Gift Guide 2019: Gifts That Give Back For Everyone On Your List ūüéĀ Gift Guide 2019: Gifts That Give Back For Everyone On Your List ūüéĀ

LEARN AS YOU GROW

The Inside Scoop on the Best Family Beach Vacations

The Inside Scoop on the Best Family Beach Vacations

We love to get the best recommendations from locals when we travel, or from people who are frequent visitors. Vacation planning is stressful enough, so we're always looking for ways to make it easier. Plus, you can feel pretty confident about your itinerary when you have trusted insights about where to stay, what to do and where to eat.

If you're thinking about a beach vacation in the South (especially with tweens and teens!), read on for insider tips. BONUS: We've got some expert advice from a Disney travel planner - skip to the end of the post to check it out! 

This post is Post #3 of our summer travel series. You can read Post #1: The Bottom Line on Why You Need a Vacation and Post #2: How to Have an Amazing Road Trip With Tweens

Because we're college instructors (and my husband works in college admissions), we encourage families with older kids to do informal college campus tours on the way to or from vacation destinations. You don't need to schedule a visit and it doesn't need to be a school your kids will consider attending, but visiting will give them a feel for different types of schools and what it's like to be on a campus.

We've suggested one college that's pretty close to each vacation spot! You can read our post about college admissions or grab our guide for a doable college checklist for middle schoolers--like doing a visit on vacation.

The inside scoop on the best family beach vacations

Let's get to it! Below you'll find out where to stay, what to do and where to eat:

    1. Charleston, SC
    2. Hilton Head, SC
    3. Myrtle Beach, SC
    4. Destin, FL
    5. Naples, FL
    6. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando

1. Charleston

These recommendations are from a mom who lives in the Charleston area, and are based on things she thought my family with two tween boys would enjoy. She was right!

Rainbow Row Charleston SC

WHERE TO STAY:

Wild Dunes Resort: This resort is on the Isle of Palms and has the best golfing in the area. It's family friendly and has lots of other activities and places to eat.

Rent a VRBO or AirBnB 

Stay at a family-friendly hotel in downtown Charleston.

WHAT TO DO:

Beaches: You'll find parks and great beaches at Kiawah and the Isle of Palms with parking, restrooms, showers and snack bars. Other beaches include Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach and Edisto Beach.

Old South Carriage Tour: Take a horse-drawn carriage tour through historic downtown Charleston. They are the highest-rated carriage company with wonderful, knowledgeable guides.

South Carolina Aquarium: See marine life and ecosystems and learn about rescue and rehabilitation efforts for sea turtles. 

Fort Sumter: Take the first or last ferry ride of the day so you can see the raising or lowering of the American flag at this National Monument. The tour (including the ferry ride) of the first battle between the Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War lasts just over two hours. Purchase tickets at least a day ahead, and be aware that there's limited accessibility at the fort.

Battery Park and White Point Gardens: At this park on the waterfront, you'll see southern mansions, cannons, cannon balls, palm trees, statues, a gazebo, and views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and the Sullivan Island Lighthouse. 

Charleston City Market: With 300 entrepreneurs, there's a little bit of everything at the market--local vendors, sweetgrass baskets (one of the most popular handmade souvenirs), paintings, toys, local cuisine--and it's open every day except Christmas.

Boone Hall Plantation: Included in the price of admission: famous Avenue Of Oaks (great photo op!), Slave Street and history tour, plantation house and garden tour, a live presentation about the Gullah Culture and a butterfly pavilion. There's a lot of space to walk and for kids to burn off some steam--you can picnic there as well.

WHERE TO EAT:

Callie's Hot Little Biscuit: Don't be surprised if you see a line out the door--but it's worth the wait. You can get an amazing variety of biscuits and sandwiches at a shop on King Street or in the Charleston Market. 

Obstinate Daughter: You'll need reservations well ahead of time to eat at this eclectic restaurant on Sullivan's Island. It gets amazing reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Poe's Tavern: Just a few blocks from the beach on Sullivan's Island, Poe's has an upscale pub menu with delicious burgers.

High Cotton: This upscale restaurant is family owned and has been in Charleston for a long time. It's a local favorite for low country cuisine, and you'll need reservations.

Brown Dog Deli: In addition to hot dogs with all kinds of toppings, you can get salads, wraps and other deli items at this great little shop.

Hall's Chophouse: If you're looking for an incredible brunch, you need to get reservations for their gospel brunch on Sunday--it's one of a kind.

Carmella's Cafe and Dessert Bar: This is a great place for a date night if you're able to sneak away. Their dessert menu is insane--it's huge and it changes all the time. They also have gelato and sorbet as well as coffee, wine, beer and cocktails. 

