By Brian Jewell
Hike through a maritime forest, cruise with dolphins or explore a Civil War fortress: In the South, coastlines are gateways to great experiences.
The beaches, bays and other waterfront locations throughout the Southern states are some of America’s favorite vacation destinations and for good reason. Thousands of miles of sandy shoreline and nearby marshlands offer great opportunities for relaxation and recreation. These natural habitats are home to abundant and diverse flora and fauna, and there’s plenty of marine life to discover on the numerous cruises and excursions that take groups out on the water. And because human habitation of the region started in coastal areas, visiting seaside cities gives travelers a great look at Southern history.
Mississippi Gulf Coast
Though there are plenty of beaches to lounge on (as well as numerous casinos to play in), adventurers who visit Mississippi’s Gulf Coast will want to spend their time getting to know the area’s marine life.
“We have a facility here called the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies,” said Janet Harrington, group travel manager for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They work very closely with dolphin and sea turtle rescue, and they’ve been developing some group programs that have educational experiences. For people that are interested in the impact of things like hurricanes, oil and fishing, these tours are really informative.”
Birders will enjoy a trip to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. A visitors center at the refuge gives an overview of the area’s environment and the birds that live there. Groups can take guided walks through the sanctuary for the opportunity to spot some cranes for themselves.
Gulf Island National Seashore affords numerous activity opportunities as well, such as the chance to walk through inland marshes on raised boardwalks.
“You’re walking through mangrove trees, natural grasses and things like that,” Harrington said. “You can see nesting eagles, egrets and white herons, as well as wild orchids. You can see the areas where the alligators hang out. There’s also an assortment of little crabs and other things.”
A number of boat operators in the area offer scheduled cruises and charters, including a popular shrimping trip. During the excursion, the boats crew lowers shrimp nets and then hauls them onboard for guests to see the catch. Group leaders can arrange for the experience to end with a shrimp boil back at the dock.
The Outer Banks
The Outer Banks have become North Carolina’s favorite beach destination, but there’s a lot more to this area than just sand and sun. Groups that visit will find a rich history intermingled with the natural beauty of the islands.
“One of the big touchstones of the Outer Banks’ history is Roanoke Island,” said Aaron Tuell, director of public relations for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “It’s the site of the first English colony in what would become the United States. The English had an experimental colony there between 1585 and 1586. The people were ultimately lost to history and never seen again. They’re often referred to as the Lost Colony.”
Many groups that visit the Outer Banks make a point to attend the Lost Colony Outdoor Drama. This show is America’s longest-running outdoor drama (begun in 1937), and it depicts the events that took place in England and in the New World surrounding the Roanoke colony.
The Outer Banks made history again in 1903, when the Wright brothers launched man’s first flight on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, today known as Kill Devil Hills. Today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial honors the inventors and their monumental accomplishment.
“You can hear regularly scheduled talks given by park historians,” Tuell said. “There’s a pylon monument on a giant hill that offers a panoramic view of the sea. The Wright brothers actually took off at sea level, and you can walk along the beach and retrace their flight line.”
For an active beachfront experience, take your groups to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which preserves 426 acres of natural sand dunes.