By Tracey Minkin (with additional reporting by Anthony Faccenda)
1 of 10Photo: Thomas J. Story
10. Corona del Mar, California
This Orange County enclave with stunning beaches, a village-like shopping district, and row after row of vintage cottages on streets named for flowers has always maintained a charmingly quiet sense of self as the quaint yet stylish cousin to neighboring Newport Beach.
What Corona cultivates as tenderly as the thousands of plants blooming at its delightful Sherman Library & Gardens is an old-fashioned Southern California vibe. The broad, tree-lined sidewalks along PCH are shared by shoppers browsing the 50-year-old Francis-Orr stationery shop and popping in to Beach Candy to check out this season’s bikinis. The culinary scene in Corona is similarly old-fashioned and fashion-forward: Generations of locals have celebrated life events with prime rib at Five Crowns, while vegetarians in the know line up at Zinc Café.
Just a 10-minute walk from the lively commercial strand sit Corona’s two prize beaches: the intimate cove of Little Corona del Mar beach and the half-mile, tawny-sanded Corona del Mar State Beach (called Big Corona), perched right at the entrance to Newport Harbor.
You know that kid from high school who got straight A’s, had the lead in the play, and made the varsity teams, but was still so nice? That’s Portsmouth. One of the nation’s oldest cities, this thriving seaport on the Piscataqua River boasts remarkable riches and is still incredibly welcoming to visitors and new residents alike.
Take the architecture: Between the redbrick Federal and Georgian buildings downtown and the tidy Colonial homes that surround the city, Portsmouth could be an open-air museum. But there’s nothing stuffy about life here; with a population of 21,233, the city hops with places to eat and drink, shop and play.
Portsmouth’s imminently walkable downtown Market Square and narrow side streets bustle year-round with locals and visitors alike, seeking finds at small, independent boutiques and galleries, and memorable meals: oversize gourmet pancakes at The Friendly Toast, martinis and oysters at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Café, and nuanced, rustic plates at Cava Tapas & Wine Bar. The Music Hall, a gloriously restored 1878 theater, is ground zero for a steady stream of performances. Finally, a brawny beer scene means plenty of places to sample local brews.
Renowned for the mild, sweet oysters that grow in the estuaries of Wellfleet Harbor, this town of 3,100 is home to much more than its local culinary star. Halfway up the forearm of Cape Cod’s famous, curling shape, Wellfleet has a quaint town center dotted with classically white-clapboard New England–style homes, sophisticated galleries, excellent restaurants, and a drive-in theater that is all-American fun. Add to that the natural gifts here: five beaches that face east to the wild Atlantic, four more that face west across peaceful Cape Cod Bay, and a string of pristine, freshwater “kettle ponds” that make for perfect kayaking.
In addition to indulging in all that wild shoreline, “Fleetians,” as they call themselves, like their arts and culture: Rainy days find folks parked at the town library or at the Wellfleet Preservation Hall for talks. They also like their food, supporting a creative culinary scene headed by Mac’s Shack and PB Boulangerie Bistro.
And those oysters: If you’re not eating Wellfleets at the pier, a shell’s throw from where they were harvested, you haven’t lived. And if you live in Wellfleet, this is your life—beachy, briny, and delicious.
Where to Stay: The coolest stay in town is at The Colony of Wellfleet, a set of Bauhaus-style cottages that began as part of a private club and art gallery for artists and their patrons; 508-349-3761 or colonyofwellfleet.com.
4 of 10Photo: Mark Miller/Getty Images
7. Monterey, California
Thriving with riches when San Francisco was still just a gritty gold miner’s outpost, Monterey was California’s pre-statehood first capital in 1777 and has retained an allure and personality suffused with arts, culture, history, and myriad natural gifts.
It begins with Monterey Bay, home to abundant marine life, including sea lions, harbor seals, pelicans, dolphins, and sea otters that bob and float near shore. Those marine riches inspired one of the city’s legacies—fishing—which still carries on from the end of Fisherman’s Wharf near the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its 35,000 critters and plants. And it’s also reflected in Cannery Row, both immortalized by local author John Steinbeck and kept alive by restored packing and canning buildings now filled with lively shops and restaurants, which line the waterfront.
