Photo: Thayer Allyson Gowdy
A longtime refuge of the hippie, surf, and political counterculture, Bolinas has stayed true to its roots. It hums with a beneficent vibe that supports everything from a fine-art museum that charges no admission to Free Box, a distribution center for free clothing. And for its 1,400 locals, from farmers to Silicon Valley billionaires, it's a divine and just-remote-enough place to settle down.
Situated on a rocky peninsula 13 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, Bolinas is famous for cultivating its privacy. Signs that once marked the turn-off from California's Route 1 had been known to disappear, and in 1989 the town voted to eliminate them altogether.
But finding one's way here is worth the navigation. Shops like Bolinas Hardware & Mercantile and Bolinas People's Store make the downtown shopping scene at once old-fashioned and progressive, with both quotidian necessities and organic produce. And Bolinas's natural treasures are like a California long past: clusters of tide pools and miles of open beach.
Where to Stay: Set within the beauty of the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge has 21 cozy rooms—some with patios—an apartment, and two cottages on lush, rolling hills. Rates start at $145; 415-663-9000 or pointreyesseashore.com
An ultimate New England base for adventurers and beach lovers, this southern Maine town (population 18,900) is among the fastest-growing communities in the state. In addition to its natural gifts, Scarborough can boast low crime, excellent schools, and a spirited community ethos (including a Pickleball league). The town's prime location six miles south of the sports, art, and dining riches of Portland just sweetens the deal.
Scarborough is home to Maine's largest salt marsh and more than 3,000 acres to explore by kayak. Combine this watery treasure with Scarborough's white sands: four-mile Pine Point Beach, beloved by surfers and fishermen; Higgins Beach, a quiet half-mile crescent near the mouth of the Spurwink River; and the mile-long, lifeguard-protected Scarborough Beach State Park, with water temperatures in the high 60s during the summer. And of course there are dramatic ocean views, perhaps best captured by the great artist Winslow Homer, whose studio still stands (and is open to visitors) on Prouts Neck.
Where to Stay: Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on three sides, the historic Black Point Inn on Prouts Neck offers classic Maine vistas and pampers with luxuries, including a geothermal heated outdoor pool. Rates start at $205; 207-883-2500 or blackpointinn.com.
Photo: Ann Cecil/Getty Images
It's not often that a surf town can claim to be a region's cultural hub, but that's exactly the case here on Oahu's North Shore. This town of 3,300 residents just 31 miles north of Honolulu remains a gateway to the renowned surfing beaches of Waimea Bay, Ehukai (Banzai Pipeline), and Sunset Beach, which infuses the community with the sport's youthful energy and infectious seize-the-day vibe.
Culturally, Haleiwa swells with galleries and museums. Haleiwa Art Gallery anchors the scene, with a collection of works by 25 Pacific Island artists, but the town's beauty isn't just on the walls. With its roots in a tourism boom fueled by the sugar industry in the early 1900s, the area's small and colorful plantation-style architecture adds visual pleasure to every block. (Because Haleiwa is a state historic, cultural, and scenic district, any new construction is designed to blend with historic structures.) And the town's location at the mouth of the Anahalu River on Waialua Bay means blissful views, highlighted by verdant city parks on each side of the harbor. Surf, art, and splendor reign in Haleiwa.
Where to Stay: The oceanfront Ke Iki Beach Bungalows offer a dash of funky old Hawaiian style on an acre and a half of palm-fringed sand, plus great snorkeling right outside your door. Rates start at $155; 866-638-8229 or keikibeach.com.
Photo: Reena Bammi
Would Taylor Swift steer you wrong? The pop legend picked this Rhode Island village for her home away from home in 2012 when she paid $17 million for a local mansion. But elegantly low-key Watch Hill, with its sprawling Victorian "cottages" (in the understated parlance here), has taken it all in stride.
With a tiny population—just about 200 year-round residents—Watch Hill exudes a relaxed feel that makes it an enviable escape for any lucky visitor. Set on a peninsula in Westerly, Rhode Island, this tiny community boasts three beaches, but the centerpiece is Napatree Point. The two-mile spit of New England sand is backed by gentle dunes and arcs gracefully into the Atlantic. A favorite spot for yachts to anchor, Napatree is full of hustle and bustle at its origin, but empties out to blissful solitude for those beach lovers who invest in a good walk along its length.
