So You Want to Live on the Coast

Kindra Clineff
Where can you buy a home for $150,000? $1 million-plus? We have 16 appealing and surprising options to consider.

Living on the coast does't have to be just a dream. Though only a few of us can afford a mansion on Maui, simpler homes on other coasts may well be within financial reach.

This year, our guide to living on the coast lists a few of the options available at several price points. We've found communities where you can buy a home for less than $325,000, and others for upwards of $1.3 million. Each has easy access to open water and abundant opportunities to live the coastal lifestyle. Come join us for a fantasy home-buying tour through some of the finest coastal towns in North America.

Less than $325,00

Lubec, Maine
Population: 1,652
Median home cost: $125,000

Henry David Thoreau once said that you could stand on Cape Cod and put all America behind you. That's not true; if you really want to position yourself farther east than your fellow citizens, head to remote Lubec, Maine. Perched on a hill at the end of a jagged peninsula, the town overlooks Passamaquoddy Bay at the easternmost point in the contiguous United States.

It?s hard to turn away from saltwater views in Lubec, which includes nearly 100 miles of rugged New England shoreline. Hiking trails thread through the region's best-preserved peat bog at Quoddy Head State Park. Back roads both inland and along the shore make ideal bicycling routes, and most folks own boats. Those who would rather have someone else do the piloting can take advantage of whale-watching excursions―these waters are feeding grounds for minke, right, and humpback whales―that leave from nearby Campobello.

On a more prosaic note, Lubec was once the sardine capital of the nation. One legacy of that busy past is a good supply of older housing stock within the town center and along the shores of outlying necks to the north and south. Property facing open ocean comes at a premium because homes on smaller bays and inlets front tidal flats for part of each day. The famous Bay of Fundy tides attack and retreat across a tremendous amount of acreage, with a rise and fall at West Quoddy Head of nearly 16 feet.

While sardines are part of Lubec's past, the townspeople are working hard to reinvent the community. History buffs can cross the bridge to New Brunswick and visit the cottage where Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family spent summers. The Roosevelts were connoisseurs of good scenery and good sailing, still prime attractions here today.

Insider Tip
"Come as you are, no audition, no requirements" is the motto at Bruce Potterton's 16-year-old music program, SummerKeys, which runs for 10 weeks each summer. Adults of all skill levels are invited to attend weeklong sessions, and instructors perform free concerts at the Lubec Congregational Christian Church every Wednesday evening while the school is in session.

Crystal Beach, Texas
Population: 1,600
Median home cost: $153,500

Crystal Beach calls itself one of the nation's most affordable oceanfront communities. And it has plenty to offer bargain-hunters. Straddling the 27-mile-long Bolivar Peninsula separating Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, the beach got its name from the local sand, which sparkles like crystal. This largest of five peninsular communities benefits both from proximity to Galveston Island―accessible via a free ferry that crosses the bay―and from tight state restrictions on land use, which have left most of the narrow spit undeveloped. Behind those crystalline beaches lie marshes, ponds, wetlands, coastal prairies, and High Island's Audubon bird sanctuaries.

Despite the land-use strictures, developers have been busy in Crystal Beach. Newer housing tends to be at the higher end of the price scale, but the availability of older homes helps keep average prices down. Even many of the reasonably priced properties that are not right on the water offer beach views thanks to large lots and a lack of high-rise condominium buildings. Crystal Beach is primarily a resort community, with tourism the major contributor to the local economy. An estimated 80 percent of property owners are summer weekenders, and year-round residents have the place pretty much to themselves from September to mid-May. One seasonal drawback is Zoo Beach, which attracts summertime crowds of both families and partyers. On the plus side, the calm, warm Gulf waters that lap the peninsula's beaches make them great for small children. The ferry provides an easy commute to downtown Galveston Island. From there, it's a 50-mile run to Houston. But many folks head down to the landing not to make the crossing, but to perch themselves on the jetty and net crabs.

