Cape May, NJ
Kindra Clineff

Where can you buy a home for $150,000? $1 million-plus? We have 16 appealing and surprising options to consider.

By Bill and Kay Scheller

Living on the coast does't have to be just a dream. Though onlya few of us can afford a mansion on Maui, simpler homes on othercoasts may well be within financial reach.

This year, our guide to living on the coast lists a few of theoptions available at several price points. We've found communitieswhere you can buy a home for less than $325,000, and others forupwards of $1.3 million. Each has easy access to open water andabundant opportunities to live the coastal lifestyle. Come join usfor a fantasy home-buying tour through some of the finest coastaltowns in North America.

Less than $325,00

Lubec, Maine
Population: 1,652
Median home cost: $125,000

Henry David Thoreau once said that you could stand on Cape Codand put all America behind you. That's not true; if you really wantto position yourself farther east than your fellow citizens, headto remote Lubec, Maine. Perched on a hill at the end of a jaggedpeninsula, the town overlooks Passamaquoddy Bay at the easternmostpoint in the contiguous United States.

It?s hard to turn away from saltwater views in Lubec, whichincludes nearly 100 miles of rugged New England shoreline. Hikingtrails thread through the region's best-preserved peat bog atQuoddy Head State Park. Back roads both inland and along the shoremake ideal bicycling routes, and most folks own boats. Those whowould rather have someone else do the piloting can take advantageof whale-watching excursions―these waters are feeding groundsfor minke, right, and humpback whales―that leave from nearbyCampobello.

On a more prosaic note, Lubec was once the sardine capital ofthe nation. One legacy of that busy past is a good supply of olderhousing stock within the town center and along the shores ofoutlying necks to the north and south. Property facing open oceancomes at a premium because homes on smaller bays and inlets fronttidal flats for part of each day. The famous Bay of Fundy tidesattack and retreat across a tremendous amount of acreage, with arise and fall at West Quoddy Head of nearly 16 feet.

While sardines are part of Lubec's past, the townspeople areworking hard to reinvent the community. History buffs can cross thebridge to New Brunswick and visit the cottage where Franklin D.Roosevelt and his family spent summers. The Roosevelts wereconnoisseurs of good scenery and good sailing, still primeattractions here today.

Insider Tip
"Come as you are, no audition, no requirements" is the motto atBruce Potterton's 16-year-old music program, SummerKeys, which runsfor 10 weeks each summer. Adults of all skill levels are invited toattend weeklong sessions, and instructors perform free concerts atthe Lubec Congregational Christian Church every Wednesday eveningwhile the school is in session.

Crystal Beach, Texas
Population: 1,600
Median home cost: $153,500

Crystal Beach calls itself one of the nation's most affordableoceanfront communities. And it has plenty to offer bargain-hunters.Straddling the 27-mile-long Bolivar Peninsula separating GalvestonBay from the Gulf of Mexico, the beach got its name from the localsand, which sparkles like crystal. This largest of five peninsularcommunities benefits both from proximity to GalvestonIsland―accessible via a free ferry that crosses thebay―and from tight state restrictions on land use, which haveleft most of the narrow spit undeveloped. Behind those crystallinebeaches lie marshes, ponds, wetlands, coastal prairies, and HighIsland's Audubon bird sanctuaries.

Despite the land-use strictures, developers have been busy inCrystal Beach. Newer housing tends to be at the higher end of theprice scale, but the availability of older homes helps keep averageprices down. Even many of the reasonably priced properties that arenot right on the water offer beach views thanks to large lots and alack of high-rise condominium buildings. Crystal Beach is primarilya resort community, with tourism the major contributor to the localeconomy. An estimated 80 percent of property owners are summerweekenders, and year-round residents have the place pretty much tothemselves from September to mid-May. One seasonal drawback is ZooBeach, which attracts summertime crowds of both families andpartyers. On the plus side, the calm, warm Gulf waters that lap thepeninsula's beaches make them great for small children. The ferryprovides an easy commute to downtown Galveston Island. From there,it's a 50-mile run to Houston. But many folks head down to thelanding not to make the crossing, but to perch themselves on thejetty and net crabs.

