5 Classic Beach Hotels You've Got To Put on Your Bucket List
Hotel del Coronado
The magic of movie sets, mermaids, clambakes, and ice skating by the Pacific
There's no place like The Del. It's a proclamation that has some heft, when you consider that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum felt so inspired by the place that he made the red-turreted, wooden Victorian resort his home for months at a time. First wintering here in 1904, Baum is credited with designing four whimsical, crown-shaped chandeliers for the Crown Room—the longtime site of a famously decadent Sunday brunch. That magic endures today: Three glowing crowns still hang from the Crown Room's 33-foot-high domed ceiling made from intricately crafted Oregon sugar pine.
Baum isn't alone in falling hard for The Del. Since the National Historic Landmark resort's opening 130 years ago on Coronado Island, beach lovers have flocked to its 28 acres of shoreline just across the bay from downtown San Diego. What began as a hotel and striped tents for camp-style accommodations back in the day now boasts mermaid fitness workouts, spinning classes overlooking the sand, and summer clambakes. Come winter, The Del is home to SoCal's only oceanside ice-skating rink, surrounded by palm trees strung with lights. Longtime guest Linda Hunter remembers building sand castles as a child, captivated by The Del's turret, nearly 10 stories tall: "It still feels surprisingly big to me today," she says, after 23 years of stays. "The hotel has this incredible and familiar presence. Whenever we visit, we feel a part of The Del's story."
The Del is right across the bay from down-town San Diego and a 15-minute drive from the San Diego International Airport.
Choose from the historic Victorian Building, the contemporary Ocean Towers and California Cabanas, or the one-to three-bedroom oceanfront cottages and villas at Beach Village. Pets are welcome—and pampered—at The Del. Rates start at $325; hoteldel.com.
Hotel del Coronado Fun Facts
- California's Hotel del Coronado provided a glamorous set in 1958 for Marilyn Monroe in the classic film Some Like It Hot
- People were partying at The Del before it was even fully constructed, starting with a Christmas celebration in 1887 on the garden patio. To commemorate its 130th Christmas this year, the hotel will offer a custom crown ornament.
- The Del was the first hotel in the nation to illuminate an outdoor Christmas tree, in 1904.
- More than 25 movies and television shows have been filmed here.
- Repeat guests Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz developed their "Ricky and Lucy" personas that eventually appeared on the television show I Love Lucy while staying at The Del in 1950.
- Every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush has visited the hotel.
Cape May, New Jersey
Abiding comfort in the traditions of America's oldest seaside hotel
"Seeing the big yellow house by the sea excites me every time I arrive," says Dayna Beylouni White, who married on Congress Hall's expansive lawn in 2016—its bicentennial year—and has vacationed here with extended family each summer since she was a kid. "One of my best memories on my wedding day was thinking, "How many times did I run up and down that grand staircase in my wet bathing suit?" And then I had the opportunity to walk down that staircase in my wedding gown," she says.
To White and many others, the brick beauty that presides in the Cape May National Historic Landmark District feels like home despite its whopping 99,000-square-foot size. It helps to have an affection for quirks like wood floors that slant a little, and for the traditions that are uniquely Congress Hall. One of hotel owner Curtis Bashaw's favorite customs is Carnival Night on summer Mondays. Stilt walkers and fire jugglers perform on the grass among hosts wearing straw hats and yellow suspenders, while kids and adults alike get drawn in. There's also a long custom of live music at the hotel. "To gather in the Brown Room with the crowd and our piano player, Darin, on Saturday nights, it's just full stop: Everyone's singing to their heart's content, and there's a joy in that."
Bashaw, the co-founder and co–managing partner of Cape Advisors and Cape Resorts Group, is in a singular position to opine on the ways Congress Hall works its magic, having played in the pool as a child when his grandfather owned the place, and then worked nearly every job here, from dining room busboy to tour guide to manager and now owner. "We are time-bound creatures, and time brings inevitable changes," he says. "The fact that this place has been here for 200 years—yes, we update, we renovate, but its spirit is the same. It gives people comfort in a world where change is all around us."
