By Tracey Minkin with additional reporting by Anthony Faccenda
1 of 11Photo: Michael Hanson
10. Pescadero, California
Northern Californians know this tiny farming and ranching hamlet south of San Francisco as a weekend getaway, while the 643 people who live in Pescadero know it as a hometown blessed with clean air, beautiful and uncrowded beaches, and great off-road bicycling and hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Plus there are redwoods and artichokes aplenty here.
Originally a popular destination on the stagecoach route from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, Pescadero maintains the stage-stop flavor with colorful shops and eats—and is full of natural splendor, like those towering redwoods of Butano State Park.
Where to stay: Costanoa Lodge ecoresort is a log-cabin dream perched on an ocean bluff—with main lodge, cabins, and tent bungalows. Rates start at $89;costanoa.com.
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9. La Jolla, California
Whoever planned heaven may have tried it out first in La Jolla. The community of fewer than 50,000 people is surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs and beaches, with famously pretty weather. One of the wealthiest enclaves in the country, La Jolla also is home to some of the largest intellects; it houses the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
It's a combination of brains and beauty hard to match anywhere. The rocky shoreline is equally without peer for sheer breathtakingness. And there's the world-famous Torrey Pines Golf Course—because of course, heaven has 18 holes.
Where to stay: The Grande Colonial hotel is steps from the shore (and seal sightings!) with rooms and suites in soothing shades. Rates start at $219;thegrandecolonial.com.
3 of 11Photo courtesy of William DeSousa-Mauk
8. Pa'ia Town, Maui
It's easy to miss, this tiny outpost on Maui's North Shore, and most travelers on the road to Hana make that very mistake. Their loss. Pa'ia calls itself Maui's "coolest little town," and that title fits. Combining holdover hippie sensibilities, surf culture, and New Age openness, Pa'ia is a funky little crossroads that Big Tourism has managed to pass by.
With a Buddhist stupa consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself, two tattoo parlors, one hemp store, and what is considered the best natural foods store on Maui, Pa'ia is charmingly, distinctively a unique place of 2,668 happy souls—who enjoy five beaches in walking distance of town.
Where to stay: The boutique Paia Inn is a dreamy getaway in the heart of it all by a sugar-sand beach, with garden, town, and ocean views. Rates start at $259;paiainn.com.
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7. Kennebunkport, Maine
You have to hand it to the Bush family. They discovered what 1,200 lucky residents also know: that Kennebunkport is one of the true treasures of the Maine coast. A jumble of colorful restaurants and shops centers around Dock Square, and whether you're lining up for the legendary lobster at Mabel's Lobster Claw Restaurant or reveling in artisan ice cream at Rococo, you're in a New England culinary hot spot.
All that makes for happy locals, including many who have moved here from nearby Boston—and with the additional blessing of sandy beaches, it's a miracle the whole metropolis hasn't relocated.
Where to stay: The White Barn Inn is a luxury 1820s converted farmhouse and barn that sets the mood for romance with fireplaces and fresh flowers. Rates start at $370;whitebarninn.com.
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6. Rowayton, Connecticut
This picturesque, sophisticated New England coastal village at the mouth of Connecticut's Five Mile River is straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. No wonder Rowayton, with its clapboard and shingle homes perched along its rocky shorelines, has lured artists for centuries.
In fact, many New Englanders don't even know this gem, making it all the more dear for those 4,000 or so who call it home. But art—and beauty—does come at a price. It's one of the most expensive spots in the state (as well as the nation). And yet this village has a low-key sensibility, with pizza joints, ice-cream parlors, and a volunteer fire department.
Where to stay: The family-owned Norwalk Inn on the Norwalk River offers 72 rooms and verdant grounds a 10-minute drive from Rowayton. Rates start at $99;norwalkinn.com.
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5. Newport, Rhode Island
The Vanderbilts had it right. But then again, so did a handful of 17th-century dissidents who founded a free-thinking colony that welcomed merchants of all creeds to its harbors. And then again, so have yachtsmen, artists, and lovers of the maritime fabric of Rhode Island's crown jewel. It draws tourists from around the world as well as being home to about 25,000 folks who may love it best in the quiet winter.
Newport's rich setting has drawn a wonderful variety of shops, hotels, and dining options. And in the center stands the International Tennis Hall of Fame, with its pristine grass courts and shingled veranda.
