What better place to celebrate anything -- be it love or independence -- than on a stretch of warm sand, by the water's edge? A day at the beach is great, but better still is a long weekend when you have time to dig your toes deep into the holiday spirit. Here are four festive beach destinations:
An Island Memorial to Summer
Summer starts not a moment too soon on the long Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. First widely observed as "Decoration Day" in 1868, this national holiday has somber roots. So, with a respectful nod to casualties of the Civil War, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in prior and subsequent battles, here's to nominating Ocracoke Island, NC, as a fitting beach destination for observing Memorial Day. This island has it all: sun-swept wilderness beaches for fishing, surfing and tanning, as well as history dating back to America's beginnings.
One of the barrier islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is accessible only by air or water; a 40-minute free ferry ride will get you here from Hatteras Island. That Ocracoke is a treasure is no modern secret; the pirate Blackbeard was killed here in a naval battle in 1718. The quaint village of Ocracoke is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it has a white lighthouse dating to 1823 -- one of the oldest still in active service. The main town's main thoroughfare, Howard Street, is made for slowly strolling, with its historic homes, small family cemeteries, gnarled old live oak trees and moss-covered fences.
The island marks a number of war memorials. During the Civil War, locals served in both the Union and Confederate armies; a Civil War monument stands near Pamlico Sound. During World War II, local residents often reported seeing ships burning off-shore as the result of aggressive U-boat activity. The British Cemetery, next to the historic Howard family graveyard, is the final resting place of four sailors from the HMS Bedfordshire, torpedoed May 11, 1942. Island residents discovered the bodies on the beach and arranged for a fitting burial under the shade of several ancient live oaks. Every spring, a memorial service is held to honor these and other brave sailors who served in WWII.
Farther north on the sandy string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks is another destination appropriate for Memorial weekend: the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. Learning about how Orville and Wilbur flew for 12 seconds over these sandy dunes is one thing; learning to fly yourself is another. The Kitty Hawk Kites' Hang Gliding Training Center bills itself as the largest hang-gliding school in the world. Its instructors have taught hundreds of thousands of students, ages 8 to 80, since 1974. The world's oldest continuously running Hang Gliding Spectacular is held here every May; the event is free for spectators.
Cape May for V-Day
Even if the sea didn't offer up Cape May "diamonds" (aka sea glass) for you to find while strolling arm-in-arm with your sweetie on the beach -- which it does! -- you would be hard-pressed to propose a more romantic getaway spot for a long Valentine's weekend than this Victorian-era town. Located along the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May lays claim to being this nation's oldest seashore resort.
Should your loved one tire of searching for sea-glass baubles, you can hail a horse-drawn carriage and snuggle under a blanket-for-two while touring the sycamore-lined streets and shops of the historic landmark district. Ask the driver to drop you off at the Cape May Day Spa for a one-and-a half-hour couple's treatment that includes a Grecian whirlpool-for-two and a side-by-side integrated massage.
At some point, you'll no doubt want to simply hunker down indoors, perhaps with a book of love poems, box of chocolates and bottle of champagne. Many of the meticulously maintained inns of Cape May cater to lovers year-round, but never more than on Valentine's Day. One particularly romantic choice is the Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant. Here, in addition to an oceanfront room with a Jacuzzi tub and fireplace, you can enjoy a gourmet meal in one of Cape May's finest restaurants. Specializing in both casual and elegant ocean-front dining, the restaurant houses five beautiful and distinctive dining rooms. Share an aphrodisiac appetizer -- three boutique oysters crowned with Stoli vodka pomegranate ice and three jumbo prawns with cocktail sauce -- before savoring Peter Shields' signature dish of South African lobster tail.
Red, White and Tahoe Blue
The second-deepest lake in the United States, Lake Tahoe is known for its cerulean clarity. Add rockets' red glare and bombs bursting white in the air above the sparkling blue water, and you have a three-day Fourth of July jubilee known as Red, White and Tahoe Blue. This freshwater lake, with its soft sand beaches in the mountain majesty of the Sierra Nevada, is the all-American setting for traditional Independence Day festivities such as concerts, arts and crafts fairs, sporting events, pancake breakfasts, parades and, of course, fireworks.
Illuminating celebrations are held on multiple nights at various places around the lake, which, at 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, has 72 miles of shoreline. To name two best bets: the fireworks at Tahoe's North Shore are best seen from Kings Beach State Recreation Area and the North Tahoe Conference Center; and the Tahoe City fireworks are best viewed from the beach or from a lakefront restaurant.
The Fourth of July weekend isn't the only time to witness a blaze of light reflected in Lake Tahoe: Nature's nightly pyrotechnic display -- also known as the sunset -- keeps lots of sun worshippers outside long after prime tanning time. Best beaches to watch the sunset: In Incline Village, just west of the Hyatt, is a small public beach; Sand Harbor beach is located down the East Shore, just outside Incline Village; on the West Shore, at the end of Fern Street, just past the Fleur-de-Lac and almost into Homewood, is a dog-friendly beach, rarely occupied; and in Tahoe City, Skylandia Beach is hidden in the back of Lake Forest.