Marinalife asked. Boaters answered. And so we listened. After many submissions from our Marinalife members — we selected the top 12 southern boating destinations. With the summer in your wake and temperatures cooling in the north, there’s no better time to pick up anchor and head south to these excellent destinations.
1. ORIENTAL, North Carolina
Visitors to this quaint village like to spend time watching the water, where there’s often a beautiful craft to admire, while the fall breezes sweep through the marsh grasses. The river that flows by these shores is the Neuse River, which dissolves into the Pamlico Sound to the north. From Oriental, you can watch recreational and commercial vessels as they navigate the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs down the middle of the Neuse. Then, go for a bike ride through town (the terrain is flat), and don’t forget to bring along binoculars, as Oriental is a favorite destination for birders. If you’re tying up for the night, head to River Dunes. Rated one of the top 25 marinas in the North America, it offers floating docks within a protected 28-acre inland basin harbor.
2. HILTON HEAD, South Carolina
In this town, anchoring the southern tip of the state’s coastline, the environment takes center stage, due to development being regulated here. Wildlife abounds, and it’s not unusual to see loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins and manatees in the waters. While Hilton Head is home to several luxury private gated communities, it’s also a resort destination with 12 miles of white-sand beaches, world-class restaurants, top-rated golf courses and other sports, including tennis. To spend the night in style, reserve a dock at Harbour Town Yacht Basin located at Sea Pines Resort. The full-service marina, with fuel dock and marine supply store, is home to the famous red-and-white striped Harbour Town Lighthouse that many associate with the island.
3. ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida
Celebrating its 450th birthday this year, it’s the nations oldest city, and its charms are timeless. Located along the banks of the Matanzas River, St. Augustine, with its narrow cobblestone streets, was founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers (see the coquina bastions of a Spanish fort that guards the bay). A visit here should include an exploration of the shops and eateries around the Historic District. St. Augustine also is the site of the fabled Fountain of Youth, which is worth a visit, as the once-dated attraction has been restored in recent years and even features a boatyard with a 16th-century-style craft. After the walking tour, hit the gorgeous beach at Anastasia State Park, then tie up at Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor, just a mile from St. Augustine Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean.
4. PALM BEACH, Florida
Here, along a golden stretch of the Atlantic shore, is a destination that’s one part old-world glamour and another new-age sophistication. Palm Beach is touted as one of America’s first luxury resort destinations, and it maintains that status today. There are the signature Mediterranean-revival mansions and upscale shops that boast a beautiful clientele. While there’s plenty to do in Palm Beach (think dining, shopping, golfing and nightlife), if you’re up for exploring beyond the borders of town, you can head south to Delray Beach — another classic town in the Old Florida tradition — or north to the barrier islands of the Treasure Coast. For an overnight stay, tie up at Palm Harbor Marina where the crowd is international and the facilities top-notch or at Old Port Cove Marina, with an onsite restaurant, shower and laundry facilities, gym and lounge.
5. KEY WEST, Florida
As a tourist destination, Key West has a lot going for it, including an average temperature of 79°F, 19th-century architecture, a laid-back lifestyle, a wonderful art scene and top dining options. Of course, you will also find an array of bars and t-shirt shops along Duval Street, but jump on a bike to venture beyond. Key West is still a place that feels a world apart from the rest of the continental U.S. The population is diverse, and Key Westers pride themselves on their tolerance of all peoples, and even all animals (most restaurants allow pets). But its finest asset is location. At the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, and just one mile wide, the water overwhelms land and makes for the type of views romantic travelers dream of. For an overnight, dock at Stock Island Marina Village, boasting 220 slips or Conch Harbor Marina, in Key West Bight.
6. SARASOTA, Florida
Located in the heart of Florida’s Tampa Bay Region, Sarasota has much to offer cruisers, particularly in the fall, as many boaters in the north head in this direction for their annual pilgrimage in pursuit of the sun. The beaches in Sarasota and throughout the region are some of the best in the country, and you’ll find a different vibe at each one, from mellow stretches of sand for shell collectors to social hubs that draw sun lovers with live music and dancing. There are also charter fishing boats, parasailing experiences, and sidewalk shopping and cafes. If you’re craving culture, try Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art. There’s so much to do in this locale that you might want to spend a few nights. One of the top facilities in town is the Hyatt Regency Sarasota Resort & Marina.