New Bern, North Carolina
Population: 23,098
Median home cost: $174,300

New Bern isn't all that new. It's the second-oldest town in North Carolina, founded in 1710 by a Swiss adventurer. Fast-forward 300 years and the town is new again. New Bern had all the makings of another Colonial Williamsburg (abundant history, important buildings in need of restoration), but lacked an angel on the order of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Enter a group of locals who organized in the 1970s to revitalize downtown. The centerpiece of new New Bern is stately Georgian Tryon Palace, a reconstruction of the Colonial administrative center and governor's residence. The palace anchors a downtown now alive with restaurants, galleries, and shops. Several historic districts encompass neighborhoods dating to the 18th century, with more than 150 historic landmarks and a wealth of Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture. One site holds a special place in the history of carbonation: At 256 Middle Street a pharmacist named Caleb Bradham concocted something he called "Brad's Drink"―later renamed Pepsi-Cola.

New Bern lies just north of the 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest. It would be easy enough to get lost in the woods, which extend south almost all the way to the barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast. The city's two rivers, which converge downtown at the Union Point Park Complex, also offer a great range of outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, and crabbing.

In addition to trophy architecture, New Bern and its surroundings boast new developments such as Grantham Place, an Arts and Crafts community, and Carolina Colours.

Insider Tip
New Bern's Chamber of Commerce offers the following assessment of some of the area's housing options: The downtown Historic District has both small cottages and large multilevel homes on the water (prices range from $70,000 to $750,000). Fairfield Harbour community has two golf courses and a full-service marina (home prices range from $80,000 to $350,000). The Ghent district is a family-oriented neighborhood with homes ranging from $60,000 to $275,000.

Ocean Shores, Washington
Population: 3,270
Median home cost: $190,000

You'll never see a deal like this again: In 1960, developers bought a scenic finger of land on the central Washington coast and started selling lots for $595. In just a few years, the town of Ocean Shores had 23 miles of canals (many homes have frontage on these waterways), a championship golf course, and a part-time population of Hollywood types who came for the seclusion afforded by this 6,000-acre retreat, called Washington's "richest little city."

A 1980s recession brought that boom to a halt, though, and it took a decade for builders to get back on track. Prices have since stayed reasonable, and what was once the "richest" is now one of the Northwest's most affordable little cities, with more than 200 homes priced below $400,000 at the end of 2007.

New Ocean Shores residents enjoy the same seacoast splendor that lured those adventurous souls with $595 to burn a half-century ago. Miles of sandy beaches encourage horseback riding, clamming, and prospecting for agates, as well as spotting more than 200 species of birds?including brown pelicans and peregrine falcons drawn to nearby Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Ocean City State Park offers a chance to observe seals and their pups. Head north on Route 101 for a scenic loop around the mountains and rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula.

On the outskirts lies lively Ocean Shores, tucked behind a gateway of stone pillars that has become a community trademark. The town may no longer be a Hollywood hangout, but it's saved from somnolence by the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino and a downtown cluster of small hotels, shops, and restaurants catering to summer and autumn tourists.

Harbor Springs, Michigan
Population: 1,568
Median home cost: $316,500

Harbor Springs has been a resort town since … well, not quite since Jesuit missionaries stopped over in the 1600s. But at least since the railroad arrived in 1882, bringing summer rusticators to the hotels that then graced this spot on the shores of Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. Visitors who stayed built a New England-style town where numbers still swell during the summer season―in fact, Harbor Springs is known as "the Naples of the North" because many of its residents are snowbirds who depart for Naples, Florida, when temperatures plummet.

But Harbor Springs isn't a roll-up-the-sidewalks summer resort. Well-heeled residents have made a serenely livable place out of this dot on the map just 30 miles southwest of the Straits of Mackinac. There?s an airport nearby served by Northwest Airlines, a wealth of restaurants and galleries, and The Little Traverse Wheelway―a 26-mile-long, part-paved, part-boardwalk recreation path that runs along Lake Michigan through Petoskey and into Charlevoix. Cyclists like to take to the local roads; one popular option is the Tunnel of Trees scenic route along the high bluffs overlooking the lake. Additional recreational highlights include two swimming beaches in town, lake cruises on an antique motor launch, the dunes of Petoskey State Park, and the Thorne Swift Nature Preserve. And while it may not be recreation per se, the Odawa Casino Resort is also in the vicinity.

