No need to get on a plane for a great beach vacation. Plenty of worthy sandy strands are within driving distance of Atlanta, and one is bound to suit your tastes. Here are five you can reach by car and still have time to catch the sunset if you leave by lunchtime. Driving times listed are from downtown Atlanta.
Best something-for-everyone beach: Sandestin, Fla. (5 hrs. 20 mins.)
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.
Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa. Rates start at $169. 4000 Sandestin Blvd., Miramar Beach. 850-267-9500; www.hiltonsandestinbeach.com.
Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood. Entrees start at $32. Address same as Hilton. 850-622-1500; www.seagars.com.
Best uncrowded and dog-friendly beach: Cape San Blas, Fla. (5 hrs. 30 mins.)
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).
Sunset Reflections by Natural Retreats. This company has beach homes of all sizes available, many pet-friendly. High season weekly rates start at $2,500. A $250 credit for beach gear courtesy of VayK Gear comes with all bookings through the end of the summer. 1147 Cape San Blas Rd., Port St Joe. 877-805-7794; www.sunsetreflections.com.
Indian Pass Raw Bar. Legendary roadside hangout serving oysters and shrimp from local waters. Wait times can be long, but serve yourself beer from the cooler and let the staff know how much you had when settling up. Platters start at $11. 8391 County Rd. 30A, Port St Joe. 850-227-1670; www.indianpassrawbar.com.
Best surfing beaches: Jacksonville, Fla. (5 hrs. 30 mins.)
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.
Seahorse Oceanfront Inn. Rates start at $129. 120 Atlantic Blvd., Neptune Beach. 904-246-2175; www.jacksonvilleoceanfronthotel.com.
Azurea at One Ocean Resort. Entrees start at $31. 1 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach. 904-249-7402; www.oneoceanresort.com/dining.
Best historic beach town: Tybee Island, Ga. (4 hrs.)
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.
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.
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.
Best beach for festivals: Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Ala. (5 hrs. 25 mins.)
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 The Hangout Music Festival (May 19-21; www.hangoutmusicfest.com), the National Shrimp Festival (Oct. 12-15; myshrimpfest.com), and the Oyster Cook Off and Craft Beer Weekend (Nov. 3-4; www.hangoutcookoff.com), all three in the same location in Gulf Shores where Alabama state highways 59 and 182 meet at the beach. At the Florida/Alabama state line 10 miles east on AL 182, the famous Flora-Bama Lounge plays host to the Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival (Nov. 4-12; frankbrownsongwriters.com) and the Interstate Mullet Toss and Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party (April 28-30; www.florabama.com).
Phoenix All Suites. Located on the beach within walking distance to some festival sites. Rates start at $112. 201 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores. 800-594-9685; www.phoenixallsuites.com.
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.