South Carolina is justly famous for its gorgeous beaches. But the South Carolina coastline offers more than stunning ocean views and sandy shores. A week at the beach also gives the animal lovers in your family the chance to see a wide and amazing array of creatures in ways you might have never even imagined.
We've packed this itinerary with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but don’t worry, we’ve built in some downtime for both grownups and kids. Whether you just incorporate a few of these ideas while you stay in one place for your vacation or embrace the entire journey down the coast, you'll get to see some of the very best animal encounters in the country.
To follow our seven-day itinerary, start your week in Myrtle Beach, at the northern end of South Carolina's 200-mile-long seashore. There are dozens of places to stay in Myrtle Beach, from resorts and condos to motels and campgrounds. Try the Springmaid Beach Resort, a beautiful, family-friendly hotel right on the beach, with several pools and its very own fishing pier, or camp out under the stars at Myrtle Beach or Huntington Beach state parks.
A Not-So-Scary Way to See Alligators
Before you head out on your Alligator Adventure, grab some breakfast along the Grand Strand. Try the savory Benedicts and tasty omelets at Blueberry’s Grill or try the dizzying amount of delicious options and creative waffles at Johnny D’s.
After breakfast, head to Barefoot Landing, one of the most popular dining and entertainment destinations in the area. Adjacent to Barefoot Landing is Alligator Adventure, one of the largest facilities for reptile life in the world. Here, you’ll get the chance to see hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, including Utan, the world's largest crocodile in captivity, as well as two rare albino alligators.
While the alligators are the stars of the show, there are plenty of other animals to see, including flamingos, bobcats, owls, frogs, mountain lions, hyenas, ostriches, turtles and tortoises. Make sure you go to the shows, which include alligator feeding and an interactive meet-and-greet with some of your favorite reptiles.
Barefoot Landing is home to an impressive array of dining options. Whether you’re craving a sweet treat, savory street tacos or craft brews with brew-pub food, you’ll find something to satisfy even the pickiest eater. There are also plenty of places to get some shopping done, including local boutique shops perfect for picking up souvenirs. Barefoot Landing also hosts events all year long, so be sure to check their calendar to see what’s happening during your visit.
Spend a Day at Myrtle Beach State Park
Nestled among an oceanfront maritime forest, Myrtle Beach State Park offers a tranquil and verdant retreat from the bustle of the Grand Strand. The park boasts a wide range of educational programs that let kids and adults get up close and personal with the aquatic life, including crabbing, surf siding and many others.
Aside from the ranger-led activities, there are plenty of ways to keep everyone engaged during your visit. Embark on a scavenger hunt where you’ll learn about some of the wildlife that calls the park home and other important things, like what to do if you’re ever caught in a rip current and why you should always fill in holes on the beach. There are also two scavenger hunt bingo boards you can print before your visit for a good-natured contest to see who can get bingo first.
Be sure to visit the Nature Center, where you’ll find saltwater aquariums with live reptiles and an interactive natural history display. A birding list is available at the Nature Center, or you can download a copy here. There is also an outdoor wildlife habitat complete with birdhouses, a butterfly garden and nature sculptures.
Myrtle Beach State Park is also a popular spot for fishing and crabbing. You don’t need a South Carolina fishing license to fish from the pier, but you do have to pay for daily fishing. If you’re looking for some downtime, you can always relax along the park’s beautiful beach or go beachcombing for marine treasures that wash ashore.
Flight Demonstrations at the Center for Bird of Prey
It's time to head south, down the coast to the Charleston area. Mount Pleasant is a great spot for your home base for the next few days because it's conveniently located near the public beaches on Isle of Palms, downtown Charleston and our next two amazing stops on the tour. Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms is an amenity-filled, beachfront resort offering an array of options, from hotel rooms to vacation condos and even beach houses for rent. Another great choice is the Charleston Harbor Resort, which has incredible views of the skyline and bridge, as well as on-site restaurants, pools and bikes for guests to use. There is also the completely reimagined Palms Oceanfront Hotel, which offers direct access to the beach and is a favorite with families.
Try breakfast at Sea Biscuit Cafe or grab coffee and croissants at Café Paname. Afterward, it’s time to pack the kids in the car and head to the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, just outside Charleston. This amazing bird refuge is home to the Avian Conservation Center, which cares for injured birds of prey and conducts research and advocacy for these amazing birds. Flight demonstrations provide visitors with the opportunity to watch eagles, hawks, owls, kites and falcons as they soar, dive and hunt above the flying field. After the demonstration, visitors are encouraged to download their free mobile app for a self-guided tour of the grounds, including the two-acre Owl Woods where you’ll get a chance to see and learn about these amazing birds in their natural habitat.
End the day with a delicious family meal on the Isle of Palms. Watch the sunset and enjoy a dinner of local seafood favorites at Coconut Joe’s Beach Grill or try the Italian-influenced dishes at Coda del Pesce.
On select days, the Center narrows the focus of their morning programs to allow visitors to explore groups of birds in greater detail. They also have special events throughout the year, including Birds of Prey Photography Days and Owls by Moonlight. Tickets can be purchased in advance on their website.
The Unparalleled Wild Beauty of Cape Romain
Located just 20 miles from Charleston, the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge offers an enchanting gateway to the natural wonders of South Carolina’s coast. Spanning an impressive 66,306 acres, this refuge boasts a pristine 22-mile stretch along the Atlantic, comprising a captivating mosaic of salt marsh estuaries, brackish wetlands, maritime forests and barrier island beaches.
