31 Beach Vacations to Add to Your Bucket List

Huntington Beach, California
Photo: Photographer Jean-Claude Winkler/Getty Images

"Let's go to the beach!" This might sound like a simple enough suggestion, until you consider the minutiae of your plans: Should you go local or try something new? Gulf or coastal? Remote or close to amenities? Once you start deliberating, planning a beach vacation can feel daunting, sending you straight to the same beach you've visited year after year. That's why we asked Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, the director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, to lend his expertise. Each year, Dr. Beach, as he's often called, selects America's top 10 beaches, weighing factors such as sand softness, water temperature, pollution, and views. We knew we couldn't possibly narrow down our favorites to 10, so with his help, we've compiled 31 can't-miss beach vacations in the U.S. and Caribbean, including Dr. Beach's own go-to retreat, Cape Florida State Park. Whether you want to stroll for seashells, ride waves, or build sandcastles, there's a stretch of sand on this list that'll suit you. Now it's only a matter of packing your towel and remembering your sunscreen.

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Ocean City, New Jersey

Ocean City, New Jersey
Photographer Buff Strickland

Ocean City has all the necessary ingredients for wholesome fun: eight miles of wide, lifeguard-staffed beach, a boardwalk lined with souvenir shops and snack bars, an amusement park, and a water park. It's an alcohol-free beach, making it an ideal spot for families.

Stay: The Forum Ocean City is delightfully unpretentious and offers large, clean rooms for much less than you'd pay a block away on the boardwalk. With your stay, you'll snag a free beach tag and access to the pool.

800-814 Atlantic Avenue, Ocean City, NJ 08226, theforumocnj.com

Eat: Serving everything from crab cakes to grilled cheese, the Café Beach Club is open for breakfast and lunch, with tables on the boardwalk and spectacular ocean views. Satisfy your sweet tooth with saltwater taffy from Shriver's.

Café Beach Club: 1282 Boardwalk, Ocean City, NJ 08226, cafebeachclub.com

Shriver's: 852 Boardwalk, Ocean City, NJ 08226, shrivers.com

Shop: Send the boys to the arcade while the girls visit Kay Jay's Doll Shop, conveniently located across the street from a pastry shop.

737 Asbury Avenue, Ocean City, NJ 08226, kayjaysdollshoppe.com

Local secret: Start your morning with homemade apple cider doughnuts at Oves on the boardwalk, where you can also rent bikes for a quick cruise.

4th and Boardwalk, Ocean City, NJ 08226, ovesrestaurant.com

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Miami Beach, Florida

Miami Beach, Florida
Photographer Mark Lewis / Getty Images

While South Beach will always remain a hot spot, the billion-dollar renovation of the Fontainebleau hotel in 2008 drew visitors to the less-frenetic charms of Miami Beach's midtown. And they've kept on coming.

Stay: Live like an influencer at the iconic Fontainebleau, located on the stretch of Miami Beach known as Millionaire's Row. When you're not basking on the beach, explore the property's six acres of gardens.

4441 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33140, fontainebleau.com

Eat: Whether you seek finger foods or burgers, you'll find fabulous cuisine in a romantic outdoor setting at Wish Restaurant and Garden at the Tony Hotel. Snack time? Check out Solo, the Fontainebleau's patisserie.

Wish: 801 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33140, thetonyhotel.com

Shop: Trends tend to emerge from the boutiques on Washington Avenue in South Beach. Spend the afternoon popping into small, locally-owned shops.

Local secret: Española Way, a pedestrian-only street tucked away in South Beach, feels like a Mediterranean village with its outdoor cafés and weekend street markets.

Drop-off spot: 447 Española Way, Miami Beach, FL 33139, visitespanolaway.com

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Perdido Key State Park

Perdido Key State Park, Pensacola, Florida
Courtesy of Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Pensacola, Florida

Perdido Key has "some of the finest, whitest sand in the world and emerald-green water," says Dr. Beach. That's all you'll find here, aside from picnic tables and outdoor showers. But it's plenty.

15301 Perdido Key Drive, Pensacola, FL 32507, floridastateparks.org

Stay: Rental condos and beach houses rule in Perdido. Try MeyerRE.com or AirBNB.

Eat: Locals love the royal red shrimp, gumbo, and weekend bluegrass at The Point. The proudly ungenteel Flora-Bama Lounge, which straddles the Florida-Alabama line, serves top-notch oysters, "baked, buttered, or nude."

