The South Atlantic

Tourism, small-town values, old money, new money, and no money mix to make this the most varied coast of all, and maybe the most fun.
By Steve Millburg

Setting:

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, more than 20 miles offshore in some places, you truly do feel "out there." The shore areas west of the Outer Banks, along Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, seem completely different: slow-paced, laid-back, and more grounded in everyday life. Other historic towns dot the southern half of North Carolina's coast, including Beaufort, Wilmington, Morehead City, Southport, and the famous fried-seafood center of Calabash. Barrier islands line much of that stretch with ambiences ranging from quiet and exclusive (Bald Head Island) to happily crowded with families during the summer (most everyplace else).

Sixty miles of beaches make up South Carolina's Grand Strand, with Myrtle Beach at its center. This longtime family vacation destination has boomed in recent years. It's now home to more than 100 golf courses.

Two of America's prettiest old seaports, Charleston and Savannah, stand only about 100 miles apart. In between sits a miniature version of the two: courtly Beaufort, South Carolina. Swanky resort islands lie off the coasts of South Carolina (Kiawah, Hilton Head) and Georgia (St. Simons, Jekyll). So do low-key, family-oriented outposts such as Fripp Island, Edisto Island, and Pawleys Island in South Carolina, and Tybee Island in Georgia.

Sandy barrier islands guard most of Florida's long Atlantic coast. They vary in character from the resort feel of Amelia Island to the strangely companionable pairing of wildlife and spacecraft at Canaveral National Seashore and Cape Canaveral. They also extend to the posh exclusivity of Palm Beach and the fashionable glitz of Miami Beach.

Attractions:

Beaches border almost every bit of this coast. The Gulf Stream runs close to shore, providing tremendous opportunities for fishermen.

Wilmington, North Carolina, offers Southern gentility and a hint of Hollywood flavor inspired by the area's thriving film industry.

Sun and fun have long been the draws in Florida. Tourism drives the economy here, though Jacksonville is a financial center and South Florida's economy has become highly diversified and increasingly tied to Latin America.

Drawbacks:

Hurricane season runs June through November. Even conventional storms can batter fragile areas such as the Outer Banks. Erosion plagues some of the barrier islands. Rapid development has overwhelmed charm in a few popular areas such as the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, and large swaths of the Florida coast. Urban amenities are few; Jacksonville and Miami are really the only sizable cities.

Economic opportunities may be scarce in some areas inland from the Outer Banks and along most of the mainland Georgia coast. Elsewhere, tourist-based economies can be strongly seasonal, though the busy season varies from summer farther north to winter in most of Florida.

Housing Options:

Immense homes now line much of the Outer Banks. They overshadow the modest beach houses remaining from the time when the area was a low-key destination for fishermen and get-away-from-it-all family vacationers. Stately Old South mansions abound in Charleston and Savannah, which also has a substantial Victorian district. The islands near Charleston are being steadily developed with resort-type housing.

On the inland side of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, Elizabeth City, Edenton, Belhaven, Bath, Washington, New Bern, and Oriental contain many historic houses. Beach homes and high-rise condos are scattered along the barrier islands from Morehead City/Beaufort through Myrtle Beach, on Hilton Head Island, and throughout Florida.

In Georgia (but outside Savannah), housing tends to split sharply between modest on the mainland and sumptuous on the most-developed barrier islands (St. Simons and Jekyll).

In Florida, you can find anything that was popular in the past century.

What It Costs:

Oceanfront Outer Banks houses go for $800,000 to $5 million and appreciate at about 20 to 25 percent per year. Oceanfront condos in Topsail Beach and Wrightsville Beach start at $180,000 to $200,000. In Florida, oceanfront homes start at $735,000 on Amelia Island and $800,000 in St. Augustine. Bargains: A restored, non-waterfront Victorian home in Edenton fetches $130,000. In Myrtle Beach, a condo or town home on the Intracoastal Waterway costs $127,000. Fixer-uppers in Savannah's Victorian district sometimes sell for less than $100,000.

Your Next-door Neighbors:

Perhaps the friendliest are the "Rose Buddies" of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. These volunteer greeters welcome Intracoastal Waterway boaters and present a rose to each lady aboard.

Millionaires flock to many of the vacation islands. Eccentricity reigns in Savannah, and propriety in Charleston. Commercial and sportfishermen and shrimpers work all along the coast.

Most Florida towns and cities mix retirees, beach bums, tourist-business workers, fishermen, avid radio talk-show listeners, and lots of hardworking families. South Florida has become an increasingly energetic, endlessly fascinating blend of Anglo and Latin cultures.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time: Boaters enjoy this entire stretch of coast. Golfers love the Atlantic coast, too, especially the Myrtle Beach area, Hilton Head and some of the other resort islands, and the St. Augustine-Ponte Vedra Beach area of northeast Florida. Scuba enthusiasts can dive for treasure or just for fun on countless Atlantic wrecks.

The same steady winds that attracted the Wright brothers to the Outer Banks are great for hang-gliding, kite-flying, windsurfing, or kiteboarding. Surfers congregate at Cocoa Beach and Sebastian Inlet in Florida.