Carolina's Best Beach Towns 15

“California” may by synonymous with beaches and boardwalks, but we like the ring of “Carolina” far better.

Along our combined 488 miles of coastline you’ll find some of the softest sands and warmest waves this side of the Mississippi. And along those jagged coasts, marked by soda shops and cobbled streets and the ting-ting of beach cruiser bells, you’ll find our beach towns.

Now, a Carolina beach town is a far-cry from the cold-watered settlements along the Pacific. Here tourists aren’t tourists—they’re family. Beachfront bungalows offer a sweet escape from Charlotte’s daily grind, and the locals take in tourists like their own.

The sun is shining and it’s officially a Carolina summer. Head east to one of our favorite Carolina beach towns for a sun-speckled, sand-dusted, popsicle-stained good time.

Bald Head Island

Down at the southernmost tip of the North Carolina coast you’ll find the secluded enclave of Bald Head Island. Accessible only by ferry and with local transportation limited to golf carts, bicycles and your own two feet, this wee town requires visitors to slow down a little—which is exactly how we like our beach destinations.

Though the island is covered in thousands of acres of protected lands, including marches and maritime forests, luxury amenities this destination does not lack. Visitors can take to the links, indulge in a spa treatment, or pedal around the island, all with unimpeded views of the Atlantic without those usual beachside highrises.

Hilton Head Island

12 miles of soft, sandy beaches wrap around the perimeter of Hilton Head Island, a retreat that offers low-country living at its best. Magnolias and moss-draped oaks line the island’s streets and acreages, and the Gulf Stream presses warm air in year-round, keeping the air and water alike at an average balmy 70 degrees.

Though Hilton Head is a natural wonder, its manmade attractions are what make this luxurious destination unforgettable. The island is home to 24 golf courses (18 of which are open to the public), 300 tennis courts and six marinas. Over 200 shops and 200 restaurants sling fine goods and fare. And yet, Hilton Head manages to maintain that small town charm.

Hatteras Island

The Outer Banks is a 130-mile smile along the northern seaside of our state, a series of peninsulas and reefs seemingly made for vacation, but our favorite piece is Hatteras Island. Admittedly, this isn’t one of our favorite Carolinian beach towns—it’s several of them. On this secluded island you’ll find seven villages: Hatteras Village, Frisco, Buxton, Salvo, Waves, Avon and Rodanthe, each of which offer up romance novel-worthy charm.

That charm extends far beyond the Atlantic’s waves. You can visit the tallest lighthouse in the nation (Cape Hatteras lighthouse), windsurf and ride horses along the beach, all in a day. Birdwatchers and bikinied sunbathers alike can find a niche on the extensive island and its tiny towns.

Kiawah Island

21 miles southwest of Charleston is Kiawah Island, a destination with plush, posh amenities galore. Unlike other beach towns that were designed only with quick returns in mind, Kiawah has been carefully and intentionally developed over the years with an eye for preservation. A master plan developed in the ’70s maintains the natural, lush landscape of the island, restricting development to a tasteful minimum.

The town offers up five-star dining and upscale shopping for vacationers with heavy pockets, while Kiawah Island Golf Resort fosters relaxation with a spa and five championship golf courses. Ten miles of pristine, private beach form the island’s shore, perfect for sunbathing or swimming—without flocks of tourists.