Harbor Springs benefits from a seasonal phenomenon that's purely a gift of longitude. In the summer, the sun doesn't go down until after 9 p.m., because the town sits on the western limit of the Eastern Time Zone. Residents who have bought into one of the tasteful condo developments at water's edge near the town pier have a front-row seat. Now there's something worth staying up late for: sunset over the prettiest part of Lake Michigan.

$325,000 to $500,000

Cape Charles, Virginia
Population: 1,000
Median home cost: $349,000

For most travelers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Cape Charles merely marks the northern terminus at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. For the more nautically savvy, it's also the name of a historic lighthouse guarding the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Far fewer folks know there is a town called Cape Charles, just off Route 13 on the bay side of the peninsula.

Cape Charles once bustled as a railroad and ferry town, docking steamers and transferring railcars across the bay to Norfolk. The community tucked in for a long nap in the 1950s, and recently awoke to find that its 7-block downtown and charming store of Victorian and early-20th-century homes (you'll find 11 Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order kit houses from the 1920s) have substantial allure for both natives and transplants―known locally as "come heres." A town treasure, the historic Palace Theatre, has been restored and now presents musicals and plays. Just steps away, residents enjoy a free nightly production of a different sort: spectacular sunsets over Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia mainland beyond, with prime viewing at the town's public beach. But Cape Charles remains a working town. Watermen still haul in the Chesapeake's famous harvests of fish, blue crabs, and scallops. The bay is one of America's premier sailing grounds, and the ocean side of the Delmarva has its own attractions for boaters. The Virginia Seaside Water Trail extends 100 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake north to Chincoteague Island, near the Maryland border, meandering through the tranquil bays that separate the peninsula from a chain of barrier islands. One popular stop along the trail is Wreck Island Natural Area Preserve, an unspoiled patch of dunes and salt marshes accessible only by watercraft and prime for surf fishing in early autumn. It isn't necessary to take to the water, though, to enjoy Cape Charles' natural surroundings―south of town, Kiptopeke State Park offers hiking trails, a fishing pier, and a beach; the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is adjacent.

Insider Tip
Cape Charles' local pride is embodied in the Stage Door Gallery, staffed entirely by volunteers. It showcases the works of Eastern Shore artists and exhibits everything from stained glass to bird carvings to oil paintings.

Todos Santos, Baja California South, Mexico
Population: 4,078
Median home cost: $350,000

It's long way from a dusty collection of sugar mills to official status as a "magical town," but Todos Santos has made the transition. Located on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula, roughly 50 miles from Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos was founded as a mission town in 1723 and hit its sugar stride around 1850. The last sugar mill closed more than 40 years ago, and today it's the arts scene that makes life sweet. The "magic"part has to do with the government's designation of the town as a Pueblo Magico, one of 33 such communities in Mexico. Raising a town to this status helps emphasize its traditions and customs, and encourages appropriate development.

Todos Santos' cachet as an arts town dates to the 1987 arrival of painter/sculptor Charles C. Stewart. More artists (and about a dozen galleries) followed, along with American and Canadian expatriates. Newcomers have helped drive development, but the town's master plan and the ongoing restoration of historic buildings have kept growth from getting tacky and out of hand. Anyone who has an irresistible urge to visit a big-box store will have to head down to Cabo.

Official or not, Todos Santos' setting is magical. The town stands between the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and the Pacific, and the old sugar fields have been replaced by ranches, vegetable farms, and papaya and mango orchards. Residents can choose from five beaches in and around the town, four of which offer terrific surfing. At Playa Punta Lobos, beachgoers enjoy watching local fishermen return with their catch in the early afternoon. Another gift of the Pacific: a salubrious summer climate, with temperatures around 10 degrees cooler than at other Baja locations.

Would-be expats should be aware that Mexican law forbids foreign ownership of real estate within some 30 miles of the nation's coasts. The legal work-around is called a fideicomiso, where a local bank holds the title in trust and the "buyer" is beneficiary, with the right to sell the property and benefit from the proceeds.