COLLEGE TO VISIT:

The College of Charleston: Located in the heart of downtown Charleston, this public liberal arts school of 10,000 students has a mid-sized urban feel. Students can choose from 61 undergraduate majors and 24 master's degree programs.

2. Hilton Head Island

These recommendations are from a mom with two teenage daughters. Their family visits HHI every year.

Hilton Head Island Harbourtown

WHERE TO STAY:

Sea Pines is my favorite plantation for vacation rentals or villas.

My favorite hotel is the Omni in Palmetto Dunes.

WHAT TO DO:

We spend most of our time at the beach or the pool!

Renting bikes is a fun way to get to the beach and ride around the plantation. We did our bike rentals through Sea Pines, but you can probably get them at most resorts.

We go to Gregg Russell concerts in Sea Pines a few times when we're there. Our girls enjoy him and he's awesome for families with little kids.

We always play putt putt/miniature golf. Pirate's Island Adventure Golf is an award-winning and top-rated course on the island.

Commander Zodiac: Take a dolphin cruise, go sailing or visit the salt marsh. Kids can also enjoy a 3-hour supervised "waterfun day" while you get some time to yourself!

Shelter Cove fireworks: Enjoy fireworks every Tuesday from mid-June through August, weather permitting. 

WHERE TO EAT:

Crazy Crab: This lowcountry seafood restaurant has two waterfront locations with beautiful sunset views. You'll want to try their crab legs.

Hudson’s: This restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Sound serves only fresh local seafood from local fishermen. 

Old Oyster Factory: This is a family-friendly restaurant serving fresh seafood and a variety of steaks was voted one of the "Top 100 Scenic View Restaurants" by Open Table.

Mangiamo’s: This pizza shop is extra special for Ohioans because it's OSU themed, and it's the place to be on football gamedays.

Hilton Head Ice Cream: They've been serving traditional and unique ice cream flavors since 1982. If you're craving a seasonal flavor that they don't have, contact them at least 48 hours ahead of time and they'll make it for you!

COLLEGE TO VISIT:

Savannah College of Art and Design is a private school with 14,000 students. It offers over 40 majors, the most popular being animation, fashion, film and television, illustration and interior design. 

3. Myrtle Beach

These recommendations are from a mom who lives at Myrtle Beach. Some are favorites of her school-age son, and others are loved by her high school students.

Myrtle Beach

WHERE TO STAY:

This list of hotels with water parks gives you some great options for kids.

WHAT TO DO:

You must putt putt! Myrtle Beach hosts the MiniGolf Master‚Äôs every year which means you have great courses to explore!¬†Spyglass Adventure Golf¬†is a favorite with its pirate theme and exploding ‚Äúcannons.‚ÄĚ

Broadway at the Beach: Plenty of shopping, dining and other attractions.

  • Myrtle Waves: This water park has water slides, tube slides, a wave pool, an area for kids, a lazy river and a racing river. They have¬†movie nights¬†on Thursdays in the summer.
  • Ripley‚Äôs Aquarium: So much happening here! Mermaid shows and breakfasts, a petting area, a place to feed the stingrays, a glass bottom boat adventure and more. *They have deals for students and other promotions, so check the website. In July, Wednesdays and Saturdays are half price after 5pm.
  • Wonder Works: An ‚Äúindoor interactive amusement park for the mind,‚ÄĚ Wonder Works has over 100 exhibits to keep everyone busy for 3-4 hours. They also have an indoor ropes challenge course and laser tag. You can score 2 free tickets if you plan ahead and search for some hidden objects in the Myrtle Beach area--more details here. They also offer¬†sensory days¬†for kids and adults with special needs.¬†

Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade: There are plenty of options here, but these are a few favorites.

  • SkyWheel:¬†This ferris wheel is 200-feet above sea level¬†and offers a great view of the Atlantic Ocean and the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk.
  • Fun Plaza Arcade: You‚Äôll find vintage and modern games at this open-air arcade.

Fossils Forever: Shark Tooth Hunting Adventures: You’re guaranteed to leave with a fossil whether you choose the one-hour walking tour or an educational tour focused on fossil hunting and conservation. (People frequently find megalodon teeth and some visitors come to dive for fossils.) *You can get 10% your adventure with code SHARKSRULE.

Rockin’ Jump: If it rains, wear the kids out at this trampoline park that includes a warped wall, dodgeball, dunk zone and a ninja course.

TopGolf: This is a fun option for teens and adults. This location has over 70 climate-controlled hitting bays, a rooftop terrace, a restaurant and bars. If you have kids under 16, you’ll need to go with them, and after 9 p.m., you’ll need to be with any kids under 18. *Half price Tuesdays for everyone! And BOGO Mondays for teachers in the summer!