And while Monterey has long attracted writers and artists to live and work here, it also draws thousands of visitors to its many annual festivals, most famously the Monterey Jazz Festival. Beachcombers consider Monterey’s beaches a paradise for finding rare sea glass and a wealth of seashells; locals love Del Monte Beach, the insider’s spot for finds. Finally, Monterey County is the site of one of America’s greatest golf courses, Pebble Beach, where the greens never cease to stun with their sheer drama, spread out on cliffs above the pounding Pacific surf.
Savannah’s long-held secret is out: This tiny barrier island with cooling, salty breezes in the heat of summer is an ideal escape not only from the mainland, but also from a busier, noisier world. And for 3,044 residents, that retreat to white sands, green marshes, and the glint of dolphins offshore is the rhythm of daily life.
Just 18 miles east of the Hostess City, Tybee Island sits at the mouth of the Savannah River, with three miles of soft, wide beaches that greet the Atlantic. At the south end of the island, a pier and pavilion lure families and fishermen, while the Tybee Island Marine Science Center draws naturalists of every age. At the north end, the photo-perfect, black-and-white-striped Tybee Lighthouse stands guard. Just off the island’s spine of Butler Avenue are brightly colored little shops and restaurants—including Sweetie Pie, a vintage turquoise-and-white trailer that serves up made-to-order gelato, as well as milkshakes and smoothies, and is parked behind the ebulliently stocked Seaside Sisters shop filled with coastal cottage decor and gifts.
At just around three square miles, this is a place where exploration is basically automobile-free, and most residents get around town on bikes. For visitors, the pastel beach cruisers at Fat Tire Bikes come complete with drink holders, which, again, says something about a sweet little island that puts relaxed Southern pleasures at the head of the parade.
Where to Stay:Mermaid Cottages offers a charming assortment of 48 cozy retreats, many historic homes, tucked from one end of Tybee to the other; 912-313-0784 or mermaidcottages.com
6 of 10Photo: Stephen DeVries
5. Ocean Springs, Mississippi
It’s been a few centuries since French explorers discovered and settled this gently curving arc of the Gulf coast in 1699, but the warm and bustling town of 17,500 remains a true discovery—more so than ever since its recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina just 10 years ago. Lined with live oaks and old-fashioned, busy storefronts, downtown Ocean Springs hums with optimism. With no commercial development marring the shoreline, the town’s streets lead to a charming public beach with a fishing pier, a new public park, and glistening views out to the delicate and pristine Gulf Islands. The casinos of neighboring Biloxi are but a distant blip on the radar; life is delightfully low-key.
Along with a hopping restaurant scene that features everything from dock-to-table blue crab salad to belly-up-to-the-bar barbecue, art rules the roost in Ocean Springs: The town has a world-class art museum and a collection of fun, vibrant galleries. It’s also home to Shearwater Pottery and the grand Peter Anderson Art Festival—both powerful draws for collectors. There’s a culinary-arts café in town, bountiful public art on prideful display, and live music in small joints most nights of the week. And for true pilgrims for Southern fare, there’s Tato-Nut, Ocean Springs’s tiny, beloved doughnut shop where the confections are made from—yes—potatoes. Now that’s art.
This town of 16,000 stretches out along the shore of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay like a sunbather at water’s edge, and the comparison couldn’t be more apt. Hitting its stride in the late 1800s as a summer getaway for overheated Bostonians and New Yorkers, Narragansett today remains a perfect escape—and playground.
All four of the town’s beaches are terrific destinations; Town Beach, with its seawall promenade, cabanas, and gentle drop-off, may be the king of the foursome. No matter which one is your favorite, life in Narragansett revolves around surf, sand, and strolling. Whether you live in one of the Victorians lining the small blocks just minutes from the beach, or in a waterfront estate on Ocean Road, everyone walks the shore here. And watches the surfers, who flock to Narragansett to take advantage of its dependable swell of smoothly curling waves.
Even the food in town obliges that sun-bleached, day-at-the-beach feel. Festooned in twinkling lights, Crazy Burger puts out more than 20 styles of that all-American bite, while Aunt Carrie’s Restaurant remains one of the region’s all-time classic seafood dives. Finally, it’s not summer in Rhode Island until you’ve had your clam cakes and chowder at Iggy’s Doughboys and Chowder House.
