It’s one of the loveliest of problems to have – the relatively easy access we have (yes, everything’s relative!) to an incredible menu of beaches. With one to our east, some to the north, many to the south, and a handful right in RVA’s backyard, the challenging part of such beach bounty is choosing the one that’s right for your family.
To make it a smidge easier, this travel mom chose beach destinations based on the following: drivability, water and surf safety, well-groomed sand, restrooms, and nearby free fun for kids. Plus, because you might not be the family who reserved a beach house six months ago, you’ll also find affordable lodging options for your summer getaway – remember, everything’s relative!
Bottom line, there is a lot to love about heading to a nearby beach for a getaway. Even with gas prices fluctuating, driving is more affordable than flying, and the family-friendly activities kids love are built right into the beach itself.
All told, visiting one of these coastal destinations makes good sense for the budget and great memories for the family. So let’s go to the beach, shall we?
Rehoboth Beach, DE – Stepping Back in Time
Dubbed “the nation’s summer capital” because of the reputation it has for vacationers traveling from Washington, D.C., Rehoboth Beach is blanketed in clean, white sand. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it appears on nearly every national list of best beaches.
Its kid-friendly surf, vibrant boardwalk, and a vintage seaside amusement park with bumper cars, old-time arcade games, and a beautiful carousel are just a few of the reasons Rehoboth Beach is great for families. In the summer, the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand presents free concerts (near Canalside Inn).
Delaware’s Scenic Coastal Highway makes for a gorgeous, roughly four-and-a-half-hour drive from Richmond. Metered beach parking here is $3 an hour and a monstrous hassle, so staying in a hotel with parking is essential.
Where to stay: Canalside Inn – an easy walk to the beach – features spacious rooms ideal for families and offers a hybrid kitchen that saves families big bucks. Hotel guests are encouraged to bring in their own groceries and use the brand-new fully equipped kitchen. Prep your food and eat with the other guests or grab your own table for privacy. Very retro, very fabulous.
Ocean City, MD – Classic Beach Vibe
As you make the four-hour drive from RVA to Ocean City, Maryland, get ready for ten beautiful miles of sandy strip, a three-mile boardwalk, and a beach destination loaded with lots of great eats and activities like surf lessons, parasailing, paddleboarding, kayaking, and biking.
Northside Park (free parking at 127th and Jamaica Avenue) is an always-clean incredible park for families that features a large climbing structure, shaded picnic tables, a small pond, a pier that faces the bay, and restrooms. Sunday evenings in the summer, bring a picnic and beach chairs and enjoy free family concerts that range from tribute bands to oldies. Once it gets dark, ooh and ahh over the fireworks show.
Where to stay: The Quality Inn Boardwalk delivers a wowza location (on the beach, but at a decent price), gob-smacking views from the balcony, and a full-sized fridge in a full-sized kitchen (yes, you read that right!). You’ll also enjoy an indoor pool, hot tub, and an outdoor pool. While the Quality Inn will never be a Ritz-Carlton, the price of this hotel on the beach is really good, trust me.
Virginia Beach, VA – Three Beaches, Two Breezy Hours Away
Want to be on the sparkling sand in record time? Virginia Beach has you covered.
The largest tourist destination in Virginia, this famed strip features a gorgeous beach with a three-mile long, 28-foot-wide boardwalk just made for morning activities (before the heat descends) like biking, skating, or riding a surrey (four-seater).
If your family is like mine, they’ll love watching the aircraft fly over Virginia Beach from the local Navy bases (jets, helicopters in formation – cool but loud). At least one morning, get up early to walk the beach to see the sunrise, shells, and dolphins – and a beloved local taking his parrot for her morning outing.
Parents of littles looking for an alternative to the not-so-calm surf at Virginia Beach will like Chesapeake Beach, called Chic’s Beach, for its gentle waves, fine sand, and warm water temps. Lay your towels under the bridges for mondo shade. Sandbridge, an easy 15-mile drive from Virginia Beach and boasting five miles of golden sand, is nature-packed and devoid of commercialism (no neon and no towering hotels).
Where to stay: Quality Inn & Suites Oceanfront is on the beach, inexpensive, and serves a hot and free breakfast. Brand-new hotels include the Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront (twenty stories high with a beach bar and rooftop restaurant). Parking: $20/day, service fee: $30/day. Embassy Suites by Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Resort (opened in March 2023) has a hot breakfast buffet, beach-front pool and bar, all ocean-facing rooms, and an indoor/outdoor pool. Parking: $20/day, service fee: $25/day.
