Get your vitamin D white water rafting, fly fishing or dipping your toes in the Caribbean
Cabin fever is at its pinnacle right now, as low temperatures and winter rains collude to keep us from venturing outside unless absolutely necessary. So what better time to plan a spring getaway surrounded by sun and surf? Here are some suggested destinations for getting the most out of your beach, lake or river vacation. But remember, some Southeastern coastal destinations were affected by last year’s brutal hurricane season, so be sure to get an update before you go.
Hunting Island, S.C.
Hunting Island State Park is one of the most popular state parks in South Carolina. The 5,000-acre secluded barrier island 15 miles east of Beaufort, S.C., attracts more than 1 million visitors annually with its five miles of wilderness beach, marshlands, maritime forest, lagoon and the only lighthouse in the state accessible to the public. In addition to a nature center, eight miles of trails, a marshland boardwalk and picnic shelters, there are 100 campsites and one cabin available for rent. And this year the park has a new attraction. In 2017, Ted Turner sold his private vacation island on the coast of South Carolina to the state. A 4,700-acre, pristine ecological treasure located between Fripp and Hilton Head islands, St. Phillps Island is managed by Hunting Island State Park and will be accessible to the public this summer through ranger-led guided tours. It is one of the few designated National Natural Landmarks in the state. ($5 admission. $18 and up for campsites; $200 and up for cabin. 2555 Sea Island Parkway, 843-838-2011, www.southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island)
Many Atlantans drive through Columbus on their way to the Gulf beaches, but the city has become a destination itself for water sports enthusiasts. The Chattahoochee flows past downtown in a much different fashion than it does in Atlanta. Columbus sits on the fall line, where the topography drops from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain region, creating significant rapids on the river. The city has turned itself into a world-class whitewater spot after a major river restoration project that involved blowing up the old mill dams and restoring the natural beauty of the Hooch. It's now home to the one of the world's largest urban rafting courses and hosts Paddle South (April 13-14, free, downtown, 706-596-0111, paddlesouthfest.com), a two-day festival including the USA Freestyle Kayaking National Championships and the Omaha Brewing Company Paddle Party (ages 21 and older, $25) featuring craft beer and live music overlooking the river. To experience the churning rapids of the river yourself, head to Whitewater Express ($40, 1000 Bay Ave., 706-321-4720, www.whitewaterexpress.com) to book a guided rafting trip or rent a kayak. The company also operates Blue Heron Adventure, a zip line course that crosses over the river into Alabama and back. Be prepared for jokes about needing a passport.
Located at the confluence of the White Oak River and the Intracoastal Waterway, Swansboro is different from most other Southern coastal towns in that it looks and feels more like a New England fishing village, with its clapboard facades and 19th-century red brick buildings lining the short, narrow streets. A popular spot to go fishing and boating, it also boasts beautiful Hammocks Beach State Park and pristine Bear Island, accessible by ferry. The area was hard hit by Hurricane Florence last September, which caused extensive flooding and inundated the downtown area. But several businesses along the waterfront are rebuilding and plan to re-open by spring, including seafood restaurants, paddling outfitters and boat touring companies. There aren't any hotels in the tiny downtown, but there are several Airbnb properties, including one above Bake Bottle and Brew (147 Front St., 910-325-7550, www.bakebottlebrew.com), a beer and wine bar, bakery and supplier for home brewers and winemakers. And there are plenty of chain hotels a short drive away. (Swansboro Welcome Center, 203 W. Church St. 910-326-1174, swansborochamber.org)
Panama City Beach, Fla.
