The hottest coastal towns.

By William Scheller with Susan Haynes Kay Scheller Kristen Shelton and Kimberly Turnbull
February 28, 2007
Seattle, Washington
Howard L. Puckett

Charleston, South Carolina
If Charleston were to have just two phrases beneath its cityseal, they might well be "please" and "thank you." Since 1995, thehistoric South Carolina seaport has been cited by etiquette expertMarjabelle Young Stewart as the "best-mannered" city in the UnitedStates.

It's also one of the country's most ravishing coastal centers.No matter where you stand, the water is close by. Dozens of bridgesconnect the town, crisscrossing the Cooper, Wando, Folly, andAshley rivers―to name just a few. With each bridge comes aglimpse of docked shrimp boats, rich marshlands studded with woodendocks, or the famous steeple-lined skyline. Only minutes away, thebarrier islands of Kiawah and Seabrook offer a taste of Lowcountrycoastal life, and Folly Beach and Sullivans Island top the list offavorite getaways.

These seaside towns boast miles of stunning beaches, soregardless of how many friends and neighbors head to the shore on agiven weekend, there's enough shoreline for everyone.

The sea has always figured prominently in the city's longhistory. By 1861, when the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harborignited the Civil War, the town was nearly two centuries old. Priorto 1800, it was one of the largest cities in North America. Earlyin the 20th century, Charleston became a cradle of the nascenthistoric preservation movement. If you seek to understand the city,sign up for the Preservation Society of Charleston's spring homestour. Many of the finest residences are clustered in the city's oldpeninsular quarter, which narrows toward the Battery where, as anold chestnut has it, "the Ashley and the Cooper rivers meet to formthe Atlantic Ocean." (Bostonians claim that honor for the Mysticand the Charles, but Charlestonians aren't too polite to challengethem.)

For all its antebellum mansions, Charleston isn't merely alanguorous, jasmine-scented museum. This city has brought itsseafaring tradition into the 21st century, muscling into positionas the fourth-largest North American container seaport and a majorcruise ship terminal. High-tech jobs abound, as do biotech andmedical research facilities. The city also hosts one of thenation's most prestigious performing arts events, the annual,17-day Spoleto Festival USA. Founded in 1977, Spoleto's opera,classical music, and drama presentations are a counterpart to the"Festival of Two Worlds" held each year in Spoleto, Italy,Charleston's sister city.

With all those resources, do longtime residents welcomenewcomers? In the best-mannered city, there's no need to evenask.

What the locals know
"Most people have heard of the SpoletoFestival," says Amy Ballenger-Guest of the Charleston Conventionand Visitors Bureau, "but many aren't aware that the area's artsand entertainment spotlight burns year-round, particularly in Mayprior to Spoleto's opening.

"The North Charleston Arts Festival presents performing arts and visual arts displays in locations throughout the city of North Charleston. And the little-known Piccolo Spoleto Festival highlights local and regional talent with an array of musicals and comedies, plus stagings by avant-garde theatrical groups."

Population: 118,492
Median Home Price: $314,600
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Sarasota, Florida
Lots of Northerners head to Florida for the temperateclimate. But transplants to Sarasota, located on the Gulf Coastsome 60 miles south of Tampa/St. Petersburg, take advantage of thecultural climate, as well. It's unlikely that any other city thissize―especially among destination cities for cold-weatherrefugees―boasts as sophisticated an arts environment.

The city is home to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art,famed for its Old Masters; the highly respected Sarasota Opera,Florida West Coast Symphony, and Sarasota Ballet of Florida;several theater and choral organizations; and annual festivalsdedicated to cinema and blues.

Although many Sarasotans choose to live on the mainland, thebarrier islands strung between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico proveequally alluring. St. Armands Key has a self-contained shoppingdistrict; Siesta Key claims the whitest-sand beaches in the world.All of them, including exclusive residential Longboat Key, areconnected by causeways to each other and to the mainland.

And with so much west-facing shoreland, the nightlysunset-watching ritual remains popular. Whether residents wander tothe beaches or just to the edge of the deck on their boat, few canresist trying to catch the flash of green many claim to see justbefore the sun slips below the horizon.

what the locals know
Dick Pfaff, a Sarasota kayak instructor,likes to paddle the mangrove tunnels of busy Lido Key, across thebay from downtown. "The water is calm, shallow, and warm," saysDick, "and as you paddle, you can observe shorebirds, ospreys, andbald eagles. Heading back toward open water, you'll often see a podof dolphins glide by as they feed with the incomingtide."

Population: 54,000
Median Home Price: $320,000
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Fans say that Toronto is what New York would be like if it wererun by the Swiss. But clean streets, a low crime rate, and asplendidly efficient system of subways and streetcars are only partof the lure of this Lake Ontario metropolis. Toronto's greatachievement has been to remain a city of neighborhoods, and to haveseamlessly integrated public, private, and commercial spaces.