New Bern, North Carolina
Population: 23,098
Median home cost: $174,300

New Bern isn't all that new. It's the second-oldest town inNorth Carolina, founded in 1710 by a Swiss adventurer. Fast-forward300 years and the town is new again. New Bern had all the makingsof another Colonial Williamsburg (abundant history, importantbuildings in need of restoration), but lacked an angel on the orderof John D. Rockefeller Jr. Enter a group of locals who organized inthe 1970s to revitalize downtown. The centerpiece of new New Bernis stately Georgian Tryon Palace, a reconstruction of the Colonialadministrative center and governor's residence. The palace anchorsa downtown now alive with restaurants, galleries, and shops.Several historic districts encompass neighborhoods dating to the18th century, with more than 150 historic landmarks and a wealth ofColonial, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorianarchitecture. One site holds a special place in the history ofcarbonation: At 256 Middle Street a pharmacist named Caleb Bradhamconcocted something he called "Brad's Drink"―later renamedPepsi-Cola.

New Bern lies just north of the 160,000-acre Croatan NationalForest. It would be easy enough to get lost in the woods, whichextend south almost all the way to the barrier islands along theAtlantic Coast. The city's two rivers, which converge downtown atthe Union Point Park Complex, also offer a great range of outdooractivities, including boating, fishing, and crabbing.

In addition to trophy architecture, New Bern and itssurroundings boast new developments such as Grantham Place, an Artsand Crafts community, and Carolina Colours.

Insider Tip
New Bern's Chamber of Commerce offers the following assessmentof some of the area's housing options: The downtown HistoricDistrict has both small cottages and large multilevel homes on thewater (prices range from $70,000 to $750,000). Fairfield Harbourcommunity has two golf courses and a full-service marina (homeprices range from $80,000 to $350,000). The Ghent district is afamily-oriented neighborhood with homes ranging from $60,000 to$275,000.

Ocean Shores, Washington
Population: 3,270
Median home cost: $190,000

You'll never see a deal like this again: In 1960, developersbought a scenic finger of land on the central Washington coast andstarted selling lots for $595. In just a few years, the town ofOcean Shores had 23 miles of canals (many homes have frontage onthese waterways), a championship golf course, and a part-timepopulation of Hollywood types who came for the seclusion affordedby this 6,000-acre retreat, called Washington's "richest littlecity."

A 1980s recession brought that boom to a halt, though, and ittook a decade for builders to get back on track. Prices have sincestayed reasonable, and what was once the "richest" is now one ofthe Northwest's most affordable little cities, with more than 200homes priced below $400,000 at the end of 2007.

New Ocean Shores residents enjoy the same seacoast splendor thatlured those adventurous souls with $595 to burn a half-century ago.Miles of sandy beaches encourage horseback riding, clamming, andprospecting for agates, as well as spotting more than 200 speciesof birds?including brown pelicans and peregrine falcons drawn tonearby Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Ocean City State Parkoffers a chance to observe seals and their pups. Head north onRoute 101 for a scenic loop around the mountains and rain forestsof the Olympic Peninsula.

On the outskirts lies lively Ocean Shores, tucked behind agateway of stone pillars that has become a community trademark. Thetown may no longer be a Hollywood hangout, but it's saved fromsomnolence by the Quinault Beach Resort and Casino and a downtowncluster of small hotels, shops, and restaurants catering to summerand autumn tourists.

Harbor Springs, Michigan
Population: 1,568
Median home cost: $316,500

Harbor Springs has been a resort town since … well, notquite since Jesuit missionaries stopped over in the 1600s. But atleast since the railroad arrived in 1882, bringing summerrusticators to the hotels that then graced this spot on the shoresof Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay. Visitors who stayed built aNew England-style town where numbers still swell during the summerseason―in fact, Harbor Springs is known as "the Naples of theNorth" because many of its residents are snowbirds who depart forNaples, Florida, when temperatures plummet.

But Harbor Springs isn't a roll-up-the-sidewalks summer resort.Well-heeled residents have made a serenely livable place out ofthis dot on the map just 30 miles southwest of the Straits ofMackinac. There?s an airport nearby served by Northwest Airlines, awealth of restaurants and galleries, and The Little TraverseWheelway―a 26-mile-long, part-paved, part-boardwalkrecreation path that runs along Lake Michigan through Petoskey andinto Charlevoix. Cyclists like to take to the local roads; onepopular option is the Tunnel of Trees scenic route along the highbluffs overlooking the lake. Additional recreational highlightsinclude two swimming beaches in town, lake cruises on an antiquemotor launch, the dunes of Petoskey State Park, and the ThorneSwift Nature Preserve. And while it may not be recreation per se,the Odawa Casino Resort is also in the vicinity.

