1. What aquatic activities do you recommend trying while on the coast?
I’d certainly recommend kayaking on the beautiful blackwater Edisto River in South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Kayaking isn’t usually the first thing people think about when they think of Hilton Head, but there are actually some great trips in that area as well. Windsurfers and kiteboarders will be in heaven on the breezy Outer Banks. Go down to Hatteras Island for more breathing room.
2. What beaches are the most family-friendly?
The entire Myrtle Beach experience, of course, is designed with families in mind, as is the sometimes-overcrowded Nags Head on the Outer Banks. But you might want to try some more peaceful beaches like Hunting Island, Edisto Island, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms in South Carolina, or Kure Beach in North Carolina. Hilton Head also has excellently managed, alcohol-free beaches, though beach access can be a little difficult.
3. What signature seafood dishes do you recommend?
The two must-have dishes are shrimp & grits and she-crab stew in Charleston, for sure. You can get some great fresh fried seafood further up the coast in Myrtle Beach and nearby in the Calabash area of North Carolina. Probably the most unique seafood experience is in Jamesville, N.C., inland from the Outer Banks. At a little riverfront shack called the Cypress Grill, from January through April you can enjoy the regional delicacy of fried herring. They’re served headless, but other than that you eat the whole fish, tailbones at all. Delicious.
4. The barbecue in the region is said to be very good. Where can visitors get their fill?
My favorite barbecue joint in the world is a relatively new place, Fiery Ron’s Home Team in the West Ashley suburb of Charleston. They have a Sullivan’s Island location as well. It’s not very old-school, but I’ve never tasted better, both in terms of the quality of the meat as well as the sauces. Edisto Island’s Po-Pig’s and JB’s Smokeshack outside Charleston are other standouts. Keep your mind open about the indigenous South Carolina mustard-based barbecue sauce – it’s an acquired taste, but I’ve developed quite a craving. In the Tarheel State you can find some great barbecue using the indigenous vinegar-based Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce at Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue in Wilmington or Big Oak Drive-In and Bar-B-Q on the Bogue Banks.
5. If you only have a weekend to explore, what can’t you miss?
The coastal Carolinas are at least a ten-hour drive from one end to the other, so if you just have a weekend you’ll need to focus your trip. I’d suggest either a Charleston stay with side trips to Beaufort and Edisto Islands, or an Outer Banks stay, being sure to explore the area’s many National Wildlife Refuges. If you take children to the Outer Banks, be sure to stop by the Wright Brothers National Memorial, site of one of America’s most shining moments, and the enormous natural sand dune of Jockeys Ridge just down the road.
6. The coast is riddled with historic lighthouses. Which ones do you enjoy visiting?
It is indeed riddled with lighthouses, but not all of them are open to the public. My favorite is the one at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. It’s inactive but open to the public for climbing. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks is highly recommended for its amazing views, though it can get crowded at times during the peak summer tourist season. The smaller Bald Head Island Lighthouse outside Southport is the oldest existing lighthouse in North Carolina and open to the public for climbing.
7. What’s the best way to experience African American heritage in this region?
The South Carolina coast from Georgetown south to Hilton Head is the place to go. Charleston has a great variety of African American-themed sights, from the Old Slave Mart, to the excellently restored slave cabins at Boone Hall Plantation, to the well-conserved servants’ quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House. Beaufort is very significant for its role as a Union Army hospital center (where Harriet Tubman worked as a nurse) and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The most significant African American aspect of the South Carolina coast, however, is its role as the center of Gullah culture, the legacy of freed slaves of the Sea Islands. Go to the Penn Center outside Beaufort to learn more. Hilton Head also features a number of lesser-known sites of Gullah importance.
8. Where is the best place to stay for a romantic getaway?
Charleston is one of the most romantic cities on earth, so a stay at a downtown B&B is a no-brainer. Try the John Rutledge House, the Andrew Pinckney Inn, or Two Meeting Street Inn, though there are many others. Alternatively I would suggest either of the Beauforts. Beaufort, S.C. (pronounced “byew-fert”) is famous for its mossy beauty and scenic roles in films, as well as extremely friendly people. The smaller Beaufort, N.C. (pronounced “bo-fert”) has a charming waterfront and a quieter vibe. For a peaceful, beach-only getaway in South Carolina, try Edisto Island. The Outer Banks of North Carolina can also be very romantic, especially Ocracoke Island and Hatteras Island.
9. What is your favorite time of year to travel up and down the coast?
For the South Carolina coast, I prefer October-November. Hurricane season is waning and hotel prices go down significantly, but the weather’s still quite warm and enjoyable. Christmastime in Charleston is particularly lovely. For the North Carolina coast, I recommend a late spring visit – no threat of hurricanes and the throngs of tourists that overwhelm portions of the Outer Banks during the height of summer are not in evidence. Wilmington, N.C., is best any time of year when the local colleges are in session, for the added excitement the student populations bring.
10. How would you describe the spirit of the Carolina Coast?
The spirit of the Carolina Coast is a great blend of some of the nation’s oldest history, its friendliest people, and the vibrancy that comes from a fairly steady stream of transplants coming from other areas of the country to live and work in the sunshine and take advantage of recreational opportunities, especially on the water. It’s very much an old-meets-new vibe, set against a backdrop of constant Southern hospitality.