Our comprehensive guide matches personal interests with the perfect places
to live at the shore. Discover which of these towns and cities suits you best.

By William G. Scheller
February 22, 2005
Bruce Buck

So you want to live on the coast. But which one? Before you make up your mind, it might help to determine your "beach personality."

Although a simple definition of coastline is the juncture of land and water, those two elements come together in different ways for different people. Some coastal communities beckon folks whose idea of something to do is doing nothing in particular―we've labeled that group Beach Bums. Our Water Bugs are active types, happiest when in the water, or under it. Nature Lovers always have their binoculars handy, and love nothing more than communing with the wilderness on a pristine headland or crescent of sand. The Boat Crew has to get out on the sea, by motor, sail, or paddle. Cultured Pearls gravitate to places nurtured by sophisticates―who are nurtured, in turn, by the water's proximity. Fishing Buddies envision prowling the surface of a great trove of dinners and trophies, while our Golf Club sees the vast blue expanse as a backdrop that harks back to the Scottish coasts where the game grew up.

First, decide what sort of creature you are. Then look for a habitat among the ones we've selected. Our guide might inspire you to create a list of your own or to do a little additional research. We hope you discover a waterside spot that has every attribute you're looking for.

Sanibel Island, Florida
They call it the Sanibel Stoop―the posture assumed by people combing this boomerang-shaped Gulf island, looking as though they lost their contact lenses in the sand. What they're seeking, here and on neighboring Captiva, is shells. If your idea of a perfect day at the beach includes finding a broad-ribbed cardita or―dare you hope―a sleek junonia, this is the place. Sanibel, a veritable elephant's graveyard of mollusks, lies just offshore from Fort Myers and has 15 miles of beach positioned to catch a daily delivery of arguably the greatest abundance and variety of shells in the eastern United States. Since even the most devoted conchologists need a little diversity, many turn to Sanibel's bayside backyard―the 5,000-acre J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a realm of alligators, ospreys, and mangroves. But you can see alligators all over Florida. Next day, you'll be back on the beach, doing the Sanibel Stoop.
Population: 5,800
Median Home Cost: $933,000
For More: sanibel-captiva.org

Beach Haven, New Jersey
We know what you're thinking. The Jersey Shore: sausage-and-pepper stands, amusement rides, and kids cruising the strip in convertibles. Well, that's the other Jersey Shore, the one up near Seaside Heights or down around Wildwood. It has its own charms. Between those citadels of pizza and noise, Long Beach Island is one of the slender barrier formations that separate Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor from the Atlantic, and it's a world apart from honky-tonk.

Beach Haven occupies the southern half of Long Beach Island (historic Barnegat Light―"Old Barney"―guards the other), and most of the town extends well beyond the business district at the end of the causeway from the mainland. That's not to say you're ever very far from good Italian food or a shop that sells body boards, but the main attraction is miles of beaches (manicured each morning with mechanical rakes), their fine, tawny sand sullied by not so much as a gum wrapper. The big rollers crash in; the high rollers keep going on their way to Atlantic City, and in Beach Haven, it always seems like 1962.
Population: 1,475
Median Home Cost: $730,000
For More: lbidirectory.com

Santa Cruz, California
People in Santa Cruz still reach for the brass ring. Not the metaphorical brass ring―the one the Silicon Valley crowd reaches for just an hour up Route 17―but the actual one, the one you grab from your carousel horse.

Santa Cruz is that Pacific coast rarity, a beach town with a boardwalk amusement park. Along with the carousel, it claims a vintage roller coaster, miniature golf, and all the other trappings of old-time waterfront resorts. The beaches encompass nearly 40 miles in the city and its environs at the northern entrance to Monterey Bay.

