If you're craving the kind of laid-back, all-American beach town that's the antithesis of a gated resort with sleek hotel rooms, the following towns should more than satisfy. Think simple pleasures like saltwater taffy, wooden boardwalks and briny air — all yours, with lodging at prices that won't break the bank, and public beaches that are priceless, in more ways than one.
1. Gulf Shores, Ala.
The easy charms of this Gulf Coast community don't end with the white-sand beaches and rosy sunsets. Every summer, hundreds of families make the pilgrimage here to partake in water sports of every stripe and to comb the wilds of Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (free admission). They also come to break bread with neighbors on backyard picnic tables laden with steamed shrimp and oysters pulled from the sparkling Gulf waters.
2. Santa Cruz, Calif.
With a bohemian flair and 29 miles of sandy public beaches, Santa Cruz has the California vibe down pat. Head elsewhere if you're looking for chilly minimalist resorts or formal restaurants — this beach resort town is the sunny seaside equivalent of a beanbag chair. Hang out with the locals on the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a seaside amusement park with vintage rides like the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster that's been thrilling families since 1924.
3. Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, N.C.
These low-rise beach resort towns run consecutively north to south along the slender thread of sand known as North Carolina's Outer Banks. The barefoot ambience extends to the towns' casual eateries, cedar-shake cottages and old-fashioned motor inns. And with miles of beautiful public beaches — not to mention an untrammeled national seashore — and restorative salt breezes, it's easy to find serene solitude beyond the dunes.
4. Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Long a popular family getaway, Rehoboth is the quintessential Atlantic seaboard beach resort town, complete with a mile-long oceanfront boardwalk for twilight promenades. This small, quaint Delaware burg assumes a carnival-by-the-sea fizz in the summertime, with kid-friendly amusement rides, miniature golf and seashell shops. Go clamming, take a pirate cruise or bike along scenic heritage trails.
5. Myrtle Beach, S.C.
With broad stretches of tawny sand and some 70,000 hotel rooms — most of them in reliably affordable chain hotels — Myrtle Beach is a sunny, casual beach resort town that easily accommodates a range of budgets. The good value extends to the 300 outlet shops, scores of public golf courses and reasonably priced entertainment. But you don't need a penny to enjoy the town's pride and joy: the Grand Strand, some 60 miles of public beachfront lapped by frothy Atlantic surf.
Also of interest: 5 tips for taking your best vacation photographs.