Watch Hill's quaint downtown is pure New England summer pleasure. Families return each season to ride the chain-hung steeds and compete to grab the brass ring on the Flying Horse Carousel, one of the nation's oldest. And the historic Olympia Tea Room, known for its old-fashioned Yankee fare (and swan-shaped cream puffs, in honor of the feathered residents), has updated to a locavore's hangout with an extensive wine list, artisan cocktails, and "complimentary sunsets."
Where to Stay: An impeccably renovated Victorian seaside hotel, Ocean House is a prime New England coastal destination with broad verandas, exquisite amenities, excellent restaurants, and an award-winning spa. Rates start at $390; 888-552-2588 or oceanhouseri.com.
Photo: Susan Cole Kelly
St. Simons is the largest of Georgia's resplendent Golden Isles, an idyllic Southern enclave midway between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. The century-old resort community of 13,381 residents occupies an 18-square-mile island where the winding streets and bike paths are lined with moss-draped oaks, and the two public beaches are among the most unspoiled in the region. Its marshes and woodlands, once the setting of colonial exploration and rice cultivation, now make safe haven for the more than 300 species of birds that pass through.
Fishermen migrate here, too, to drop their lines right at the pier or to fish offshore in the plentiful waters for fresh catch ranging from grouper and snapper to flounder, tarpon, and king mackerel. Golfers pack their clubs for a chance to tee off at any of the island's 99 holes of superb golf. And walkers love the John Gilbert Nature Trail in Frederica Marsh, which features a breathtakingly huge live oak in the heart of this lovely island.
Where to Stay: With 15 well-appointed suites, Ocean Lodge is an intimate boutique hotel in an old-world Mediterranean--style lodge on the south end of the island. Rates start at $299; 912-291-4300 or oceanlodgessi.com.
Photo: Reena Bammi
Positioned at the very end of Cape Cod, Provincetown is a genuine outpost of welcome, and has been for centuries. The first landfall of England's Puritans, it grew as a fishing settlement, attracted artists with its renowned light, and now proudly proclaims itself a thriving destination for gay America.
What may be most remarkable about Provincetown, though, is what surrounds it—vast sand dunes and more than 30 miles of beaches that offer instant escape into seaside wilderness. Whether you're sunbathing on peaceful Herring Cove or walking into the breezes that cross Race Point Beach, the protection of the Cape Cod National Seashore designation keeps your views—and moments—pristine.
Downtown, the colorful historic buildings and friendly locals (including dogs, who seem to enjoy equal status with their masters) make every stroll here a rich event. Walking the length of Commercial Street, the town's main drag—from the gallery-lined East End to the rowdier, party-loving West End—lays out a lot of the enjoyment that Provincetown has to offer: everything from boutiques and bars to seafood shacks, fudge shops, bookstores, and coffee houses.
Where to Stay: Carpe Diem Guest House is an adults-only sanctuary a half block from the harbor. Its Namaste spa features a Turkish-style steam room and morning yoga. The breakfast here (included) is the best in town. Rates start at $199; 800-487-0132 or carpediemguesthouse.com.
Folks who come to St. Augustine for the beaches stay for the history—and vice versa. With 42 miles of stunning sugar-sand shores, this city of 13,400 on Florida's northeast coast is also America's oldest continuously occupied European settlement, founded nearly 450 years ago by the Spanish. Colonial influences still permeate the town's graceful architecture and narrow redbrick lanes. That makes for awesome sites, including centuries-old churches, forts, and even Ponce de Leon's storied Fountain of Youth. (Visitors can take a sip from the Spring of Eternal Hope at the archaeological park.)
St. Augustine's dining scene is as vibrant as its history. The Spanish Bakery on St. George Street has served up its famous empanadas and smoked sausage (not to mention the homemade lemon, almond, and cinnamon cookies, and large loaves of fresh bread) for nearly 40 years.
Locals and visitors also revel in those endless sands, beachcombing at Crescent Beach, surfing at St. Augustine Beach (and hitting its many surf shops), exploring beautiful Anastasia State Park by canoe, or playing along the super wide, quiet stretches of the shore that locals try to keep secret—Vilano Beach.
