Beach culture in the USA isn’t all about California. With four distinct coastlines (the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes) that span 30 states, there’s an enormous variety of seaside spots waiting to be explored. Narrowing it down to the southern states, we’ve found five exceptional stretches of sand ranging from the glitz of Miami’s South Beach to a wave-lapped graveyard of oak trees in Georgia.
South Beach, Miami, Florida
Sunbathe beside a classic striped lifeguard tower on Miami's 'SoBe'
At the southern tip of Florida, Miami’s South Beach (also known as SoBe) is one of the most famous strips of sand in the USA for good reason; the sand is just as white, the sea just as turquoise and the mood just as glamorous and carefree as you might expect. Rollerbladers glide through the beachfront parks backed by art deco architecture and neon signage, while bronzed sunbathers lie on the beach beside lifeguard towers painted lilac, yellow or red with white stripes. You can surf, parasail or jet ski here, or simply sunbathe and sample some of South Beach’s Latin cocktails – this sultry neighbourhood’s Hispanic heritage means that visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to Cuban cuisine and drinks. Try ropa vieja (shredded beef in a rich tomato, pepper and spice sauce served with tortillas) and yuca (a garlicky root vegetable dish marinated in lime and olive oil). Establishments like Havana 1957 won’t disappoint on the Cuban food front. Appreciate the art deco exterior and midcentury interior of Hotel La Flora.
Folly Beach, South Carolina
Stroll along the historic wooden fishing pier at Folly Beach
With its wooden pier extending over 1000 feet into the Atlantic and culminating in a grand, diamond-shaped pavilion, Folly Beach encapsulates the charisma of classic South Carolina. It’s located on an island just south of Charleston and tends to fill up with sunseekers and surfers escaping the city once the weather warms up in April. On a typical summer’s day here, you’ll find throngs of people fishing off the pier and watching lilac sunsets over the golden sand. You can also take a boat tour around the island, to spot leaping dolphins and the Morris Island Lighthouse standing in shallow waters (the building is slowly surrendering itself to the sea as a result of erosion). For dinner, Bowens Island Restaurant can be found a little further back from the beach towards Charleston. It dates back to the mid-1940s, and serves up some of the finest fresh oysters and shrimp in the area. Return to the seafront for live music and drinks at patio bar Loggerhead’s Beach Grill, or the Surf Bar, with its cheerful, beach shack-style decor. Book a suite overlooking the pier at Tides Folly Beach.
Driftwood Beach, Georgia
Walk among wave-lapped, bleached and gnarled dead oak trees in Georgia
On the northern end of Georgia’s Jekyll Island, Driftwood Beach is an eerie but beautiful place. Constant erosion has created a landscape of gnarled dead pine and water oak trees, bleached by the sun and scattered across the smooth sand. Unsurprisingly – thanks to this backdrop of twisted natural sculptures – sunsets here are a real draw. Walk right to the end of the beach and you’ll find it gets emptier and more otherworldly the further you go.. The tiny tidal pools forming around each old oak tree’s remains are also worth exploring at low tide, their clear waters being home to several species of crab, fish and other sea creatures. Stay at the 19th-century Jekyll Island Club Resort, just a 10-minute drive from the beach.
Siesta Key Beach, Florida
The sand on Siesta Key Beach is 99% quartz – meaning it doesn’t get too hot to the touch in the sunshine
Frequently described as the best beach in Florida, if not in the USA, Siesta Key can be found on a small barrier island off the Sunshine State’s west coast and not far from the city of Sarasota. The sand here is as fine as powdered sugar, is 99% quartz (meaning it doesn’t get too hot to the touch in the sunshine) and is a gleaming white colour, enhanced in contrast with the mint green sea. And the beach is long and wide enough to guarantee plenty of space to spread out. Spend the day playing volleyball on the sand and jumping through the Gulf coast waves. Then in the evening, drive to downtown Sarasota to try out its restaurant scene – from Southern fare like pecan-crusted trout with crawfish butter and jambalaya with shrimp at Owen’s Fish Camp, to ceviche at Selva. Guests at Siesta Key Bungalows get direct access to Heron Lagoon and an outdoor swimming pool, and are only a 7-minute drive from the beach.
Sandbridge Beach, Virginia
The low-key Sandbridge Beach, backed by pastel-painted condos and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Backed by pastel-painted condos and the 8,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Sandbridge is a low-key coastal retreat just south of the more well-known Virginia Beach. This is one for the nature-lovers and active families, with the opportunity to see dolphins and turtles as you kayak through calm Atlantic swells. Or to spot native birds and other animals in the dunes, marshland and maritime forests of the Wildlife Refuge (there’s a tram tour for tired children who are reluctant to walk). Another great way to enjoy the area is by bike, cycling through the nearby False Cape State Park. There’s not much in the way of restaurants or cafés here but that’s all the more reason for an atmospheric picnic on the uncrowded beach. Return to civilisation heading back to Virginia Beach for the night, staying at the Boardwalk Resort Hotel and Villas.