The 31 Best Beach Vacations
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.
• 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)
Stay: You’ll feel like a billion bucks at the 1954-vintage Fontainebleau (305/538-2000 or fontainebleau.com)—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.
• 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.
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.
• 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.
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.
• 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)
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.
• 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/sebastianinlet)
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.
• 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)