You'll find family beaches (Natural Bridges and Main), campfire beaches (Twin Lakes and Seabright), volleyball beaches (Main), bring-your-dog beaches (Seabright and Its), and even a naturist beach (privately owned and oddly named Red, White, and Blue, north of town). And after you've caught the waves and the brass ring, you can catch the sunset from Santa Cruz Wharf, a favorite hangout for sea lions.
Population: 56,300
Median Home Cost: $622,300
For More: ci.santa-cruz.ca.us, caohwy.com/s/santacru.htm, or scccvc.org

Encinitas, California
Leucadia, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, San Elijo: That's everything you need to know about surfing in Southern California. "If I could live anywhere on the California coast, that's where it would be," says one skilled surfer. Beaches boast swells from the west and south, as well as reefs that provide some of the state's finest breaks.

Cardiff and Leucadia, both part of Encinitas, lie a half-hour's commute north of San Diego but far from the big-city bustle. Leucadia makes its living largely by growing flowers. A friendly surf shop marks the community's border―you'll know you're entering town when you see it. In all, there are two state parks and seven beaches in Encinitas, including San Elijo, with terrific year-round surf; Cardiff, with Cardiff Reef that breaks waves to both the left and right; and famed Swami's, touted as a "premier winter break" that can coddle beginners and challenge experts. Those who prefer diving under the waves to riding over them hang out at Encinitas Marine Life Refuge, a prime scuba site just offshore from Swami's.
Population: 60,000 (Encinitas total)
Median Home Cost: $708,257
For More: encinitaschamber.com, stockteam.com/leucadia.html, or cardiffbythesea.org

Beaufort, South Carolina
The lovely tangle of salt waterways around the Lowcountry city of Beaufort once served as highways of commerce, as sailing ships carried off plantation-grown cargoes of rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton. You'll still see the shrimp boats go by, but now the kayak is king.

Beaufort lies on Port Royal Island, one of the 60-odd Sea Islands, at the border of the 350,000-acre ACE Basin, an estuarial wilderness surrounding the outlets of three rivers. Paddle from a downtown dock and consider your options: There's the Beaufort River, lined with handsome old plantation houses; the willow-and-cypress-overhung Edisto, longest undammed blackwater river in North America; or the meandering Combahee, where that log up ahead might be an alligator waiting for a stork to drop his guard. Out in the Rachel Carson Estuary, wild ponies roam Carrot Island, while brown pelicans and great blue herons fish the placid waters of Hunting Island Lagoon. This area provides languid, silent kayaking―white-water types need not apply―and rewards that include afternoon light filtered through Spanish moss and stark white egrets silhouetted beneath palmettos.
Population: 12,950
Median Home Cost: $201,600
For More: beaufort.com or beaufortsc.org

Corpus Christi, Texas
A place on Lake Michigan calls itself the "Windy City," but if your beach sport of choice is windsurfing or kiteboarding, you'll head to Corpus Christi, not Chicago. With access to 113 miles of Gulf coastline, the Corpus Christi Bay, and the long, tranquil Laguna Madre―plus consistently strong breezes―this Texas town ranks among the best places in the United States to let the wind zip you through the water. It's no surprise that the U.S. Open Windsurfing and Kiteboarding Regatta happens here each year.

The conditions at Corpus Christi and environs, including the long and desolately beautiful Padre Island National Seashore, appeal to novices and experts alike. In the city, Cole Park's Oleander Point draws some of the nation's top windsurfers and kiteboarders. And Bird Island Basin, on the warm, protected Laguna Madre, offers ideal learning conditions and obstruction-free water so shallow that beginners can often walk back to shore after spilling off their boards.
Population: 380,783
Median Home Cost: $120,500
For More: corpuschristicvb.org, corpuschristiwindsurfing.com, or southpadreislandkiteboarding.com

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Locals like to call their tiny province "the million-acre farm," but the natural environment here has by no means been tilled into submission. Within an hour of Charlottetown, the lively, well-groomed capital, you can wander among the majestic Greenwich dunes of Prince Edward Island National Park, pause on the 186-mile Confederation Trail while a mother quail and her brood claim right-of-way over cyclists, and watch as great blue herons take flight from the banks of a quiet tidal river. Studded with lightly used provincial parks and indented with placid bays, the island lies along major waterfowl flyways―more than 300 species of birds have been recorded here.

