James Nedresky

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.

Setting:

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, more than 20 miles offshore insome places, you truly do feel "out there." The shore areas west ofthe Outer Banks, along Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, seemcompletely different: slow-paced, laid-back, and more grounded ineveryday life. Other historic towns dot the southern half of NorthCarolina's coast, including Beaufort, Wilmington, Morehead City,Southport, and the famous fried-seafood center of Calabash. Barrierislands line much of that stretch with ambiences ranging from quietand exclusive (Bald Head Island) to happily crowded with familiesduring 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 vacationdestination has boomed in recent years. It's now home to more than100 golf courses.

Two of America's prettiest old seaports, Charleston andSavannah, stand only about 100 miles apart. In between sits aminiature 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, andPawleys Island in South Carolina, and Tybee Island in Georgia.

Sandy barrier islands guard most of Florida's long Atlanticcoast. They vary in character from the resort feel of Amelia Islandto the strangely companionable pairing of wildlife and spacecraftat Canaveral National Seashore and Cape Canaveral. They also extendto the posh exclusivity of Palm Beach and the fashionable glitz ofMiami Beach.

Attractions:

Beaches border almost every bit of this coast. The Gulf Streamruns close to shore, providing tremendous opportunities forfishermen.

Wilmington, North Carolina, offers Southern gentility and a hintof Hollywood flavor inspired by the area's thriving filmindustry.

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

Drawbacks:

Hurricane season runs June through November. Even conventionalstorms can batter fragile areas such as the Outer Banks. Erosionplagues some of the barrier islands. Rapid development hasoverwhelmed charm in a few popular areas such as the Outer Banks,Myrtle Beach, and large swaths of the Florida coast. Urbanamenities are few; Jacksonville and Miami are really the onlysizable cities.

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

Housing Options:

Immense homes now line much of the Outer Banks. They overshadowthe modest beach houses remaining from the time when the area was alow-key destination for fishermen and get-away-from-it-all familyvacationers. Stately Old South mansions abound in Charleston andSavannah, which also has a substantial Victorian district. Theislands near Charleston are being steadily developed withresort-type housing.

On the inland side of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, ElizabethCity, Edenton, Belhaven, Bath, Washington, New Bern, and Orientalcontain many historic houses. Beach homes and high-rise condos arescattered along the barrier islands from Morehead City/Beaufortthrough Myrtle Beach, on Hilton Head Island, and throughoutFlorida.

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

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

What It Costs:

Oceanfront Outer Banks houses go for $800,000 to $5 million andappreciate at about 20 to 25 percent per year. Oceanfront condos inTopsail 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-waterfrontVictorian home in Edenton fetches $130,000. In Myrtle Beach, acondo or town home on the Intracoastal Waterway costs $127,000.Fixer-uppers in Savannah's Victorian district sometimes sell forless than $100,000.

Your Next-door Neighbors:

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

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

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

How You'd Spend Your FreeTime: Boaters enjoy this entire stretch of coast. Golferslove 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. Scubaenthusiasts can dive for treasure or just for fun on countlessAtlantic wrecks.

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

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