By Brian Reed
The Carolinas have about 500 miles of coastland where groups can enjoy the sun, sand and surf at numerous modern resorts or relish in the rich history of the area in charming coastal towns.
From the North Carolina dunes where the Wright brothers first flew, to the ancient, moss-covered oaks of Beaufort, S.C., the Carolina coast is waiting to be explored.
Outer Banks, N.C.
The massive size of the sand dunes around Jockey’s Ridge State Park made it the perfect setting for Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first experimental flights. The Wright Brothers Monument commemorates the birthplace of flight with a 60-foot pylon and a visitors center with full-scale replicas of the 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine.
“[The] Wright Brothers [Monument] appeals to a lot of groups because of its historical significance and the self-guided-tour style of interpretation,” said Lorrie Love, tourism sales manager for the Outer Banks Tourism Bureau.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, is an emblem of the region with its famous black-and-white spiral paint. Its 248 iron stairs that spiral 12 stories are not for the faint of heart; however, the view is sublime.
The Outer Banks was the site of some of England’s first New World attempts at settlement, and groups can tour Elizabeth II, a replica of a 69-foot square-rigged sailing ship used to sail to the New World in 1585.
At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama tells the story of the disappearance of the Roanoke Island colonists. While there, visitors can tour the Elizabethan Gardens, an authentic replica of the gardens designed to entertain Queen Elizabeth I.
“Imagine a collection of antebellum homes on tree-lined streets rich in culture,” said Blakely Williams, president of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Beaufort is living history with river walks, ancient burying grounds and sea island dunes.”
A good place to start is the town’s historic district, where groups can see homes like the John Mark Verdier House from the 1790s; the Beaufort Arsenal, home of the Beaufort visitors center; St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, which dates to the Revolutionary War and was used as a hospital during the Civil War; and the Milton Maxey House, or Secession House, where the first meeting to draft the Ordinance of Secession leading to the Civil War was held.
On Bay Street, groups can browse shops, linger in cafes or dine al fresco.
For nature-lovers, Hunting Island State Park features moss-draped oak trees, three miles of beach that are a great spot for dolphin-watching and a 19th-century lighthouse that visitors can climb for panoramic views.
Hilton Head, S.C.
With 12 miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches, Hilton Head’s rich history and numerous outdoor activities make it a popular destination for groups.
“Hilton Head Island is home to a strong Gullah history. This West African-based system of traditions, customs, beliefs, art forms and family life has survived centuries of slavery and more than a century of free lifestyle,” said Jack Reed, director of sales at the Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Groups can experience Gullah heritage by taking a narrated trip through several neighborhoods established in 1862 during the Civil War.
Hilton Head is one of the most productive environments on the planet. Groups can explore salt marshes and forest preserves throughout the island and see oysters, crabs, shrimp, dolphins or birds up close.
“An evening lecture and beach walks also educate participants about the threatened loggerhead sea turtle,” said Reed. “Presentations are given to groups, which then allow them to participate in examining the nesting habitat and nest sites on our local beaches.”
With more than 200 restaurants from which to choose, groups can accommodate any culinary desire, among them fresh seafood, waterfront dining and Southern cuisine.
Only a 15- to 25-minute drive from the beautiful island beaches of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach is Wilmington’s historic river district.
“Groups love exploring the historic river district via narrated horse-drawn carriage rides over the brick-lined streets,” said Connie Nelson, communications and public relations director at the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, North Carolina’s oldest museum, interprets the area’s social and natural history, while Civil War buffs can explore the restored mounts at Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Civil War Museum.
While on the waterfront, groups can enjoy the massive World War II battleship North Carolina, which is a memorial to North Carolina’s World War II veterans, or take a relaxing lunch cruise on the water in the Henrietta III riverboat.