Charlottetown residents don't just bail out for the weekend by car; they get away on bike, on foot, and on cross-country skis, taking spurs off the Confederation Trail―an old railway route―that lead right out of the city.

Destinations? Almost anywhere in a province whose 140,000 citizens make up a population smaller than that of many U.S. counties, and where sprawl is all but unknown. Looking out over blossoming potato fields, one young visitor remarked, "They don't have suburbs here―they have spud-urbs."

Note: Americans who apply for permanent-resident status in Canada must have a college education or relevant work experience, pay an application fee (currently $550), then pay an additional fee (currently $975) following the required two years of residence. Full citizenship requires three years of permanent residence, a clean criminal record and bill of health, and successful completion of a test on Canadian history, geography, and government (test waived for applicants older than 59).
Population: 39,000
Median Home Cost: $102,366 USD, $125,000 Canadian
For More: visitcharlottetown.com; PEI National Park: pc.gc.ca/pn-np/pe/pei-ipe

Pacific City, Oregon
The swallows may come back to Capistrano, but the Semedi Island cackling geese―all 150 of them―turn up every October in Pacific City.

The geese, a subspecies from Alaska's Aleutian Islands, spend the nights offshore on Haystack Rock, and forage during daylight on inland farms. Their arrival―and their departure each May―is part of a spectacular migration along the Pacific Flyway, just one of the attractions for nature enthusiasts in a town that likes to claim "they named an ocean after us."

Tucked along Nestucca Bay between Lincoln City and Tillamook (where the cheese comes from), Pacific City is nearly surrounded on the land side by the protected acres of Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area and the Nestucca Bay Wildlife Refuge. Locals enjoy the seven-mile round-trip hike from Cape Kiwanda to the Nestucca River estuary and the loop around Town Lake.

Ranging farther afield, trails lead off from stops along Three Capes Drive, a dramatic seaside route heading north to capes Lookout and Meares. "There are so many different ecologies here―ocean, river, marshes, dunes, forest, farmland," a resident enthuses. If you were a goose, you'd come back, too.
Population: 900
Median Home Cost: $392,000
For More: pacificcity.net or pacificcity.org

Virginia Beach, Virginia
Stroll along the Virginia Beach boardwalk, with crowds splashing in the surf on one side and a neat row of hotels on the other, and it's hard to imagine wilderness anywhere nearby. But a scant 15 miles to the south, a primeval stretch of seacoast offers scenes of magnificent desolation.

The 8,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge marks the beginning of the string of sand spits and barrier islands that culminates in North Carolina's Outer Banks. But unlike much of the Banks, you can't get here by car: The refuge's stark Atlantic dunes and bayside marshlands are accessible only on bike and on foot, unless you take a seasonal park service tram. The reward for your effort? A front-row seat along the Atlantic Flyway, traveled in spring and fall by dozens of migratory species and in winter by black and mallard ducks, greater scaup, gadwall, tundra swans, and an estimated 10,000 snow geese. The southern end of the refuge serves as the gateway to even more remote False Cape State Park, a lost land of empty beaches and shade-dappled maritime pine forest.
Population: 425,257
Median Home Cost: $235,634
For More: vabeach.com or backbay.fws.gov

Annapolis, Maryland
More than a few individuals have learned their way around the water in Maryland's capital. But even if your aspirations to seamanship are a bit less grand than those of the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better mooring. At the mouth of the Severn River, halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Annapolis accesses one of America's loveliest and most endlessly fascinating bodies of water, the Chesapeake Bay.