The Point: 14340 Innerarity Point Road, Perdido Key, FL 32507, thepointperdido.com

Flora-Bama Lounge: 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Perdido Key, FL 32507, florabama.com

Shop: Tallulah's Treasures in nearby Orange Beach stocks local and regional arts and crafts—what the owner calls "girlfriend gifts."

25122 Perdido Beach Blvd #6209, Orange Beach, AL 36561, facebook.com

Local secret: The weather and water stay warm well into September and even October, making these uncrowded months the best time to visit.

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Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida
Photograph Panoramic Images/Getty Images

Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida

As Dr. Beach says, "Sugar sand with a beach that is hundreds of yards wide—you've gotta love this place." He's right. We do.

Stay: With a kitchen in each unit, family-friendly Sara Sea resort offers an apartment-style stay. Enjoy two pools, tropical gardens, and an easy walk to the beach.

6717 SaraSea Circle, Siesta Key, Sarasota, FL 34242, tropicalbeachresorts.com

Eat: Try Ophelia's on the Bay for waterfront fine dining or Siesta Key Oyster Bar for casual fun and live music.

Ophelia's: 9105 Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key, FL 34242, opheliasonthebay.net

Siesta Key Oyster Bar: 5238 Ocean Boulevard, Sarasota, FL 34242, skob.com

Shop: On-trend fashions—shoes, clothing, swimwear—await at Foxy Lady, in a charming Cape Cod cottage just across from the beach.

209 Beach Road, Sarasota, FL 34242, foxyladysarasota.com

Local secret: The Siesta Key Drum Circle draws hundreds to the beach for music and dancing every Sunday before sundown.

948 Beach Road, Siesta Key, FL 34242, facebook.com

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Huntington Beach, California

Huntington Beach, California
Photographer Jean-Claude Winkler/Getty Images

Huntington fought a legal battle with Santa Cruz for the right to crown itself "Surf City, U.S.A."—and won. It really does have a mellow surfer vibe. In fact, Dr. Beach calls it the "No. 1 family surf beach in the United States."

Stay: The Shorebreak Hotel overlooks the ocean and capture's the area's laidback vibes with ping pong, a fire pit, and surfboard storage. For charming rental cottages, look to vrbo.com.

500 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, shorebreakhotel.com

Eat: Join the locals for all-day breakfast at the comfy Sugar Shack. Then join the tourists at Duke's for seafood and Hawaiian-inspired dishes.

Sugar Shack: 213 Main Street, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, hbsugarshack.com

Duke's: 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, dukeshuntington.com

Shop: Bypass the giant Huntington Surf & Sport at the pier, and head to its sister store on Main Street. This location specializes in Billabong, the quintessential surf brand.

126 Main Street, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, hsssurf.com

Local secret: Soak in the bay views along the short Mesa Trail at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, or enjoy a free docent-led tour of the 1,400-acre saltwater marsh.

18000 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, bolsachica.org

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Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site

Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site, Neskowin, Oregon
Photographer Matt Brown

Neskowin, Oregon

From U.S. 101, you'll barely notice the village, let alone the beach. That means you just might have this breathtaking confluence of sea, sand, and scenery all to yourself (stateparks.oregon.gov).

Stay: The 10 three-bedroom cottages at The Breakers Beach Houses offer panoramic ocean views and easy beach access.

48060 Breakers Blvd, Neskowin, OR 97149, breakersoregon.com

Eat: Hawk Creek Cafe serves wood-fired pizza alongside seafood dishes like mac and cheese mingled with local fish, clams, and prawns.

4505 Salem Avenue, Neskowin, OR 97149, cafeonhawkcreek.com

Shop: Head 13 miles south to Lincoln City for glass art at The Volta Glass Gallery. Or create your own across the street at the Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio.

Volta Glass: 4830 SE Highway 101, Lincoln City, OR 97367, voltaglass.com

Jennifer Sears: 4821 SW Highway 101, Lincoln City, OR 97367, facebook.com

Local secret: Once see this picturesque sea stock topped with trees, you'll realize why it's called Proposal Rock. To access the island, take a quick hike from the Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site.

