The 31 Best Beach Vacations
We've never found a beach we didn't love, so to help us narrow down the list, we asked Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, to lend us his expertise. Every year, he picks America's top 10 beaches after considering factors such as sand softness, water temperature, pollution, and views. Dr. Beach is currently the director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, but when he isn't working, he retreats to his favorite seashore, Cape Florida State Park.
Ocean City, New Jersey
It has all the ingredients for a rousing good time: 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 also free of any rowdiness because it's free of alcohol.
Stay: The unpretentious Forum Motor Inn (609/399-8700 or theforuminocnj.com) offers large, clean, well-stocked rooms for much less than you'd pay a block away on the boardwalk. Rates range from $72 to $194 for double occupancy. To see available vacation rentals, visit oceancitynj.com.
Eat: Serving everything from scallops to grilled cheese, the Café Beach Club (609/398-7700 or beachclubhotel.com/restaurant.asp) is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with tables on the boardwalk. Everybody loves the saltwater taffy at Shriver's (877/668-2339 or shrivers.com).
Shop: Leave the boys in the arcade while the girls visit Hello Dollies (609/399-2800 or hellodolliesdolls.com), a doll shop across from the Music Pier.
Local secret: Breakfast on homemade doughnuts at the open-air Oves restaurant (609/398-3712 or ovesrestaurant.com)—which also rents bikes for working off the calories.
Miami Beach, Florida
South Beach remains "the hottest in the country," says Dr. Beach. But the billion-dollar renovation of the Fontainebleau hotel has drawn the pretty party people to the less-frenetic charms of Miami Beach's midtown.
Stay: You'll feel like a billion bucks at the 1954-vintage Fontainebleau (305/538-2000 or Fontainebleau)—now so 21st-century it has an iMac in every room. Standard rooms start at $323. For beach houses and longer stays, try vacationrentals.com.
Eat: For fabulous Asian-inspired cuisine in a romantic outdoor setting, stop at Wish (305/674-9474 or wishrestaurant.com). Snack time? Check out Solo (305/674-4740), the Fontainebleau's patisserie.
Shop: Trends spring from the local boutiques on Washington Avenue in South Beach.
Local secret: Española Way (305/531-0038 or miamiandbeaches.com/espanola_way.asp), tucked away in South Beach, feels like a Mediterranean village, with outdoor cafés and weekend street markets.
Perdido Key State Park, Pensacola, Florida
Perdido Key (850/492-1595 or floridastateparks.org/perdidokey) has "some of the finest, whitest sand in the world and emerald-green water," says Dr. Beach. Aside from picnic tables and outdoor showers, that's all you get here. But it's plenty.
Eat: Locals love the royal red shrimp, gumbo, and weekend bluegrass at the ramshackle Original Point Restaurant (850/492-3577 or point-restaurant.com). The proudly ungenteel Flora-Bama Lounge (850/492-0611 or florabama.com), which straddles the Florida-Alabama line, serves good oysters.
Shop: Tallulah's Treasures (251/981-6003) in nearby Orange Beach, Alabama, stocks local and regional arts and crafts—what the owner calls "girlfriend gifts."
Local secret: Still-warm weather and water make the uncrowded months of September and October the best time to visit.
Siesta Beach, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida
Says Dr. Beach, "Sugar sand with a beach that is hundreds of yards wide; you've gotta love this place." We do.
Stay: Sara Sea Beach Resort (800/235-3493 or sarasearesort.com) has 21 beachy rooms, each with a kitchen and, on your arrival, a complimentary bottle of wine. Boutique rooms start at $237. For vacation rentals, visit siesta4rent.com.
Shop: Hip fashions—shoes, clothing, swimwear—await at Foxy Lady (941/349-6644 or foxyladysarasota.com), in a cottage just across from the beach.
Local secret: The Siesta Key Drum Circle (siestadrumcircle.com) draws hundreds to the beach for music and dancing every Sunday before sundown.
Huntington Beach, California
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; Dr. Beach calls it the "No. 1 family surf beach in the United States."
Eat: Join the locals for breakfast at the comfy Sugar Shack (714/536-0355 or hbsugarshack.com). Then join the tourists at Duke's (714/374-6446 or dukeshuntington.com). You'll pay for the ocean view, but it's worth it.
Shop: Walk past the giant Huntington Surf & Sport (714/374-6266 or hsssurf.com) at the pier and down the block to the Billabong surf fashions at its sister store.
Local secret: Ocean vistas along the 1½-mile nature trail at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (714/846-1114 or bolsachica.org) can soothe away your stress.
Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site, Neskowin, Oregon
From U.S. 101, you barely notice the village, let alone the beach. That's why you might have this breathtaking confluence of sea, sand, and scenery all to yourself.
Stay: The 11 fireplace-equipped shorefront cottages of The Breakers Beach Houses (503/392-3417 or breakersoregon.com) overlook the ocean. Private cottages start at $160. To see available vacation rentals, visit oregoncoast.com/greyfox.
Eat: Hawk Creek Cafe (503/392-3838) serves excellent pizza from a wood-fired oven.