Toronto, Ontario

Is Toronto a true coastal city? One look from the top of the CNTower, the world's tallest freestanding structure, and you'll knowthe answer is "yes." The views of Lake Ontario are expansive andawe-inspiring, and the nearest large city, Rochester, New York, ismiles across the lake and all but invisible. Need further proof? Ifyou keep your boat at a downtown marina or in the nearby TorontoIslands, it's easy to access the St. Lawrence Seaway, whichconnects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Like other big cities that grew up along the Lakes, Toronto putits waterfront to work, eventually isolating a drab, utilitarianshoreline from the rest of downtown with elevated expressways.Happily, this central district has been reclaimed and now sparkleswith luxury residential high-rises. But the real attraction, forTorontonians who want to be close to the water, is a neighborhoodcalled the Beach, a onetime weekend cottage colony that the cityreached eastward to embrace. It's a leafy residential quartertucked between the shops and bistros of lively Queen Street and theboardwalk that hugs an apron of parkland along Lake Ontario. Sixhundred lucky souls also live out on the islands, a 20-minute ferryride from downtown, but don't count on landing one of those coveted99-year leases.

Now Canada's largest city, Toronto hosts the Canadian OperaCompany, the National Ballet of Canada, the Toronto SymphonyOrchestra, and the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the world's greattroves of fine arts and antiquities. They're all just a short ridefrom the Beach, on a shiny red streetcar.

what the locals know
Longtime Toronto resident and guidebookauthor Helen Lovekin looks forward each spring to the opening ofthe Riverdale Farmers' Market, an urban agricultural oasis tuckedinto the former site of the Toronto Zoo in the city's compactVictorian Cabbagetown neighborhood. "This is the place to buy thebest vegetables, preserves, cheeses, honey, even bread from localbakers," says Helen. "It's all organic, and all produced within 100kilometers [62 miles] of downtown. Some produce is even grown onsite. And kids love to visit the farm animals." The market is openTuesdays, May through October.

Population: 2.6 million
Median Home Price: $299,000 Canadian; about $250,000 US
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New Orleans, Louisiana
Move to a new city and the neighbors might stop over with aplate of cookies or banana bread. But it isn't every day thatyou're greeted with a hug.

That's the reaction reported by at least one recent arrival inNew Orleans. Because many more people have left the city thanrelocated here since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, locals valueand appreciate each and every transplant. And while a lot of thenewcomers have family or other connections in the Big Easy, a newbrand of urban pioneer is arriving solely to take part in therebuilding process―what one resident calls "a great time tobe here."

The Crescent City, as it's known, is coastal to the core.Because it's bordered by the Mississippi River and LakePontchartrain, the sounds of foghorns and boat engines saturate theair. So much of New Orleans' history and culture comes from thewater that even neighborhoods are defined by their proximity towaterways. You may live in Uptown (up river), West Bank, Lakeshore,or Riverside.

On dry land, time-honored attractions still draw newcomers:music, food, and a unique street culture in an atmospherethat―at least for the time being―resembles a compactcollection of neighborhoods, rather than the once and futuresubtropical metropolis. New Orleans may not have bounced all theway back from Hurricane Katrina, but the comeback has definitelybegun.

what the locals know
Native New Orleanian Kim Sunéerecommends taking a nap on Thursdays, then staying up late andheading to Vaughan's Lounge (800 Lesseps Street) in the historicBywater district. The location may require street smarts, but thejourney's definitely worth it. At 11 p.m., Kermit Ruffins & theBarbecue Swingers perform their signature brand of New Orleans Jazzwhenever they're in town. Don't head home before the end of thefirst set―that's when Vaughan's gives away red beans and riceto satisfy any appetite.

Population: 155,000 (485,000 pre-Katrina)
Median Home Price: $215,000
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When you live next door to the City of Big Shoulders, ithelps to have something going on in your town.

Evanston, Illinois

Evanston has enough going for it to avoid being written off asjust a Chicago suburb, even though it hugs the same lakeshore 15miles north of the Loop. With a progressive, racially diverse, andhighly educated populace, it's always had admirers, but in recentyears the city's become downright hot.

Evanston has 86 parks and six Lake Michigan beaches―morethan almost any Chicago-area community its size. Lighthouse Beach,with its historic beacon, is a local favorite, as is Dog Beach,where canines can romp off leash. As a pleasantly strenuousalter­native to the fast but ho-hum Purple Line on the "L," abike and foot path extends from Northwestern Univer­sity'scampus on the lake, all the way into Chicago. Kayakers who prefercalmer, more intimate surroundings than Lake Michigan can paddlethe Sanitary Canal, also more appealingly known as the North ShoreChannel, a branch of the Chicago River system. Yes, it really issanitary―so much so that it's not uncommon to surprise agreat blue heron around the next bend.

