Strip-mall surf shacks. Pitchers of beer in sports bars. Go-karts. Not one but two outposts of Hooters.
Yup, if you’re feeling the pangs of spring break nostalgia, Myrtle Beach may just be your place. But pull off the highway a little sooner—or a little later—and you’ll find an array of chill, white-sand beaches, where you can still call “next” on a game of beer pong.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the Carolinas’ best beaches, going from North to South.
Bald Head Island, NC
The vibe: A sub-tropical Nantucket. The island is only accessible by a two-mile ferry across the Cape Fear River from Southport. Once you arrive, you won’t find any cars … just golf carts and 14 miles of sand.
Where to stay: The vast majority of the beds here are in rental homes. The best (and priciest) tend to be along the pristine beaches of the southern shore.
Where to eat: Mojo’s on the Harbor, where they’ll bring you pots of steamed shellfish as you watch the sailboats come into the marina.
What to do: About 10,000 of the island’s 12,000 acres are designated as nature preserves—mostly dunes, forests and salt marshes. Rent a kayak and spend a day paddling the tidal creek through the island’s center.
Holden Beach, NC
The vibe: Relaxed and uncrowded, with nary a chain store or restaurant to be found. At low tide, you can often wade in a seemingly infinite number of tide pools.
Where to stay: You’re probably going to be on AirBnB, because beach accommodations are almost all private homes. If being able to walk to one of the few bars here is important to you, aim for a house right by the causeway.
Where to eat: Provision Company, a classic dockside seafood shack, complete with license plates on the walls and baskets of shrimp.
What to do: They take their sea turtles seriously here. At dusk many summer evenings you can watch a turtle nest hatch and a team of volunteers usher the hatchlings into the ocean.
Sunset Beach, NC
The vibe: If you’re a naturalist or a novelist, this is the place for you. The beach includes both a 1,200-acre bird preserve and the Kindred Spirits Mailbox, in which visitors leave their stories and bits of wisdom in its stacks of notebooks.
Where to stay: The Winds Resort. You won’t see any Marriotts around here, but you will find a few small beachfront hotels like this one, complete with pool and tiki bar.
Where to eat: Gravy Southern Eatery, which looks like a log cabin, and serves fried fish, peach cobbler and lots of dishes topped with gravy.
What to do: The mild waves practically beg you to bring a body board.
Myrtle Beach, SC
The vibe: Boardwalks. Beach-blanket bingo. Probably even a frozen banana stand.
Where to stay: Ocean 22, one of the best (and newest) of the many high-rise resorts on the beach.
Where to eat: Steer clear from the buffets and pancake shacks, and steer into Pop Pop’s Pit BBQ, a roadside spot that’s home to serious brisket.
What to do: Embrace your inner tourist. This means all the water slides, para-sailing and alligator parks you can handle.
Pawley’s Island, SC
The vibe: If you’re heard of this place, it may be because you’ve lounged in the rope hammocks of the same name. Which ought to tell you plenty.
Where to stay: The Pelican Inn, a circa-1840s B&B with a private boardwalk to the beach.
Where to eat: The Chive Blossom, a Lowcountry–Asian mashup with an outdoor bar and courtyard surrounded by live oaks.
What to do: Kayaking in the nearby salt marshes. Or just stick to the hammocks.
Our Analysis: There's a lot more to Carolina beaches than Spring Breakers, so do your research and you can find anything you're looking for, from family fun to reclusive escapes.