10 amazing beaches

2008 file – Visitors walk on the beach near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
2008 file – Visitors walk on the beach near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. News & Observer

Stephen Leatherman doesn’t have a medical degree, but he has a prescription for Carolinians: adventure.

Which 10 Carolinas beaches offer the most interesting activities or themes? To find out, we asked Stephen Leatherman. The Charlotte native and author known as “Dr. Beach” is a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. He’s nationally known for his list of top 10 U.S. beaches, issued every Memorial Day.

1. Ocracoke Island. Part of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke “is a great island getaway that was a favorite of Blackbeard, the pirate,” Leatherman said. “You get there by car ferry. They have these little golf carts to pick you up.

“There’s one guarded beach, called Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach. There are some pretty big waves down there.” P.S. The British Cemetery there has gravestones that date to the 1800s. Leatherman recommends a nighttime visit – preferably in the fog – for a chance to see Blackbeard’s ghost.

2. Cape Hatteras. Another Outer Banks attraction, Cape Hatteras is home to one of the world’s most famous lighthouses – and its tallest brick lighthouse (208 feet). In 1999, the light station was moved 2,900 feet from where it had been since 1870 in order to protect against shoreline erosion.

“They’ve got lifeguards there, and the south side is great for fishing,” Leatherman said. “When I walk out on the sand spit at the point during low tide, I feel like Moses with the parting of the waters.” P.S. If you want to reach the top of the lighthouse, you’ll need a 268-step climb.

3. Nags Head. One of North Carolina’s most historic beach communities offers much to do nearby – from Jockey’s Ridge State Park (the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern U.S.) and First Flight Adventure Park. First Flight is a natural for the town just south of Kitty Hawk.

“If you’re going, you’ve got to see Jockey’s Ridge. My kids thought it was like the Sahara Desert,” Leatherman said. “It’s probably one of the best places to hang-glide.” For the less daring, Gallery Row on the north end of town boasts canvas and woodcarving art. P.S. The name Nags Head is traced back to when land pirates of the Outer Banks would place a lantern around the head of a mule and walk it up and down the sand dunes of the beach, hoping to trick those in trade ships into thinking it was another large vessel and a possible place to wait out a storm.

4. Duck. Located in Dare County, Duck “is a really upscale area, with the finer things in life. It has a full wine array, great restaurants, and these wooden houses on pilings that are usually five bedrooms with five, six baths. You can sit at the very tops of the roofs on a deck and look at the ocean – a great trip for extended family or six couples, which is the way we did it.

“At the beach, the water is deep, and the waves are a lot bigger there. Watch out for rip currents in August or September. So it’s not great for kids. It’s more for people who are in great shape” and the affluent. P.S. Leatherman says Duck has the most instrumented (surveyed and studied) beach in the world, equipped with current meters, wave gauges, bottom-sounding equipment and other devices.

5. Corolla. Leatherman sees the beach as “off-road vehicle heaven. ... Make sure you bring plenty of drinking water and watch out for tree stumps along the way. You don’t want to hit those.

“There are some old dunes back there. Behind the dunes, you’ll meet some people living out in the wild – no electricity or water. It’s an adventure, like going back in time.” P.S. Wild colonial Spanish mustangs that roam the northern beaches of Corolla and nearby Carova are a tourist attraction. Reid Creager

A. Kiawah Island. In addition to the famous golf course on the main island 15 miles south of Charleston, “Beachwalker Park is the public beach you can go to,” Leatherman said. “Kiawah is a nature lover’s island. Bring your bicycle for Beachwalker Park, because you can ride a regular bicycle the entire 10 miles of the beach. The sand is super fine and packed.

“Also, bring a canoe or kayak because you’re going to see a lot of wildlife – sometimes dolphins, all sorts of bird life. They also employ two botanists who will take you around.”

B. Huntington Beach State Park – “This is the castle beach,” Leatherman said. The park is home to Atalaya – the stately Moorish-style winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who left the park as their legacy.

The park and beach are just south of the Grand Strand, in Murrells Inlet. “It has waterfront camping, is great for birdwatching, and there aren’t a lot of people.”

C. Morris Island. Accessible only by boat, Morris Island, in Charleston Harbor, is a Leatherman favorite “because it’s where a famous, bloody Civil War battle took place, with hand-to-hand combat. During the battle, the Morris Island lighthouse was on the island. Now the lighthouse is 1,500 feet offshore.

“It’s a bare island, nothing there. But you can take a boat trip around the lighthouse. Also, on the way out of Charleston Harbor, you can go by Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.” Nearby Folly Beach has all of the expected activities for the toes-in-the-sand crowd.

D. Isle of Palms. The barrier island just north of Charleston “is famous for its Lowcountry cooking and clay tennis courts,” Leatherman said. “In the summer, the asphalt courts get really hot, so the clay courts are so much more playable.

“There’s a very nice beach there (Isle of Palms County Park Beach), and the Wild Dunes Resort and a lot of other different places to stay.”

E. Hilton Head. If Isle of Palms is a tennis paradise, this Southeast vacation mainstay has the same distinction for golf. For beach aficionados, Leatherman said: “Go to the middle of the island. That’s where you’ll find the clearest water.”

He says the range of accommodations and activities is family-friendly. “Waves are typically small there – great for swimming, good for kids – plenty of things to do.”

Reid Creager