Moving to the coast is pretty much living the dream. These 20 truly remarkable small towns, big cities, colorful islands, cozy communities, and exotic international destinations make it the dream of a lifetime.
Photo: Courtesy of Alys Beach/Tommy Crow
It all starts here with sheer beauty: bone-white beaches and the turquoise Gulf of Mexico play off bright-white buildings with exotic lines in courtyard-based layouts, plus a gorgeous community swimming pool that feels like something out of Marrakesh. But there’s more to the newest community to be crafted along Florida’s Highway 30a—a state road that connects a bracelet of New Urbanism oases including Seaside, the one that launched the movement 20 years ago. Alys Beach’s explicitly green design features narrow streets of permeable pavers to reduce storm water runoff and that run perpendicular to the Gulf to invite cooling breezes inland, and is landscaped with largely drought-resistant plants to reduce water consumption. Alys is also the home of some of the coolest arts and food festivals along this stretch of coast, lending sophistication to its barefoot lifestyle. And with the more developed Seaside and Rosemary Beach within an easy bike ride, life here feels practically car-free.
Photo: Alex Robinson/Getty Images
Lying just south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Belize is an expat’s dream destination: The Belizean dollar is pegged to the US dollar, the local language is English, and there’s a well-established expat population, which makes for an easy transition. For the ultimate Belizean escape, Ambergis Caye, its 25-mile-long, slender offshore island, has a new vibrance at the southern end with the development of Mahogany Bay Village, a new-urbanism-inspired community that also offers hotel stays in its whitewashed, elegant cottages, and a cluster of some of the best food and drink on the island.
Photo: Denis Tangey, Jr.
One of the America’s great historic cities really does offer the perfect variety of lifestyles – from an active urban core with stunning civic buildings, iconic sites (Old North Church, anyone?) a vast, green Commons and Public Garden, to picturesque residential neighborhoods that are lively, walkable, and transit-connected. And perhaps most stirringly, a dynamic waterfront that embraces islands, a commercial harbor, one of the world’s first great aquariums, and pedestrian-loving spaces for breathing that New England salt air.
Photo: The Daniel Island Company/Steve Uzell
While the city of Charleston may have invented gracious urban living, this 20-year-old community that lies within Charleston’s borders on its own island offers a small-town version of that ideal in a setting that emphasizes open space, diverse architecture, and prime recreation facilities (including 25 miles of running and walking trails that meander among maritime forests and marshes, as well as along the water’s edge; two private golf courses and the Family Circle Tennis Center). Bordered by the Cooper and Wando rivers, this is a place of neighborhood boat ramps, fishing and crabbing docks, and weekend kayak expeditions. And this Lowcountry island life is only 15 miles from downtown Charleston, should one require a bit of the urban from time to time.
Photo: csfotoimages/Getty images
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.
Photo: Paul Costello
If ever a postcard for Old Florida made it into the 21st century, it would be of this thinnest of islands parked on the shimmering Gulf of Mexico between Fort Myers and Sarasota. But Gasparilla is more complex than the visuals: atop a local population that loves its playground setting (and seven miles of sugar-sand beaches): The seasons bring in a diverse group of wealthy industrialists fleeing the frigid North, tarpon-obsessed fishermen, and maritime pleasure cruisers in boats of all styles and sizes. The little village of Boca Grande is the epicenter of Gasparilla life, with pastel cottages and palm-lined streets, nary a stoplight, and low-key Preppy attitude.
Photo: Bob Peskose, Jr.
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.
Photo: Lisa Romerein
Have you died and gone to heaven? You may think this every time you wake up in Briland (as it’s known to residents), this tiny, sophisticated, but decidedly laid-back jewel tucked into the crook of Eleuthera in the Out Islands of the Bahamas. Live among clusters of charming, pastel cottages on small blocks where all streets seem to lead to the water, get to know the variations in pink sands, and watch the beautiful people quietly come and go (or stay and become your neighbors). The sparkling flats teem with fish for adventurers, and the boutiques quietly flaunt a new cadre of curators. And the Bahamian culture infuses everything here with an ease and candor that keeps the dream beautifully real.
Photo: Gregory Blore
One word: Hawaii. One more word: golf. This stunning community on Kauai’s spectacular South Shore overlooks the Pacific Ocean and embraces a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course considered one of the best in Hawaii. Which means the challenges of life here are outlined by keeping your eye on the ball while spinner dolphins and humpbacks play offshore. The architecturally diverse homes make assured aesthetic piece with the hillsides, creating a sense of space and privacy (which may be why professional athletes are your neighbors), and a gorgeous farm on the property is both a center for community gardening and farm dinners under the trees. Finally, a world-class spa and high-end shopping and restaurant village layer in the requisite—and exquisite—indulgences.
Photo: Michael Hanson
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.