Where to stay: The Chanler at Cliff Walk is an impossibly romantic historic mansion of individually decorated suites with fireplaces. Rates start at $649;thechanler.com.
7 of 11Photo: Michael Luppino
4. Sag Harbor, New York
Situated between Long Island's celebrity-studded Bridgehampton and East Hampton, this whaling town turned artists' and writers' colony only two hours from New York City has maintained its cozy, small-town identity for decades. From the annual Memorial Day parade to the arrival of Santa on the fire truck as the Christmas tree is lit each December, life for the 2,169 people here remains blissfully fun.
The heart of Sag Harbor beats most strongly on Main Street, where Long Wharf is a gathering spot known for the town's iconic windmill. Locals also love Long Beach's three miles of white-powder sands.
Where to stay: Check in to the 1846 American Hotel—still the social hub of town, with eight bedrooms and a 75-foot yacht for rent. Call for seasonal rates; theamericanhotel.com.
8 of 11Photo: Altrendo Nature/Corbis
3. Sanibel Island, Florida
Life in this South Florida island town just west of Fort Myers is a pastel dream, combining pale blue skies, white-sand beaches, and millions of seashells that have literally built the island on which it sits. When locals dig in their backyards on Sanibel, they turn up conch, scallop, and clam shells—intact.
As for the quiet, away-from-it-all life that Sanibel offers its 6,469 residents, consider that there are no stoplights, nor buildings taller than the tallest palm tree. And the shell-seekers know that Bowman's Beach, a natural stretch accessible only via pedestrian bridge, is one of the best for shelling (and birding).
Where to stay: Song of the Sea inn's cozy rooms and suites offer private, screened-in balconies overlooking the pool or ocean. Rates start at $199;theinnsofsanibel.com.
9 of 11Photo: Christopher Seufert
2. Harwich Port, Massachusetts
Quiet, charming, and nostalgic: That's the tone struck in this upscale village of 1,644 locals along Cape Cod's southern shore. "The Port," as it's known, has been the home of seamen and fishermen since before the American Revolution, and sea captains' homes still dot the streets.
Summers in Harwich Port, one of seven villages in the city of Harwich, are distinctly old-fashioned, with music strolls, band concerts, and crafts and art guild shows livening the scene, while the warm waters of Nantucket Sound offer carefree swimming. Nearby Red River Beach is a favorite with easy access for boaters, plus ice-cream truck visits.
Where to stay: Located on 27 acres of gardens and marshes, the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club looks out on beach, bay, and sea. Rates start at $420;wequassett.com.
10 of 11Photo: Christopher Shane
1. Beaufort, South Carolina
Lowcountry friendliness and urban refinement strike just the right balance in this beautiful South Carolina town known for its historic antebellum architecture, exquisite local cuisine, and rich African-American heritage.
Beaufort sits on Port Royal Island, in a verdant curve of the Intracoastal Waterway in the heart of the Sea Islands, as it has for a little more than 300 years (making it the second-oldest city in South Carolina). It is glorious strolling here; much of the architecture remains intact, thanks in large part to the Historic Beaufort Foundation (which puts on a stunning Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens every October).
Beyond being an elegant and welcoming urban center of 12,534 locals, Beaufort is also a springboard for exploring natural environs, including Hunting Island, a 5,000-acre state park with more than three miles of pristine beach known as among the most sublime in the state. And then, as any local will tell you, there's the shrimp. And the sweet tea. And the mandevilla-perfumed breezes that imbue the slowed pace of Lowcountry life. All of it, in Beaufort.
Where to stay: The 1805 Cuthbert House Inn welcomes guests with spacious rooms, complimentary evening drinks, and a veranda with commanding water views. Rates start at $159;cuthberthouseinn.com.
11 of 11Photo: Christopher Shane
How We Chose the Finalists
We began with your nominations, plus all the past places we've lauded as Dream Towns. From there, we looked at the rank on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, percentage of sunny days, healthiness of beaches, commute times, crime ratings, walkability, standard of living and financial well-being of the locals, geographic diversity, and our editors' assessment of each town's "coastal vibe." The result: an all-star list for 2013. (Our 2012 winners were not eligible.) We announced our top 10 contenders in the February 2013 issue, and let you vote for its favorites.
Think your town should be on next year's list?Click here to upload a photo and let us know why, and browse other readers' nominations.