Memorial Day has a bit of a split personality: it’s the official start of summer, yes, but also a time to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by America’s soldiers, sailors, and aviators. Here are 10 places that get the mix of relaxation and reflection just right.
The first Memorial Day in Charleston was held in 1865 to honor black soldiers buried in a mass grave after a bloody attack on a coastal fort — a battle later portrayed in the movie, Glory. Modern Memorial Day events include the Spoleto music, dance, and theater festival and the annual oyster roast on Mingo Point. Folly Beach is nearby, as is historic Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
A solemn visit to the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor is an appropriate way to honor the sacrifice of all U.S. service members, and you can also take in the Waikiki Memorial Day parade before spending the afternoon playing on Oahu’s most famous beach. Pounding taiko drums at dusk signal the start of the annual Memorial Day Lantern Floating Ceremony at nearby Ala Moana Beach Park.
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The Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade, now in its 90th year, claims the title of the largest parade in the country honoring the nation’s fallen heroes. Speaking of big, the annual Jones Beach Air Show draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to the island’s barrier beach. When you need chill-out time, make like the locals and ferry out to Fire Island for a low-key celebration.
This food-crazy city kicks it up a notch with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, capped by a French Quarter parade led by the aptly named Kreme of Cork. Audubon Park and its zoo are the best place to cool off alongside the Mississippi River, while the recently expanded National World War II Museum salutes the heroes of the “Greatest Generation.”
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The key to a great summer on the beach is unlocking the ocean — or at least that’s how they roll down on the Jersey Shore: each Memorial Day weekend, Ocean City lifeguards and politicians march down to the beach with a “magical” key to ceremonially kick off the season. Other weekend events include laying a memorial wreath in the surf and a mass plunge into the ocean by people dressed in business attire — briefcases and all.
Photo: courtesy of Miller Ferry
This tiny island in Lake Erie uses its annual Memorial Day celebration to pay tribute to Commodore Matthew Perry’s crucial naval victory over the British in the War of 1812. Day trippers ferry to the island to climb the 352-foot Perry International Peace Memorial for views across the lake to Canada, thrill to musket demonstrations and cannon-fire salutes, kayak along the island’s limestone cliffs, and sip cool drinks at the Mojito Bay bar.
Home to huge Navy and Marine Corps bases, San Diego embraces Memorial Day with Legacy Week, which blends remembrances with family fun on the vast deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway. Head to the beaches of Coronado where you can see Navy SEALS practicing and thrill to flyovers by military aircraft landing at North Island Naval Air Station.
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The Mission District’s annual Carnaval celebration adds a burst of color to Memorial Day in the City by the Bay; visitors can also catch some early season Giants baseball, bike through the Presidio (a former military base turned into a park), or drink in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from clothing-optional Baker Beach.
Photo: Visit Virginia Beach
Start Memorial Day weekend off with a fruity twist at the annual Strawberry Festival on Sandbridge Beach at the south end of Virginia Beach. Following the holiday, the USO sponsors beach concerts and a military expo as part of the annual Patriotic Festival (held in the Resort Beach area, shown here). If the local waters aren’t quite warm enough yet for swimming, you can kayak through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge or join a dolphin-watching tour.
Washington, D.C., hosts the nation’s most prominent Memorial Day parade, and the annual Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally also rumbles through town in honor of war prisoners and soldiers missing in action. When you’re ready to cool off, rent a kayak to paddle the Potomac River, which runs through the city; the nearest saltwater beaches are on Chesapeake Bay, a one-to-two-hour drive away.