Outer Banks, NC – Four Dreamy and Drivable OBX Beaches
RVA has had a love affair with Outer Banks for decades, and here’s what you won’t find at most OBX beaches: crowded boardwalks, flashy amusement parks, tourist traps, or walls of people.
OBX favorites for families:
If you stay in Carova Beach or tour it – accessible with a four-wheel drive – you’ll see the wild horses that roam free and can be spotted both on the twelve miles of beaches and in the neighborhoods themselves.
The most remote of the OBX beaches is Ocracoke, which is only accessible by a car ferry. While there are three ferries, the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry is free and fast (a 45-minute trip to the island). Once on Ocracoke, you’ll find great hotels (three and four-stars, no chains), 28-plus restaurants, venues to rent golf carts (how everyone gets around), and anything else you need for a magical vacation.
Kill Devil Hills is the site of the Wright Brothers National Memorial and museum. Fun fact: The brothers’ actual plane hangs in the Smithsonian. Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk beaches are beautiful for families who want quiet-enough surf and dolphin sightings.
Where to stay: Days Inn by Wyndham Kill Devil Hills Oceanfront is on the beach and comes with a mini-fridge and a microwave. The property also has suites, and some units have kitchens. Complimentary amenities include hot breakfast, parking, and WiFi. The property sits 0.5 miles from the Wright Brothers Memorial and has its own pool (seasonal).
Pawleys Island, SC – South’s Best Kept Secret
Less than six hours from Richmond and twenty-three miles south of Myrtle Beach sits a slice of paradise called Pawleys Island, and it offers everything your laid-back family is looking for in a beach vacation.
This four-mile island is part of what’s called the Hammock Coast (early residents made hammocks) and features pristine white sand, beautifully groomed beaches, and awesome dining.
What makes Pawleys Island special? This is the destination where the kids actually might want to put away their tech. They’ll grumble, of course, but you’ll be ready with board games, a frisbee, and a kite for old-fashioned summer fun.
Pawleys Island has an extra wide, masterpiece of a beach with a parking lot and bathrooms at Georgetown County Park (on the south end of the island). You’ll also find eight beach access points with parking at each.
For dinner, look into Landolfi’s Italian Bakery with a wood-fired brick pizza oven, full bar, and a case full of gorgeous homemade desserts to peruse. Pawleys Island Tavern – lovingly called the P.I.T. – receives raves from both locals and visitors.
When it’s time to shop, visit The Hammock Shops Village (think boutiques and jewelry). The Shops often feature hammock-weaving demos, wine tastings, and live music. BisQit restaurant is the ticket for adults, plus kids will love the climbing structure.
Where to stay: Given that Pawleys Island isn’t into commercial development (no chain hotels, no fast food), if there were a time for VRBO.com or Airbnb.com, this is it. The rentals range from efficient to wondrous and several come with fun amenities for the kids, like a pool with a lazy river.
Hilton Head Island, SC – Stylish Family Beach
Just a seven-hour drive from Richmond is a world-famous, 42-square-mile barrier island off South Carolina that features thirteen miles of beautiful beaches, warm year-round temps, and family activities galore.
Ready to watch wild dolphins, take surf lessons, or ride a jet ski? How about windsurfing, or partying with the pirates? It’s all here. On land, you can ride horses, play on one of 324 tennis courts or twenty-four championship golf courses, and ride bikes on fifty miles of paved walkways and nature trails.
Best beaches for families: The super popular Coligny Beach has a sizable oceanfront park (access beach at the end of Pope Avenue off Coligny Circle), a wonderful shopping area, and a boardwalk with restrooms, outdoor showers, shaded seating, and a splash fountain for little kids.
More Hilton Head beaches for kids include Folly Field Beach Park (enter this super clean beauty at Folly Field Road) and Driessen Beach Park (accessed at the end of Bradley Beach Road). Both are worth your time and not as crowded as Coligny. A must for kids is Gregg Russell Harbour Town Playground in Sea Pines. The park here is semi-shaded with picnic tables and restrooms.
Where to stay: A two-mile drive to the beach, Palmera Inn and Suites serves up convenience for families with full kitchens in every unit (with a regular-sized fridge!), an outdoor pool, and a well-rated bagged breakfast. Bonus: It’s bike path-adjacent.
