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Where to Spend a Long Weekend in the Southeast This Summer

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Summer in the Southeast is unlike anywhere else in the US. It’s very hot, yes, but unlike the rest of America this time of year, its tourist destinations aren’t actually overrun by tourists. You read that right -- summer is low season here, which makes it the best and most affordable time of year to discover some of the region’s destinations. From low-key beach weekends in Old Florida and an island retreat in the Florida Keys, to golf destinations and one Alabama city that has undergone a major cultural rebirth, here are our top picks for where to spend a long weekend in the Southeast this summer.

A QUIET BEACH GETAWAY

Palm Coast, Florida
Palm Coast is a true Old Florida beach town. Nestled on the east coast, it’s less than an hour from both St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. Quiet and unspoiled, Palm Coast is where you go for total relaxation, family fun in the sun, or even a romantic beach weekend with your S.O. It’s lined by 19 miles of cinnamon-colored beaches, and electric-pink sunsets aside, the real beauty of Palm Coast is that life can be as exciting -- or as quiet -- as you want it to be. Golfers can practice their swing on one of eight golf courses, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course at Hammock Beach, which, like its name implies, offers unrivaled views of the Atlantic Ocean while you tee off. Take a boat out on the water and you’ll see dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and even the occasional whale swimming alongside you.

If being on land is more your style, wander down the Great Florida Birding & WIldlife Trail or take a guided kayak tour of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve with Ripple Effect Ecotours. Go for a stunning, scenic drive through a 150-acre hammock to Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, where you’ll get a glimpse of what a Florida sugar plantation was like during the early 1800s. When you’re hungry, take a break from the beach or the golf course and get casual, homestyle barbecue at Captain’s BBQ, indulge in Italian cuisine at the family-owned-and-operated La Piazza Café, grab a beer at Moonrise Brewing Company (it’s Palm Coast’s first microbrewery!), or enjoy a hearty seafood dinner at the upscale Atlantic Grille at Hammock Beach resort.

Where to stay:Hammock Beach Resort is undeniably the best resort in Palm Coast, and staying there comes at a steal for everything you get. A laidback escape in the heart of Old Florida, it has spacious rooms, a 6.5-acre multi-level pool area, a 10,000 square-foot spa and fitness center, two 18-hole golf courses, six bars and restaurants, and, of course, those impeccable sunset views. Rooms here start at $200/night during the summer months, and come in different layouts to fit families, couples, and solo travelers alike.

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CULTURE KICKS IN A COMEBACK CITY

Birmingham, Alabama
There’s no denying it: Birmingham has become effortlessly cool. This southern city has it all: classic architecture, the Lyric Theater, James Beard Award-winning restaurants, a solid brewery scene, city parks, and easy access to Mother Nature. To get outdoors, scale the ridge of the 1,025-foot Red Mountain by hiking the mile-long Vulcan Trail. Spend the day at Railroad Park, which has 19 acres of lakes, streams, native plants, a birch grove, and even a skate park. The park actually backs up to Regions Field, where you can catch a minor-league Birmingham Barons game all summer long. It’s no secret that this city played an important role in America’s Civil Rights movement, too, and through a series of exhibits dating back to the 1800s, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute explains why. When you’re hungry, dine on Southern fare with a French kick at Highlands Bar & Grill, or grab a handcrafted cocktail in a dive bar at The Atomic -- both have earned James Beard nods.

During the first weekend of August, check out Secret Stages, a two-day festival where up-and-coming local, regional, and national musicians perform. Starting August 19, the Sidewalk Film Festival takes over downtown for an entire week, bringing with it top independent film debuts and screenings. Like jazz? The free Taste of 4th Avenue jazz festival returns on August 24 with live music, spoken word performances, food, and more. And speaking of jazz, check out the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame at the Carver Performing Arts Theatre; it’s part jazz museum, part jazz concert hall, and part jazz learning center.

Where to stay:The Elyton Hotel occupies a 1909-built high-rise in Birmingham’s financial and entertainment district, and is just a 15-minute walk from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Weekend rooms start at $165/night during the summer months.

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A TASTE OF THE ISLAND LIFE

Islamorada, Florida
Just an hour and a half south of Miami, Islamorada has all the same vacation vibes as Key West -- with fewer spring breaker types. The chain of six islands floats between South Florida’s barrier reefs and Everglades National Park, and water babies can do anything here: scuba diving, snorkeling, boating, kayaking, SUP, tubing, windsurfing, and of course… fishing. Swim through The Eagle, a 287-foot shipwreck covered in colorful patina, coral, and sponges. Follow an age-old tradition and feed the tarpon at Robbie’s, just past mile marker 77. Explore the History of Diving Museum, or rent a jetski and ride out to the “secret” sandbar along Whale Harbor Channel and join the party.