Insider Tip
Mexico has responded to its growing population of immigrant retirees by granting them senior benefits. The Instituto Nacional de las Personas Adultas Mayores (INAPAM) can provide you with a card that offers discounts on medical and transportation services (including airfare); restaurants, museums, and entertainment; construction materials; even dry cleaning. (You must have a valid residence visa.)

Naples, Florida
Population: 21,162
Median home cost: $380,000 (can reach much higher)

Naples represents such a slew of superlatives―Golf Capital of the World, Number One Small Art Town in America, home to one of the top 20 beaches in the nation―that it's reasonable to wonder if it can possibly live up to its billing. But residents have nearly 90 championship golf courses in and around town, no fewer than 134 art galleries, a philharmonic orchestra, and 10 miles of snowy white sand rimming the crescent bay that reminded early planners of Italy. And if all that isn't enough, consider the fact that hundreds of America's most-discerning and hype-proof business barons―many of them Fortune 500 CEOs―have taken up residence in this Gulf-side gem.

But Naples isn't all exclusive enclaves―in fact, most communities here aren't gated, and home prices are as varied as the highly individual neighborhoods that make up the municipal area. There's a lively downtown, Old Naples, where replicated Georgian and French Colonial styles dominate. The big draw here is the Fifth Avenue and Third Street South shopping districts, with antiques emporia, high-fashion boutiques, and fine-art galleries. Other shopping districts range from the waterfront Tin City, specializing in antiques and local crafts, to The Village on Venetian Bay, where the Italian theme continues, this time with an Adriatic motif. Nor is recreation in and around town simply a matter of tee times with the rich and famous. Naples offers proximity to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife refuges, Picayune Strand State Forest, and great fishing in mangrove estuaries as well as offshore. Close at hand is the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, with 11,000 pristine acres threaded by a 2¼-mile-long boardwalk. Unspoiled natural surroundings are such an integral part of Naples' outskirts that renowned nature photographer Clyde Butcher maintains a studio in the Everglades, where the Big Cypress Gallery retails his black-and-white prints. A city of superlatives? It's surprising that even more "bests" and "mosts" haven't been bestowed on Naples.

Newburyport, Massachusetts
Population: 17,465
Median home cost: $385,500

Newburyport, Massachusetts, an old port city at the mouth of the Merrimack River, has enjoyed three golden eras. The first came during the post-Revolutionary period of the 1790s, when wealthy merchants and sea captains began to build elegant Federal mansions lining High Street and lesser thoroughfares in the city's south end. Newburyport's next stab at maritime glory came in the 1830s, when ships laden with Far Eastern goods sailed into the harbor. But for more than a century afterward, despite some local manufacturing, the little city sank into economic obscurity so dismal that hardly anyone could afford to tear anything down. That set the stage for Newburyport's great revival, beginning in the early 1970s, when adventurous types from Boston and beyond began snapping up and restoring antique commercial and residential stock at bargain-basement prices.

For close to 40 years now, Newburyport has been one of the great success stories of the New England coast. Its first generation of restorer-entrepreneurs has since sold to succeeding waves of folks who are more than happy to commute to high-tech jobs along Route 128, and even 40 miles south to Boston, especially now that passenger rail service has been revived. Not that Newburyport is a period-piece bedroom community. Its compact downtown, still centered around those redbrick 1811 commercial blocks of Market Square, contains shops, taverns, and trendy restaurants. The waterfront, with its boardwalk promenade, harbors a mix of pleasure craft and working fishing vessels.

Natural splendor surrounds Newburyport's doorstep. Much of the terrain to the west and south consists of pristine salt marshes protected by strict Massachusetts law, and Plum Island lies across a narrow causeway. That barrier island's northern extreme is dense with year-round and vacation homes, but most of it holds the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a realm of dunes, maritime forest, and gorgeous ocean beach, which is rarely crowded because of the refuge's limited parking. Northwest of town, Maudslay State Park's hiking and cross-country skiing trails lace through a lovely wooded property along the banks of the Merrimack.

Over the past few years, the town's overheated housing market has cooled, but no one expects another 100-year hibernation. All in all, Newburyport is a great place to wait for your ship to come in.