Harbor Springs benefits from a seasonal phenomenon that's purelya gift of longitude. In the summer, the sun doesn't go down untilafter 9 p.m., because the town sits on the western limit of theEastern Time Zone. Residents who have bought into one of thetasteful condo developments at water's edge near the town pier havea front-row seat. Now there's something worth staying up late for:sunset over the prettiest part of Lake Michigan.

$325,000 to $500,000

Cape Charles, Virginia
Population: 1,000
Median home cost: $349,000

For most travelers on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, CapeCharles merely marks the northern terminus at the tip of theDelmarva Peninsula. For the more nautically savvy, it's also thename of a historic lighthouse guarding the entrance to ChesapeakeBay. Far fewer folks know there is a town called Cape Charles, justoff Route 13 on the bay side of the peninsula.

Cape Charles once bustled as a railroad and ferry town, dockingsteamers and transferring railcars across the bay to Norfolk. Thecommunity tucked in for a long nap in the 1950s, and recently awoketo find that its 7-block downtown and charming store of Victorianand early-20th-century homes (you'll find 11 Sears, Roebuck and Co.mail-order kit houses from the 1920s) have substantial allure forboth natives and transplants―known locally as "come heres." Atown treasure, the historic Palace Theatre, has been restored andnow presents musicals and plays. Just steps away, residents enjoy afree nightly production of a different sort: spectacular sunsetsover Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia mainland beyond, with primeviewing at the town's public beach. But Cape Charles remains aworking town. Watermen still haul in the Chesapeake's famousharvests of fish, blue crabs, and scallops. The bay is one ofAmerica's premier sailing grounds, and the ocean side of theDelmarva has its own attractions for boaters. The Virginia SeasideWater Trail extends 100 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeakenorth to Chincoteague Island, near the Maryland border, meanderingthrough the tranquil bays that separate the peninsula from a chainof barrier islands. One popular stop along the trail is WreckIsland Natural Area Preserve, an unspoiled patch of dunes and saltmarshes accessible only by watercraft and prime for surf fishing inearly autumn. It isn't necessary to take to the water, though, toenjoy Cape Charles' natural surroundings―south of town,Kiptopeke State Park offers hiking trails, a fishing pier, and abeach; the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge isadjacent.

Insider Tip
Cape Charles' local pride is embodied in the Stage Door Gallery,staffed entirely by volunteers. It showcases the works of EasternShore artists and exhibits everything from stained glass to birdcarvings to oil paintings.

Todos Santos, Baja California South, Mexico
Population: 4,078
Median home cost: $350,000

It's long way from a dusty collection of sugar mills to officialstatus as a "magical town," but Todos Santos has made thetransition. Located on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula,roughly 50 miles from Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos was founded as amission town in 1723 and hit its sugar stride around 1850. The lastsugar mill closed more than 40 years ago, and today it's the artsscene that makes life sweet. The "magic"part has to do with thegovernment's designation of the town as a Pueblo Magico, one of 33such communities in Mexico. Raising a town to this status helpsemphasize its traditions and customs, and encourages appropriatedevelopment.

Todos Santos' cachet as an arts town dates to the 1987 arrivalof painter/sculptor Charles C. Stewart. More artists (and about adozen galleries) followed, along with American and Canadianexpatriates. Newcomers have helped drive development, but thetown's master plan and the ongoing restoration of historicbuildings have kept growth from getting tacky and out of hand.Anyone who has an irresistible urge to visit a big-box store willhave to head down to Cabo.

Official or not, Todos Santos' setting is magical. The townstands between the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and the Pacific,and the old sugar fields have been replaced by ranches, vegetablefarms, and papaya and mango orchards. Residents can choose fromfive beaches in and around the town, four of which offer terrificsurfing. At Playa Punta Lobos, beachgoers enjoy watching localfishermen return with their catch in the early afternoon. Anothergift of the Pacific: a salubrious summer climate, with temperaturesaround 10 degrees cooler than at other Baja locations.

Would-be expats should be aware that Mexican law forbids foreignownership of real estate within some 30 miles of the nation'scoasts. The legal work-around is called a fideicomiso, where alocal bank holds the title in trust and the "buyer" is beneficiary,with the right to sell the property and benefit from theproceeds.