Where to Stay: A historic downtown hotel, the Casa Monica is pure luxury set amid Moroccan fountains and frescoes. Rates start at $199; 888-213-8903 or casamonica.com.
Photo: Felicia Fairchild
With its tawny sand beaches and its Norman Rockwell-style downtown, this artsy getaway on the shores of Lake Michigan (less than four hours from Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee) is an old-fashioned home for its 950 year-round residents.
Saugatuck's pleasures are emblematic of small-town harbor life: strolling the boardwalk to admire the boats, picnicking by the Wicks Park gazebo overlooking the waterfront, riding a hand-cranked Victorian ferry (for a dollar), and enjoying sodas and malts at the Saugatuck Drug Store's old-school soda fountain.
The town's natural grandeur, with towering 200-foot-high sand dunes, has lured artists for generations, bringing richness to the community—The Ox-Bow School of Art, for instance, is more than a century old. Add in a local brewery and two nearby wineries, plus great golf and fishing, and it seems that coastal compasses point to the heart of the country.
Where to Stay: The romantic, boutique Wickwood Inn puts gourmet up front with unforgettable touches, including homemade pecan sticky buns and hors d'oeuvres by candlelight. Rates start at $199; 800-385-1174.
Photo: Chris M. Rogers
Local folklore holds that pirate José Gaspar hid his captives on this pristine island. A gorgeous prison, indeed: The slender barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico west of Fort Myers has pale, powdery sands graced with more than 250 types of seashells.
A single main road runs Captiva's five-mile length, making much of its raw beauty best appreciated by sea kayak. (Buck Key Paddling Trail, a best-kept paddlers' secret, winds past green herons and gators.) There are plenty of finds on foot, too; shoppers here love the intimacy of Captiva Village along Andy Rosse Lane, which houses not only galleries and boutiques, but also a public library, community center, and the historic beachfront Chapel By The Sea. It's a 10-minute stroll from the Village to sweeping Alison Hagerup Beach Park (aka Captiva Beach), a great sunset post for spotting the horizon's famous green flash.
Although Captiva's sunny, mild climate means warm days year-round for its 400 residents, a particularly special time is May to October, when thousands of tiny loggerhead turtles emerge from their nests and make their way slowly to the water's edge. They might be the only islanders who ever feel like leaving.
Where to Stay: Posh and pretty South Seas Island Resort is situated within a 330-acre wildlife preserve spanning two and a half miles of tranquil, sandy beach. Rates start at $149; 800/533-5553 or southseas.com.
Photo: Chris M. Rogers
This oyster-and-crab-rich island is also home to the famous Chincoteague ponies. While saltwater cowboys have been driving wild horses across the channel for auction since 1925, it was the children's book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry that put the event, and this quiet little fishing town, on the map in 1947.
Today, tourism has replaced fishing as the primary industry in Chincoteague—more than 30,000 visitors pack the town on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July for the pony swim. Some of the best fun here is out on the water, whether crabbing or enjoying a richly detailed trip with Captain Dan's Tours to see the ponies, eagles, and other wildlife.
Restaurants such as Woody's Beach BBQ and Eatery keep the local catch in the spotlight with blue crab crabcakes and chowders, while duck decoy artists make the town a destination for collectors, who flock to Chincoteague Traders.
The 2,950 year-round residents have kept the area's small-town roots remarkably intact. Chincoteague has gussied up a bit since Misty's day, adding several new parks to its town center, including a brand-new expanse on the waterfront. That makes year-round life here all the happier.
Where to Stay: Perfectly suiting Chincoteague's small scale, the charming Channel Bass Inn offers eight distinctive rooms (some with lovely Chincoteague Bay views). And the property features English and Japanese gardens that are ideal spots for your morning cup of coffee. Rates start at $135; 757-336-6148 or channelbassinn.com.
Photo: Chris M. Rogers
We began with your nominations, plus all of 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 2014. (Our 2012 and 2013 winners were not eligible.) We announced our top 10 contenders in the March 2014 issue, and let America vote for its favorites.
Think your town should be on next year's list?
Let us know why you love it by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media with #CLHappyTown.
Pictured, Left: Woody's Beach BBQ in Chincoteague, Virginia