Where to Stay: With sprawling verandas and Atlantic views, Ocean Rose Innis a classic Victorian with 31 lovely rooms; 401-783-4704 or oceanroseinn.com.
8 of 10Photo: Robbie Caponetto
3. Delray Beach, Florida
Talk about a place that has its priorities in order: At the heart of this fun-loving city of 61,231 are two miles of gloriously white-sand public beach. Sky blue cabanas and loungers stand ready for rental—a bit of Côte d’Azur meets Old Florida. But there’s nothing snooty about Delray. Enjoying the influences of tony Palm Beach 24 miles to the north and urbane Miami 50 miles to the south, the city has quietly grown its own sense of culture, including lively nightlife that parties on weekends, an up-and-coming arts district, a world-class tennis facility, beautiful Japanese gardens, and a seashell museum.
Delray calls itself South Florida’s “Village by the Sea,” and it’s made good on the promise with the brick sidewalks of its main drag, Atlantic Avenue, lined with small, locally owned boutiques and cafés.
What may most define Delray, though, is what it doesn’t have—high-rises. It’s an easy view across low dunes topped with bright green sea grape leaves to the sparkling Atlantic. Add to that the ribbon of Intracoastal Waterway that slices serenely through Delray’s length and it’s easy to see how good South Florida life can be.
Where to Stay: Set between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic, The Seagate Hotel & Spais a sophisticated base with breezy terraces and its own yacht and beach clubs; 877-577-3242 or theseagatehotel.com.
9 of 10Photo: James Schwabel/Alamy
2. Venice, Florida
What does it say about this town of 22,000 people on Florida’s Gulf Coast that it has a designated beach for dogs? Two things: Venice is a town with a big heart, and it has plenty of gorgeous, pearly-white beaches to spare (14 miles, in fact). Locals love Caspersen Beach, a 2-mile-long sandy playground with a short drop-off that draws ocean swimmers. Beachcombers flock to Venice Beach to seek shark teeth, for which the town is known.
On shore, the pleasures of Venice are equally beautiful. The lushly landscaped avenues of the historic district, designed in the 1920s as an homage to the town’s Italian namesake, are lined with Italian Renaissance–style buildings sporting elegant arches and red tile roofs that are home to more than 100 boutiques, restaurants, and small businesses.
The onetime winter encampment for The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Venice still enjoys its playtime. The Venetian Waterway Park runs for 10 miles on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway, allowing everyone access to running and walking trails, not to mention constant water views. Dogs, meanwhile, just lead their masters to Broward Paw Park Beach, where they can run free.
Where to Stay: Across a slender street from the ocean, the Inn at the Beach has a charmingly old-fashioned courtyard pool, and its beach-view suites are perfect sunset-watching perches; 941-484-8471 or innatthebeach.com.
10 of 10Photo: Christopher Shane
1. Southport, North Carolina
Putting proof to the dictum that “small is beautiful,” this tiny (2.2-square-mile) harbor town at the outlet of the Cape Fear River with only 3,060 residents wins big on Southern beauty and charm. Everyone’s your neighbor here, and most of the town’s residents walk, bike, or drive golf carts down Southport’s oak tree–lined streets to enjoy a morning coffee at Port City Java, browse antiques shops and galleries, and head to the waterfront for a table—and delicious fish tacos—on the pier of Fishy Fishy Café.
One stroll through town (and perhaps a stop at Bull Frog Corner, with its barrels of penny candy) makes it easy to see why Southport has long been sought after as a film location. Bright white cottages with red roofs, stately sea captains’ homes, two lighthouses, and water in seemingly every direction (what with the confluence of the river and the Intracoastal Waterway) create vistas at every bend in the road. It’s a vintage postcard sent from a halcyon past.
In addition to the town’s harborfront pleasures—the jaw-dropping views of massive container ships navigating toward the ocean from inland Wilmington, plus a narrow strand of sand along the water—Southport is also a quick ferry boat ride out to Bald Head Island, boasting one of North Carolina’s most stunning beaches. Finally, there’s nothing small about the Independence Day party here: Southport swells with revelers who come to celebrate at the North Carolina 4th of July Festival—a truly all-American weekend.