Best something-for-everyone beach (5.5 hours from Atlanta): A few miles west of South Walton’s famed highway 30A and all of its master-planned communities lies Sandestin. This 2,400-acre resort straddles U.S. 98, making it large enough to contain a perk none of the 30A communities have: bayfront and beachfront property. All this space allows for a wider array of land and water activities, nightlife and accommodations in one spot. It’s possible to spend your entire vacation at Sandestin without getting back into the car thanks to the abundant walking/biking/golf cart paths (there’s even a place to park golf carts at the local Publix) and a tram service that carts guests between beach and bay locales.
The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa has played host to generations of families and romantics visiting Sandestin. Flip-flops and swimsuits are appropriate attire in the common areas of this Hilton located on the beach. One place where beachwear isn’t allowed, though, is at Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood off the lobby; it’s the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant in the area.
Stay: Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa. High season rates start at around $250. 4000 Sandestin Blvd., Miramar Beach. 850-267-9500; www.hiltonsandestinbeach.com.
Eat: Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood. Entrees start at $32. Address same as Hilton. 850-622-1500; www.seagars.com.
Cape San Blas, Florida
Best uncrowded and dog-friendly beach (5.5 hours from Atlanta): If you’re not one for big resorts, Cape San Blas will suit you well, especially if you want to bring a dog or two along. Dog-friendly beaches are hard to find in the Southeast, but this 20-mile Panhandle peninsula welcomes pets along a 10-mile stretch (the other 10 miles are part of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park; Florida law forbids pets on state park beaches, but welcomes them in other areas). Crowded sands are rare here, even in the high season. The coast is dotted with beach homes and low-rise condos. The nearby town of Port St. Joe on the bay contains the only grocery store in the area and plenty of dining and bayside sightseeing options. (Climb the lighthouse for a good view).
Stay: Sunset Reflections by Natural Retreats. This company has beach homes of all sizes available, many pet-friendly. 1147 Cape San Blas Road, Port St Joe. 850-312-7606; www.sunsetreflections.com.
Eat: Indian Pass Raw Bar. Legendary roadside hangout serving oysters and shrimp from local waters. Platters start at $11. 8391 County Road 30A, Port St Joe. 850-227-1670; www.indianpassrawbar.com.
Best surfing beaches (5.5 hours from Atlanta): There’s a real surfing culture along the 22 miles of coastline that make up Jacksonville’s three beach towns: Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach. The hang-10 set comes for easy access and big breaking waves. Rent your gear through Jacksonville Surf and Paddle in Neptune Beach; the staff can also clue you in on where the best breaks are and give lessons to newbies.
An epicenter of activity for both beach life and nightlife is where Neptune and Atlantic beaches meet. Check out the Lemon Bar at the old-school Seahorse Oceanfront Inn for the quintessential open-air beach bar. Next door, enjoy exquisite high-end dining at Azurea inside the One Ocean Resort.
Stay: Seahorse Oceanfront Inn. Rates start at $149. 120 Atlantic Blvd., Neptune Beach. 904-246-2175; www.jacksonvilleoceanfronthotel.com.
Eat: Azurea at One Ocean Resort. Entrees start at $31. 1 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach. 904-249-7402; www.oneoceanresort.com/dining.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Best historic beach town (4 hours from Atlanta): The closest beach to Atlanta is on Tybee Island. It’s been a vacation destination since after the Civil War when Savannah residents began spending weekends there. These days, Tybee draws all walks of life from around the country to its low-key lifestyle.
Part of Tybee’s charm is that it retains its old street grid and a distinct form of architecture, the Tybee raised cottage. Many of these historic cottages still exist on the island, structures built shortly after the automobile came into fashion, with an open carport and changing rooms below and living quarters above.
At the less-crowded north end of the island, you’ll find Fort Screven, which stood guard at the mouth of the Savannah River during three wars. Across the street, the Tybee Light Station still stands as the highest point on the island, worthy of a climb to take in panoramic coastal views.
Stay: Mermaid Cottages. This company has homes for rent all over the island, including Tybee raised cottages. Rates start at $125 a night. 912-313-0784; mermaidcottages.com.
Eat: North Beach Bar and Grill. Longtime casual beachside restaurant serving above-average beach bar fare. Sandwiches with a side start at $6.95, dinner entrees at $17.95. 33 Meddin Drive, Tybee Island. 912-786-4442; www.northbeachbarandgrill.net.
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama
Best beach for events (5.5 hours from Atlanta): During a typical summer, the twin cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach along the Alabama Gulf Coast are home to numerous festivals staged on or near the sand. Major festivals include like the Hangout Music Festival and the National Shrimp Festival. While some of those gatherings have been moved to next year or look different amid the coronavirus, the beaches are still a nearby option for a beach trip.
Stay: Phoenix All Suites. Located on the beach within walking distance to some festival sites. Rates start at around $120. 201 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores. 800-594-9685; www.phoenixallsuites.com.
Eat: The Hangout. It’s a party spot after dark, family-friendly by day with plenty of amusements for the kids. Entrees start at $14. 101 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores. 251-948-3030; thehangout.com.
Those may be our top 5 picks for best beaches near Atlanta - but there’s no shortage of options that are still within drive-distance of Atlanta. Check out these 8 runner-ups for our list:
Ossabaw Island, Ga.
248 miles from Atlanta: Ossabaw’s unspoiled land claims title as Georgia’s third largest barrier island. 13 miles of undeveloped seashore beckon visitors. This beauty is only accessible via a 20-minute boat ride from Savannah.
Edisto Island, SC.
287 miles from Atlanta: Touted as one of the few uncommercialized family beaches remaining, the dolphins and turtles realize this. Watch wildlife, ride your bike, enjoy a boat tour or take a swing at The Plantation Course at Edisto.
308 miles from Atlanta: Five distinct beach towns comprise the city of Charleston. You’ll find a barrier island at Kiawah Island and a family-friendly haven at Isle of Palms. Folly Beach calls to the eclectic crowd, with surfers and a laidback vibe. Seabrook is residential and Sullivan’s Island sits on the mouth of the harbor.
South Walton, Fl.
302 miles from Atlanta: 16 beaches dot this coastal area, with something for everyone. Take in the art festivals at Seaside or the unique dune lake ecosystem. Explore the “French Quarter” feel of Rosemary Beach or the hippie kitsch of Grayton Beach; the adventure is unending.
Perdido Key, Fl.
334 miles from Atlanta: Named one of the 10 most beautiful cities in the US by The Culture Trip and 2015′s Best Beach in Florida by USA Today, this island offers white sandy seashore, state park and recreation areas, golf, family-friendly attractions and more.
416 miles from Atlanta: Three island-beaches call this historic southern city home. Carolina Beach calls to families, with events and a festive boardwalk. Kure Beach offers a relaxed pace with a fishing pier and aquarium. Watersports and an active social scene set the tone at Wrightsville Beach.
Daytona Beach, Fl.
433 miles. Called the Original American Beach, it’s more than college kids on spring break. Visit the Boardwalk & Pier, or cool off while sauntering through the new $13 million art museum, the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art. Find zip lining, golf, and Florida’s tallest lighthouse. No wonder this city was chosen as Best Florida Attraction.
New Smyrna Beach, Fl.
450 miles. 13 miles of beach regularly attract surfers, offering some of the best wave action on the Eastern Seaboard. Just like Daytona, visitors can drive on the beach for a unique way to explore. No worries, there are traffic-free zones for families. Additional maritime fun includes kayaking, boating, river cruises and more.