Arts events abound, headed by the annual Fountain Square ArtsFestival, featuring open-air sales and displays of paintings,glassware, jewelry, and pottery. South Evanston has an urbanfeel―funky, locally owned shops and galleries line the blocksalong Dempster Street, and the rejuvenated downtown has movietheaters, a flourishing public library, bookstores, and nearly 100restaurants. One stroll past the lake and the fabulous historichouses and you'll agree that folks in Evanston have plenty ofreasons to stay home. If the White Sox and the Cubs ever move northto this burb, there's a good chance no one will ever leave.

what the locals know
Peg Boggs has lived in Evanston for 30years, and has never found a quieter, more secluded corner thanNorthwestern University's Shakespeare Garden. Planted nearly acentury ago by the Garden Club of Evanston, the greens contain morethan 50 types of flowers, trees, shrubs, and herbs mentioned inShakespeare's plays. "It's hidden behind tall hedges near the HowesMemorial Chapel," says Peg, "a wonderful, private place for quietcontemplation."

Population: 74,360
Median Home Price: $369,900
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Santa Barbara, California
The Franciscans liked Santa Barbara so much, they stayed.

Of all the missions established along California's El CaminoReal during Spanish colonial days, only Mission Santa Barbara hasbeen run by the Franciscan fathers since its founding. The city(sometimes called the American Riviera), has grown a good deal moreworldly since 1786, with a campus of the University of California,an international film festival, and an eclectic group of residentsranging from artsy writers, renowned academics, Hollywoodrefugees―even migrating gray whales.

In a nod to the sea, Santa Barbara still manages to float amodest fishing fleet, which heads out of port for everything fromsalmon to sea urchins. Nostalgia for fresh West Coast seafood justmight have been part of the draw for the late Julia Child, aCalifornia native who retired to this coast after spending most ofher life on New England's chillier shores.

The setting is incomparable. The four northernmost portions ofthe Channel Islands National Park dot the Pacific, drawing divers,snorkelers, sea kayakers, and visitors who come to view springwildflowers and colonies of elephant seals. The Santa YnezMountains tower in the distance, and the semiwild Parma Park offersmiles of unmarked trails through rugged foothills. (A more formalcounterpart is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, hosting 1,000native California plant species.) A short drive up the coast, thebeaches of Goleta and the unlikely Danish community of Solvangawait.

Santa Barbara Harbor is home to about 1,000 pleasure andcommercial craft, and the oldest working wooden wharf in the state.Another treasure, perhaps a surprise for anyone who maintains thatCalifornia's vineyards exist only in Napa and Sonoma counties, isSanta Barbara County's wine region, which ranges to the northwest.More than 21,000 acres are planted in vines, and the county is hometo some 100 wineries. (You've probably seen a few of them, incircumstances whimsically bittersweet: The movie Sideways was filmed here.)

what the locals know
Writer, editor, and longtime SantaBarbara resident Joan Tapper likes to introduce newcomers to Casadel Herrero, on East Valley Road. "It was the home of George FoxSteedman, who commissioned noted architect George Washington Smithto re-create an Andalusian farmhouse," says Joan. "The home andgardens―and Steedman's fascinating workshop―arebasically unchanged since the place was completed in 1925. Touringit is a treat."

Population: 90,473
Median Home Price: $1 million
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Portland, Maine
Portland managed to pull it off. Like so many small Americancities in spectacular coastal locations, it reinvented itself inthe last decades of the 20th century, turning a drab, decayingdowntown into a destination center of boutiques, bistros, andbrewpubs. But unlike so many communities, Portland could never bemistaken for a theme park. Its liveliness is a sign of life, notmere window dressing.

When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born here in 1807―andfor many years before and since―Portland made its name as aseafaring city. It's still the largest port in New England in termsof tonnage, but by the 1970s its waterfront and adjacent downtownblocks were looking like they had been out in the weather too long.Worse, the commercial heart of the city along Congress Street hadbegun to feel the sting of suburban malls. There was a port, butwas there still much of a Portland?

The revival gathered speed in the early 1980s, working inlandfrom the docks. Before long, old ship chandleries jostled againstblock after block of restored brick structures housing shops,offices, and―though the statistic is hard toprove―what's said to be the highest number of restaurants percapita of any city in the United States. Dozens of galleriesenliven the downtown arts district, crowned by the Portland Museumof Art (with a building designed by I.M. Pei & Partners). Atthe downtown piers, a high-speed ferry transports residents withweekend travel in mind to Bar Harbor or Nova Scotia.

