Distance from Atlanta: 281 miles; 4 hours
It’s pricier than other nearby options (the Holiday Inn is almost $200 a night), but it’s worth the drive -- and the dollar -- to get to the island’s well-kempt public access shores. Coligny Beach is nice, albeit a bit ritzy (they have WiFi for some reason). If you’re looking for less frills, Folly Field and Burkes are the regulars of the group, and Islanders is best for big barbecues. There are several hourly suppliers of kayaks, which you can take out on creeks (Broad, Skull, etc.), or among dolphins at Calibogue Sound. Hit Hilton Head Brewing Company for further reduction of body heat and brain cells when the day dies down.
Golden Isles (St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea Islands)
Distance from Atlanta: 280 miles; 4 hours
The four barrier islands floating in the Atlantic just off the border of Brunswick -- St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea Islands -- were once basically reserved for impossibly rich folks. Now, aside from The Lodge on Little St. Simons, which is upwards of $950 per night and only allows 30 guests at a time, it’s much easier to reserve a villa or rental house (unless you really want to book one of the five-star resorts). St. Simons is the largest and easiest for the public to access, with a public pool, golfing, sand that’s whiter than Bill Gates’ New Balances, and summer events. Jekyll is another step up, Sea Island is known for The Cloister resort which isn’t cheap, but is spectacular. Start saving now... for next summer.