It's Time to Give Yourself a Break: 4 Unexpected U.S. Southern Coastal Retreats That Won't Break the Bank
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3. Dauphin Island, Alabama
I toured the Gulf Coast extensively in 2010, and found myself astonished at the beauty of the beaches and the quaint attraction of some of the villages, all of which are supremely affordable. People were still reeling from the aftermath of the oil spill, but the drop in tourism was driven in many cases by unfounded fears that the beaches were spoiled. (There have been some tar balls and other signs of of the spill, but far fewer than you'd expect and the effort at clean-up has been massive.) The glorious stretches of pristine white sand and wonderful nature preserves I visited testified to the natural resilience of an area that has plenty drop-dead gorgeousness to offer the visitor. One of my favorite spots was Dauphin Island, a barrier island three miles south of Mobile Bay, where the vibe is chill and the beaches have that luxurious squeak-beneath-your-toes feel that only comes from super-fine sand.
On Dauphin, you’ll want to tour Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a year-round 65-acre garden estate where you can stroll along paths laced, depending on the season, with azaleas, Easter lilies, hydrangeas, and all manner of luscious flora. Birders will wish to flock to the Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, where a 1,000-foot boardwalk leads from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake with a stunning view of 164 acres of beautiful woodlands. Miles of walking trails guide you through through pines, live oaks, magnolias, swamp and gulf beach. Egrets and herons hang out in the marshes and trees and you might even spot an occasional alligator taking an afternoon sunbath on the bank. History buffs can get a fantastic fix at Fort Gaines—famous for the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay and Admiral Farragut’s unforgettable command, “Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!”
Many beaches on the Gulf Coast are known for raucous partying, but Dauphin Island is a place for folks who just want to sit and watch the waves roll in. Houses available for rent are as luxurious or as basic as you want. There aren't many restaurants, but you can get great picnic fare from the Lighthouse Bakery, as well as Sunday omelets.
4. Beaufort, North Carolina
The little seaport village of Beaufort is often overlooked by folks heading to nearby Emerald Isle, where the beaches are admittedly lovely, but the T-shirt-shop tawdriness tends to spoil the ambiance. Beaufort is a favorite port of call, however, for sailors on the Intracoastal Waterway (Walter Conkrite used to like to stop in, and wrote about the pleasures of Beaufort his 1983 book Around America: A Tour of Our Magnificent Coastline). Folks in the know love Beaufort for its narrow, leafy streets, where 100 houses are more than a century old. (During the third week in June, residents throw open their wisteria-draped doors for the Beaufort Homes and Garden Tour.) They also love it for the Beaufort Grocery Co., where first-rate southern cuisine -- a far cry from the "whatever-it-is-fry-it" regime of many southern beach eateries -- is served to hungry locals and visitors. And they love it for the wild ponies, descendants of the mustangs brought over on Spanish galleons, who roam the dunes of Shackleford Banks, just a quick pedestrian ferry ride away.
I love Beaufort for its human scale and decidedly unglitzy charm. If strolling the boardwalk with an ice cream cone or popping into an antique store are the sorts of things that suit you on vacation, this is your spot. Be sure to check out the "warped weavers" (no, they're not insane) who show off their antique looms in the Safrit Historical Center and don't miss the ghostly Old Burying Ground on Ann Street, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can even hop aboard a red English double-decker bus to tour the historic district. There are several excellent inns to choose from in Beaufort, including the Ann Street Inn and the Inlet Inn.