Hot Spots for Summer
The Ultimate Vacation Planner
Let’s say what we’re all thinking — it’s time for a vacation! Whether
from the daily rat race or the Saturday morning soccer games, it’s never been more tempting to get away, especially now that school is out. Luckily, landlocked Northsiders can trade all that routine noise for a peaceful ferry ride from the mainland to North Carolina’s scenic Bald Head Island, an adventure-packed excursion to Alabama’s Gulf Coast and a well-deserved day at the spa in Florida’s St. Andrews Bay. Family fun in the sun awaits no matter which of our cool summer hot spots you decide to visit — just be sure to get there before the summer breezes right through your calendar.
Taking Time to Coast
Written By Heather KW Brown
Bald Head Island transports visitors to an unrivaled beach experience
White sand that squishes softly between eager toes. Driftwood picket fences draped strategically across untouched dunes. Restaurants, shops and maybe a market or two nestled neighborly along the island. As the beaches of my past started to blend together, the perfectionist in me craved more.
Daring myself to find a tranquil escape that transcended its peers, I packed my brood and set my sights on Bald Head Island, a remote but well-dressed resort and residential community accessible only by ferry off the North Carolina coast.
A Family’s Best Friend
Several action-packed days exploring Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach and neighboring Carolina Beach drifted behind us as a ferry filled with bins of our belongings pulled away from the dock. Floating on the horizon, a lighthouse lured us closer to what the locals call “turtle time,” due no doubt, to the loggerhead turtles that nest on the beach and the slow pace at which life is celebrated on Bald Head Island (BHI).
This land of no fast lanes is reserved for golf carts, bikes and your own two feet — no cars allowed on the island. And that was exactly what my family needed: an excuse to relax and enjoy the journey, starting with a short 20-minute ferry ride from Deep Point Marina in Southport, N.C.
From the terminal on BHI, we boarded a tram loaded with our luggage and watched more scenery scoot past as a porter drove us to a beautiful, two-story rental overlooking the harbor on one side and beachfront on the other. Excited to call it home, even temporarily, I flung the sliding glass doors open and sprinted onto the sand, my arms outstretched as if running toward a long lost love. Mixed among the crashing waves were high-pitched squeals in the distance. Realizing my children were laughing hysterically, I turned just as our 6-month-old puppy pounced.
Barely settled, our experience had already surpassed beach trips of years past, and now we could share it with the newest addition of our family. Here, dogs ride on the ferry and in a seat on the golf cart. And here, sandy breezes whip wildly through their hair just as often as their human counterparts, engaging two- and four-legged friends alike in tireless games of tag until the sun dips behind the dunes.
An Old Lighthouse and New Lifestyle
Having decided that doing nothing at the beach technically qualified as doing something, I had also come to the conclusion that we could not leave the island without climbing Old Baldy. Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson and built in 1817, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse is a must visit.
Featuring 14 miles of pristine beach, marsh and an ancient maritime forest, the island is only 3 miles in length, so finding our way around proved simple, plus towering at 110 feet, the landmark lighthouse is impossible to miss.
Trusting that “it’s only 108 steps to the top,” my husband and I tried to corral the children (or catch our breath, whichever sounds best) by listening to the audio tour on each of the five landings. The climb is steep but well worth squeezing into the lantern room at the very top for an incredible panoramic view of the island.
From here, we spotted Delphina, the new world cantina that surprised everyone at our table with creative menu items like the aguacates al fresco, an appetizer made with half an avocado, crab salad, lettuce and roasted red pepper sauce. Our entire meal was so amazing, we vowed to work up another appetite and go back.
We biked to the other side of the island in search of the oceanfront Shoals Club, which offers beach access, pools and volleyball courts while The Bald Head Island Club touts croquet, tennis, pool and the $4.5-million, 18-hole golf course by award-winning architect Tim Cate that winds its way over dunes, around lagoons, along the ocean and through the maritime forest. Both clubs are available to guests with temporary membership.
Other options for burning calories on Bald Head Island, which earned its name from early river pilots who referenced its “bald” headland as a landmark leading to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, include nature-themed programs offered by the Bald Head Island Conservancy, a GPS scavenger hunt, a leisurely stroll along the M. Kent Mitchell Nature Trail, surf fishing, and plenty of popular water sports through the Sail Shop.