A compact, peninsular, 18th-century city where downtown restaurateurs know what to do with the local blue crabs, Annapolis marks the opening to the Chesapeake's 4,480 square miles, snaking more than 195 miles in length and fed by placid tidal rivers such as the Patuxent, Choptank, and Tred Avon. The bay's manageable distances―never more than 35 miles across―and innumerable protected anchorages make it one of the world's best waterways for extended cruising.

Each October, Annapolis welcomes the U.S. Sailboat and Powerboat shows at City Dock. If your resistance collapses completely, it's nice to know that downtown's Annapolis City Marina has slips ranging all the way up to 85 feet.
Population: 35,838
Median Home Cost: $196,200
For More: annapolis.com

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
With 23 miles of coastline, 300 miles of navigable waterways, and more than 40,000 registered pleasure craft―some lushly tended in the Las Olas Marina for mega yachts―Fort Lauderdale may be the "boatiest" sizable city in the United States. Its self-awarded nickname, "Venice of America," might seem a stretch, although the comparison fits if the subject is transportation. This is such a water-oriented place that, as in the other Venice, you can make your way around town via floating buses and taxis.

But that's just for everyday errands and commuting. The best aspect of boating in Fort Lauderdale is where you can get to from here―north and south along the Intracoastal Waterway (Miami is a 21-mile run; the Keys are roughly 50 miles away) and east to the Bahamas. You need to know what you're doing, but you don't have to be master and commander to make the 50-mile international hop to Bimini in good weather.
Population: 152,397
Median Home Cost: $318,300
For More: sunny.org or goboating.org

Anacortes, Washington
Walk along the boat slips in Anacortes and look at the home ports on the transoms. Phoenix, Denver, Butte―the names prove that you can live wherever you want out West, but if your heart is on the water, you'll moor in Anacortes. Even boat owners from Seattle, with its considerable harbor some 80 miles to the south, keep vessels here.

Anacortes perches at the northern tip of Fidalgo Island, the only one of the San Juans reachable by car. As an entrée to this lovely archipelago and the twisting passages that lead to the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, the town boasts four marinas―including the mammoth Cap Sante Boat Haven, with 1,100 slips―and three public launches.

If you'd rather let someone else navigate, hop a ferry to Sidney, on Canada's Vancouver Island. But foreign ports are just a bonus: Anacortes has a busy, handsomely restored downtown, and the little city revels in its annual waterfront, jazz, and arts festivals.
Population: 14,557
Median Home Cost: $311,750
For More: anacortes.org

Portland, Maine
Take one step inside Portland's spectacularly ornate Victoria Mansion and it's easy to see that even a century and a half ago this snug little city at the head of Casco Bay stood as a northern New England bastion of refinement and culture. In "the beautiful town that is seated by the sea" (the words of hometown boy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), the enthusiasm for the arts lives on.

What other American city this size mounts productions of Pagliacci or Gianni Schicci, as the Portland Opera Repertory Theater does, and also supports a symphony orchestra? At last count, Portland claimed five theater companies, including one exclusively for children. The Portland Museum of Art owns a fine collection of works by Winslow Homer, who painted coastal scenes at nearby Prouts Neck, and also prides itself on its Wyeths, Sargents, and Rockwell Kents.

Close to the harbor, in a onetime district of dusty chandleries, a warren of narrow old streets shines with galleries, chef-owned bistros, bookstores, and clubs featuring jazz, blues, and the malty yield of myriad microbreweries. Today, we'd bet Longfellow would never have left.
Population: 64,249
Median Home Cost: $235,500
For More: gotoportland.com

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Plenty of small cities have arts reputations built on attracting big-name performers, or on securing major works for their museums. Hilton Head's arts patrons don't lag in that regard. They can bring in Dave Brubeck, Judy Collins, and traveling Broadway productions; and the Hilton Head Orchestra features fine professional musicians. But this community excels in the caliber of its local artists and performers and the encouragement they receive. A lot of talented people have moved to Hilton Head―and some have lived there all along.