Best of all, though, Portlanders don't turn off the lights atfive and go home to the suburbs. The city has recently been ratedas the best place in the nation to build a small business, and itsneighborhoods are thriving. Residents take special pride inpicturesque quarters such as Munjoy Hill, ringed by EasternPromenade, with its bay and lighthouse views; and in parks such asDeering Oaks, with its Saturday farmers' market, skating pond, androse garden. Out on Casco Bay, Peaks, Great Diamond, and severalsmaller islands are part of the city, linked to the mainland byferries, yet they maintain strong community identities of theirown.

Portland is also home to the Fish Exchange (where fishermenunload their daily catch and offer it to chefs, processors, andmarket owners), and the astounding Browne Trading Company, whichsupplies fish and caviar to cooks and connoisseurs across thecountry. You can visit their retail location in the Old Port.

Whatever you do, make sure to crack open a lobster while you'rehere. The succulent crustaceans play a big role in the state'seconomic health, and take center stage on most restaurant menus.Just one claw and you'll know why.

what the locals know
According to writer and longtime Portlandresident Wayne Curtis, the more interesting bistros and smallrestaurants are no longer clustered entirely around the city'srestored waterfront. "Head out into the neighborhoods," Wayne says."Check out the West End, Woodford's Corner, and Munjoy Hill, wherethe Blue Spoon is a local favorite."

Population: 63,000
Median Home Price: $274,900
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Seattle, Washington
It's the northernmost major American city, but notable forits mild climate. It's on the opposite side of the country fromwhere the sun rises, but famous for a commodity that gets everyoneup in the morning. It's the birthplace of grunge music, but home tothe most-hyper-urbane characters in TV sitcom history. In littlemore than three decades, it's progressed from a recession-plaguedcity (where someone once quipped that the last one to leave "shouldturn the lights out") to a symbol of the 21st century's dynamicPacific Rim economy. And its two most enduring symbols are asky-piercing tower and an elevated train, souvenirs of yesterday'svision of the future.

The city, of course, is Seattle, where the coffee comes from,where you can ride the Monorail to the Space Needle―both leftover from the 1962 World's Fair―and where, despite what youmay have heard, it doesn't really rain all the time (the urban areagets only about 38 inches of rain a year, less than many easternU.S. cities).

Perched in a spectacular location on island-strewn Puget Sound,Seattle has a combined total of 200 miles of shoreline―that's147 miles of freshwater and 53 miles of salt water. Withsurroundings like these it's no wonder the city consistently ranksamong the nation's top 10.

Once a lumber port and gateway to the Alaska of Gold Rush days,it later prospered as an aerospace capital. Dark days for theindustry (and for local titan Boeing in particular) led to thatearly 1970s remark about turning off the lights, but the bounceback has been tremendous―for Boeing, which moved its frontoffice to Chicago but maintains seven production facilities in andaround the city, and for Seattle's economy in general. Among themetro area's stars are Microsoft, Starbucks, Nintendo of America,and, along with retailers such as Costco and Nordstromand established behemoths such as UPS and Weyerhaeuser.

In the midst all of this highly caffeinated economic activity,Seattle's arts scene thrives. The Seattle Symphony has been a localfixture for more than a century, and the renowned Seattle Opera andPacific Northwest Ballet are now at home in spacious McCaw Hall.Minutes away, visitors can explore historic districts, Pike PlaceMarket (which deserves every bit of its legendary status), and theMariner's Safeco Field, next to the bustling port.

Plan your calendar in advance and―in addition to ballgames―you can catch a weeklong boat show in January, theSeattle Maritime Festival in May (including "the country's largesttugboat race on Elliot Bay" and a chowder cook-off), a seafoodfestival in July, and the Christmas Ship Festival throughoutDecember.

For the truly adventurous, the San Juan Islands, located only 80miles north, are known as a "kayaker's dream." Home to an orcawhale population, bald eagles, sea lions, and, like any good coast,gorgeous sunsets, the islands are close enough for day trips. Formore cautious paddlers, guided tours are available.

what the locals know
Sue Sanem, owner of Portage Bay Goods inSeattle's Fremont neighborhood, says that the official motto of herneighborhood is "Delibertus Quirkus" (freedom to be peculiar). Asyou enter Fremont, which describes itself as the "center of theuniverse," via a drawbridge, the first sight you'll see is a53-foot rocket that appears poised for takeoff. Nearby, a two-tonferroconcrete troll lurks under the Aurora Bridge. The areaincludes microbreweries, a chocolate factory, art galleries, anunderground antiques mall, and several vintage clothing shops. OnSundays, there's a flea, craft, and farmers' market.

Population: 573,000
Median Home Price: $429,000
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