Insider Tip
Mexico has responded to its growing population of immigrantretirees by granting them senior benefits. The Instituto Nacionalde las Personas Adultas Mayores (INAPAM) can provide you with acard that offers discounts on medical and transportation services(including airfare); restaurants, museums, and entertainment;construction materials; even dry cleaning. (You must have a validresidence visa.)

Naples, Florida
Population: 21,162
Median home cost: $380,000 (can reach much higher)

Naples represents such a slew of superlatives―Golf Capitalof the World, Number One Small Art Town in America, home to one ofthe top 20 beaches in the nation―that it's reasonable towonder if it can possibly live up to its billing. But residentshave nearly 90 championship golf courses in and around town, nofewer than 134 art galleries, a philharmonic orchestra, and 10miles of snowy white sand rimming the crescent bay that remindedearly planners of Italy. And if all that isn't enough, consider thefact that hundreds of America's most-discerning and hype-proofbusiness barons―many of them Fortune 500 CEOs―havetaken up residence in this Gulf-side gem.

But Naples isn't all exclusive enclaves―in fact, mostcommunities here aren't gated, and home prices are as varied as thehighly individual neighborhoods that make up the municipal area.There's a lively downtown, Old Naples, where replicated Georgianand French Colonial styles dominate. The big draw here is the FifthAvenue and Third Street South shopping districts, with antiquesemporia, high-fashion boutiques, and fine-art galleries. Othershopping districts range from the waterfront Tin City, specializingin antiques and local crafts, to The Village on Venetian Bay, wherethe Italian theme continues, this time with an Adriatic motif. Noris recreation in and around town simply a matter of tee times withthe rich and famous. Naples offers proximity to Everglades NationalPark, Big Cypress National Preserve, the Florida Panther and TenThousand Islands National Wildlife refuges, Picayune Strand StateForest, and great fishing in mangrove estuaries as well asoffshore. Close at hand is the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary,with 11,000 pristine acres threaded by a 2¼-mile-longboardwalk. Unspoiled natural surroundings are such an integral partof Naples' outskirts that renowned nature photographer ClydeButcher maintains a studio in the Everglades, where the Big CypressGallery retails his black-and-white prints. A city of superlatives?It's surprising that even more "bests" and "mosts" haven't beenbestowed on Naples.

Newburyport, Massachusetts
Population: 17,465
Median home cost: $385,500

Newburyport, Massachusetts, an old port city at the mouth of theMerrimack River, has enjoyed three golden eras. The first cameduring the post-Revolutionary period of the 1790s, when wealthymerchants and sea captains began to build elegant Federal mansionslining High Street and lesser thoroughfares in the city's southend. Newburyport's next stab at maritime glory came in the 1830s,when ships laden with Far Eastern goods sailed into the harbor. Butfor more than a century afterward, despite some localmanufacturing, the little city sank into economic obscurity sodismal that hardly anyone could afford to tear anything down. Thatset the stage for Newburyport's great revival, beginning in theearly 1970s, when adventurous types from Boston and beyond begansnapping up and restoring antique commercial and residential stockat bargain-basement prices.

For close to 40 years now, Newburyport has been one of the greatsuccess stories of the New England coast. Its first generation ofrestorer-entrepreneurs has since sold to succeeding waves of folkswho are more than happy to commute to high-tech jobs along Route128, and even 40 miles south to Boston, especially now thatpassenger rail service has been revived. Not that Newburyport is aperiod-piece bedroom community. Its compact downtown, stillcentered around those redbrick 1811 commercial blocks of MarketSquare, contains shops, taverns, and trendy restaurants. Thewaterfront, with its boardwalk promenade, harbors a mix of pleasurecraft and working fishing vessels.

Natural splendor surrounds Newburyport's doorstep. Much of theterrain to the west and south consists of pristine salt marshesprotected by strict Massachusetts law, and Plum Island lies acrossa narrow causeway. That barrier island's northern extreme is densewith year-round and vacation homes, but most of it holds the ParkerRiver National Wildlife Refuge, a realm of dunes, maritime forest,and gorgeous ocean beach, which is rarely crowded because of therefuge's limited parking. Northwest of town, Maudslay State Park'shiking and cross-country skiing trails lace through a lovely woodedproperty along the banks of the Merrimack.

Over the past few years, the town's overheated housing markethas cooled, but no one expects another 100-year hibernation. All inall, Newburyport is a great place to wait for your ship to comein.

