The Best Little Beach Towns To Visit in Summer
Summer is prime playtime on the island of Nantucket, but late June kicks off the official start of the season in world-renowned creative style, during the six-day Nantucket Film Fest. Founded in 1996 with a focus on excellence in screenwriting and storytelling, the fest draws industry names and movie-going fans alike to screen films and shorts at island landmarks like Nantucket High School and the Sconset Casino. Whether you’re there during film fest week, in early August for the annual Boston Pops concert on Jetties Beach, or anytime in between, there’s something about being 30 miles offshore that heightens your senses on this tiny isle with so much to enjoy, from white picket fences and centuries-old architecture to bluff-top views of the glittering blue sea.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
It doesn’t get much more “all-American summer” than skipping stones, picnicking by the water, and watching fireworks light up the night. You’ll do that and much more celebrating the fourth of July on Mackinac Island. At the annual W.T. Rabe Stone Skipping Contest at Windemere Pointe beach, amateurs and professionals compete, with record-holders attending from all over the world. Historic Fort Mackinac recreates an 1880s Independence Day complete with 38-gun salutes, and hosts an all-American picnic sponsored by the Grand Hotel and topped off with an awesome fireworks display. Or view the light show from the hotel’s iconic front porch, dotted with 1,375 geraniums and other bright blooms. More summertime musts: bicycling past the beautiful Victorian homes (no cars are allowed on the island) and sampling the town’s famously delicious fudge.
While there’s plenty of beachy, summertime fun to be had in Malibu, it’s also the place to be for divine dining. The fresh-in-season ingredients in the beloved dishes at Malibu Farm Café and Restaurant come predominately from local farmers, including the Santa Monica farmer’s market and owner Helene Henderson’s own backyard garden. Plus, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktails daily, you’ll enjoy one of the best views in town, as the hot spots sit on each end of the Malibu Pier on Pacific Coast Highway, overlooking the water, often with surfers in the distance. And to experience one of the best seafood shacks anywhere, head to Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market and Patio Café, founded in 1972 and owned and operated by commercial fishermen. Also on PCH, it’s small, no frills, and serves up some of the best seafood on the coast.
Melbourne Beach, Florida
By day, the unspoiled shoreline and historic downtown keep things hopping in this happy little town on Florida’s Space Coast. But it’s by night that the real magic happens in Melbourne Beach, situated on a barrier island between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge hosts the largest nesting population of loggerhead and green sea turtles in the country, along 20.5 protected miles of sandy beach—and the best time to spot the nesting turtles is during June and July on guided, night-time sea turtle watch walks. Perhaps even more magical is seeing hatchlings emerge from their nest during turtle digs held here each August and early September.
Pacific City, Oregon
When summer comes to this beach town in Oregon, it’s all about taking advantage of temperatures in the high 60’s and low 70’s and living large outdoors: golfing, horseback riding, fishing by dory boat, surfing, kayaking, crabbing, paragliding, or just strolling by the scenic sea. And after all (or any) of that, the setting sun calls for a cold one to savor on the sand. This brilliant town answers that call with a brewery presiding exactly there. Come for Pelican Brewery’s view of the Pacific’s Haystack Rock and gorgeous sunsets on the big beach patio, take a brewery tour, and of course partake of the award-winning beer selection. Try the Kiwanda Cream Ale, one of its top-selling, most awarded beers. And stay for dinner: The menu pairs an ideal brew with each dish, from main courses like Dungeness Crab Mac & Cheese to salads and dessert.
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Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
There’s more than salt in the breeze on summer weekend evenings in Rehoboth Beach. Just as quintessential as the taffy awaiting at Dolle’s Candyland on the beach boardwalk, the sound of music in the air beginning in mid June signals summer’s arrival each year with the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand’s Summer Concert Series. Even better, it’s one of those iconic pleasures of the season that’s free—and has a sense of history, too: Since 1963, the classic open-air pavilion by the shore has drawn listeners to live music, and today the shows range from jazz to tribute bands, from orchestras to rock ‘n’ roll. More than 40 acts perform each season on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings until Labor Day. During select weekdays, the bandstand also serves as meeting place for The Rehoboth Beach Historical Society walking tours that explore downtown’s roots as a Victorian beach retreat.