Tybee Island and Savannah, GA – Two Vacations in One
Make the seven-hour drive from Richmond to Savannah and explore both the historic city and nearby Tybee Island to get your beach fix.
In Savannah with the kids, check out the Savannah Children’s Museum, which is currently entirely outdoors. Old Town Trolley Tour is best on day one of the trip to get a feel for the area. Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace, founder of the Girl Scouts, is also a good fit for kids.
Explore Tybee Island for families, and specifically, South Beach, with its pavilion and pier seemingly made for families. The best parking is at 14th and 18th streets (however, parking is never free on Tybee). South Beach is called the downtown of the island and is packed with shops and restaurants.
If you want to see dolphins, Captain Derek’s Dolphin Adventure is highly rated, and if you want to bike the island, go with TIMS (timsbeachgear.com). Families with teens might consider kayaking from Tybee Island to Little Tybee (seakayakgeorgia.com).
Where to stay: While not inexpensive,a stay at the DeSoto Savannah delivers a roof-top pool and plops you within walking distance of Savannah’s Historic District. The pool is a zero-gravity number with loungers in the water. A bar, eatery, and patio with lots of seating surround the pool. Tip: Usher kids to the pool in early morning before the crowd descends.
Smack dab in the middle of Savannah is the Holiday Inn Express Savannah-Historic District. Being close to the action is no small feat in Savannah, and the hotel itself is ranked first on many “best of” lists. Wherever you stay, next to the Holiday Inn is a parking garage that costs peanuts compared to any hotel’s valet parking.
Saint Simons Island, GA – Wide Beaches, Quaint Village, Friendly Locals
Expect about an eight-hour drive to this Georgia vacation spot. The popular East Beach is perfect for families with clean restrooms, outdoor showers, and lifeguards in the summer. At Massengale Park, you’ll find picnic tables, grills, a playground, and two beach access points.
For family eats, check out Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria. It generally has a wait so arrive early. For incredible food with a view, choose Echo inside the King and Prince Hotel.
Where to stay: Saint Simons Inn by the Lighthouse offers a decent hotel price because it’s a block off the beach. This inn is close to a lot of fun, like the lighthouse built in 1889 that you can climb and a beach village district with shops and eats. And when the kids tire of the beach – voila! – a beautiful waterpark is just steps from the inn.
Destin, FL – Sugar-Sand Beaches and Crystal-Clear Water
Would you believe me if I said the 13-hour drive – give or take depending on traffic – from RVA to Florida’s panhandle is nothing but a minor detail for those who know the magnificence that awaits? Henderson Beach State Park is just a six-minute drive out of Destin. Locals and visitors alike rave about Henderson, calling it the most beautiful beach in the U.S. For day-use and camping, this Florida State Park is gorgeous, inexpensive, and family-friendly. It has picnic tables under pavilions, restrooms, outdoor showers, grills, and an alcohol-free beach that’s perfect for families.
Where to stay: Camping isn’t my jam, but beach-camping? Now you have my attention. With just sixty campsites – for both RV and tent camping – reserve early (up to eleven months in advance). You can try for 2023, but this one might need to wait until next summer.
If you’re not a camper, consider the Hampton Inn & Suites Destin. This three-star hotel is a five-minute walk west to another beach, Henderson Park, and just a two-minute drive east to the Henderson Beach State Park. The Hampton gives guests a pool with a mushroom feature for kids, a hot breakfast, WiFi, and parking all rolled into one nightly price.
Like so many beach communities, Destin is perfect for booking a condo or house through VRBO.com or Airbnb.com.
Santa Rosa Beach, FL – Family Delight in the Florida Panhandle
Also a hop, skip, and about a 13-hour drive from Richmond is the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park with more than 1,600 acres to hike and three miles of exquisite white sand next to water that looks heaven-sent by way of Bali. The powers-that-be take preserving Topsail seriously, so you can’t drive and park by the beach. Instead, you park a mile back and load the family and beach gear into a tram – that you know the kids will always remember. In no time, you’re whisked to a boardwalk that leads to the pristine sandy beach. Biking is also a preferred method of transportation.
Where to stay: Developed in the nineties, Topsail Hill has twenty-two tent sites, 155 RV sites, thirty-two cabins or bungalows – all available with a plethora of amenities. Plus, there’s a swimming pool and a camp store here for families.