It's one thing to take a leisurely boat ride through Florida's coastal marsh lands, but try mixing a bit of Mach speed into the trip. That's the premise behind Airboats Gone Wild ($20-$42; 14856 Bayview Circle. 850-234-1532; www.wildairboat.com), a whirlwind adventure that tears through Panama City's backwaters at break-neck speeds. While there's still some slowing down to look for alligators, dolphins and birds, it's the chance to move at Mach 10 speeds that is the attraction. For tamer thrills, the 210-acre Panama City Beach Sports Complex (50 Chip Seal Parkway, www.visitpanamacity.com) opens in June, featuring fields for playing lacrosse, rugby, soccer and flag football and a boardwalk with plenty of food and drink vendors. If you'd rather skip the athletic activity and just enjoy an adult beverage, check out Unwind (March 22-23, $20 and up, 600 South Pier Park Drive, www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/unwined), a two-day festival featuring wine, craft beer, cocktails, live music and food prepared by top regional chefs.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
One of the more highly anticipated hotel openings in Jamaica this year is the S Hotel Jamaica ($209 and up, 7 Jimmy Cliff Blvd.,876-979-0000, www.shoteljamaica.com), which debuted in January. Set on Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay, the 120-room hotel follows what is known locally as the European plan, or EP model, meaning it's not an all-inclusive resort like so many other accommodations in the Caribbean nation. The S doesn't need to provide all the meals and entertainment for its guests due to its location on what is referred to as "the Hip Strip." Formerly Gloucester Avenue and recently rechristened Jimmy Cliff Boulevard, the street is lined with shops, restaurants and clubs within easy walking distance to the hotel. The S is also very close to the airport. The hotel features a beachfront pool with an expansive cabana deck area, a spa, restaurants, bars serving flights of aged Jamaican rum and the private rooftop Sky Deck accessible only to Sky Club Suite guests.
The northwesterly flowing Tuckasegee River runs between the mountain towns of Sylva and Dillsboro in Jackson County, officially designated by the state as the Trout Capital of North Carolina. Called "the Tuck" by locals, the river is the crown jewel of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. Of the 15 stops on the trail, five are on the Tuck, and they are prime spots for catching rainbow, brook and brown trout. Stop in at the Jackson County Chamber or Commerce and Visitors Center (773 W. Main St. 828-586-2155, www.mountainlovers.com) to pick up a waterproof map that will lead you to all the stops on the trail. Or better yet, have a co-creator of the trail, Alex Bell, serve as your guide. Bell operates AB's Fly Fishing Guide Service ($200 and up, 828-226-3833, www.abfish.org) and is a licensed, expert guide with decades of experience fishing the waterways of the Smoky Mountains. He's also a certified adaptive fly fishing instructor who can introduce those with disabilities to the joys of fly fishing.
Antelope Island, Utah
Antelope Island is straight out of the old campfire song, "Home On the Range." Buffalo still roam on the 42-square-mile island and state park located in the Great Salt Lake. Connected to the mainland by a seven-mile causeway, the island's natural beauty abounds in the form of sweeping coastlines, jutting mountain peaks, windswept meadows and sandy beaches. Facilities include RV and tent camping, picnic shelters, a marina and 25 miles of hiking trails. Despite its proximity to Salt Lake City, the island was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park for its "exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment." The visitor center hosts a variety of events including film screenings, full moon hikes and dark sky viewing programs that explore the various constellations. ($10; campsites $20 and up. 4528 West 1700 South, Syracuse. 801-725-9263, stateparks.utah.gov/parks/antelope-island.
Amelia Island, Fla.
Amelia Island has everything lovers of the coast crave: 13 miles of beach, wide expanses of marsh and giant luxury resorts. But if you're looking for a budget, retro-style vacation with an Old Florida vibe, consider the newly renovated Surf Beach Hotel ($67 and up, 3199 S. Fletcher Ave., 904-261-5711, www.thesurfonline.com). Located across the street from the beach and built in 1957, the one-story motel offers one-, two- and three-bedroom suites, some with living rooms and kitchens. But why cook when you have The Surf restaurant right on site, serving nachos, poke bowls, tacos, burgers and ice cream. Upgrades include a bigger bar area, where locals and vacationers alike gather for the live music and fruity cocktails.