Cape May, which is easily accessible from New Jersey's Garden State Parkway and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, is about a three-hour drive from either New York City or Baltimore.
Congress Hall has 108 guest rooms with views of the great lawn and ocean or Cape May's historic district; all were given crisp renovations two years ago for the resort's bicentennial. Junior Suites are named for U.S. presidents or dignitaries who spent their summers at the hotel. Rates start at $139; caperesorts.com.
Congress Hall Fun Facts
- The wooden hotel was destroyed by fire in 1878. One year later, it reopened, made of brick.
- Four sitting presidents vacationed at Congress Hall during the 1800s.
- The hotel's grand white columns were added to reflect the stripes of Old Glory.
- A full orchestra often played on summer nights from the 1860s to the early 1900s. In 1882, John Philip Sousa wrote the "Congress Hall March" to perform with his orchestra on the lawn.
The Claremont Hotel
Southwest Harbor, Maine
The height of communing with nature—with a little croquet thrown in for fun
A gentle, satisfying "thwack" cuts through the air on Mount Desert Island at the mouth of Maine's Somes Sound, just as it has for more than a century. That sound—the strike of croquet mallet against wooden ball on a stretch of carefully tended grass—is the aural calling card for the Claremont Hotel, as memorable and beloved as its views of the water. "It's fun to watch people come up the driveway if they've never been here, get out of their cars, and walk on the lawn rising over the water—the only fjord on the East Coast. It's spectacular," says John W. Madeira Jr., who has been the property manager since 1979 and worked at The Claremont as a bellboy in college. The pull of the well-preserved, four-story wooden retreat built in 1884 by a sea captain and his wife worked on Madeira and many patrons. "When I started, there were people who came for the whole summer," he says. "I still have guests who come for a month or the same week in the same room each year."
The appeal is not just in communing with nature, but also in connecting with fellow regulars while sharing the spectacle of the setting sun turning Cadillac Mountain from orange to blue. That's easy from the green wicker rockers on the wraparound porch or perches in the boathouse, where you can linger over a cocktail. Meanwhile, croquet can be as social or as serious as you want on the Claremont's three world-class courts, but the first week of August, it's a sophisticated level of competition. The country's longest continually running croquet tournament, The Claremont Croquet Classic, brings people back to the green to watch or play. "It's like old friends week," Madeira says.
The Claremont Hotel is 12 miles from Bar Harbor, which is 55 miles from Bangor International Airport and 150 miles from Portland International Airport.
The hotel has 24 guest rooms; the adjacent Phillips House offers six inn-style rooms and 14 cottages (some with ocean views), which have fireplaces, decks, and kitchenettes. The hotel is open June 16 to October 9; cottages are open May 26 to October 12. Rates start at $135; theclaremonthotel.com.
The Claremont Hotel Fun Facts
- Much of Mount Desert Island was undeveloped when the hotel was built, and it wasn't reachable by car until the early 1900s.
- In 1885, landscape artist Xanthus Smith made a painting of the hotel in exchange for an extended stay. The restaurant is named after him, and the painting hangs there today.
- Only three families have owned the hotel, keeping alive traditions including daily afternoon tea during July and August.
The Gasparilla Inn & Club
Boca Grande, Florida
A venerable hideaway for escaping the cold and defying the passage of time
Mannerly, moneyed Northeasterners rolled into the unspoiled village of Boca Grande by train when they first began decamping to The Gasparilla Inn in 1913. Newly opened on its namesake barrier island, along the southwest Gulf Coast between Fort Myers and Tampa, the winter retreat quickly gained a mystique and a following. That is, once it landed that first guest, says inn historian Tina Malasics. "We didn't have any guests on opening day, but somehow a lovely widow from Boston had heard about us, and sent a wire to the manager asking if she could visit. He said, "Well, I don't know, send me your references," and she did, and her references sent their references," she says. "That's how we started our traditional social season," lasting the week before Christmas until Easter. Although the perpetually preppy inn—decorated in pinks, greens, palm fronds, shell-encrusted chandeliers, and white wicker—is now open more of the year, it's the original social season that attracts visitors who have been coming for generations.