Gibsons, British Columbia
Population: 3,931
Median home cost: $400,000

British Columbia's Sunshine Coast is an anomaly in a region famous for drizzle. This 110-mile stretch along the mainland side of the Strait of Georgia―the scenic inside passage―is blessed with good weather. Gibsons lies at the southern end of this deeply indented coastline, just a 40-minute ferry ride from Vancouver across Howe Sound. Gibsons is a split-level community. Lower Gibsons recalls its origins as a fishing village, with a fleet of trollers and gill netters that served the hungry piers of Vancouver. Commercial boats still fish from the town wharf (you can often buy fresh seafood dockside), but they now share space with picturesque shops, caf?s, and restaurants. The Landing was the setting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 1971 to 1990 TV program "The Beachcombers," which put the town on the map―at least for Canadians. Molly's Reach, which served as the show's sound stage, has since been converted to a café. A walkway that begins in this quaint neighborhood follows the shoreline from Armours Beach, popular with swimmers and windsurfers, to the marina.

Upper Gibsons isn't quite so quaint. Perched in a hillier portion of town farther from the water, it offers supermarkets, shopping malls, and fast food. But no place in Gibsons, no matter how functional, is far from the outdoor splendors that have made the Sunshine Coast attractive to Canadians from as far away as the Atlantic Provinces. This corner of British Columbia is the country's equivalent of Southern California―or at least what Southern California has long represented to Americans. Places for soaking up the coast?s famous sunshine and lovely scenery include Secret Beach, a pebbly strand at the bottom of a long flight of steps; Soames Hill, with great mountain and water vistas; and many miles of footpaths and bike trails. Opportunities for wildlife-viewing abound―the Strait is home to seals, sea lions, and orcas, and birders can spot migrant as well as resident bald eagles.

Folks in this southwestern corner of British Columbia obviously place a premium on the Sunshine Coast. On that ferry across Howe Sound, you only pay a fare heading to Gibsons. The trip back to Vancouver is free.

Insider Tip
No trip to Gibsons would be complete without a visit to shop the "Gumboot Nation" of Roberts Creek, named after the favored footwear of British Columbia fishermen. Be sure to visit the gallery of the world-renowned Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking, have an ice cream at Roberts Creek General Store or a cold beer at Royal Canadian Legion Branch #219, and take home a souvenir from Elements Local Arts & Eco-Ware. The Gumboot Garden Restaurant serves delicious Thai chicken.

$500,000 to $1 million

Cannon Beach, Oregon
Population: 1,600
Median home cost: $582,500

A few miles can make a big difference. Seaside, Oregon, just south of the point where the Columbia River meets the Pacific, has honky-tonk, Saturday-night-at-the-beach ambience―but nine miles down the coast, Cannon Beach shows an entirely different face to the world. It?s popular with Portlanders, who make the 80-mile drive for quiet weekend sojourns, and with folks from farther away, who take up full-time residence. They're drawn to the compact, arts-oriented village, where planners have zoned out big chain stores to protect a community surrounded by some of the Oregon coast's most spectacular scenic wonders. The sandy shoreline south to Tillamook Bay and north to Seaside and beyond is lined with state parks, beaches, and recreation sites, many linked by foot trails.

The coast's most outstanding feature looms just offshore. Haystack Rock, a basalt pile that rises 235 feet, ranks as the world's third-largest freestanding coastal monolith. Puffins, guillemots, oystercatchers, cormorants, and many other species nest on the rock and, with the help of binoculars, are easily visible from shore.

Cannon Beach, with its bistros, bookstores, and galleries, has the look of a New England coastal village?not surprising, because so many Pacific Northwest settlers came from that part of the country. They've created a cozy, inviting little nook on the continent's western doorstep.

Insider Tip
Those seeking a romantic, secluded spot should head to the town beach's north end (Chapman Beach) or south end (Silver Point). Tourists tend to congregate close to town, in the middle, where there are facilities. Parking is permitted on side streets, and the beaches are close by.

Duxbury, Massachusetts
Population: 14,578
Median home cost: $630,000

Of all the upscale communities that line Cape Cod Bay south of Boston, Duxbury may be the poshest. Of course, the town has been working at it for a long time.

