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Keep it Coastal in the Carolinas

From pristine white sand beaches and historic Civil War forts to the Gullah culture of former slaves who made the area home, the North and South Carolina coastlines have much to offer group visitors. Here are some of the top coastal destinations in the Carolinas that offer a wonderful mix of nature and history.


Beaufort, North Carolina

The third-oldest town in North Carolina, Beaufort is part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast that includes Atlantic Beach and Cape Lookout National Seashore. Groups love to visit the area because of its historic past and its location on the water. Maritime buffs know that Beaufort is home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, repository of artifacts from Blackbeard’s pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, which foundered three miles off the coast. The museum holds more than 300 restored artifacts from the wreck, including cannons and the bones of livestock.

The Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center is a working wooden boatbuilding facility where groups can take tours and where they can watch boatbuilding demonstrations.

Groups can take a narrated double-decker bus tour through a 12-block area of preserved historic buildings that date back to the early 1700s. They also can visit the Beaufort Historic Site, a two-acre complex that includes an old jail, a courthouse, historic homes and an apothecary.

Groups that want to incorporate the water should take the ferry to Cape Lookout National Seashore, 56 miles of protected beaches with a herd of wild horses. It also is home to the black-and-white diamond Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Depending on the season, groups can arrange to climb the lighthouse. Kayak tours of the Rachel Carson Reserve, directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort, are a must. The reserve includes four small islands and another herd of wild horses.

Edenton, North Carolina

A charming waterfront town, Edenton was a major port in Colonial times and was the capital of the colony of North Carolina from 1722 to 1743. To get a feel for the historic town, groups can take a guided trolley tour that gives an overview of what Edenton had to offer residents and visitors in years past. The tour takes groups through the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, the 1758 Cupola House and the James Iredell Site.

The Penelope Barker House Welcome Center is a great place for visitors to gather information and learn about Penelope Barker and the 51 women who were part of the Edenton Tea Party, a group that signed a resolution to stop buying tea from England.

Edenton was also part of the maritime Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape the South to gain their freedom. To take advantage of Edenton’s waterfront location, small groups can book passage on the Liber-Tea, a small passenger boat that gives visitors a look at Edenton’s past from the water. Because the boats are small, groups can split up. While one part of the group is taking the boat cruise, others can be taking a trolley tour, touring historic homes or shopping in Edenton’s beautiful downtown. The area is walkable and is home to shops you don’t see elsewhere, said Nancy Nicholls, tourism director for Visit Edenton.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Known as the Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach and its 60 miles of sandy beaches comprise 14 communities along the South Carolina coast. The area is known for its oceanfront boardwalk and large SkyWheel, and its numerous championship golf courses and miniature golf courses.

Groups can take advantage of the water by renting Jet Skis or taking a sunset cruise along the Interacoastal Waterway. The International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach offers cooking classes and demonstrations, and wine tastings are available at the Duplin Winery. Myrtle Beach is also home to some premier attractions, including the country’s largest collection of American figurative sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park, with its beach and wetlands that are home to sea turtles, alligators and numerous bird species. Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach and the Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show are additional ways groups can experience the coastline of Myrtle Beach.

“Groups often flock to Myrtle Beach to experience the abundance of seafood offerings,” said Bob Harris, executive vice president of sales at the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Murrells Inlet, for example, is a historic fishing village that’s widely known as the Seafood Capital of South Carolina. In the northern end of Myrtle Beach, Calabash-style cuisine is popular, with traditional lightly breaded seafood. In comparison, the southern end of Myrtle Beach offers low country cuisine with local ingredients such as stone-ground grits, shrimp, blue crab and grouper.”

Carolina Food Tours offers guided excursions that take groups to up to four restaurants while talking about the history of the area.

Hilton Head, South Carolina

With 12 miles of pristine beaches and 60-plus miles of leisure trails, Hilton Head is one of the top island destinations in the United States. Biking, hiking and golf are big on Hilton Head. Hilton Head is also a culinary destination, with more than 300 restaurants.

Groups can take advantage of the water by booking a guided kayak excursion or a stand-up paddleboard lesson. History buffs get their fix at the Coastal Discovery Museum, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum at the historic Honey Horn Plantation. The museum tells the story of Hilton Head Island, including its natural history and how the island came to be.

Hilton Head is also the home of Mitchelville, the first self-governed town of freed slaves. Founded in 1862, the town was home to thousands of former slaves who flocked to the island after it fell to Union forces in 1861. An archaeological dig in Mitchelville found the remnants of homes, wells and garbage pits and recovered more than 20,000 artifacts.

“Gullah culture lives on through many sites and people on Hilton Head Island,” said Charlie Clark, vice president of communication at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

In Bluffton, visitors learn about the town’s pre-Civil War history at the Heyward House, a summer home built by enslaved people in 1841 for a local plantation owner. It sits in the heart of Bluffton’s National Register Historic District and is one of eight antebellum homes in the area. Groups also can browse the Old Town’s many boutiques and eclectic art galleries.

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. One of the best-preserved historic cities in the United States, it was one of only three walled cities built in North America. The first shots of the Civil War were fired upon federal troops at Fort Sumter, one of the forts situated in Charleston Harbor. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square sits on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, where thousands of enslaved Africans were brought into the U.S. The site interprets the causes of the Civil War.

Groups also like to tour the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, home to the USS Yorktown CV-10, an aircraft carrier built during World War II that also served during the Vietnam War. And at the South Carolina Aquarium and its Sea Turtle Care Center, visitors can see sick and injured sea turtles being rehabilitated for release back into the wild.

Two house museums are worth a visit: the Aiken-Rhett House, which tells the tale of Gov. William Aiken Jr. and the slaves that maintained his house and property, and the Nathaniel Russell House, which shows how the mercantile elite lived during the late Colonial and early Federal period of South Carolina.

“It is always great to start by either taking a walking tour or carriage tour of the historic district,” said Doug Warner, director of media relations for Explore Charleston. “It is a great way in an hour and a half to get the lay of the land so you can pick up on what of interest you want to go back and do deeper.”