WHERE TO EAT:

Flamingo Grill: This family-owned mainstay was voted ‚ÄúBest All-Around 2018‚ÄĚ and has a wide variety of options, including steak, seafood and pasta.

Mr. Fish: Here’s another local favorite that’s been around since the 90s. The restaurant offers a full seafood menu and you can order fresh, local seafood from the market next door.

Any of the places on Restaurant Row, a section of Highway 17 along the Grand Strand, are great options--plan to wait in line.

COLLEGE TO VISIT:

Coastal Carolina University: This public university of 10,000 students is minutes away from Myrtle Beach. It offers 74 undergraduate majors and the most popular are marine science, management, exercise and sport science, and communication.

4. Destin and "30A"

These recommendations are from a mom with two teenagers--a boy and a girl. Their family visits Destin frequently.

Destin FLorida

Many people ask, “What is 30A?"  It's a County Road that runs along the gulf coast of Florida, connecting many small beach communities including Rosemary Beach, Sandestin, and my favorite:  Seaside.  

WHERE TO STAY:

There are no high rise hotels along 30A.  VRBO or AirBnB are great resources for rentals.  There are many great little beach homes, some with private or community pools to cool off in after a day at the beach.   

WHAT TO DO:

Ride a bike up and down 30A.  Some homes will provide a pair of bikes and helmets or they can be rented through area rental companies. You will find adorable shops, food trucks, fun restaurants, and so much more. 

Each little town has a calendar of events that include concerts, festivals, farmers markets, and even outdoor movies on the lawns at the various town squares. 

One of our best days ever was spent at Crab Island, an underwater sandbar. The water is extremely clear and blue, and only about 1-4 feet deep. You need to rent a boat to access Crab Island. We used Luther’s Watersports Rental Company and rented a small pontoon boat for the day.  It's such a fun atmosphere with lots of other boaters anchored in the shallow waters.  There are inflatable activities for kids, floating ice cream shops and much, much more.  

The #1 reason we go to 30A is to sit on the beach! Many of the rental homes will provide beach essentials such as beach umbrellas, chairs, and even beach toys, so be sure to ask when booking.  If the home does not provide those items, I inquire about the name of a good beach rental company that the homeowner recommends. Those companies will deliver, set up and take down umbrellas and chairs daily for a fee.  

After many years of beach vacations, my husband and I feel we have a winning recipe:  

  • Wireless bluetooth speaker (for playing Zac Brown Band)
  • Cooler with wheels filled with assorted veggies, fruits, cheeses, lunchmeat and crackers
  • Beach towels and toys
  • Boogie boards or giant inflatable floats (perfect for the calm waves on the gulf)
  • Lots of sunscreen

WHERE TO EAT:

The Back Porch: This fun restaurant sits right on the beach, and has a delicious menu of seafood and fish. There are often beach volleyball games going on as well as corn hole and other fun games on the beach side.  

Bud and Alleys: This is a perfect place to enjoy a sunset dinner overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on the rooftop bar. The food is delicious farm-and-sea to table. There is something for everyone in the family.

Heavenly Shortcakes & Ice Cream: This shop serves delicious gelato, Blue Bell ice cream, strawberry shortcake and gourmet cookies.

COLLEGE TO VISIT:

The University of West Florida¬†ÔĽŅis in Pensacola, just over an hour's drive from Destin. With just under 10,000 undergraduates, UWF offers 70 majors and small class sizes. One impressive statistic is their $1.1 billion annual economic impact on Northwest Florida.

5. Naples

These recommendations are from a mom who visits Naples several times a year. She has a little one and another on the way, and she has a pulse on what couples and families of all ages would enjoy.

Naples Florida pier at sunset

WHERE TO STAY:

Naples Bay Resort: It has a great pool and is very family friendly. It's within walking distance to 5th, 3rd, Tin City, the pier, etc. You can also rent boats, bikes, and other things here during your stay.

Rent a VRBO or AirBnB

**Rentals for families from Twinkle Twinkle Little Store: We rented a BOB stroller, crib and high chair from this company last year. They dropped off and picked up at our doorstep.

WHAT TO DO:

Sunset at the Naples Pier: Pack a picnic dinner or order a pizza and take it to the beach.  Sunsets in Naples are like nowhere else and every night is an event. Cue the applause when the sun sets! It's really close to all the shops and restaurants on Third (below) so you could make an evening of it! 

Naples Bay Water Taxi: Inexpensive and lots of sun! BYOB. The water shuttle makes several stops along the bay, including Tin City where you'll find little trinkets, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars.

