There is something about water that draws us in, soothing and energizing us at the same time. Perhaps it’s because our bodies are largely made up of water, or maybe we love it because 71% of the planet is covered by it.
Whatever the reason, beaches and seashores make for some of the best group destinations in the country. Guaranteed crowd-pleasers, the best of them offer not only stellar sand, surf and sun, but also plenty of fun ways for groups to explore the area’s rich natural bounty. From getting out on the water to hiking, biking and so much more, the Northern Outer Banks; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; Galveston, Texas; Martin County, Florida; and Assateague Island National Seashore prove there’s more to do at the water’s edge than sunbathe.
Assateague Island National Seashore
Home to some of the most famed equines in the world, Assateague, a barrier island that sits between the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay, is split between Maryland and Virginia. The Maryland side is blessed with both the Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park. Groups should begin their experience at the Assateague Island Visitor Center on the mainland, which offers interpretive displays about the island’s ecosystem, including the wild horses. Ranger-led hiking tours along the island’s stunning trails can be booked at the center, and groups can rent kayaks, bikes and stand-up paddleboards through Assateague Outfitters.
Less than 10 miles from Assateague, Ocean City, Maryland, offers the Assateague Adventure cruise, which will whisk groups away on an 80-minute cruise and is available for private charters.
“It’s kind of like a pontoon boat setup,” said Connie Spindler, public relations coordinator for the Maryland Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism. “It leaves Ocean City, goes down into the bay and into Assateague. Not only do you get a boat ride but they do have the capability of beaching so people can get off and explore. They talk about the plants and the shells and other aquatic life they’ll see there. It’s really cool.”
Or groups can relax while watching the Assateague ponies play with Wild Horse Cabanas, a new company that will set up seaside cabanas on demand, outfitting them with items such as ice-filled coolers, chaise lounges, pillows, towels, greenery and outdoor rugs and just about anything else needed to make the group feel like they’ve landed in a luxe oasis.
Northern Outer Banks
One of the most beloved beach destinations on the Atlantic coast, the Northern Outer Banks, which includes Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, is forever tied to American aviation triumph. The Wright Brothers took to the air near Kitty Hawk in 1903, and today Kitty Hawk Kites gives adventurous group members a chance to do likewise, with beginner hang gliding lessons. Up to 20 people can take a three-hour lesson at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, site of the tallest living sand dune on the Eastern Seaboard and a great spot for a soft landing.
For more earthbound adventure, groups can also arrange a cruise through Kitty Hawk Kites to see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, which have been known to joyously leap alongside the boat or even surface next to it. In the summertime, “you’re never not going to see a dolphin,” said Lorrie Love, tourism sales and events manager for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
Meanwhile, anglers will enjoy fishing a few miles offshore — or in Roanoke or Pamlico sounds if the seas are rough that day — for fish like flounder, croaker, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel. Or, the group can head 45 minutes north from Kitty Hawk to Corolla, North Carolina, for a look at the Northern Outer Banks’ famed wild horses.
Starry-eyed groups will also want to book a Milky Way tour, which Love is working with a local photographer to debut in April 2021.
“We’ll probably do it at Coquina Beach in Nags Head,” she said. “It’s part of park service land — there’s no vacation rental homes or hotels in sight, so there’s no light. The stars are really magnificent and bright.”
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Groups that haven’t seen Lake Michigan in general — and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in particular — might not quite believe their eyes when they do, according to Jamie Jewell, executive director of the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
“Most people don’t realize how vast Lake Michigan is,” Jewell said. “Because it’s a lake, they think you can see the other side. It’s Caribbean blue on a beautiful sunny day; it’s clean fresh water — no salt. I think we have the best of everything. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
“Best of everything” includes 70,000 acres of protected land, two islands and diverse ways of exploring it all. Jewell suggested groups start at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, where they can pick up maps leading them on a self-guided geology tour of the lakeshore. That includes the nine-mile-long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which features overlooks with incredible views, interactive displays, hiking trails and the soaring Dune Climb that takes visitors up a massive dune and then down to the water’s edge.
Groups can also rent bikes from Crystal River Outfitters in Glen Arbor, Michigan, and explore the hard-surface, 22-mile-long Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The company offers kayak tours on the Crystal River as well, but groups that want to hit the water won’t want to miss the Manitou Island Transit ferry to South Manitou Island, now on hold but due to return in 2021. In addition to the pleasant boat ride, groups can hike to see the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, which sits mostly above water. The ferry company also offers two motorized land tours of the island.
Galveston, Texas, a coastal city and barrier island that sits off the state’s southeast coast, is famed for charming Victorian architecture and a rich cultural heritage, but groups looking for eco-adventures will find as much to do outdoors as in. Among the locale’s most singular experiences are Artist Boat interpretive kayak tours that allow groups to paint while paddling.
“You go to a nature area on the bay side — there are lots of estuaries and areas to explore,” said Michael Woody, chief tourism officer for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And you have a little easel hooked to your kayak, and you paint as you’re looking at the beautiful scenery. It’s great for groups.”
Woody also said Galveston State Park, which offers ranger-guided group tours, is ideal for group fishing, hiking and birding. Another Galveston favorite is dolphin tours, which not only allow visitors to see the marine mammal, but also give a fascinating peek at the island’s industrial tools of the trade, which include oil derricks and dry docks. If group members would like to get more hands-on, Sea Star Base Galveston offers sailing lessons as well as sunset cruises.
About 50 miles from Houston, Galveston gives groups much to do beyond lazing on its 32 miles of shoreline, though that’s appealing too.
“There’s something called the causeway cure,” Woody said. “It’s when you come over the causeway onto the island, you have this feeling of calm and relaxation. You’re on an island now. There’s palm trees, there’s the beach — you’re just filled with calm.”
They don’t call it the Treasure Coast for nothing. Just north of West Palm Beach, Florida, Martin County is “a great place to hub-and-spoke,” said Nerissa Okiye, tourism director for the Martin County Office of Tourism and Marketing. “We are on the east coast of Florida, with almost 22 miles of beautiful beaches and coastline, but then we back up to Lake Okeechobee. We have a rich agricultural history, with working farms that are open with farm tours and farm-to-table dining. You really have everything from the rural old Florida feel to luxurious resorts on the beach.”
Those posh properties include the Marriott Hutchinson Island Beach Resort, Golf and Marina in Stuart, Florida, where the Island Princess docks. Groups can take a two-hour nature cruise aboard the boat and spot local wildlife like ospreys, manatees and dolphins. Full moon, sunset, brunch and dinner cruises down the St. Lucie and Indian rivers, as well as private charters, are available, too. And for group members who are fans of our feathered friends, Okiye also recommends booking a birding tour with the Audubon Society in Jonathan Dickinson State Park, home to the rare Florida scrub jay.
But perhaps Martin County’s most unique eco-experiences are the night walks to see nesting loggerhead sea turtles. Organized by the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in Jupiter and Stuart’s Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, they are by special permit only and present a rare opportunity to see the endangered animals in their natural habitat. Speaking of the Coastal Center, the institution offers special private guided tours, trail walks and beach walks groups will love, as well as eco-volunteering opportunities like oyster reef restoration.