Laid-Back Beach Towns
From North Carolina to Texas, find sand and sea in places where "formal attire" means your best pair of flip-flops.
Explore this historic North Carolina community, which has some of the most spectacular and serene beaches in the South.
You'll need a boat to reach this tiny, unincorporated enclave on a sliver of sand that shares its name. Ocracoke Island is a distinctive link in the chain of dramatic shores known as the Outer Banks. About 16 miles long, Ocracoke is separated from the mainland by Pamlico Sound; bookended by inlets; and washed with big Atlantic surf on its Eastern shore. The widest part of the island is home to the only development there—a bustling little sound-side village with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents. It wraps around Silver Lake, where ferries and a flotilla of summertime boaters come to dock. But the bustling downtown is just a short hop away from miles and miles of unspoiled beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Related: Florida's Best Beaches
Both Ocracoke Island and its village are steeped in maritime history, from Blackbeard and his crew of wily pirates who hid out in local inlets to the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard.
People don't come to this remote and singular place for roller coasters and water parks. They come for the real beach thrills: tall dunes, big surf, and brisk winds.
Follow bridge crossings from the mainland to Roanoke Island and then to Bodie Island on the Outer Banks. Cruise scenic State 12 to Hatteras, and hop on a free 60-minute ferry ride to Ocracoke. (Expect long waits during peak hours.) Or make advance reservations (and arrive early) for the ferry directly to Ocracoke from Swan Quarter (rates from $1; 2 hours, 40 minutes) or Cedar Island (rates from $1; 2 hours, 15 minutes). ncdot.gov/ferry
Where To Stay
Lodging is all local—and full of character. The Castle Bed and Breakfast has 11 rooms and family-friendly villas (summer rates from $189; thecastlebb.com). Request a harbor view at the Ocracoke Harbor Inn, which rents basic rooms and suites, as well as six cottages (summer rates from $120 with complimentary boat docking and bike rentals; ocracokeharborinn.com). Also on the harbor side are the Captain's Landing Hotel Suites (summer rates from $280/night and $1,400/week; thecaptainslanding.com). ocracokevillage.com
Where To Eat
SmacNally's Waterfront Bar & Grill is the go-to place for casual food with a view (smacnallys.com). With its Southern and Creole menu, The Flying Melon Café draws a crowd for dinner and brunch (252/928-2533). The sprawling Howard's Pub has been a favorite gathering spot for years (howardspub.com). Locals and regulars also swear by the wine-and-beer tastings on an outdoor deck at Zillie's Island Pantry (zillies.com) and fresh dishes at Dajio Restaurant (dajiorestaurant.com).
Most Iconic Landmark
Ocracoke's 1823 lighthouse, the second-oldest functioning lighthouse in the United States, isn't open for climbing, but it makes a great photo op.
Many places don't accept American Express, and larger establishments might close November through March. Cell phone reception can be spotty. If you'd prefer mainland access, take a day trip to Ocracoke from one of the hotels and rentals on Bodie Island (Hampton Inn & Suites Outer Banks Corolla, summer rates from $319, obxbeachhotel.com; Sanderling Resort in Duck, summer rates from $315, sanderling-resort.com; Twiddy & Company Realtors beach houses, twiddy.com).
With its vintage pier and ocean-side main drag, this cool little town gives a flashback to Old Florida
"I first saw Flagler beach from the saddle of a motorcycle in 1971, and I just fell in love with it," says Frank Gromling, a conservationist and owner of Flagler's Ocean Art Gallery and Ocean Publishing.
This 7-mile stretch of cinnamon sand fronting the Atlantic Ocean has no condo towers or sprawling resorts. Anchored by State A1A and an 800-foot-long pier built in 1927, this town makes you feel like popping the top on a 1962 T-bird and cruising down the strip with The Beach Boys blaring from your analog radio. You just know there's a place in town where you can by a colorful T-shirt with a palm tree airbrushed on it.
"There's so much community love here that it's almost unreal," says Marti Leavines Bielefeldt, who owns the "five-star and four-paw" Si Como No Inn. "Our beaches are lenient—they allow fires and pets in many areas. As a community, we're always doing things to bring people here, like the First Friday celebrations downtown. We have the ocean in front of us and the Matanzas River—a beautiful channel to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway—right behind us."
Flagler Beach is the kind of place where locals never lose their sense of wonder for the spectacular expanse of water that defines them. "I have lived on the Atlantic since I was 4 years old," says Gromling, who still marvels at the way this powerful ocean keeps reinventing its own coastline. "You could come to this beach every day—and it would be different every day. I'm really thankful for that."
