From West Coast to East, Great Lakes to Gulf, meet the 10 coastal towns that are sure to make you smile—for a weekend or a lifetime.
By Tracey Minkin
1 of 10Photo: Yana_N/Getty
#10: Camden, Maine
Nestled between green hills and a deep blue harbor bristling with masts (and a townscape dotted by steeples), Camden is an advertisement for New England charm come to life. Home to 4,850, this little enclave bustles with visitors during the summer, who wander its narrow streets and congregate along the waterfront. Camden also lures those who love the pleasures of Maine's myriad outdoor adventures: hiking, camping, mountain biking, sailing, paddleboarding, skiing, and snowboarding, and camping. One of the loveliest lighthouses along the Maine coast adds a final, magic touch to Camden.
2 of 10Photo: Mindy_Nicole_Photography/Getty
#9: Dana Point, California
A once-sleepy town put on the map among the surf-minded set in the 1950s, Dana Point's appeal has reached far beyond wave worshippers: A bustling harbor, locally owned restaurants, and more than 30 specialty shops attract thousands of visitors each year. Today, 35,000 people—a mix of everyone from retirees to young families—call Dana Point home. An 18-hole, Robert Trent Jones–designed golf course skirts the sea, and an emerging food scene has meant an influx of restaurants, and a $16 million rejuvenation project upgraded its historic Lantern Village district with outdoor seating, wider walkways, and coastal landscaping. It's a Southern California gem.
3 of 10Photo: compassandcamera/Getty
#8: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
With spectacular scenery that has drawn artists, writers, and romantics for generations, this world-renowned, village-like city of 3,842 on the Monterey Peninsula is marked by unforgettable architecture, and rich food and drink scene, and excellent shopping. Perched above white-sand beaches along the deep blue Pacific, this sophisticated enclave has always had a quiet calm about the many celebrities who've called it home (you may have heard about that guy named Clint who served as Carmel's mayor).
4 of 10Photo: Dennis Flaherty/Getty
#7: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
A true slice of South Carolina Lowcountry heaven for people who love to play outside in year-round mild weather, this barrier island just 12 miles long and five miles wide is home to 24 world-class golf courses (and 350 tennis courts). It's also home to a strand of spectacular beaches--Hilton Head Island Beach was the state's most Instagrammed place in 2016--and preserved land that serves as habitat for rare and endangered species. That playground vibe complements the town's sophisticated food and culture scene, making for a perfect cocktail of graceful, Southern living.
5 of 10Photo: Craig Terry/Cape May County Tourism
#6: Cape May, New Jersey
Called “The Queen” of seaside resorts, this tiny city of 3,558 is a National Historic District, with nearly 600 preserved Victorian buildings (including grand hotels), sweeping beaches, and a charming promenade. Just a 2½-hour drive from Manhattan, Cape May is the ideal destination for design lovers who enjoy exhilarating (but non-strenuous) outdoor activities, plus cocktailing and watching the colorful non-stop action on gingko-lined Jackson Street. Cultured, fun-loving, and gracious, Cape May is a true gem on New Jersey's fabled shore.
6 of 10Photo: Michael Hanson
#5: Langley, Washington
Just one hour north of Seattle in Puget Sound, Whidbey Island’s tiny waterfront village has a picturesque townscape that feels a bit like New England, a sunny climate (thanks to the rain shadow) that shines like Southern California, and a drumbeat of outdoor pursuits like kayaking and hiking that are pure Pacific Northwest. What more perfect combination for a sense of escape that still connects to civilization via great coffee, excellent restaurants, and an arts scene that punches above its weight? An added benefit to Langley life is its very location in Puget Sound, placing it in a network of ferry-linked islands that stand ready for weekend adventure all year round.
7 of 10Photo: AmeliaIsland.com
#4: Fernandina Beach, Florida
With a 50-block historic downtown so pretty it demands its own series of postcards, a lively marina on the Amelia River, broad beaches on the Atlantic, surrounding nature preserves that include spectacular, nearby Cumberland Island, and the bragging rights of being home to the oldest bar in Florida, Fernandina Beach has all the boxes checked when it comes to life on the coast. Its location on Amelia Island—home to five golf courses and 13 miles of pristine sands—makes Saturdays (or any day, for that matter) sweeter year-round.
8 of 10Photo: Zach Stovall
#3: Sarasota, Florida
This is a city of surprises. Harboring world-class beaches and a top-shelf arts and culture scene (resident opera and ballet companies, plus its own symphony orchestra), Sarasota has beauty and brains in equal measure. Further, a collection of old-school neighborhoods with small-scale homes (not to mention a heralded collection of midcentury modern architecture) makes day-to-day life sweet , easy, and an aesthetic joy. And then there’s that Gulf—provider of breezes, local catch, and a laid-back cultural overlay that keeps life here in an ideal balance.
9 of 10Photo: John Greim/Getty
#2 Orleans, Massachusetts
With 54 miles of coastline, this charming New England town bridges the upper arm of Cape Cod to capture Atlantic Ocean wilds to the east and Cape Cod Bay serenity to the west. In the summer, Orleans hums with its own Cape Cod Baseball League team, more than a dozen art galleries and a resident live theatre, and a rich and ample variety of restaurants. Whether strolling its historic cottage-lined streets or paddling its freshwater lakes, life is active, rich, and varied in this corner of the country.
Anyone who has spent summers on the Great Lakes knows that this American playground has specific charms that vary from shore to shore. But life among the historic storefronts, along the bustling waterfront’s boardwalk of this town on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore has an old-fashioned spirit that stands out among so many gems. Known as “Coast Guard City, U.S.A.,” Grand Haven’s embrace of every manner of maritime life, including fishing and boating of all kinds, combines small-town living with big-lake pleasures.