Top Coastal College Towns
College of the Atlantic
Bar Harbor, Maine
On the forested College of the Atlantic campus, tucked into 37 acres on Mount Desert Island, a cracked seaside terrace or the stone foundation for a vanished porch whisper of long-gone summer homes where wealthy families once "rusticated" to escape the heat of the city. But a bit of Gilded Age glory survives: The Turrets, a slate-roofed stone castle built in 1895, now stands as the private college's signature building; a few humbler dwellings have become residence halls.
The 350-plus liberal arts students consider the island's Acadia National Park their backyard and research lab. For a taste of the college life, families can enroll in the annual summer Nature Camp, staying in the dorms and exploring Acadia's tide pools and beaches with college professionals.
And the town of Bar Harbor is a hub of activity—lighthouse tours, sailing classes, aviation adventures, and coastal bike trips keep the community buzzing year-round. Bonus: May through October brings pods of beautiful humpback whales to the waters around town.
STAY: Along the shoreline in Bar Harbor, another century-old structure has found a new calling as the unpretentiously elegant Balance Rock Inn, named for a seemingly teetering boulder at the foot of the gracious lawn. Rates start at $155; 207-288-2610 or balancerockinn.com.
Savannah College of Art and Design
Bobbie's Diner doesn't look like a college dining hall. But it is. The Savannah College of Art and Design moved the 1950s-era diner here from the Northeast because, well, the school likes to do things differently. (Bobbie's is also open to the public.)
When SCAD (rhymes with "glad") was founded in 1978, it hit tradition-bound Savannah like a skateboarder shredding gleefully through a museum. Instead of creating a conventional campus, it rejuvenated doddering old buildings throughout the fabled Historic District and the adjoining Victorian District.
Want to take a class? If regular students haven't filled the available spaces, you can apply for admission as a nondegree-seeking student in courses of study from historic preservation to jewelry making.
Savannah's nearby cobblestone River Street is the heart of town, lined with historic buildings turned lively bars, independent shops, and stellar restaurants. Local favorite Huey's on the River serves fluffy beignets with a homemade praline sauce.STAY: For a beautiful mashup of the historical and the contemporary—and an awesome rooftop bar overlooking the Savannah River—check in at Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront. Rates start at $239; 888-213-4024 or bohemianhotelsavannah.com.
University of California, Berkeley
Don't merely admire The Campanile, a graceful 307-foot spire officially known as Sather Tower. Ascend it. The iconic granite bell tower reigns over the core of this campus, dominated by ornate Beaux Arts edifices built during the first quarter of the 20th century. An observation platform puts awe-inspiring views of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge before you.
During the fall semester, locals and students can sit in on lectures as part of a free "class pass" open to the public—as long as you sit quietly in the back—and more than 2,000 courses are available through UC Berkeley Extension.
Right off campus, downtown Berkeley lives up to its reputation for free-spirited, progressive politics, a stellar arts and cultural scene, and amazing dining. At Chez Panisse, the daily specials and even the artisanal butter may just strike you as earth-moving.
STAY: The century-old boutique Hotel Shattuck Plaza two blocks from campus reflects its swank heritage with glam spaces after a multimillion-dollar renovation. Rates start at $165; 510/845-7300 or hotelshattuckplaza.com.
University of Minnesota Duluth
They call Duluth "the San Francisco of the Midwest." (No, really, they do.) It's because the city was built on a steep, 700-foot hill. What poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called "the shining Big-Sea-Water" gave life to this iron ore and lumber port. The James I. Swenson Science Building on the UMD campus pays tribute to that heritage: It resembles a docked ship, complete with three funnels on top. Tunnels and enclosed walkways connect virtually all campus buildings, mitigating winter weather, and UMD also hosts more than 100 professional classes, from nonprofit development to caregiving, open to the public.
The town of Duluth is known for its year-round outdoor diversions—even surfing, when the lake is in the mood for waves. As the air (if not the water) warms, students and locals hit the beach at the sand spit known as Park Point; in winter, ski bunnies head to nearby Spirit Mountain.
STAY: In a repurposed 19th-century lakefront brewery complex that includes restaurants, nightclubs, and shops, Fitger's Inn offers 62 upscale rooms and suites. Rates start at $160; 888/348-4377 or fitgers.com.
Western Washington University
Long wooden trestle tables, decoratively carved, stand in ordered rows beneath a very tall, very ornate coffered ceiling. Soft light streams through immense arched windows. Welcome to the Wilson Library Reading Room, less formally known as the Harry Potter Room. Likewise, the whole conifer-scented campus seems a bit magical. Students hustling to class occasionally have to dodge meandering deer along the redbrick pathways. On the east side of campus, grassy mounds in Haskell Plaza are arranged as a rough map of the San Juan Islands, which are visible from here, and the nearby Performing Arts Center Plaza provides spectacular views of Bellingham Bay.
The people here, 90 minutes outside of Seattle, are as laid-back as the coffee is strong. Western Washington University has built a national reputation for environmental studies and, believe it or not, auto design. New noncredit courses—from memoir writing to social media 101—are open to the public through the college.
Bellingham itself is historic, artsy, and very walkable. And thanks to WWU's proximity, the downtown brewpubs, cafés, and a number of incredible sushi restaurants are always buzzing. Great music venues for live local and national favorites are a 15-minute stroll from the dorms.
STAY: On the waterfront, less than a mile from campus, The Chrysalis Inn and Spa has relaxing treatments, like the Oceanic massage that includes a seaweed body wrap. Or soak up the scenery from your window seat; every room has one. Rates start at $169; 888-808-0005 or thechrysalisinn.com.
New College of Florida
Gazing out over Sarasota Bay from New College with the sea breeze in your hair, you can lose yourself in contemplation of the blue-green water, the sailboats, the serenity, and the sunsets. Hammocks are strung low between palms and hang high in banyan trees throughout the campus. How do students get any studying done here?
Somehow, they manage. New College is Florida's official honors college for liberal arts, a thoughtful enclave where often-barefoot, brainy scholars design their own curricula. The campus includes three 1920s-era bayfront mansions open for self-guided tours. The loveliest, a slightly over-the-top pink marble showplace built by circus magnate Charles Ringling, is now College Hall, the school's signature building.
The college's performance and lecture series is open to the public, offering everything from concerts to talks on current affairs. And there are plenty of standout draws off campus: Sarasota's wide, sandy beaches, plus impressive antique finds, boutique shopping, and brewpubs.
STAY: The stylish Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota downtown has rooms and suites decorated in soothing pale green and tan tones. Rates start at $289; 941/309-2000 or ritzcarlton.com/sarasota.