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Cape May, N.J. ($120 a night, fall; $105, spring)
Just 48 miles south of Atlantic City's gaudy glitz, the streets of Cape May are lined with exquisitely preserved Victorian treasures, including this century-old seashore fixture. The water's pretty cold year-round, but you can always rent a tandem bike and ride to nearby Cape May Lighthouse, or sit in a rocking chair on the broad porch and listen to the surf tumble in the distance (800-582-5933; innofcapemay.com).
Sold out? Built as a private home in 1850, Angel of the Sea, a half-block from the ocean, became a hotel around 1905. Rates include breakfast, beach chairs and bicycles (from $105 in the late fall; 800-848-3369; angelofthesea.com).
Photo by Jason Varney
Palm Beach, Fla. ($250, August - September)
The palatial Breakers sits near where the Gulf Stream comes closest to the Florida coast — go snorkeling just off the hotel's beach and you may see a mother and baby manatee. Inside and out are quiet nooks. Sip tea under the chandeliers of the towering lobby or shop on posh Worth Avenue — aka Rodeo Drive East (888-273-2537; thebreakers.com).
Sold out? A few blocks from the beach, the Brazilian Court Hotel & Beach Club has an intimate charm that has made it a yacht-and-jet-set fave since 1926 (from $184 in the summer; 561-655-7740; thebraziliancourt.com).
Photo courtesy The Breakers
Galveston, Texas ($139, fall)
It's easy to see why they called it Queen of the Gulf when it opened, with its mahogany ceilings and gold-leaf-topped columns. Walk (carefully) out onto the granite breakwater that juts into the warm Gulf of Mexico (409-765-7721; wyndham.com/hotels/GLSHG). Nearby, Big Reef Nature Park is home to 500 bird species (800-425-4753; galveston.com).
Sold out? The guest registry at the lavish Tremont House Hotel includes historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant and Buffalo Bill (from $139 in the fall; 409-763-0030; wyndham.com/hotels/GLSTH).
Photo by Alamy
Santa Barbara, Calif. ($204, fall)
One of the world's great beaches spreads below if your upper-floor room balcony faces the ocean. Art galleries and restaurants are a short shuttle ride away (805-882-1234; santabarbara.hyatt.com).
Sold out? Two blocks from the beach, the Montecito Inn features its founder, Charlie Chaplin, in its logo. The place still has an air of old-Hollywood glamor (from $139; 805-969-7854; montecitoinn.com).
Photo courtesy Hyatt Santa Barbara
Jekyll Island, Ga. ($169, December; $189, September-November)
When it was a private club, members included Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. In the Annex ( built in 1901), certain rooms have a glassed-in porch, perfect for admiring the hotel's pristinely groomed grounds. The island has 10 miles of beach and 20 miles of paved forest and beachside bike trails (855-535-9547; jekyllclub.com).
Sold out? Casa Marina, in Jacksonville, Fla., on the ocean 85 miles south of Jekyll Island, was constructed in 1925 and hosted celebs ranging from Jean Harlow to Al Capone (from $79; 904-270-0025; casamarinahotel.com).
Photo by Bob Thomason/Getty Images
La Jolla, Calif. ($245, November-December)
North of San Diego and above rocky La Jolla Cove — a favorite wedding spot — the "Pink Lady" is steps from a small sandy beach. You may want to sit in the quiet hotel courtyard with a drink, admiring the mosaics and murals. For the best dining view in town, head to the 10th-floor Sky Room restaurant (858-454-0771; lavalencia.com).
Sold out? The sandy beach is closer to your door (and wider) a few miles south at San Diego's 124-year-old Hotel del Coronado, one of America's grandest grand hotels (from $299 in the fall; 800-582-2595; hoteldel.com). A block in from the Del is the charming 1906 Lodge, one of the area's best-kept secrets (from $209; 866-435-1906; 1906lodge.com). Both are a quick walk from the modest little house where L. Frank Baum wrote his Oz books.
Photo by Alamy
Even on a budget, you might not need to scrimp on a seaside hotel. Some of America's most historic and luxurious beach resorts are unexpectedly affordable, especially if you're willing to go off-season.
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