You might even call it America's first bedroom community. Within a decade of landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, several of Massachusetts' first permanent English settlers had left Plymouth and moved a few miles up the coast to what became Duxbury.

Today, Duxbury is all about preservation, because there is a lot to protect. The treasures include North Hill Marsh, a 117-acre Massachusetts Audubon Society preserve of woodlands, wetlands, trails, and a lovely secluded pond. Duxbury's beaches are probably the best on the South Shore. The Outer Beach on Saquish Neck attracts swimmers, while Bayside Beach and the calm, enclosed waters of Duxbury Bay draw birders, clammers, and kayakers.

The town was once a leading New England shipbuilding center. Later, summer hotels supported the local economy, and today cranberries are a prominent industry―the bogs are especially picturesque in autumn. The town's lovingly tended housing stock includes splendid examples of Georgian, Federal, and later-19th-century styles, as well as newer homes that derive inspiration from Duxbury's past.

But ever since Route 3 connected Boston to Duxbury in 1963, it has become a bedroom community for affluent commuters who make the 33-mile run to the city each day. And the luckiest live in houses that were already old when much of Beantown was still young.

Mendocino, California
Population: 2,223
Median home cost: $800,000

It?s hard to imagine, when you look around Mendocino and check its real estate offerings today, that 30 years ago this gorgeously situated little community was a counterculture haven. Mendocino, Caspar, Littleriver―all were towns where refugees from the overripe atmosphere of hip San Francisco or "back East" came to live a free and easy life with the Pacific at their doorstep and the big woods out back.

Perched on headlands overlooking the ocean, this town was just too pretty to stay undiscovered for long. Mendocino started out as a utilitarian enough place in the mid-1800s, when it served as a depot for the forests of redwood timber harvested inland―in fact, much of the lumber used to build San Francisco during the boom years following the Gold Rush, and the great earthquake and fire of 1906, came from nearby forests. Fortunately, a lot of lumber stayed right here and was used to build a town with a core that is now a National Historic Preservation District. If any of the homes and commercial structures on and around Main Street look familiar, it might be because the hit 1980s and '90s TV series "Murder, She Wrote" was filmed here.

The Mendocino lifestyle centers as much on leisure hours as on work. But leisure is decidedly active: This is a terrific place for biking, hiking, kayaking, and the popular fall and winter wild-mushroom harvest. Natural areas in the immediate vicinity include three state parks―Van Damme, Russian Gulch, and Mendocino Headlands; Jug Handle State Reserve; and Caspar Headlands State Beach. The 50,000-acre Jackson State Demonstration Forest attracts mountain bikers.

The hippies certainly knew what they were on to. And, if the occasional prosperous-looking fellow with a gray ponytail is any indication, some are on to it still.

Insider Tip
The Highlight Gallery on Main Street exhibits works by artisans from throughout Northern California, and features furniture made by craftspeople who graduated from the Fine Woodworking Program started at Fort Bragg's College of the Redwoods.

Ono Island, Alabama
Population: 1,000
Median home cost: $1 million

As recently as the 1960s, Ono Island was considered a semiwilderness best left to ospreys and live oaks. The 6-mile-long island, barely a half-mile wide, lies near Alabama's southeast corner between Old River and Bayou Saint John, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by the dunes of a barrier beach. Things stayed sleepy here until the late 1980s, when a developer got serious about turning the island into the plush private enclave it has become.

Cross the bridge from nearby Orange Beach (with permission) and you'll enter a gated realm where the roads are closed to the public and common areas belong to the Ono Island Property Owners Association. The island has 1,425 residential lots, roughly 70 percent of which are developed. They're grouped into 31 subdivisions, each with its own covenants. Most of the less-pricey options are in the interior, but on a narrow island, "interior" is a relative term. More-expensive properties hug the 5 miles of man-made canals that open onto the Intracoastal Waterway on the north side of the island, facing Bayou Saint John. Choice lots on the south side look across Old River to Perdido Key, which protects Ono Island from Gulf storms. By design, the island has no businesses except the Ono Realty office, but the services of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are only a short drive to the west. Pensacola, Florida, is roughly 25 miles distant, and Mobile is 55 miles away. There are no schools, which isn't a problem when the average age of residents ranges between 50 and 60. But there has been a recent influx of younger buyers, who are attracted to the island's security.

