Almost too big a topic, isn’t it? Do you have children—big or small? Are you seeking adventure, escape, relaxation or sightseeing? First, let’s narrow it to the continental US. Then to parts of the East Coast. This issue we’ll include some Mid-Atlantic destinations, both inland and coastal areas. We’ll also add some coastal Carolinas spots. In later issues, we’ll cover other parts of the country.
We’ll offer some highlights from places we’ve been and things we’ve done—mostly with children from seven to seventeen but also without. We’ll mention optional things that you might prefer to do that we didn’t at these locations—just without reviews of them. We have traveled in or on planes, trains and automobiles. There are pros and cons on that as well—time, money and comfort. Most places we will mention, you can choose the way that best suits your needs or preferences, although there’s obviously additional travel required to get to state or national parks, beaches and mountains from the nearest airport or train station.
Mid-Atlantic—Inland [Note: All of these locations are also great for fall color]
The Potomac Highlands of West Virginia are in the eastern portion of West Virginia. They’re a great place to get away from the heat, humidity and congestion (human and vehicular) of big Mid-Atlantic coastal cities. Here you’ll find many state parks. Many have cabins, some have lodges and many have tent, pop-up camper or RV sites. Few are supremely luxurious, but they’re clean and comfortable (lodges are obviously much nicer). They’re also inexpensive. Most have hiking trails. Some have boating—bring your own or, in some instances, rent. Some offer swimming and other recreational activities like tennis or golf. NOTE: like most state parks around the country (but unlike most Federal facilities), leashed pets ARE welcome on trails and in camping facilities. NOT in lodges, but YES in designated pet-friendly cabins. Check the rules before making a reservation and planning on bringing the four-legged friend.
We spent many summers at Canaan [KA-nane] Valley and/or Blackwater Falls. The former is a ski resort in the winter with very nice privately owned cabins, most 3-4 bedrooms or more, along the downhill ski runs. Many have hot tubs and other amenities. During the summer, they rent for half the cost of a winter stay. (Canaan Valley gets an average 200 inches of snow in the winter). The ski lifts run in the summer for those that want an easy way up to the top, from which you can hike down. Blackwater Falls has the eponymous falls with many vantage points along either side. Depending on recent rains, the falls can be roaring or a trickle. There are many hiking trails that offer views of other falls. It’s a good family vacation spot, but note that past the mid-teen age there’s not much of typical teenage delight—think cranky boredom if your kids are no longer interested in going on family hike or scenic views. Here are links to some private rentals at Canaan Valley (NOTE: listings here connote no endorsement or approval by the Quarterly but we have used a number of them without problems over the years—from the early 90s through 2007). Canaan Realty/ ; Timberline; Mountain Top; or if you prefer VRBO.
Nearby is Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks National Recreation area, within the Monongahela National Forest. It’s a driving/hiking/fishing/hunting attraction with the opportunity for rock climbing at the latter. It does have great views if you are able to do the long trek to the top. If you don’t mind a long, steep and winding drive up a dirt road, there’s also Dolly Sods Wilderness.
The latter mostly offers views and rougher camping and hiking, as well as bow hunting in the fall (so don’t go hiking in the woods then). But there’s more to see and do. Also, in the right season you’ll see some enormous rhododendron in bloom. Another attraction is the Cass Scenic Railroad, which offers a ride on a steam locomotive powered train with great views. For more places to stay or visit in West Virginia State Parks, go here and click on whichever tab you like.
Farther east, just inside Virginia, is Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (along the ridgeline the length of the park) with scenic drives to the north or the south. To the south, Shenandoah connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are many hiking trails and scenic overlooks. Be aware that this park gets many visitors in the summer and the roads are often congested—more so when looking for fall color among the trees. There are lodges along the way, where east/west roads cross the mountains. The usual NPS concessionaires operate them. There are also some middling motels on either side of the drive. You can connect with the Appalachian Trail here, if you’re into serious hiking. There are many smaller (privately owned) caves in the area, most with the interesting stalactites and other formations which they humorously append some silly name. Some are more strenuous than others, but many are not too difficult. Check individual caves handicapped accessibility.
Despite it being closer than other locations described below, we never stayed there and have only briefly visited friends in Annapolis—location of the Naval Academy. We can tell you that it is a mix of farms, rural attractions. Once you get far enough east and south you also will find much in the way of scenic beaches and wildlife. Undoubtedly, plenty of crab dishes from Maryland’s blue crabs. The link above is to a Maryland official guide.
This major metropolitan area includes, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and many more cities and towns. It’s a major US Navy port and shipyard. It also includes plenty of recreational boating and beach activities. We never stayed there either, nor did we visit the beaches, but we passed through there countless times. Nearby are James River Plantations, Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and other attractions. We have been to Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a functioning historical recreation of life as the colonists lived it over 300 years ago.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina (commercial site). Or if you prefer, check out the .org site of the Dare County tourism authority. For many years, we alternated between our West Virginia favorites for a week or two one year and the Outer Banks the next one—if we weren’t going on a major distance vacation. Part of the Outer Banks includes a national seashore. Rarely, we did both in the same year—a week at each. They’re located on barrier islands separated from the mainland by Albemarle Sound and accessible by bridge at the north end on highway 158 or 64. If you’re coming in from the south, you can take a 2.5 hour ferry ride from Swan Quarter or Cedar Island to Ocracoke at the south end of the chain (we never have so we offer no tips on that these. They are NOT free but not extraordinarily expensive. They do require advance reservations). There are many places to stay and where you do depends on who is going and what you want to do when you get there. Check the hyperlink above to a visitor guide. You’ll find both activities and links to rentals, etc. (NOTE: Act soon if you plan to bring pet(s) or an extended family; rentals fill up. Also, peak summer months cost more) Caution: If you don’t like very heavy traffic and big crowds, don’t even think of going there Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July or Labor Day.