7. ORANGE BEACH, Alabama
Panhandle hot-spots like Destin, Florida, have attracted boaters for years, but the growing popularity has made for congested waterways and beaches. If you’re looking for another pretty port along this pretty stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, one that’s less crowded and in some ways more affordable, try Orange Beach, Alabama. Downtown Orange Beach is situated on a peninsula that juts into Perdido Bay, just minutes from the open waters of the Gulf, and also adjacent to a number of coves and backwaters that offer miles of sheltered shoreline for exploring, fishing, water skiing and swimming. Orange Beach has a number of upscale developments, as well as family-oriented activities that range from go-kart tracks to golf courses. Tie up at Orange Beach Marina, named one of the Top 25 Marinas by Power & Motoryacht Magazine, accommodating vessels up to 130 feet or Homeport Marina, in nearby Gulf Shores. For your service and maintenance needs, stop in at Saunders Yachtworks.
8. BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
The British Virgin Islands are among the top boating destinations in the world, yet those who have cruised
these waters more than once say a return trip isn’t complete without stops at two of the most beloved islands: Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Lovely Virgin Gorda runs at a pace so slow that goats still wander across the roads in places like North Sound. There are also great sites like the Copper Mine Point (for history), Virgin Gorda Peak (for hiking) and the incredible Baths (you’ll flood your Instagram feed with photos of this natural wonder). Anegada is fourteen miles north, a flat coral-and-limestone atoll just nine miles long and two miles wide. Though the reefs are a sailor’s nightmare, they are gold for snorkelers, especially in the waters around Loblolly Bay on the north shore. There are moorings at most islands in the BVI; if you’re hankering for a marina stay, try the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda or Scrub Island Resort Marina.
9. ABACO ISLANDS, Bahamas
The calm and protected waters of the Abaco Islands are beautiful and define this chain of islands as the sailing capital of the Bahamas. Yet the waters are not just for cruising. Reefs make for excellent snorkeling, diving and fishing. And then there are the beaches. From island-long stretches to strips as short as your boat, there’s a beach suited to everyone’s liking. There are many luxury services in the islands too, from five-star accommodations to fine dining and pretty shops. There’s island-style fun, too, including great beach parties. Our favorite being the Sunday pig roast at Nippers on Great Guana Cay. Full-service marinas include Hope Town Inn & Marina, Abaco Beach Resort at Boat Harbour and Treasure Cay Beach Marina & Golf Resort.
10. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Among the most precious assets of this island, bathed by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean
Sea to the south, are 1,000 miles of beaches. But this is a land of contrasts too, with mountain landscapes, brown rivers and rain forests. Accommodations offer a broad range, from surfers’ camps, to boutique hotels and megaresorts. The vibrant lifestyle of this Latin- Caribbean country where Spanish is the national language makes the Dominican Republic a unique cultural experience. Also notable is the fact that a stay here can represent a very good bargain, even in a place like Casa de Campo, one of the world’s largest resorts and top golfing destinations, which offers Marina Casa de Campo. Cruising yachtsmen also like Ocean World in Puerto Plata.
11. PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico
There are many good reasons to visit one of Mexico’s prettiest resort towns in the fall. Among them are scores of excellent restaurants, lively nightclubs, sandy beaches and local gems like Old Vallarta, featuring winding cobblestone streets and quirky boutiques. Puerto Vallarta is also a top golf destination, with exclusive links and accessible courses for all players. As you might expect at an international coastal destination, there are watersports of all kinds, from windsurfing to snorkeling to scuba diving. A popular place for transient boaters is Paradise Village Marina, located in a protected natural lagoon and part of a luxury resort property, which means guests have access to all of the hotel’s amenities.
12. CATALINA ISLAND, California
Just 20-plus miles across from Newport Beach is a glimpse of what an underdeveloped slice of Southern California looks like. Catalina has mountains, canyons, coves and beaches, and water so clear it draws divers, snorkelers and kayakers. Avalon is the main town, an old-fashioned beach community where golf carts are preferred on streets and pleasure boats bob in the bay. When you come off the water, absorb a bit of the island’s history. In 1919, William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum magnate, helped to develop the island, raising one of its most famous landmarks, the Casino, in 1929. There are four general mooring areas around the island. Moorings are rented on a first-come, first-served basis. Upon arrival, call the Harbor Patrol on Channel 9 for information.