Development of Ono Island has largely preserved the natural surroundings. The live oaks and the ospreys are still here, and Perdido Key Wildlife Reserve and the Gulf Islands National Seashore are nearby. It's all enough to give backwaters a good name.

$1 million-plus

Cape May, New Jersey
Population: 4,200
Median home cost: $1.2 million

People don't usually associate New Jersey with gingerbread―except for the distinctive architecture of Cape May. Back in the 19th century, when it was one of America's first seashore playgrounds, this small city at the very southern tip of the Garden State had mansions and hotels designed, it seemed, to keep the jigsaw and paint businesses afloat for years. By the early 1800s, the "Queen of the Seaside Resorts" was served by steamboats from Philadelphia, and developers had begun building grand hotels. During the 1860s, the summer crowd began to construct their own cottages.

But over the years, most summer sojourners sought out bigger, gaudier destinations along the Jersey Shore, leaving Cape May's core a 19th-century time capsule. A coastal storm in 1962 devastated the town, but a resurgence began in the '70s, when Cape May City joined the National Register of Historic Places. That attracted preservation-minded folks determined to restore the charming housing stock. Their efforts spawned a wealth of bed-and-breakfasts, although several traditional hotels, most notably the 1870s Chalfonte, still draw clients. On a more modern note, the revival of interest in Cape May has led to its designation by the New York Times as the "restaurant capital of New Jersey."

"Cape May" refers not only to the city proper, but also to the entire 15-mile finger of land that extends south into Delaware Bay. Consequently, there's a lot more real estate in the area than one might first imagine, and it isn?t necessary to rattle around in a huge Victorian to enjoy the local atmosphere. The Atlantic side of the peninsula is a good deal livelier; head just a few miles up the coast from the city and you're in Wildwood, with its brightly lit boardwalk, rides, and string of midcentury motels from the Buck Rogers school of architecture. Explore the Delaware Bay side, though, and things quiet down. Its beaches are a prime spring stopover for shorebirds.

The city of Cape May is dynamic enough without having to go the roller-coaster route. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, established in 1970 to save the grandest of the old Victorian homes, runs a year-round schedule of events including craft and antiques shows and a food and wine festival. There's also professional equity theater at the Robert Shackleton Playhouse of Cape May Stage. A ferry (80 minutes, one-way) connects the cape with Lewes, Delaware, and the resorts of the Delmarva Peninsula. Atlantic City is less than an hour's drive up the coast, and Philadelphia is roughly 95 miles away.

That's by car, not steamboat.

Insider Tip
Locals love George's Place, at the corner of Beach Avenue and Perry Street, for good, unpretentious food. The Greek owners do terrific ethnic salads and baklava, but also excel at crab cakes. A recent bill for a party of four: about $50.

La Jolla, California
Population: 42,000
Median home cost: $1.8 million

Nestled on a promontory on the north side of San Diego, La Jolla shines with spectacular views, an average year-round temperature of 70 degrees, immaculate, palm-lined streets, Spanish Colonial architecture, a university campus, bio-tech and software industries, and outdoor recreation opportunities galore. Perfection comes at a cost, though, and some of the sumptuous homes and estates within gated communities command stratospheric prices. Whether a property looks like it came with a deed to the Pacific Ocean or is situated more modestly on an inland street, real estate here spends virtually no time on the market.

La Jolla avoids the inland freeway tangle, lying between I-5 and the ocean. Cultural amenities include the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and The Stuart Collection, as well as the numerous museums, theaters, and music venues that dot downtown San Diego proper. But given this town's wonderful weather, the outdoors is the big draw. At the 6,000-acre San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, boating is limited, and snorkelers and scuba divers enjoy visibility that's often 30 feet or more. Atop the cliffs overlooking clothing-optional Black's Beach at Torrey Pines, there's a gliderport catering to hang gliders, paragliders, and scale-plane pilots. Take a glider's-eye view of La Jolla and it will look irresistible. You might even pick out a house from up there.

Ready to buy? Consider these things before you sign on the dotted line.

ALSO: Take our beach personality quiz.

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