some time to reflect on what specifically makes this area so special to me.
For starters, the drive to Oak Island from Charlotte is essentially two turns. Being that it is pretty much entirely on Highway 74, it provides the kind of suspenseful build up that comes with any road trip when you are trying to get to someplace as fast as you can. From the time I was a kid riding in my parents' car, to this very day, that turn approximately 3 and a half hours into the trip from Highway 74 onto the green swamp highway always signifies we are so close to being at the beach. That excited feeling soon switches into an extra gear when making that next turn and traveling over the intercostal waterway to our final destination...Vacation!
(Intercostal Marsh - Bradley Rhyne)
It is hard to describe exactly what my favorite thing about the beach is, but for me I think it is combination of the freedom to relax and enjoy sitting on the beach all day, as well as the set routines and traditions we do as a family each and every year. There is that first trip to the grocery store on the first day to get everything you need for the week’s trip, where even though everyone else is there doing the same exact thing, you don't care it takes twice as long because...well, you are at the BEACH! There is also the tradition where at least once or twice during the week everyone comes in from the beach a little early and goes to get dinner in South Port (specifically, my favorite, The Provision Company). And of course, there are the nightly runs to get ice cream, because when you are on vacation at the beach, you can eat whatever you want!
(The Provision Company, Holden Beach - Bradley Rhyne)
Above all else, the beach reminds me to slow down and enjoy time with my family. It is so easy to get bogged down in the routine of life. Work, responsibilities and dealing with the rigors that life un-relentlessly throws your way everyday at home, it is so easy to stop and enjoy living during your short visit to the coast. You ultimately realize that with each year that passes, there are less and less yearly beach trips with the family to look forward to. Thank goodness for the Carolina coast to bring us all together!
South Carolina Coast: Andrew Saucier
Crossing over the North Carolina-South Carolina border on the coast – let’s say from Calabash to Little River – you’ll probably find the landscape indistinguishable, two sides of an arbitrary and invisible line on the sandy ground. Yet with this crossing, you’ve transferred into a land that is considerably different from the Great North State altogether. They may both be named in honor of the same English king. The sand between your toes may feel the same on both sides of the line. But this is the Palmetto State, and just in case you didn’t know, you’ve just stepped into the Deep South.
(Rain over the Harbor River at Beaufort - Andrew Saucier)
South Carolina is the smallest state in the American southeast, but it has the third most coastline in the region (behind #1 Florida and #2 North Carolina), which constitutes many, many meandering miles of beaches, bays, deltas, inlets, peninsulas and islands.
This coastline has attracted people for generations. I got my start in South Carolina, but not because I was born here. My father left the North Maine woods with his best friend in an early 70’s Ford Pinto that had rust holes in the floorboards, arriving in Myrtle Beach after a two-day drive on July 4th, 1984. They spent their first night in town sleeping in the car, parked in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly. Slowly but surely, these two former potato-picking Yankees turned transplant beach bums assimilated to the pace of life in the Myrtle Beach of the 1980’s. My father recalls that a lot of the people living there are the time were running from something – bad family situations, missed court dates, failed marriages. For others, it was quite simply a place where the highway ended at the ocean and young people looking for a new start were congregating.
Like my mother, who left Appalachian Ohio armed with a tech school degree in respiratory therapy and headed south for the shore. With no job lined up, she figured that at the very least, she could start waitressing at some restaurant, knowing as she did that a bad job on the beach was better than a good job back home. So her and a friend moved into a beachside condominium to begin their new lives. And as it turned out, the man who spent his first night in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly was the property manager at her complex. Some call it fate. Others call it chance. Either way, varying paths led each of them to their Myrtle Beach meeting and like many of the others who lived there at that time, that path eventually led them away. They were married in Southern Indiana in 1987, the same year and place that I was born.
We would come back throughout my life to Myrtle Beach for vacation, and during much of my childhood, its coast was the only ocean I knew. As far as my child’s mind knew, it was the only sliver of ocean in the entire world.
And today, I still go back, but not to the same beach. The place along this coastline that draws the adult me in is the South Carolina Sea Islands and the lowcountry, a distinct region that stretches southward from the Santee River Delta all the way beyond the borders of South Carolina to the St. John River in Florida.
(The Hunting Island Lighthouse - Andrew Saucier)
One night, at a bar in Beaufort, SC (pronounced B’you fert), a marine on respite from the nearby Parris Island recruiting depot asked me, “You came here for vacation? Why?” Well, I’ll tell you why, just like I told him. Maybe it’s because it’s here that the rivers meet the ocean . . . or maybe it’s the Gullah-Geechee culture that survives to this day . . . maybe it’s the Frogmore stew (which, depending on who you ask is the same thing as lowcountry boil, is a must-try dish native to the Sea Islands. Traditionally, this is a one-pot boil that includes sweet corn, red potatoes, hot sausage and fresh, unpeeled shrimp simmered up in Old Bay Seasoning). This is the land of live oaks draped in Spanish moss – which, interestingly enough is neither Spanish nor moss. This is the land where shrimping and fishing vessels sail into the sunrise each morning after the day’s catch. I love the way the salty breeze wafts in across the marshland even when you’re miles inland from the ocean. I love the way dolphins swim up the salty Harbor River in search of food.
And yet this is the essential draw of the lowcountry: something about it retains an air of the ancient and the mysterious. Only parts of Louisiana and Mississippi come close to matching what I mean. Somewhere in the stifling humid air, tinged with the salt of the sea, is a spirit that moves freely through the islands, over the rivers. My parents felt it, even way up in Myrtle Beach. And I feel it still, right now, as I type this here in Atlanta, two hundred and sixty one miles away and longing nonetheless.
(The Old Sheldon Church Ruins at Yemassee - Andrew Saucier)
Until next time,
OLE MASON JAR