Gibsons, British Columbia
Population: 3,931
Median home cost: $400,000

British Columbia's Sunshine Coast is an anomaly in a regionfamous for drizzle. This 110-mile stretch along the mainland sideof the Strait of Georgia―the scenic inside passage―isblessed with good weather. Gibsons lies at the southern end of thisdeeply indented coastline, just a 40-minute ferry ride fromVancouver across Howe Sound. Gibsons is a split-level community.Lower Gibsons recalls its origins as a fishing village, with afleet of trollers and gill netters that served the hungry piers ofVancouver. Commercial boats still fish from the town wharf (you canoften buy fresh seafood dockside), but they now share space withpicturesque shops, caf?s, and restaurants. The Landing was thesetting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 1971 to 1990 TVprogram "The Beachcombers," which put the town on the map―atleast for Canadians. Molly's Reach, which served as the show'ssound stage, has since been converted to a café. A walkwaythat begins in this quaint neighborhood follows the shoreline fromArmours Beach, popular with swimmers and windsurfers, to themarina.

Upper Gibsons isn't quite so quaint. Perched in a hillierportion of town farther from the water, it offers supermarkets,shopping malls, and fast food. But no place in Gibsons, no matterhow functional, is far from the outdoor splendors that have madethe Sunshine Coast attractive to Canadians from as far away as theAtlantic Provinces. This corner of British Columbia is thecountry's equivalent of Southern California―or at least whatSouthern California has long represented to Americans. Places forsoaking up the coast?s famous sunshine and lovely scenery includeSecret Beach, a pebbly strand at the bottom of a long flight ofsteps; Soames Hill, with great mountain and water vistas; and manymiles of footpaths and bike trails. Opportunities forwildlife-viewing abound―the Strait is home to seals, sealions, and orcas, and birders can spot migrant as well as residentbald eagles.

Folks in this southwestern corner of British Columbia obviouslyplace a premium on the Sunshine Coast. On that ferry across HoweSound, you only pay a fare heading to Gibsons. The trip back toVancouver is free.

Insider Tip
No trip to Gibsons would be complete without a visit to shop the"Gumboot Nation" of Roberts Creek, named after the favored footwearof British Columbia fishermen. Be sure to visit the gallery of theworld-renowned Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking, have anice cream at Roberts Creek General Store or a cold beer at RoyalCanadian Legion Branch #219, and take home a souvenir from ElementsLocal Arts & Eco-Ware. The Gumboot Garden Restaurant servesdelicious Thai chicken.

$500,000 to $1 million

Cannon Beach, Oregon
Population: 1,600
Median home cost: $582,500

A few miles can make a big difference. Seaside, Oregon, justsouth of the point where the Columbia River meets the Pacific, hashonky-tonk, Saturday-night-at-the-beach ambience―but ninemiles down the coast, Cannon Beach shows an entirely different faceto the world. It?s popular with Portlanders, who make the 80-miledrive for quiet weekend sojourns, and with folks from farther away,who take up full-time residence. They're drawn to the compact,arts-oriented village, where planners have zoned out big chainstores to protect a community surrounded by some of the Oregoncoast's most spectacular scenic wonders. The sandy shoreline southto Tillamook Bay and north to Seaside and beyond is lined withstate parks, beaches, and recreation sites, many linked by foottrails.

The coast's most outstanding feature looms just offshore.Haystack Rock, a basalt pile that rises 235 feet, ranks as theworld's third-largest freestanding coastal monolith. Puffins,guillemots, oystercatchers, cormorants, and many other species neston the rock and, with the help of binoculars, are easily visiblefrom shore.

Cannon Beach, with its bistros, bookstores, and galleries, hasthe look of a New England coastal village?not surprising, becauseso many Pacific Northwest settlers came from that part of thecountry. They've created a cozy, inviting little nook on thecontinent's western doorstep.

Insider Tip
Those seeking a romantic, secluded spot should head to the townbeach's north end (Chapman Beach) or south end (Silver Point).Tourists tend to congregate close to town, in the middle, wherethere are facilities. Parking is permitted on side streets, and thebeaches are close by.

Duxbury, Massachusetts
Population: 14,578
Median home cost: $630,000

Of all the upscale communities that line Cape Cod Bay south ofBoston, Duxbury may be the poshest. Of course, the town has beenworking at it for a long time.