Photo: Jessica Sample
If you’ve ever imagined a tropical island with everything you’d ever want—from a buzzing, cosmopolitan city to the purest surf towns, from rugged verdant ridges to cerulean waters, from roadside shrimp shacks to the leading edge of restaurants—then welcome to Oahu. Long a center of Hawaiian life and culture (known as the playground of Hawaiian royalty), the third-largest island in the archipelago has never been hotter, thanks to Honolulu’s true renaissance and the North Shore’s enduring draw as a center of the bohemian life.
Photo: John Greim/Getty Images
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.
Photo: Richard Leo Johnson
The romance begins, in this Lowcountry community near the Georgia border, with those emblematic live oaks and Spanish moss. They grace the winding avenues here, where life combines a passion for nature with Southern civility, plus a sweet dose of sporting (golf, fishing, equestrian, and a brand-new shooting club), yachting on the May River and beyond, and culinary pleasures (including the annual Music to the Your festival). Along with the charming commerce of food, drink, and shopping in Wilson Village, the Montage Palmetto Bluff (opened in 2016) has added a shimmering new center to this best-kept secret on the Southern coast.
Photo: Cosmo Condina Mexico/Alamy Stock Photo
Just south of Cancun, this town is easy and affordable to get to and it has become genuinely international—lots of digital nomads have figured this out and are making Playa del Carmen their base. And with good reason: The beaches along this stretch of coast are gorgeous—from Playa del Carmen all the way south to Tulum. And, of course, with Cancun just 45-60 minutes north, there’s access to good hospitals and “American” amenities one might long for in more far-flung locations.
Photo: dancestrokes/Getty Images
One of the greatest charms of this southernmost big city on California’s coastline is its humility. Which is what makes it all the sweeter a discovery for living the good life marked by 70 miles of coastline (and gorgeous beaches), and ideal climate, a local passion for healthy living and exercise, walkable neighborhoods full of historic homes from bungalows and cottages to Spanish Revival mansions, a diverse economic base that includes the U.S. Navy, universities and research centers, and technology; and what is considered the best craft beer scene in America.
Photo: Kevin Steele/Getty Images
Like a dream off a Hollywood director’s vision board, this sophisticated-yet-laid-back small city owes its gemlike beauty to an early urban design code that meant streetscapes, public spaces, and even civic buildings grew together in harmony. Just moving through Santa Barbara—whether along its historic shopping streets or out to its sweeping beaches—is a like taking an aesthetic happy pill. So does a food and drink scene fueled by innovative chefs, not to mention proximity to rich farms and wine country. It’s also a classic surf town, which keeps the vibe right in the sweet spot.
Photo: Zach Stovall
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.
Photo: Courtesy of Seabrook, Washington
Want to live the Pacific Northwest dream in a beach-town setting? Carved out along the spectacular Pacific coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, this 11-year-old New Urbanism community has quickly evolved into a place with substantial character and low-key sophistication. The town center, on a bluff above the coastal highway (and beyond, the vast Pacific Ocean), is home to more than a dozen independent boutiques, restaurants, and markets, making daily life a pedestrian pleasure. For low-key explorers, the broad sands of Seabrook’s beach is a short stroll away (or your front yard if you live in Seabrook’s oceanfront cottages); for big-time adventurers, the riches of Olympic National Park are just up the road.
Photo: Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo
Embodying a “just right” balance worthy of Goldilocks, this 8,000-acre island caught like a pearl between the pincers of Long Island’s North and South Forks has sophisticated style and old-fashioned island authenticity in equal measure. Being accessible only by ferry infuses life here with a remote sensibility, despite being so close to wine country to the north, the buzzy Hamptons to the south, and the thrumming canyons of Manhattan just 90 miles west. But you’d never know it on a quiet morning: With just more than 17 miles of shoreline and four little harbors bobbing with boats of every size and purpose, Shelter Island is just that: a maritime gem hidden in plain sight—quiet, colorful, and staunchly original.
Photo: Courtesy Don CeSar
Nestled on the sharp blue waters of Tampa Bay, this cosmopolitan Gulf city just keeps getting better and better, with a downtown arts and culture scene that may best be exemplified by the recent (and spectacular) Dalí Museum anchoring the waterfront. Historic, small-scale neighborhoods balance the big-city pleasures. With mild winters, this is a year-round city of outdoor play, and the proximity of some the finest white-sand beaches in the state add a quality of life layer that few other sophisticated enclaves possess.
To select this year's Best Places to Live, Coastal Living editors assembled a panel of experts who could speak to the variety of elements that combine to define a great place to live on the coast: the quality of the destination; the coastal lifestyle; the urban and community design; and, for international locations, elements of expat life, including ease of transition and real estate ownership. The panel reviewed nominees in each category; travel and living experts at Travel + Leisure and MONEY magazines provided additional insights. The final list of places was named based on those expert assessments and on editorial input.