What might you do on the Outer Banks? Lots for families, lots for the sports/athletic types and also simple seclusion—or at least a getaway for those in search of that. Here’s a list:
- Read a book—on the beach or, with less distraction, on a balcony of your rental house or hotel room (there are a few)
- Watch the ocean, the sound or the sunset (best on the soundside)
- Visit museums at various locations or go to the Rodanthe Aquarium (great for kids)
- See an historical play about “The Lost Colony”—think “Croatoan” carved on that tree at Manteo
- Or whatever you do in a place away from home and work
- Dine at better restaurants (seafood—what else) or lesser lights—there are some of America’s regular fast food offerings mostly on northern segments of the islands
- Mild to Moderate activities
- Miniature golf
- Hiking the few trails on the islands
- Horseback riding
- Swimming—easy on the sound but watch for rip currents on the oceanside if you want to get out past wading depth
- Fishing from piers or on charter boats
- Kayaking—ocean (more vigorous) or sound
- Sightseeing—visit the Wright Brothers Memorial (the first flight), lighthouses (bit of a hike going to the top of Hatteras Light)
- Bicycling (on roads mostly; you will find riding on soft sand tougher than mountain-biking in mud)
- Birding—great views of water birds and more at select locations
- More vigorous activities—extreme to some
- Wave or wake surfing
- And more
Get away for a week or two at rental houses on the oceanside or on the soundside. If you don’t mind suburban busyness, you may like the northern beaches of Duck, Corolla [Ka-Rawla, not like the car] or Southern Shores. If you don’t mind very busy/congested streets and beaches, try Kitty Hawk, Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills farther down Bodie Island. This is where you will come in via highway 64. You’ll find more motels/hotels and rooms here, many of which are focused on younger singles. Head south to Hatteras Island by the Oregon Inlet high bridge (if heights bother you and you’re not driving, just close your eyes). Along this island are many small villages with varying costs and sophistication— Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo and more. We preferred Avon or Buxton on Hatteras Island—it’s another hour’s drive but if you want a less hectic and busy place, it’s worth it. For very inexpensive lodging, you can tent camp on the beach at Frisco (make sure you have long tent poles to keep your tent from blowing away in the regular breeze blowing in from the ocean).
Most of the private rental properties way north or way south are multi-story dwellings built on one-story stilts to see above the barrier dunes and keep blowing sand out of the house. Some sleep as many as a dozen people (great for extended family or friends to get away together) and are surrounded by decks on three or four sides on multiple floors. When booking a house, you need to know the nomenclature—oceanfront means you should only have a barrier dune in front of you. Oceanside means just that; you may have a half-mile or more to get to the beach via a road and then public access between properties closer to the sand. Similar terms apply to rentals next to Albemarle Sound—soundfront or soundside. The soundfront rentals also may have docks for launching boats, canoes/kayaks and other water sport devices. If you are planning on doing more than swimming and relaxing, you should consider the location of your rental and easy availability to the sound for your boat, etc.
The soundside has fantastic sunsets, while the oceanside has the beautiful sunrises. Many rentals allow pets. It’s safer for the dogs to go swimming in the sound than the ocean, so consider that in your rental choice. What activities you plan on doing will influence whether you go to the north, stay in the middle or head south. Bear in mind also that when you are on Hatteras and a hurricane evacuation order comes down, you really must pack up and go (some of the hardy souls who live in brick homes in the middle of Ocracoke do stick it out) because the farther south you are, the longer it will take to leave. Check your rental agreement BEFORE you confirm it so you know what happens with the money you paid. In the many years we went to the Outer Banks, we only had to leave once—so it’s not a big risk to your vacation or your life. Just check the weather before you go and get insurance if can’t afford the financial loss–if any.
More Coastal Carolina Destinations
If it’s closer or more to your liking, there are countless beaches further south along both North and South Carolina. We stayed once at Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington, North Carolina when we had to evacuate an Outer Banks rental in the face of a hurricane. Not too far south of the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Crystal Coast. We never stayed or even visited these islands, which are much like the Outer Banks. Check out the link for what to do and how to travel there. More recently, we stayed briefly at Folly Beach for a couple days in October 2013. Located near Charleston, South Carolina, it was a convenient stopping point between Walt Disney World and the location of our daughter’s wedding near Roanoke, Virginia. In summer, you could be fishing, swimming or surfing there—among other things. It won’t bust your budget and has some quaint restaurants. Of the three, Wrightsville has much more in the way of optional activities, rentals, restaurants, etc. Of course, that means it may be much busier in the summer than the other two. More like the middle to northern portions of the Outer Banks. All depends on what you want—plenty of activities (including vigorous water sports), relaxation or seclusion.
Further south is Myrtle Beach and many other coastal destinations in South Carolina. We can offer no advice or tips on those. But you know that you have options for beaches from New England to Florida. Pick an ambience, pick a nearby destination for convenience and time saving travel or go for something new and different if you have the time and the budget.
Coming in October, a large feature on Walt Disney World. You can visit there year round, but if you want to go in the busiest time—summer, it’s not too early to begin planning in the fall of 2017 for the following summer.