You might even call it America's first bedroom community. Withina decade of landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, several ofMassachusetts' first permanent English settlers had left Plymouthand moved a few miles up the coast to what became Duxbury.

Today, Duxbury is all about preservation, because there is a lotto protect. The treasures include North Hill Marsh, a 117-acreMassachusetts Audubon Society preserve of woodlands, wetlands,trails, and a lovely secluded pond. Duxbury's beaches are probablythe best on the South Shore. The Outer Beach on Saquish Neckattracts swimmers, while Bayside Beach and the calm, enclosedwaters of Duxbury Bay draw birders, clammers, and kayakers.

The town was once a leading New England shipbuilding center.Later, summer hotels supported the local economy, and todaycranberries are a prominent industry―the bogs are especiallypicturesque in autumn. The town's lovingly tended housing stockincludes splendid examples of Georgian, Federal, andlater-19th-century styles, as well as newer homes that deriveinspiration from Duxbury's past.

But ever since Route 3 connected Boston to Duxbury in 1963, ithas become a bedroom community for affluent commuters who make the33-mile run to the city each day. And the luckiest live in housesthat were already old when much of Beantown was still young.

Mendocino, California
Population: 2,223
Median home cost: $800,000

It?s hard to imagine, when you look around Mendocino and checkits real estate offerings today, that 30 years ago this gorgeouslysituated little community was a counterculture haven. Mendocino,Caspar, Littleriver―all were towns where refugees from theoverripe atmosphere of hip San Francisco or "back East" came tolive a free and easy life with the Pacific at their doorstep andthe big woods out back.

Perched on headlands overlooking the ocean, this town was justtoo pretty to stay undiscovered for long. Mendocino started out asa utilitarian enough place in the mid-1800s, when it served as adepot for the forests of redwood timber harvested inland―infact, much of the lumber used to build San Francisco during theboom years following the Gold Rush, and the great earthquake andfire of 1906, came from nearby forests. Fortunately, a lot oflumber stayed right here and was used to build a town with a corethat is now a National Historic Preservation District. If any ofthe homes and commercial structures on and around Main Street lookfamiliar, it might be because the hit 1980s and '90s TV series"Murder, She Wrote" was filmed here.

The Mendocino lifestyle centers as much on leisure hours as onwork. But leisure is decidedly active: This is a terrific place forbiking, hiking, kayaking, and the popular fall and winterwild-mushroom harvest. Natural areas in the immediate vicinityinclude three state parks―Van Damme, Russian Gulch, andMendocino Headlands; Jug Handle State Reserve; and Caspar HeadlandsState Beach. The 50,000-acre Jackson State Demonstration Forestattracts mountain bikers.

The hippies certainly knew what they were on to. And, if theoccasional prosperous-looking fellow with a gray ponytail is anyindication, some are on to it still.

Insider Tip
The Highlight Gallery on Main Street exhibits works by artisansfrom throughout Northern California, and features furniture made bycraftspeople who graduated from the Fine Woodworking Programstarted at Fort Bragg's College of the Redwoods.

Ono Island, Alabama
Population: 1,000
Median home cost: $1 million

As recently as the 1960s, Ono Island was considered asemiwilderness best left to ospreys and live oaks. The 6-mile-longisland, barely a half-mile wide, lies near Alabama's southeastcorner between Old River and Bayou Saint John, separated from theGulf of Mexico by the dunes of a barrier beach. Things stayedsleepy here until the late 1980s, when a developer got seriousabout turning the island into the plush private enclave it hasbecome.

Cross the bridge from nearby Orange Beach (with permission) andyou'll enter a gated realm where the roads are closed to the publicand common areas belong to the Ono Island Property OwnersAssociation. The island has 1,425 residential lots, roughly 70percent of which are developed. They're grouped into 31subdivisions, each with its own covenants. Most of the less-priceyoptions are in the interior, but on a narrow island, "interior" isa relative term. More-expensive properties hug the 5 miles ofman-made canals that open onto the Intracoastal Waterway on thenorth side of the island, facing Bayou Saint John. Choice lots onthe south side look across Old River to Perdido Key, which protectsOno Island from Gulf storms. By design, the island has nobusinesses except the Ono Realty office, but the services of OrangeBeach and Gulf Shores are only a short drive to the west.Pensacola, Florida, is roughly 25 miles distant, and Mobile is 55miles away. There are no schools, which isn't a problem when theaverage age of residents ranges between 50 and 60. But there hasbeen a recent influx of younger buyers, who are attracted to theisland's security.