Less than an hour’s drive from Houston, Galveston is known for great saltwater fishing, and while just about any time of year provides good action, summertime’s more stable weather and vacation spirit make it high time to cast your line. There are lots of desirable spots to try your luck around this gulf coast town, but the most beloved landmark for the sport may be the Galveston Fishing Pier. Built in 1971 and a favorite of fishermen ever since, it’s the longest privately-owned pier between Texas and Maine. Not only a scenic spot on a stable platform (as opposed to a rocking boat for those who are seasick-prone), it’s a perch away from the shoreline that’s proven to yield impressive catch in deeper water, where the bigger fish may flow. Anglers find croaker, speckled trout, sand trout, sheepshead, bull reds, and more—and can recharge in place with a southern seafood meal at popular Jimmy’s on the Pier. It’s not summer without hitting the sand here, though, thanks to 32 miles of beaches, and there’s a shore for everyone, including party-centric East Beach (alcohol is allowed) and family-friendly Stewart Beach (lifeguards; no alcohol).
Lummi Island, Washington
Love nightlife? If your version includes a vast sky of twinkling stars and the call of the Pacific chorus frog, rather than a buzzy club and bar scene, you’ll do just fine on Lummi (rhymes with “dummy”) Island, where a summer mindset of relaxation rules: the point of coming here is to slow down and tune in to the natural world around you on this intentionally un-touristy, most northeasterly island of the San Juan archipelago, about two hours from Seattle and a short boat or ferry ride from Gooseberry Point, near Bellingham. (Fuel up before the ferry; there are no gas stations on Lummi.) Summer months offer the warmest weather, the most sunshine all year, and the least rain. Across the island’s 9 square miles, you can hike, bike, boat, whale watch, or stop at a handful of places with limited open hours. There’s a winery, general store, café near the ferry dock, burger stand, library, incredible artists’ studios, and serious bucket list dining at The Willows Inn, where chef Blaine Wetzel, winner of several James Beard nominations and awards, forages this island of evergreens and sorrel shoots, razor clams and sea beans, to create unforgettable dishes.
Early August in Rockland brings 20,000 pounds of fresh lobster, more than 1,300 volunteers, and around 30,000 hungry people to the annual Maine Lobster Festival. With more than 70 years of this fest under its bib, this little town knows how to throw a giant lobster bash. Some traditions go back to the festival’s earliest years, like The Big Parade, one of the most popular events during the 5 days of crustacean fascination held the first weekend of August, from Wednesday through Sunday. The big draw has always been eating freshly-caught, freshly prepped, buttery Maine lobster with a view of pretty Penobscot Bay, but there are other pursuits galore. You can race across the water on lobster crates, compete in a seafood cooking contest, shop for artisan finds, watch the crowning of a chosen “Sea Goddess,” or sneak over to the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, presiding at the end of the town’s granite pier and open most weekends from late May to mid-October and during the festival.
Santa Cruz, California
It’s a rule of summer, isn’t it? You must ride a beach rollercoaster. And the Giant Dipper at the Beach Boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz, 70 miles south of San Francisco, checks that box in the coolest of ways. It’s estimated that more than 60 million thrill seekers have giggled themselves silly on the classic wooden roller coaster since it opened in 1924. Designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, it offers a fantastic view of the beach and Monterey Bay. A different type of Santa Cruz summer thrill happens Wednesday nights on the sand: free classic movies under the stars (just bring your own blanket). But this is a beach town with so much more than the beach. Head to Pogonip Open Space located a few minutes from downtown for hiking or mountain biking; board the Brew Cruz Betty Jane, a former school bus, now brewery tour bus; or target late August to attend downtown’s Tequila & Taco Music Festival.