The Hilton Head Community & Youth Theater and the South Carolina Repertory Company both showcase local talent, as does the Hilton Head Dance Theater. The Hilton Head Art League, with hundreds of professionals among its ranks, runs a gallery and workshop series. Area art enthusiasts still honor one of the region's oldest artisan traditions, the work of Gullah craftspeople, including their legendary sweetgrass baskets.

There are plenty of places to move if you want a seat in the audience. But if you're interested in taking a bow of your own, Hilton Head might be the place.
Population: 33,862
Median Home Cost: $550,000
For More: hiltonhead.com or hiltonheadchamber.com

Santa Monica, California
With all Santa Monica has going on, you'd be excused if you forayed only occasionally into the city that surrounds it on three sides (the Pacific Ocean, pierced by the famous Santa Monica Pier, keeps Los Angeles from making a full encirclement). You might get lost amid the galleries: More than 70 occupy four major districts, including Bergamot Station, a complex of rehabbed warehouses with wares ranging from African art to contemporary American ceramics.Wander from one architectural treasure to another: Victorian remnants at the end of the trolley line from the days when Santa Monica was a beach resort, and several examples of resident superstar Frank Gehry's work, including the master's own home.

Dozens of Southern California's finest restaurants offer a chance to glance nonchalantly, between courses, at faces made famous in that city next door. But pull yourself away from the table and spend the evening at the Santa Monica Symphony or Civic Light Orchestra, listen to poetry or acoustic guitar on Montana Avenue's coffeehouse row, or take in a performance by one of the city's abundant theater companies. And there's 74-year-old Harvelle's Blues Club, where it seems as though time stopped during the days of the trolley.
Population: 84,084
Median Home Cost: $926,000
For More: santamonica.com

Marathon, Florida
Off Marathon, out in the middle of the Florida Keys, a bad day's fishing is a few grouper, some grunt, a queen triggerfish, and a barracuda―when you were hoping for a sailfish.

Marathon, the biggest town between Key Largo and Key West, sits on Vaca Key just east of the famed Seven Mile Bridge across open water. It got its name when a railway worker, building the now-defunct route to Key West, said the job was a "marathon." But anyone who has spent five hours here bringing in a 50-pound tarpon on a fly rod might consider another derivation. Marathon is ideally located for fishing well offshore in the Florida Straits, where you'll find mahi mahi, sailfish, tuna, and maybe even a swordfish. On the Florida Bay side, fishers snag tarpon, cobia, barracuda, mackerel, and snapper. The Keys are home to more world-record fish than anywhere else in the world, and some two dozen area charter operators will help you put your name in the books. Want to bring your own boat? No problem. Marathon has eight marinas.
Population: 12,269
Median Home Cost: $640,000
For More: fla-keys.com

Bodega Bay, California
For a tiny town on the northern California coast, it was an unusual moment of fame.

Alfred Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, 68 miles north of San Francisco and less than an hour's drive from Santa Rosa, as the shooting location for his 1963 classic The Birds. If someone were to create a documentary on the village, a more apt title might be The Fish.

The waters in and around the Sonoma County coast's only protected harbor teem with salmon, rock and ling cod, albacore, halibut, and―if your idea of fishing extends to crustaceans―the incomparably delicious Dungeness crab. Having spent quiet decades as home port for a small commercial fishing fleet, Bodega Bay now hosts a number of recreational charter operators and a marina for private boat owners. The Bodega Marine Laboratory (open to visitors and located on the peninsula that wraps the harbor) enhances the piscatory motif.