Milepost 97 on U.S. 101, Neskowin, OR 97149, stateparks.oregon.gov

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More Beaches with Beautiful Sand

Shoal Bay, Anguilla
Photographer Don Herbert/Getty Images
  • Coast Guard Beach, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts: Cushy mounds—slightly coarse, but very clean—pile up against the cliff (nps.gov).
  • Hilton Head Island, South Carolina: Twelve miles of fluffy beaches skirt this high-end resort island (hiltonheadisland.org).
  • Shoal Bay (East), Anguilla: Sleepy Anguilla wakes up—a little—on this two-mile expanse of feathery white sand, known to glitter in the sun.
  • Torrance, California: You'll never want to leave this little-known but delightful mile and a half of soft sand framed by hills (discovertorrance.com).
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More Hidden Beaches

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
Photographer JP Greenwood/Getty Images
  • Cumberland Island, Georgia: There's no bridge access to these 17 miles of Atlantic beach, so you may not see another soul (nps.gov).
  • Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California: It's worth the hike over steep terrain for the sunset views (fs.usda.gov).
  • Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington: Meet Dr. Beach's "best wilderness beach" in the Pacific Northwest. Equal parts coastal forest and oceanfront sand, this spot is ideal for camping (nps.gov).
  • St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Port St. Joe, Florida: This little-known beach on the Panhandle entices with 10 miles of white sand and spectacular sunsets (floridastateparks.org).
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More Beaches to Go for a Swim

Saona Island, Dominican Republic
Photographer Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images
  • Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Florida: With emerald water, gentle surf, white coral sand, palm trees, and a climbable lighthouse, why wouldn't you visit this park? (floridastateparks.org)
  • Carpinteria, California: Mild waves and no rip currents make this one of two claimants to the title of "world's safest beach." Great tide pooling, too (parks.ca.gov).
  • Fort Myers Beach, Florida: Also promoted as "world's safest," since it lacks rip currents, this white-sand beach slopes very gradually; you can walk a long way out into the warm, green-blue Gulf of Mexico (fortmyersbeachfl.gov).
  • Kiawah Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina: This is one of the Charleston area's most well-equipped beaches, with dressing areas, showers, and seasonal lifeguards (ccprc.com).
  • Saona Island, Dominican Republic: Swim with the sea stars—hundreds of them—at this nature reserve off the southeastern Dominican mainland. You'll share the shallow water with exotic wildlife and day-tripping tourists.
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More Beaches to Hang Ten

Sebastian Inlet State Park, near Sebastian, Florida
Courtesy of Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina: "The best board surfing on the East Coast," according to Dr. Beach. Paddle out near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (nps.gov).
  • Northside Beach, Sheboygan, Wisconsin: This surfing beach on Lake Michigan (yes, you read that right) is known as the Malibu of the Midwest. For the warmest water, visit in August (travelwisconsin.com).
  • Santa Cruz, California: The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point overlooks the famous Steamer Lane surf break (cityofsantacruz.com).
  • Sebastian Inlet State Park, Melbourne Beach, Florida: These three-plus miles of Atlantic beach are beloved by surfers and fishermen alike. The waves tend to form long lines, giving surfers a lengthy ride (floridastateparks.org).
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More Beaches with High Style

Alys Beach, Florida
Courtesy of alysbeach.com
  • Alys Beach, Florida: This luxe town gives off Greek-isle vibes with its whitewashed buildings and pearly sands (alysbeach.com).
  • Gold Coast, Barbados: So many celebrities decorate the western beaches of Barbados that the Gold Coast is now nicknamed the "Platinum Coast." Whatever you call it, you'll love the white beaches, mahogany trees, and beyond-lavish resorts like Sandy Lane (sandylane.com).
  • Main Beach, East Hampton, New York: Thanks to challenging parking, this spot is relatively uncrowded. It's surprisingly rustic, but with a high celeb quotient (easthamptonchamber.com).
  • Zuma Beach, Malibu, California: Call this much-filmed beach just "Zuma," like the locals do. Join a pickup volleyball game, or find a spot to sunbathe near one of the verdant hillsides and pretend you're at the French Riviera (beaches.lacounty.gov).
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More Kid-Approved Beaches

Kids hanging at the beach
Photographer Buff Strickland
  • Long Beach Peninsula, Washington: Kites reign the skies at this sunny spot. If you can, visit during the annual summer kite festival, or settle in anytime for an afternoon of sandcastle building (visitlongbeachpeninsula.com).
  • Napili Beach, Kapalua, Hawaii: The compact size, calm waters, and crescent shape of this northwest Maui beach keep kids safe and always in view. The swimming, boogie boarding, bodysurfing, and snorkeling keep them happy (mauiguide.com).
  • Sanibel Island, Florida: This is one of the best shell-gathering spots in the world. Try Bowman's Beach for calm waves, a playground, and picnic spots (fortmyerssanibel.com).
  • Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica, California: With wide beaches, soft sand, a playground, and an amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier, there's no reason for your littlest travelers to complain (santamonica.com).
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