The Secret South
You won’t find a crowd at these hidden stretches of sand
A national wildlife refuge since 1940, with 3,000 of its 5,600 acres set aside as wilderness, Blackbeard Island has tales to tell. In the 1700s, as the inevitable rumors have it, the eponymous buccaneer stashed some of his ill-gotten gains there. In the 1880s, the place became a quarantine station to screen incoming ships for yellow fever. Today it’s a secluded haven for waterfowl, loggerheads, alligators, and day-trippers with a wild streak of their own, who either get there with their own boat or charter one on the mainland. (www.fws.gov/blackbeardisland/)
Botany Bay Plantation
Opened to the public just two summers ago, this 4,630-acre onetime cotton farm on Edisto Island is an oft-overlooked Lowcountry treasure. You have to walk a ways across a salt marsh causeway to reach its undeveloped strand, but you won’t see many stretches of coast like this one. The Atlantic laps right at the edge of a maritime forest, creating an eerily lovely boneyard of bare, dead trees. It’s part apocalyptic tableau, part natural sculpture garden. Botany Bay is a nesting ground for shorebirds and loggerhead turtles, too, and millions of shells wash up on the sand. But the state Department of Natural Resources oversees the premises, and shell hunting here is strictly catch-and-release.
Step one: Zig north to the town of Corolla on Highway 12 when most Outer Banks visitors zag south. Step two: Where the pavement quits, carry on—but only, only, only in a four-wheel-drive, unless you wonder what your car would look like mired to its axles in sand. Somewhere in the eleven roadless miles to the fenced-off Virginia state line, you enter Carova Beach, a Realtor’s mirage of seaside mansionettes (many of them vacation rentals) rising from the windswept dunes. Other than that, there’s little but sand and surf and cameos by feral horses, descendants of steeds brought by sixteenth-century colonizers. As one G&G reader put it: “It’s the last remnant of the wild northern Outer Banks.”
It’s not really an island, but a pair of peninsulas flanking a saltwater inlet. Nor is it all that crooked. But no matter. The beach lies within the boundaries of Tyndall Air Force Base, and having been cordoned off from the forces of development since 1941, it’s a pristine Panhandle beauty. The five miles of untrampled and uncrowded blinding-white sand are summer nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles (meaning no pets allowed). And unlike other Tyndall beaches, Crooked Island East requires no recreation pass or background check for civilians to come play for the day. (Tyndall Natural Resources Center, 850-283-2641)
In the eighteen years before his death in 1965, the master Mississippi watercolorist Walter Anderson spent long stretches on this wilderness barrier island, rowing the twelve miles across the Mississippi Sound from the mainland in a skiff with his art supplies and just enough necessities to survive. Anderson slept under his upended boat—rode out Hurricane Betsy there, in fact—and explored and painted the natural life of the island until he practically became one with it. Even if you aren’t inclined to take things quite that far, you can still soak up the island solitude and, depending on your interests, spot more ospreys, speckled trout, bottlenose dolphins, or constellations than people. Here’s why a fortunate few make the effort: a pristine mangrove lagoon, a frigate-bird sanctuary just a short kayak paddle away, luminous turquoise shallows, and enough miles of uninhabited sand to wear the soles off your feet. Whatever you feel the need to hide from, it won’t find you here. (North Beach Cottages, 268-721-3317)
St. George Island
We’re not ones to go tossing around references to “unspoiled Florida” lightly. But it’s not too late to describe this twenty-eight-mile-long Gulf barrier island, just a pleasant bridge-and-causeway cruise from Apalachicola, as a real find. There’s no shortage of stilted beachfront vacation rentals, along with a smattering of low-key seafood dives and souvenir bazaars, but the sand and waves never feel overrun. To dial up more solitude, visit the state park, on the east end, where you and the ghost crabs can have miles of dunes and trails through steamy slash-pine forest virtually all to yourselves.