Cool Beans Cruises: Great for teens and families. You can customize your cruise based on what you'd like to do. They have a 5-star rating on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google. 

Third Street: Can't miss Third Street! We love the Saturday morning farmers' market. There is an adorable children's boutique (Beth Mone Children's Shoppes) and lots of cute stores. 

Fifth Avenue: This is another great shopping and dining area. We love to have breakfast/coffee/brunch at 5th Avenue Coffee Company and then walk 5th. We also love Ocean Prime (yes, Columbus friends, Cameron Mitchell's Ocean Prime has a Naples location and it's always delicious!) Head up 5th toward the beach and walk Gulf Shore Boulevard--we love looking at all the amazing houses!

Mercato: Some cute restaurants and shopping near Vanderbilt Beach

Miromar Outlets: They have a Janie & Jack outlet where I usually buy all my daughter's swim suits and things for the next year! 

WHERE TO EAT:

The Dock at Crayton Cove: A great, casual restaurant right on the Naples Bay with the best seafood! You can hop on the water taxi (info above) and make a night of it. Have an early dinner at the Dock and then take the water taxi over to the Cabana Bar and Tavern on the Bay for drinks. 

    Tacos & Tequila: My new favorite! I'm obsessed with the Sunday Taco, and the Buffalo Chicken Taco. It's casual and family friendly, and they offer 2-for-1 margaritas on some nights.

    Shane's Cabana Bar: It's a stop on the water taxi and one of my favorites. They have drinks but no food, though there are a few restaurants nearby!

    Third Street Restaurants: Delicious options are the great Old Naples Pub, Tommy Bahama, Barbatella, Sea Salt. Get some amazing gelato at Barbatella's Gelato Bar!

    COLLEGE TO VISIT:

    Florida Gulf Coast University is a 30-40 minute drive from Naples, between the Florida Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico. Over half of the 800-acre campus is a nature preserve. Just under 5,000 of the 15,000 students live on campus and diversity in the student body has increased to 30% minority students.

    6. BONUS! Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando

    Jen Kunz Walt Disney World vacation planner

    These recommendations come straight from a Disney travel planner. If a Disney vacation is right around the corner or somewhere in the future, you need help from Jen Kunz! Planning a Disney vacation isn't easy, so let her do the heavy lifting while you relax and enjoy! (This isn't sponsored--she's just amazing!) You can email her directly at needavacation407@gmail.com

    Think a Disney Destination vacation is only for families with little ones? Think again! With the right planning Disney World, a Disney Cruise and Universal Orlando (not Disney) can actually be the perfect fit for families with tweens and teens. 

    WALT DISNEY WORLD:

    1. Conquer all 3 Mountains! - Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain are all iconic coasters found in the Magic Kingdom. With the right planning it's possible to ride all three in one day. After you've mastered all three, stop in a souvenir shop and buy your tween/teen a t-shirt to show off their accomplishment!
    2. What teen doesn't love a good Instagram shot? Everyone knows about the iconic castle shot in the Magic Kingdom but have you heard of the purple wall? Or the toothpaste wall in Epcot? Before your visit, let your teen research the most Instagram worthy Disney shots, and turn that research into a scavenger hunt once you arrive. It's an activity any social media savvy teen will love.
    3. Enjoy a fun nighttime experience. All four parks offer special nighttime experiences that typically involve delicious desserts, fun character interactions and VIP seating for the fireworks. Perfect for Star Wars fans, Hollywood Studios offers a Star Wars Dessert party. Guests are treated to special meet and greets with Kylo Ren, Chewbacca and BB-8. After dessert, guests are escorted--by Storm Troopers, of course--to their very own VIP seating for the evening's Star Wars Galactic Spectacular, an amazing show based on the Star Wars film series.   

    UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT:

    1. Thrill Rides - Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure are home to some serious roller coasters that will leave your thrill seeker screaming for more. Rip Ride Rockit!, Transformers 3D and the Hulk are just a few of the crazy coaster choices.
    2. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -This immersive world allows you to step inside the story! Diagon Alley, Gringtoos bank, Hogsmeade and Hogwarts castle will blow you away. An amazing coaster just opened called Hagrid's Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure, which some are saying is the best ride in Orlando!
    3. Universal City Walk -  This shopping, dining and entertainment area is separate from the Universal parks, is free and is within walking distance from the parks and resorts. If your tween/teen is a chocolate fan, then Toothsome Chocolate Factory is a must!
       

     We talked to Disney planner Jen Kunz about your top questions on trips to Disney and Universal. She also talks about Adventures by Disney - excursions to all kind of locations fully-planned and led by Disney guides.

    Leave a comment