A two-and-a-half-mile causeway connected the outpost to the mainland in 1958, but little else has changed. It's still unspoiled—no traffic lights, no chain businesses, no building taller than the tallest palm tree, and a devotion to tarpon fishing, shelling, and golf. "We're family-owned and stay true to the old-fashioned charms," Malasics says. "That's what our guests appreciate."
The Gasparilla Inn & Club is a 75-minute drive from either the Fort Myers or Sarasota/Bradenton airports.
The timeless inn offers 66 deluxe rooms and suites. The surrounding 18 cottages and villas are pet friendly, some with parlors, porches, lanais, and kitchenettes. The Sharp Houses include both three- and four-bedroom options (also pet friendly). Open October 5 to July 5. Rates start at $245; the-gasparilla-inn.com.
The Gasparilla Inn & Club Fun Facts
- Boca Grande was originally a fishing village, and tarpon have long thrived in Boca Grande Pass, making the inn one of the nation's best sportfishing destinations. Tarpon fishing here is solely catch and release.
- Notable guests have included Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Katharine Hepburn, and the George H. W. Bush family.
- Former owner Bayard Sharp was instrumental in establishing the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association in 1971, with the goal of preservation and land conservation.
- Shell-seeking is akin to breathing on Gasparilla, and the inn recently revived a beloved tradition—the annual shell contest, held in March.
Sea Island, Georgia
An exclusive natural wonder where beloved customs take root
It all started with those majestic live oaks. Before well-heeled vacationers could fall for the charms of The Cloister at Sea Island, the hotel's founder, Howard Coffin, had to first discover the region's tall oaks draped in Spanish moss—"beautiful, braided, and woven," he observed, smitten. The trees helped lead to his purchase of Sea Island, a sliver of land off the southern coast of Georgia, in 1926. The Cloister opened in 1928, and now lures guests for world-class golfing, skeet shooting, and pampering. It's fitting that one of the favorite traditions here is strolling the grounds beneath commemorative oaks planted by visiting U.S. presidents and world leaders. President Calvin Coolidge helped plant the first one during a holiday visit the year the resort opened, and others followed, from President and Mrs. Eisenhower to President Clinton.
Longtime patron Mary Dammann's happiest childhood memory is eating the resort's signature Gold Brick Sundaes (vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate sauce that hardens on top) at the beach club when her family stayed for the entire month of July each summer. "I started going before I was born," she says. "We have a picture of my mother seven months pregnant with me, dancing with my father in the Clubroom at The Cloister." Now Dammann and her husband visit about five times a year. The staff "always makes you feel so warm and welcome," she says. "The first thing they say when you get out of the car is, "Welcome home." And it does feel like we're coming home."
The Cloister is a one-hour drive from Jacksonville International Airport and an hour-and-15-minute drive from Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.
The Cloister's 265 guest rooms and suites offer views of the Blackbank River, the Atlantic Ocean, or the natural setting; other options include suites in the Sea Island Beach Club and accommodations in The Cloister Ocean Residences. Rates start at $395; seaisland.com.
The Cloister Fun Facts
- The very first Cloister guests signed the hotel register at midnight on its opening day, October 12, 1928.
- President George W. Bush chose Sea Island as the site of the 2004 G-8 Summit of world leaders, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former French President Jacques Chirac. Blair and Bush each planted a commemorative oak tree while visiting.
- The hotel has hosted celebrities such as Jimmy Stewart, Eugene O'Neill, Lillian Gish, and John D. Rockefeller Jr.