This natural wonder is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts, as it hosts nearly 300 species of birds and over 20 types of reptiles. Among its inhabitants, Cape Romain shelters one of the world's most endangered species: the red wolf. The Sewee Center, located on the mainland, serves as a critical hub for conservation efforts, proudly housing six of the approximately 300 red wolves remaining worldwide. Their successful breeding program has seen the birth of adorable wolf pups in recent years.
While the Sewee Center provides essential information on outdoor activities like camping, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation in the area, its 9,000-square-foot facility also boasts interactive displays that unveil the unique ecosystems of the Lowcountry. Visitors can stroll through the gardens, view the red wolf from an observation platform and take a leisurely walk along the 1-mile Nebo Pond trail to spot turtles, herons, anoles and more.
If hunger strikes on the way back to Charleston, stop for dinner in Mount Pleasant. While offering a shorter list of eateries than the Holy City, this coastal town can hold its own when it comes to local flavor. For traditional seafood dishes, try Charleston Harbor Fish House. The restaurant's rooftop Bridge Bar offers unparalleled views of the historic Charleston skyline and is the perfect spot to enjoy a plate of lobster ravioli. You can also dine on French cuisine at Bistro Toulouse, Japanese specialties at Kanpai Japanese Restaurant or try the hearty, local fare at Five Loaves Cafe.
If you have the time, take the ferry out to Bulls Island. The largest of the four barrier islands, Bulls remains virtually untouched and is home to countless wildlife and endangered species. Its beautifully haunting Boneyard Beach is the most visited and photographed spot in the refuge.
Spend an Afternoon on Edisto Island
Depending on which route you take, the drive from Charleston to Hilton Head Island is roughly 2.5 hours, which means there is plenty of time for a detour to the beautiful and mesmerizing Edisto Island. Tucked away off the main road is your chance to see snakes in a way you probably never have before. The Edisto Island Serpentarium exhibits hundreds of snakes in big, outdoor snake pits. In these areas, snakes in rainbow colors climb trees, swim in ponds and hang off the branches. Really, it has to be seen to be believed. Even if you don't like snakes, give it a try. The Serpentarium is also home to alligators, turtles and lizards. But it's the snakes that make it amazing.
Hop in the car one last time and head to Hilton Head Island, where the beach is only the beginning for family fun. With an exciting cultural scene to explore, more than 50 miles of trails and plenty of seaside adventures, the island is one of the best family vacation spots in the country. Whether you want to unwind in style at a luxurious resort, rent a beachside villa or take in the views from one of the incredible hotels you’re sure to find your perfect accommodations at just the right price point.
Sea Pines Resort is a great option for an animal-loving family. Located on the southern end of the island, Sea Pines is a 5,000-acre oceanfront playground offering unlimited adventures on land and sea. Choose from a selection of bicycles to rent and explore a 15-mile network of leisure paths or saddle up at Lawton Stables and explore the resort’s 600-acre forest preserve. Known as a premier golf destination, each of the resort’s three golf courses is designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
The resort also offers an impressive array of restaurants, so you won’t have to travel far for dinner. Enjoy family favorites at Harbourside or take in the views from Quarterdeck. With more than 250 restaurants on the island, you’re sure to find whatever you’re craving.
Dolphin Tour on Hilton Head
After a week of seeing animals on land, it's time to venture out on the water. Rent a kayak or canoe and meander the island’s pristine waterways and inlets or set sail on a fishing charter. Whether you want to go parasailing, waterskiing, paddleboarding or fishing, there are plenty of ways to get out on the water.
One of the best ways to take in the views and see some aquatic wildlife is on a dolphin cruise. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins make the waters off Hilton Head their home and are enormously fun to watch as they swim and leap in the water. There are several companies that offer dolphin tours on Hilton Head, with options ranging from traditional tour boats to catamarans (double-hulled sailboats) to two-person skiff boats that provide some close encounters.
After a day on the water, check out some of the must-eats on the island. Head to Lowcountry Backyard for some of the best shrimp and grits in the state or try one of the mouthwatering dishes at One Hot Mama’s American Grille. The Salty Dog Cafe is a staple when it comes to Hilton Head's food scene. From fresh seafood to entertainment for the kids to captivating waterfront views, the Salty Dog Cafe gives patrons an authentic and exciting dining experience.
If you’re staying along the beach, remember to turn your lights out after 10 p.m. from May through October to help the nesting sea turtles find their way to and from the ocean.
Rest Before the Trip Home
Exhausted yet? It's been a packed week, so it’s time to take some much-needed rest on the beach. With some of the warmest waters on the East Coast, every day is a beach day on Hilton Head Island. Even if you’re not staying in an oceanfront hotel or home, getting to the beach is easy with access provided at seven locations. The most popular spot is Coligny Beach Park at the south end of the island. The park provides an interactive fountain, changing cabanas, volleyball courts and miles of beach to enjoy. With a nearby shopping center and several local restaurants to choose from, you won’t have to venture far for lunch, either.
You've probably seen more animals in more incredible settings in this one week than you will the whole rest of the year! Can you pick a favorite? Don’t forget to use #DiscoverSC and tell us what you loved most about your South Carolina animal adventure.
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