Double decker cones from Sandpiper’s Coffee and Ice Cream in hand, my family debated our next move as Mother Nature’s playground beckoned. We chose to sit still and enjoy it. The perfectionist was finally pleased
Off The Beachin’ Path
Written By Jennifer Colosimo
Alabama’s Gulf Coast is King for Family Vacations
Before stir-crazy kids and baseball season take over your household, hit the road for the Gulf Coast. In fact, with the myriad of activities and entertainment that Alabama’s Gulf Coast offers, Northsiders should leave tomorrow.
The sparkling waters of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach make for the ultimate beach vacation. It’s a rare place, where whether sunny and hot or cloudy and cool, there’s something to do, places to eat and a view worth clearing your schedule to see. Rarer still is a clean, classic beach town looking forward to nothing more than hosting metro Atlantans.
Where to Eat
Small-town stays are famous for the real family recipes lining menus along the coast. We love the fried shrimp and french fries at Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar. They might come piled on Styrofoam plates, but at first bite you know you’re in seafood heaven.
The best thing about the beach, for me and my husband, is watching the sun set and your cocktails multiply, so we hit The Gulf for Bloody Marys, burgers and a surprisingly tasty homemade hummus snack. Tucked right on the coast before you hit the bridge to Florida, this spot mimics the area’s namesake and won’t encourage sharing your grub. We came straight from the beach in tees and flops, but plenty of people made it a stop on the way to dinner. Laid back with high spirits, this is the way to kiss a well-spent beach day good-bye.
A weekend trip means limited mealtime opportunities, but no matter how many days you stay, make sure you find a spot on the patio at Shipp’s Harbour Grille for the city’s best Ponchartrain sauce. We savored the buttery crab and shrimp goodness atop coconut-crusted grouper, but it comes on many different smother-worthy dishes. If you’re looking for something a little fancier, the new, modern and bustling Fisher’s Upstairs is your supreme white-tablecloth-style beach bite. Go big with the fork-filling, mammoth stuffed flounder or simmering bowl of shrimp and okra gumbo.
Where to Play
Whether it’s fair-skinned friends or a dreary day on the sand, opportunities to sacrifice sun for fun await. Starting the day at The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo provides a little hands-on zoology that’s fun for travelers of all ages. Passionate about animals and a fireball of personality, zoo owner Patti Hall recently landed in the spotlight when Animal Planet’s “The Little Zoo That Could” told the story of how she loaded up all of her zookeepers, their families and the extensive group of animals (including lions, tigers and bears) to hunker down at her house during Hurricane Ivan. Back at the zoo, which feels more like a neighborhood animal park, Hall wants guests to have a more hands-on approach. If you see her there, Hall just might let you snuggle a baby kangaroo in your arms or (if you’re up for it) let a lemur use your body as a jungle gym.
Higher adrenaline adventure awaits at The Gulf Adventure Center at Gulf State Park, where trained pros can get you standing on paddleboards, flying through the air on Hummingbird Ziplines or riding low in a kayak. With the family in tow, sign up for a nature walk for an intimate look into what’s creepy and crawling around in the woods or on the beach. If you have time, pop into the Gulf State Park Nature Center and say hello to Homer — the center’s pet boxwood turtle. He may or may not give you a hint about the center’s hidden geocache.
No one thinks about doing arts and crafts at the beach, but at the new Coastal Arts Center, a fascinating glass-blowing building called The Hot Shop invites budding artists inside for demos and a chance to create their own art. Next door, where we spent the morning testing our forearm strength and creative prowess, The Clay Studio spins potter’s wheels to create that perfect home accessory. Our finished pieces (however humble they may be) are now proudly on display.
Gulf Shores is not a tourist trap, or a commercialized vacation mecca — it’s the beach, as the beach was meant to be. My husband and I think that could be the secret to serenity.
For More Information: Gulfshores.com
Got Geocache? Grab your detective tools, your thinking caps and a sense of adventure to join the worldwide hunt for more than 2 million hidden treasures all over the globe. Using the website or the app, simply type in coordinates and follow hints to discover nearby geocaches and document your finds. Vacationing doesn’t require a treasure map, but it just got way cooler to carry one.