Shop: Head 13 miles south to Lincoln City for glass art at The Volta Glass Gallery (541/996-7600 or voltaglass.com). Or create your own art across the street at The Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio (541/996-2569 or jennifersearsglassart.com).
Local secret: See that picturesque sea stack topped with trees? There's a reason it's called Proposal Rock.
More Beaches With Beautiful Sand
- Coast Guard Beach, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts: Cushy mounds—slightly coarse, but very clean—pile up against the cliff (508/771-2144 or nps.gov/caco/planyourvisit/coast-guard-beach-eastham.htm).
- Hilton Head Island, South Carolina: Twelve miles of fluffy beaches embrace this high-end resort island (800/523-3373 or hiltonheadisland.org).
- Shoal Bay (East), Anguilla: Sleepy Anguilla wakes up—a little—at this two-mile expanse of feathery white sand that glitters in the sun. The quiet Shoal Bay Villas (562/366-4813 or sbvillas.ai) puts you just a few steps from the water.
- Torrance, California: A little-known but wonderful mile and a half of soft sand framed by hills (310/316-3636 or visittorrance.com)
More Hidden Beaches
- Cumberland Island, Georgia: Because there's no bridge access to these 17 miles of Atlantic beach, you may not see another soul (912/882-4336 or nps.gov/cuis).
- Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California: Steep terrain that requires a short hike is worth it for the sunset views (831/667-2100 or bigsurcalifornia.org).
- Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington: Dr. Beach's "best wilderness beach" in the Pacific Northwest. Equal parts coastal forest and ocean beach that's ideal for camping (800/833-6388 or nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/rialto-beach.htm).
- St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Port St. Joe, Florida: A little-known beach on the Panhandle with 10 miles of white sand and spectacular sunsets (850/227-1327 or floridastateparks.org/stjoseph)
More Beaches To Go For A Swim
- Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Florida: Emerald water, gentle surf, white coral sand, palm trees, and a climbable lighthouse (305/361-5811 or floridastateparks.org/capeflorida)
- Carpinteria, California: Mild waves and no rip currents make it one of two claimants to the title of "world's safest beach." Great tide pooling, too (805/968-1033 or parks.ca.gov/?page_id=599).
- Fort Myers Beach, Florida: Also promoted as "world's safest" because 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 (800/237-6444 or fortmyerssanibel.com).
- Kiawah Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina: The Charleston area's best beach, with dressing areas, showers, and seasonal lifeguards (843/768-9166 or kiawahisland.org)
- 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. Catalonia Gran Dominicus (888/774-0040 or cataloniagrandominicus.com) arranges excursions from nearby Bayahibe.
More Beaches To Hang Ten
- Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina: "The best board surfing on the East Coast," says Dr. Beach; paddle out near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (877/629-4386 or outerbanks.org/activities).
- Northside Beach, Sheboygan, Wisconsin: This surfing beach, surprisingly on Lake Michigan, is the site of the Dairyland Surf Classic (visitsheboygan.com/dairyland).
- Santa Cruz, California: The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (831/420-6289 or santacruzsurfingmuseum.org) at Lighthouse Point overlooks the famous Steamer Lane surf break.
- Sebastian Inlet State Park, near Sebastian, Florida: Three miles of tranquil Atlantic beach beloved by surfers and fishermen (321/984-4852 or floridastateparks.org/park/Sebastian-Inlet)
More Beaches With High Style
- Alys Beach, Florida: This luxe, European-feel New Urbanist town takes full advantage of its gorgeous setting along white sands and emerald Gulf water (866/732-1760 or alysbeach.com). The new airport at nearby Panama City should boost its jet-set appeal.
- Gold Coast, Barbados: So many celebrities now decorate the west coast beaches of graciously British Barbados that the nickname has inflated; it's now usually the "Platinum Coast." Whatever you call it, you can enjoy white sand, people-watching, and such beyond-lavish resorts as Sandy Lane (866/444-4080 or sandylane.com).
- Main Beach, East Hampton, New York: It's relatively uncrowded—because parking is a challenge—and surprisingly rustic, but with a high celeb quotient (631/324-0362 or easthamptonchamber.com).
- Zuma Beach, Malibu, California: Call this much-filmed beach (310/456-2489 or malibu.org) just "Zuma," like the locals do. Watch or join the pickup volleyball games and beautiful people.
More Kid-Approved Beaches
- Long Beach Peninsula, Washington: Kites reign; there's a kite festival August 16–22 and a kite museum, plus a sand castle competition July 16–17 (800/451-2542 or funbeach.com).
- Napili Beach, Kapalua, Hawaii: The compact size and crescent shape of this northwest Maui beach keep kids always in view, and the swimming, boogie boarding, bodysurfing, and snorkeling keep them happy. "Low-key" sums up the Napili Kai Beach Resort (808/669-6271 or napilikai.com) and other quiet condo resorts that perch above the sand. Bonuses: great sunsets and a cove full of turtles.
- Sanibel Island, Florida: Absolutely the best shell-gathering anywhere; try quiet Bowman's Beach (800/237-6444 or fortmyerssanibel.com).
- Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica, California: Wide beach with volleyball and surfing, plus an amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier (800/544-5319 or santamonica.com)