Where To Stay
Lodging on Flagler Beach tends toward small, locally owned properties. Amiable pups can ditch their leashes on the grounds of the eight-room Si Como No Inn, which rents paddling and beach equipment and also offers a tiki-style, outdoor community kitchen (rates from $125; sicomonoinn.com). At The White Orchid, an inn and spa just across State A1A from the beach, such amenities as a full breakfast, afternoon wine and appetizers, beach gear, bikes, and internet are included with your room (rates from $139 on weeknights and $169 on weekends). Tip: The Balcony Suite is the best room in the house (rates from $249). whiteorchidinn.com
Where To Eat
Try Oceanside Beach Bar & Grill for an eclectic menu with an Atlantic view (oceansideflagler.com); VESSEL Sandwich Co. (vesselsandwichco.com) for gourmet sandwiches and salads; Turtle Shack Café (turtleshackfb.com) for fresh seafood and other local fare; or the Flagler Fish Company (flaglerfishcompany.com), a farm-to-table restaurant and market. Enjoy discounted drinks and snacks during the daily Funky Hour at Funky Pelican (funkypelican.com), or have a few scoops of a favorite beach treat at The Waffle Cone (thewafflecone.com).
Most Iconic Landmark
You can't miss the vintage A-frame entrance to the 88-year-old Flagler Beach Municipal Pier. (For a schedule of fees and hours, visit cityofflaglerbeach.com/thepier.)
Best Daytime Excursions
Go gallery shopping at Ocean Art Gallery (flagleroceanartgallery.oceanpublishing.org) and "Gola"—the Gallery of Local Art (i84338.wix.com/gola). If you're interested in an outdoor adventure, take a guided kayak tour with Ripple Effect Ecotours (rippleeffectecotours.com) or spend the afternoon horseback riding at the Florida Agricultural Museum (myagmuseum.com).
There are two words for this authentic, no-rules coastal town where locals have been known to surf the wakes of oil tankers: totally Texas.
If we hit the road early enough, we can get there in time to eat steamed shrimp and crab claws for lunch. That's the reason why so many Texans love Port Aransas. Though this friendly, old-school beach town is just three or four hours from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, "Port A," as locals call it, feels like another world.
A short ferry ride across Aransas Pass kicks off the adventure and connects visitors to 18 miles of uninterrupted beach, spectacular fishing, and casual restaurants where flip-flops are welcome and the seafood on your plate was likely caught that morning.
Granted, Port A has tamer waves than the South's storied surf cities on the Atlantic Coast, but it's still a mecca for surfers and other outdoor adventurers, with kayaks, paddleboards, bikes, and golf carts as the preferred modes of transportation around town. Austin-based photographer and longtime surfer Kenny Braun (kennybraun.com) captured the area's wave-worshipping culture in his recent book, Surf Texas. "For me, Port A represents the perfect Texas Gulf Coast town," he says. "It's developed enough to have all the creature comforts but retains a laid-back atmosphere and small-town vibe that's unpretentious and timeless."
Where To Stay
About 5 miles from downtown is Cinnamon Shore, a seaside development where you can settle into your own private bungalow or stylish condo and enjoy the lovely pool, complete with a bar and cafe and access to a less-crowded beach (rates for condos from $250, 4-night minimum; rates for beach homes from $550, 5-night minimum; cinnamonshore.com).
Where To Eat
Locals love Venetian Hot Plate, a lively Italian restaurant owned by a couple from Venice. Pssst: They serve a life-changing lasagna every Saturday, but you'll need to call that morning to order it in advance (venetianhotplate.com). With a giant shark suspended over its entrance, Moby Dick's Restaurant is a quintessential beach dive known for potent Bloody Marys, oysters on the half shell, crispy fried fish, and an over-the-top, pirate-themed gift shop (mobydicksporta.com). Don't miss the patio at The Phoenix Restaurant and Bar in the heart of Port A (361/749-9277); Trout Street Bar & Grill on the marina (tsbag.com); and family-owned Winton's Island Candy (wintonscandies.com).
Where the Locals Shop
When Tracy Davis moved to Port A, she quickly noticed a dearth of flattering, functional board shorts. Her SeaLegs™ ($92)—lightweight, quick-drying shorts with a handy pocket configuration—led Davis and business partner Kimberly Rucker to launch Sirena Water Wear and Sirena Outfitters (sirenawaterwear.com).
Most Iconic Landmark
Built in 1886 and later rebuilt following a fire, a hurricane, and a tidal wave, The Tarpon Inn downtown is just blocks from the beach. Its 24 rooms (with no televisions) open onto a shady porch with rocking chairs and ceiling fans. Look for celebrity signatures—including one by FDR, namesake of the hotel's Roosevelt's restaurant—on the tarpon scales covering a wall in the lobby. (Rates from $89; thetarponinn.com)
Best Spot To Catch a Swell
Horace Caldwell Pier is ground zero for surfing, and it's also at the center of Port A's rowdiest beach fun. Morgan Faulkner's Texas Surf Camps offer both group and private lessons for would-be surfers of all ages. "We have gentle and consistent waves year-round and a cool island culture that slows down but never stops," says Faulkner, one of the best-known surfers in Texas. "Port A has a certain outlaw vibe that the locals live by and visitors want to experience." (Private lessons from $45 for a one-hour session; equipment included; texassurfcamps.com)
Pack a cooler to buy fresh seafood. "The Polly Anna shrimpboat is docked at the harbor near the ferry landing," says Tracy Davis. "You can buy fresh shrimp at great prices right from the boat, which returns from shrimping around 9 a.m."