One thing the Florida Keys are always good for is eating excellent seafood and drinking strong rum cocktails, so get cracked conch at Lorelai Restaurant & Cabana Bar, hogfish at Chef Michael’s, fried alligator bites at Islamorada Fish Company, hot blue crab dip at Marker 88, and key lime pie at Green Turtle Inn. Wash it all down with frozen painkillers at Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill and rum runners at the world-famous Holiday Isle Tiki Bar (rumor has it the drink was actually invented there).

Where to stay: The brand-new Fisher Inn Resort & Marina embraces the heart of life in Islamorada. At this low-rise hotel right on the water, bright turquoise and natural-wood rooms run at less than $200/night and come with a range of modern amenities, including walk-in showers, kitchenettes, refrigerators, Keurig coffee machines, dining areas, a 50” HDTV, blackout screens, and balconies with direct views of those famous Florida Keys sunsets.

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START A LOWCOUNTRY TRADITION

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
There’s a reason people who visit Hilton Head make it an annual tradition. Less than an hour from Savannah, this “Lowcountry” destination has everything. There are top golf courses and beaches (Coligny Beach has been dubbed one of the top 25 beaches in the US), craveable West African “Gullah” cuisine, and a landscape that could be the backdrop of a Nicholas Sparks movie -- think salt marshes, lagoons, the Atlantic Ocean, tall pine forests, magnolias, ​and majestic moss-draped oaks.

In summer, spend your days playing tennis or tanning at Folly Field Beach Park, and your nights listening to live music on the water at Skull Creek Boathouse. Eat pulled pork sandwiches at Up the Creek Pub & Grill for lunch, then hop next door to Kayak Hilton Head and go for a paddle down Broad Creek. Peruse the art galleries in nearby Bluffton, or stay in Harbour Town to do boutique shopping. Of course, if you’re a first timer, you can’t go to Hilton Head without buying a shirt from the famous Salty Dog Café shop (trust us, you’ll feel left out if you don’t). On Friday nights, all kinds of local bands descend on Shelter Cove for the island’s weekly “Sunset Celebration.”

Where to stay: Rooms run at a premium on Hilton Head Island, which makes the Victorian-era Beaufort Inn even more special. You can get a room here for under $200/night during the summer, and the inn takes guests back in time with its heart pine floors, fireplaces, bespoke rooms, claw-foot soaking tubs, gardens, courtyards, porches, verandas and even horse-drawn carriage tours.

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LIVE THE LIFE OF THE HISTORIC RICH & FAMOUS

Jekyll Island, Georgia
Once considered a winter retreat for the wealthy, today, the 7.5 mile-long Jekyll Island has something for everyone. Explore the 240-acre National Historic Landmark District, which has 34 historic structures, and get a taste of what the island was like when Victorian-era millionaires vacationed there: hop on a horse-drawn carriage tour, visit the bookstore, or play a game of croquet on the Jekyll Island Club Resort lawn. Nature is important here, too; in fact, the state of Georgia requires that 65% of it stays undeveloped. Because of that, there are 10 miles of unspoiled beaches, salt marshes, magnolia trees, mossy forests, free-roaming wild deer & turkey, and Driftwood Beach, where gnarled trees — a product of the eroding seashore — make for an otherworldly beachscape. Take a trip to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the state’s only rescue and rehabilitation facility, and learn everything you could (and maybe didn’t) want to know about the reptiles. In July (when turtles are “nesting”), the center hosts free nightly turtle walks; August’s egg-hatching season brings hatchling walks at dawn. Turtles aren’t the only reason to get outside: The island has 20-plus miles of bike trails, guided kayak tours, nature walks, hands-on marine science adventures, live coastal animal exhibits, and more.

The island’s entertainment really comes alive in summer; visit Village Green for the Beach Village Music Series, where an eclectic mix of acts perform on the first Saturday of every month. On July 4, don’t miss the island-wide Independence Day Parade through the Historic District, where residents and visitors alike decorate their bikes, golf carts, strollers, pets, and even themselves, all in the name of patriotic fun.

Where to stay: In keeping with the nature theme, go camping! Jekyll Island Campground, which welcomes both tents and RVs, is surrounded by majestic oak trees covered in Spanish moss, and amenities to keep the cityfolk happy -- like a general store and free Wi-Fi. If your taste is more high-brow, live like the stars used to at the Jekyll Island Club Resort. The 19th-century property looks like a castle and though rooms normally run in the $300-$400s per night, you can get them in the low $200s during the slower summer season.