When the Panama City Beach tourism board invited me on a press trip to the area for New Year’s a few years ago, I was lukewarm at best. A cold weather beach vacation didn’t sound that fun, but I figured we weren’t doing much in Atlanta with a 6-month old and 4-year-old other than passing out by 11 p.m.
I’m glad we jumped on that trip because it showed us how amazing a cold weather beach vacation can really be. And in Panama City Beach’s case, the throngs of spring break teenagers and tourists were nonexistent and were replaced with locals, nearby travelers, and beach lovers like us. The lowkey vacation gave us a chance to really appreciate the town for what it was and see how the locals live.
We’ve turned the idea of a chilly, beach adventure for New Year’s into a family tradition and this year we decided to hit Beaufort. It was actually an accident that we ended up here at all. In fact, I had never heard of Beaufort and accidentally booked it when I thought I was reserving an Airbnb in the Port Royal community on Hilton Head instead of the city of Port Royal just a stone’s throw from Beaufort.
My lovely Airbnb host offered to cancel, but I said not to bother. By that time, l saw the photos of old antebellum mansions, dripping weeping willows, massive oak trees, and a historic waterfront town waiting to embrace us.
It took just a little over four hours to make the drive from our home in Atlanta to Port Royal, SC and we stopped at a small beach in an inlet that was shielded from the wind. This cozy, sandy spot made the perfect place to build sand castles with the kids and look for shark’s teeth with the locals. Once the kids were sufficiently tired out from the car ride, we made our way to our Airbnb that was conveniently located just a few blocks from a playground, coffee shop, restaurant, gas station with a small grocery, and most important to the kids; a cupcake shop.
There are pros and cons to family travel in an Airbnb, but I find them to be an outstanding deal. It’s true you don’t always get the convenience of an indoor pool, gym, and front desk amenities like a hotel; but an Airbnb is usually more affordable, always more spacious, and comes with perks. We opt for properties with a full kitchen, separate bedrooms from the kids, and a washer and dryer so we can really make the most of our trip. We were also treated to complimentary DVDs, card games, and some ingredients in the fridge and pantry to help ourselves to. Bonus that there was a small yard for our toddler to blow off steam in while we packed and unpacked.
Here’s where we stayed at Port Royal, SC. We gave it a glowing review!
The Port Royal playground proved a popular spot where my daughter quickly took up with a new friend. Her Dad gave us pointers on where to eat, including a non-descript but tasty Island Pizza and a nearby Carolina’s Tavern with a game area for the kids. The kids didn’t want to leave, but the town went frigid once the sun set and we took a stroll and looked at holiday lights on our way to grab some food before calling it a night.
Our plan was to wake up and drive to Beaufort to spend the day and have a late New Year’s Eve lunch at a spot like the Old Bull Tavern before heading to Hunting Island Beach that draws visitors from around the Southeast. We decided we would ring in the New York with wine and movies. But instead of waking to a bright day in front of us, we awoke in the middle of the night to the screaming whimpers of my 6-year-old who said her ear hurt.
My stomach sank. She had been struggling with a cold, but almost always bounces back right away. She also rarely complains about being sick, so I knew she likely had an ear infection and must be in a lot of pain. She gladly took the Advil I offered and managed to go back to sleep. The next morning looked better. She was tired from a fitful night’s sleep but said it wasn’t that bad and asked to go play.
We reluctantly made our way to a playground in downtown Beaufort off the water where a pint-sized pirate ship and climbing structure welcomed the kids. We were wondering if we should see how the day went, but I knew that the urgent care clinic in nearby Ladys’ Island would close in the early evening and that my kid would likely wake up screaming again if we didn’t get on top of her illness.
So we said goodbye to downtown Beaufort, soaking up the gorgeous antebellum mansions and tree-lined streets with a sigh and made our way over the bridge. Luckily we had the kids’ Kindles charged up and ready to go with shows and movies to pass the time. Although usually reserved for grown-up restaurants and long car rides, we let them go nuts with the glorious glow of screen time while we waited for nearly two hours to be seen. The urgent care clinic was friendly and efficient, and the nurse practitioner immediately commented on how terrible my daughter’s ear looked and was bulging. We got antibiotics filled quickly and I suggested heading back to the Airbnb but our daughter was disappointed not to see the beach.
After grabbing some lunch to go, we made the 20-minute drive out to Hunting Island State Park where we were treated to 5-miles of white sandy, beach. I could have walked on it for hours, but the whipping wind and chilly air made it untenable for our little ones. So we just soaked up a little outdoor and sun time before heading back to Beaufort Island and making our way to Luther’s. Our New Year’s Eve dinner consisted of a single soft pretzel for the table of us weary travelers, lemonades, and beer.
Admittedly, there were many points where we thought the trip just royally sucked. That we should have just driven home that morning and nothing was going our way. It felt pretty crappy to have our New Year’s plans dashed by illness, mishaps, and a cranky toddler and parents alike. But once we resigned ourselves to just being happy to be together, things changed. The beer suddenly tasted great. My daughter perked up at the chance to sip on pink lemonade. We felt fortunate we had found an open clinic at all that would take our 6-year-old. And we were finally in downtown Beaufort.
My daughter said she was up for a stroll, so we bundled them up and put them in the double travel stroller and wandered around town for about an hour peering into shops and taking in the sights. The little town was picture-perfect and I spotted horse-drawn carriage tours, a visitor center that my daughter commented looked like a castle, and a movie location tour. The film industry loves Beaufort Island and has served as the backdrop for Forest Gump, Platoon, Forces of Nature, and The Big Chill among others.
When it got too chilly to keep walking, we made our way back to the car and headed the 3 miles to Port Royal to our Airbnb where we finished off some soup, crackers, and ice cream before the kids called it a day. My husband and I rang in the New Year watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” on the host of DVDs left for our use and realized it was after midnight. We called my brother-in-law who had apparently had just been kicked in the nose by our enthusiastic nephew in an effort to get wild and crazy for the New Years. As texts poured in from family and friends, we counted ourselves lucky to make the most of our cold weather vacation and have our peacefully sleeping kids upstairs.
Considering how much we travel, I feel lucky this is the first time it landed us at a clinic. And it’s not always about the destination. Sometimes it’s just about being together outside of your comfort zone and experiencing something new together. But next time we hope it involves more looking for shells and shark teeth on the beach and less time in a waiting room.