Development of Ono Island has largely preserved the naturalsurroundings. The live oaks and the ospreys are still here, andPerdido Key Wildlife Reserve and the Gulf Islands National Seashoreare nearby. It's all enough to give backwaters a good name.

$1 million-plus

Cape May, New Jersey
Population: 4,200
Median home cost: $1.2 million

People don't usually associate New Jersey withgingerbread―except for the distinctive architecture of CapeMay. Back in the 19th century, when it was one of America's firstseashore playgrounds, this small city at the very southern tip ofthe Garden State had mansions and hotels designed, it seemed, tokeep the jigsaw and paint businesses afloat for years. By the early1800s, the "Queen of the Seaside Resorts" was served by steamboatsfrom Philadelphia, and developers had begun building grand hotels.During the 1860s, the summer crowd began to construct their owncottages.

But over the years, most summer sojourners sought out bigger,gaudier destinations along the Jersey Shore, leaving Cape May'score a 19th-century time capsule. A coastal storm in 1962devastated the town, but a resurgence began in the '70s, when CapeMay City joined the National Register of Historic Places. Thatattracted preservation-minded folks determined to restore thecharming housing stock. Their efforts spawned a wealth ofbed-and-breakfasts, although several traditional hotels, mostnotably the 1870s Chalfonte, still draw clients. On a more modernnote, the revival of interest in Cape May has led to itsdesignation by the New York Times as the "restaurant capital of NewJersey."

"Cape May" refers not only to the city proper, but also to theentire 15-mile finger of land that extends south into Delaware Bay.Consequently, there's a lot more real estate in the area than onemight first imagine, and it isn?t necessary to rattle around in ahuge Victorian to enjoy the local atmosphere. The Atlantic side ofthe peninsula is a good deal livelier; head just a few miles up thecoast from the city and you're in Wildwood, with its brightly litboardwalk, rides, and string of midcentury motels from the BuckRogers school of architecture. Explore the Delaware Bay side,though, and things quiet down. Its beaches are a prime springstopover for shorebirds.

The city of Cape May is dynamic enough without having to go theroller-coaster route. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts,established in 1970 to save the grandest of the old Victorianhomes, runs a year-round schedule of events including craft andantiques shows and a food and wine festival. There's alsoprofessional equity theater at the Robert Shackleton Playhouse ofCape May Stage. A ferry (80 minutes, one-way) connects the capewith Lewes, Delaware, and the resorts of the Delmarva Peninsula.Atlantic City is less than an hour's drive up the coast, andPhiladelphia is roughly 95 miles away.

That's by car, not steamboat.

Insider Tip
Locals love George's Place, at the corner of Beach Avenue andPerry Street, for good, unpretentious food. The Greek owners doterrific ethnic salads and baklava, but also excel at crab cakes. Arecent bill for a party of four: about $50.

La Jolla, California
Population: 42,000
Median home cost: $1.8 million

Nestled on a promontory on the north side of San Diego, La Jollashines with spectacular views, an average year-round temperature of70 degrees, immaculate, palm-lined streets, Spanish Colonialarchitecture, a university campus, bio-tech and softwareindustries, and outdoor recreation opportunities galore. Perfectioncomes at a cost, though, and some of the sumptuous homes andestates within gated communities command stratospheric prices.Whether a property looks like it came with a deed to the PacificOcean or is situated more modestly on an inland street, real estatehere spends virtually no time on the market.

La Jolla avoids the inland freeway tangle, lying between I-5 andthe ocean. Cultural amenities include the Museum of ContemporaryArt San Diego and The Stuart Collection, as well as the numerousmuseums, theaters, and music venues that dot downtown San Diegoproper. But given this town's wonderful weather, the outdoors isthe big draw. At the 6,000-acre San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park,boating is limited, and snorkelers and scuba divers enjoyvisibility that's often 30 feet or more. Atop the cliffsoverlooking clothing-optional Black's Beach at Torrey Pines,there's a gliderport catering to hang gliders, paragliders, andscale-plane pilots. Take a glider's-eye view of La Jolla and itwill look irresistible. You might even pick out a house from upthere.

Ready to buy? Consider these things before you sign on the dotted line.

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