1. Long Beach, Washington
Rules for the annual SandSations Sandcastle Competition include an emphatic "All Teams Must Have Fun!!!" This event, at the foot of southwest Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, draws serious competitors but retains an endearing small-town flavor. A beach bonfire blazes, the Kiwanis Club provides free hot dogs, and the organizers of the Sand Flea Pet Parade vow, "Prizes and notoriety guaranteed!" July 20-21; 360/642-2400 or funbeach.com.
2. Imperial Beach, California
Professional sand carvers (yes, such people exist) converge every year on Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego, for the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition. Amateurs, including kids, also get to show off their sculpting skills. The festival pretty much takes over the little town. Live music and more than 140 vendors add to the carnival atmosphere. July 28-29; 619/424-6663 or usopensandcastle.com.
3. Virginia Beach, Virginia
The city says farewell to its summer season with one last beachfront bash, the Neptune Festival. The sprawling megaparty includes such disparate events as a surfing championship, a triathlon, a wine festival, fireworks―and the popular North American Sandsculpting Championship. As at all big-time competitions, the creations in the professional division go way beyond simple castles, turning mere sand and water into true art. September 28-30; 866/637-3378 or neptunefestival.com.
4. South Padre Island, Texas
Traveling pros known as "Masters of Sand" create museum-worthy sculptures during Sand Castle Days. On the same stretch of soft, white sand, hundreds of amateurs―some serious, some decidedly not―give free rein to their own creativity. Those who aspire to challenge the Masters may wish to arrive early for free sand-castle lessons (October 13-20). October 18-21; 956/761-3000 or sandcastledays.com.
5. Fort Myers Beach, Florida
"The World's Safest Beach" becomes a fantasyland during the amazing American Sandsculpting Championship Festival. (The local chamber of commerce promotes the "safest" claim because of the shallow water and lack of undertow.) Between the pros and various divisions of amateurs, somebody's doing imaginative things with sand all five days. On Friday, the pros share their secrets at the free "Sandsculpting 101" session. November 7-11; 866/916-7263 or sandfestival.com.
7. Havre-Aubert, Magdalen Islands, Quebec
The Concours de Châteaux de Sable features something you don't often see at big contests: actual sand castles rather than the fanciful people, beasts, and other sand sculptures that predominate elsewhere. Except in the "Free Style" division, each sculpture "must represent a castle." These edifices rise along the southern shore of Canada's little-known but lovely Magdalen Islands, which float in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. August 10-12, firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. Cannon Beach, Oregon
Sandcastle Day began in 1964, partly as a way of helping the town recover from a tsunami the previous year. Everyone from kids to professionals competes in various divisions. Sculptors start right after the morning high tide, work frantically to turn their visions into reality in just a few hours, then watch their creations wash away with the next high tide. So goes life on the beach. June 16; 503/436-2623, ext. 3, or cannonbeach.org.
9. Point Reyes National Seashore, California
The participants in the strictly amateur Sand Sculpture Contest, held over Labor Day weekend, don't merely take inspiration from the ruggedly scenic surroundings. They take the surroundings themselves. Shells, seaweed, driftwood, and other decorative detritus often wind up incorporated into the sand structures. The sculpting takes place at Drakes Beach, about an hour north of San Francisco. September 2; 415/464-5100 or nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/events_sandsculpturecontest.htm.
10. Galveston, Texas
What kind of beach castle would an architect build? Spectators find out at the AIA Sandcastle Competition. The 80-some competing teams consist of architects, designers, engineers, and contractors. Most contests prohibit mechanical assistance, but here the sponsor (the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects) allows elaborate forms, mechanized tampers, and water-pumping systems. All of which can make the construction process as entertaining as the finished products. The event takes place at East Beach on the tip of Galveston Island. June 2; 713/520-0155 or aiasandcastle.com.
(Another Texas contest deserves honorable mention: The Texas SandFest in Port Aransas―three days of elaborate sand-shaping in masters, amateurs, youth, and pro-am divisions. April 18-20, 2008; 800/452-6278 or texassandfest.com.)