Bodega Bay remains as serene and unassuming as Hitchcock found it, but the restaurants are more sophisticated, and the birds, utterly benign.
Population: 1,423
Median Home Cost: $750,228
For More: bodegabay.com

Petoskey-Charlevoix, Michigan
What could be wrong with fishing where Ernest Hemingway first learned to throw a line in the water? As a boy, the writer summered in this northwestern corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Hemingway probably wouldn't recognize Petoskey today―certainly not the "Gaslight District," nicely restored and crowded with bistros and boutiques―although he'd approve of the chef-owned restaurant that serves fish caught by the proprietor. He'd be instantly familiar with the broad expanse of Lake Michigan, where big coho salmon and lake trout lurk in waters best challenged with a stout boat, downriggers, and steel leaders. In the shallower reaches of nearby Bear River and Horton Creek, taking brown trout and steelhead requires a deft touch with the dry fly. But wherever you fish here, at day's end you'll catch those spectacular Lake Michigan sunsets, washing the hills around Little Traverse Bay in a golden apricot glow.
Population: 6,080
Median Home Cost: Petoskey, $214,000; Charlevoix, $180,000
For More: petoskey.com or charlevoix.org

Bandon, Oregon
Just another artsy little town, in impossibly beautiful surroundings, on an unspoiled 23-mile stretch of the Oregon coast? That might be Bandon's fate―and not a bad one at that―if the developers of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort hadn't noticed that here was the perfect location for a Scottish-style links course. Among the top 10 in Golf Magazine's "Top 100 Courses You Can Play," Bandon Dunes boasts ocean views from all 18 holes; 12 lie right along a 100-foot bluff. The design features undisturbed dune topography, indigenous vegetation, and fairways and greens that compensate for steady westerly breezes off the Pacific. A companion full-size course, Pacific Dunes, ranked third in the "Top 100" survey and combines edge-of-the-sea character with several holes deep in the coastal pines. Together, the two amount to what one enthusiast termed "the best convergence of land and sea in American golf."
Population: 2,833
Median Home Cost: $178,133
For More: bandonbythesea.com or bandondunes.com

Fort Walton Beach/Destin, Florida
At last count―and the figure is a moving target―18 public, semiprivate, and private golf courses lie within a few long tee shots of the twin towns of Fort Walton Beach and Destin, on Florida's Panhandle coast. A couple are nine-hole, two are 36, and there's even a 45, which means the area offers more than 300 opportunities to slice one toward (and maybe into) the Gulf or Choctawatchee Bay. Selections include a Fred Couples signature course at Kelly Plantation and a pair of championship courses at Tiger Point, which has hosted several PGA events and features a Scottish links layout on its East Course.

Many of the golf clubs tie to residential developments, but it seems that nearly everyone in these two cities lives on or not far from a green. Straggling little fishing villages well into the last century, the communities grew exponentially over the past 30 years and came to exemplify a certain manicured style. Today, it's a mistake to peg these as primarily retirement meccas: Fewer than 30 percent of area residents are older than 55.
Population: 20,619 (Fort Walton); 11,119 (Destin)
Median Home Cost: $267,850 (Fort Walton); $443,000 (Destin)
For More: ftwaltonbeach.com, destin-fwb.com, or destinfl.com

St. Simons Island, Georgia
Look north or south from the toll bridge connecting the Georgia mainland to the largest of the "Golden Isles" and it seems the vast expanse of saltwater grasses couldn't possibly be the threshold of any place as polished and plummy as St. Simons Island. But here, and on nearby Jekyll Island, the comforts of carefully planned development abound. Naturally, those comforts include golf, but the courses make ample use of the natural surroundings―including salt marsh, towering pines and live oaks, and oceanfront dunes. Between them, St. Simons and Jekyll possess more than half of the 216 holes in the Brunswick area. At St. Simons' Hampton Club, salt-marsh hazards and both natural and man-made lakes ensure challenging play. Jekyll's Great Dunes includes a 1926 Walter Travis links-style gem commissioned by the membership of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club. Today, Great Dunes is part of Georgia's largest public golf resort, and mere mortals can lose one in the sea oats.
Population: 75,000 (Brunswick, including offshore islands)
Median Home Cost: $419,000
For More: saintsimons.com or jekyllisland.com