Charlotte’s Piedmont location always raises a key weekend getaway question: Mountains or beach? You can be at either within an easy afternoon’s drive. Here are a handful of tried-and-true destinations.
Charleston (3 hours, 25 minutes): While often a prime drive-to for history, culture and food, the two beaches that flank the city actually afford the shortest drive. To the east is Sullivan’s Island Beach ( www.sullivansisland-sc.com). It’s not overly busy, wide at low tide, and its three-mile expanse is tucked behind a residential area, giving it a small-town feel. There’s easy access to food and lodging, and the beach isn’t hard to find: Just look for the black-and-white lighthouse.
Farther east is Isle of Palms ( www.iop.net), and the planned upscale Wild Dunes community ( www.wilddunes.com) is right behind it. If you’re into golf and tennis, this place is prime.
Southwest of Charleston is Folly Beach ( www.follybeach.com), which has a bit of a funky Key West feel, with a stretch of sand that goes from one tip of Folly Island to the other. The S.C. 117 causeway leading there becomes its shop-/café-lined Main Street. Folly is a popular destination for Charleston residents throughout the year.
Boneyard Beach, Bulls Island (3 hours, 45 minutes): Bulls Island, off the oceanfront of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, near Awendaw, S.C., isn’t the easiest place to reach: It’s open for day-use only, and most visitors get there by ferry ( www.bullsislandferry.com). For tranquil solitude, it’s hard to beat – and its flat trails can take you to Boneyard Beach, a wild, beautiful shore where bleached tree stumps look like dinosaur bones.
Myrtle Beach (3 hours, 45 minutes): The Grand Strand has long been the prime beach for Charlotte vacationers ( www.visitmyrtlebeach.com). Golf courses abound, as do family attractions that range from mini-golf to a Ripley’s Aquarium. The beaches are fine, and their appeal has been augmented in recent years by the creation of the seaside SkyWheel – an enormous Ferris wheel that gives you views 25 miles up the coast – and a 1.2-mile boardwalk that’s great for strolling and close to restaurants.
Wilmington (3 hours, 45 minutes): The downtown is an attraction all by itself, and Wrightsville Beach and the Pleasure Island beaches to the south are close at hand. Wrightsville ( www.townofwrightsvillebeach.com) has been popular for more than a century; the towns on Pleasure Island ( www.pleasureislandnc.org) – Carolina and Kure, between the Cape Fear River and the sea – are more tourist-ready. They have a wide assortment of rental properties and inexpensive diversions, including an N.C. Aquarium, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and the Civil War-vintage Fort Fisher itself. Note: The waves can be stronger at these beaches than at their South Carolina counterparts.
Blowing Rock (2 hours): North Carolinians have long been coming here to escape the heat, and its tourism infrastructure is well-developed ( www.blowingrock.org). A prime stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway is nearby – check out Moses Cone Memorial Park – and Tweetsie Railroad ( www.tweetsie.com) is a kid-pleasing family attraction whose centerpiece is a steam locomotive open spring through fall. Great events include food/wine festivals, the Art in the Park series and summer evening concerts.
Grandfather Mountain (2 hours, 15 minutes): The mountain holds a long-established nature-oriented attraction – hiking trails, a nature museum and the Mile High Swinging Bridge ( www.grandfather.com) – and its backside is being developed into a state park. The views are spectacular. Also worth checking out are the famous Highland Games staged there on a long weekend in mid-July ( www.gmhg.org). Its Scottish music and athletic activities attract thousands of visitors.
Sylva (3 hours): The seat of Jackson County is a charming small town on the edge of Nantahala National Forest and tucked in a mountain valley. It’s not far from Cherokee, and provides a little peace and quiet after visiting the attractions and casino in bustling Cherokee ( www.visitcherokeenc.com). Sylva’s compact downtown is on several elevations and holds the great City Lights Bookstore, several choice restaurants, bakeries and bars and the tiny Heinzelmannchen Brewery ( www.yourgnometownbrewery.com) – which also makes stellar root beer.
Bryson City (3 hours, 15 minutes): Here’s a tourist-friendly town on the Tuckasegee River that’s ringed by the Swain County peaks – within easy striking distance of Cherokee via U.S. 19 and close to the southeast edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Walk Bryson City’s attractive Main Street ( www.greatsmokies.com) – and plan ahead to ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which offers trips along the Tuckasegee River. The ride through the Nantahala River gorge is spectacular and takes you to the famous Nantahala Outdoor Center complex ( www.noc.com), where the whitewater rafting program is an attraction all its own.