A Refuge By the Bay
Written By Bre Humphries
Historic St. Andrews Offers Small-Town Charm on the Outskirts of Panama City Beach
It was the tagline printed on the window that lured me into St. Andrews Coffee House: “A Neighborhood Gathering Place.” The adage proved true, as the few patrons left lingering over breakfast were neighborhood regulars, indeed, and the woman behind the counter excused herself from the small talk to take my order. The “Huge, Hot Cinnamon Roll” on the “Naughty But Nice” breakfast menu caught my eye, but knowing it would spoil my lunch, I stuck with iced coffee.
As I waited for my order, I took in the simple but welcoming atmosphere of the space, once a grocery and later a pharmacy before opening as a coffee house in 1998. According to a history lesson on the shop’s website, the owners have been working within these walls for four generations, seeking to provide a refuge where patrons can return to a slower pace of life.
It’s a common goal in Historic Downtown St. Andrews, which is experiencing a return to its former economic prosperity after losing business to nearby Panama City Beach in the ‘80s. Now, the charming waterfront town seems to serve as the antithesis to all those towering developments and tourist traps, offering an authentic sense of community that is as refreshing as the salty breeze blowing off the bay. As I stepped into the late morning sun, that very breeze drew my attention to the coast, where I passed a Mommy & Me yoga class under a canopy of oaks before strolling down the boardwalk to the water’s edge.
On Saturday mornings, the community comes to life with a year-round farmers market, bringing a variety of local produce, handmade jewelry, art and sundries to town, but an assorted offering of merchants and restaurants offer much to explore on any day of the week. There’s a gallery of local art at Bay Art & Frame, vintage treasures at Bayview Antiques, fashionable finds at BOT Boutique, more coffee and treats at Chez Amavida, 70 wines by the glass at The Purple Grape, seafood and cold beer at Hunt’s Oyster Bar, and oh, so much more.
Visitors who want to immerse themselves in St. Andrews’ charm can stay in quaint cottages at the Azalea Court Inn, but to satisfy our beach cravings, my clan and I chose to settle at Bay Point. Offering a variety of condos and hotel rooms in two separate properties — Bay Point Wyndham Resort and Sterling Resorts’ Reflections at Bay Point, all with bay or golf course views, Bay Point is the perfect respite for families that want the beach experience while remaining on the outskirts of PCB’s crazy crowds.
Guests at both Bay Point Wyndham and Reflections have access to two championship golf courses, a private beach, resort pool, water sports, several onsite restaurants and a full-service spa. In an area better known for tattoo parlors than pampering, Serenity Spa comes as the greatest surprise, and I could have spent an entire day losing myself in the tranquility of its luxurious treatments. Be sure to arrive early for your spa service to enjoy the sauna, steam room, whirlpool and complimentary glass of wine, or go all out with a spa package combining the best in massage therapy, skin care, nail and hair services.
Reuniting with my family after the spa, we headed to Pelican’s Bar and Grill, a water-bound, open-air beach bar accessible via a boardwalk from the main property. We snagged a table just in time to watch the sun sink over the water, setting the sky ablaze in orange and pink as we noshed on fish tacos (and margaritas for mom and dad).
Reflections also offers shuttle service to nearby Shell Island, an undeveloped, 700-acre barrier island perfect for snorkeling, shell collecting and dolphin sightings. Being a boating family, we had come prepared for our own private island outing, so we packed a picnic and set sail for a day.
At the end of the day, we navigated back into Historic St. Andrews, docking at the marina for dinner at Uncle Ernie’s Bayfront Grill and Brew House. Located in a two-story, circa-1800s home, Uncle Ernie’s is hands-down our favorite spot for dinner in this area, thanks to a line-up of live entertainment, a selection of homemade beers, and the best crab cakes we’ve ever tasted. After dinner, we took one last stroll through St. Andrews, marveling once again at the unexpected small-town charm of this seaside community.
For More Information: sterlingresorts.com
Still hungry? We know the sun and sand (and spa) can really work up an appetite, so we scoped even farther outside the city limits for more palate pleasers. What we found was the family-owned, and still operated, Thomas Donut & Snack Shop. An easy 20-minute drive down Front Beach Road gets you in line for a five-star morning starter of hot bacon, egg and cheese biscuits or a dozen of their famous blueberry cake doughnuts. thomasdonutandsnackshop.com