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9 Great Beach Vacations

Slather on the sunscreen — these coastal destinations offer a perfect blend of sun, sand and surf

spinner image aerial view of a shoreline in Cape Cod, Mass.
Beach lovers can find miles of shoreline on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Martin Adolfsson/Gallery Stock

When summer arrives, the sun, sand and sea beckon. So it’s no surprise that a University of Alabama study found that beaches are the most preferred type of vacation destination. (Sorry about that, mountains!) Luckily, the U.S. has dazzling coasts that offer a wide variety of beach escapes — from remote, dune-swept shores to boardwalk-lined golden sand with calm, swimmable waters. Slow down the pace in a quaint shore town or get a side of culture and adventure with your sunshine in an oceanfront city. No matter what your perfect beach vacation looks like, we are sure you’ll find it in one of these nine summer getaways.

spinner image sun rise over Gulf Shores, Alabama
Gulf Shores is a casual, family-friendly beach destination in Alabama.
W. Drew Senter, Longleaf Photography/Getty Images

Gulf Shores, Alabama

​The city’s signature slogan, “Small Town, Big Beach,” says it all. Throughout Gulf Shores, you’ll find eight public access points that lead to white-quartz sand and the bath-like waters of the Gulf of Mexico. For a lively atmosphere, head to Gulf Place. The main public beach, just off Highway 59, is known for its volleyball tournaments, beach bars and independent shops. Families should check out the Hangout, a 2.5-acre oceanfront entertainment venue that hosts concerts, cook-offs and game nights. If you prefer to unplug, Gulf State Park offers a mellower vibe, and a beach pavilion and interpretive center provide niceties such as showers, paddleboard rentals and a snack bar.

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Stay: When the 350-room Lodge at Gulf State Park debuted in 2018, it set a benchmark for sustainable tourism in the area with eco-friendly initiatives including native landscaping. The beachfront hotel has direct access to the emerald waters of the Gulf, as well as more than 6,000 acres of trails within the park. Rates start at $194.

Insider tip: Oyster fans shouldn’t miss a meal at Jesse’s on the Bay, a new steakhouse and seafood spot, and its casual offshoot, the Cold Hole Bar & Grill.   

spinner image Miami Beach
The art deco buildings are close to the water in South Beach.
Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida

The ultimate urban beach escape, Miami Beach’s dozen-plus miles of talcum-colored sand and turquoise sea are set against a backdrop of sleek condos and hotels spanning from First to 192nd streets. It’s divided into three neighborhoods, and South Beach, which runs from South Pointe Park north to 23rd Street, is the most famous and features pastel-hued art deco buildings and a see-and-be-seen crowd. South Pointe Park stands out, with its 450-foot-long pier, walking trails, playground and picnic tables, where you can lunch on ceviche and key lime pie from nearby Joe’s Takeaway. Lummus Park, a 10-block stretch along Ocean Drive, offers the best combination of idyllic sand and people watching.

Stay: Lifehouse, South of Fifth, on Collins Avenue is surrounded by art deco icons and is steps from the sands of South Beach. The 27-room property’s vintage beach-bungalow style sets it apart in a neighborhood known for glitzy hotels. Rates start at $173.

Insider tip: Chris and Tracy Vlaun, the husband-and-wife duo behind V Art of Wellness, offer the perfect yin-and-yang workout-yoga sessions on the sand (group and private) in Miami.

spinner image A woman flying a kite on a beach in the Outer Banks
Travelers can enjoy large swaths of undeveloped beach in the Outer Banks.
epicurean/Getty Images

The Outer Banks, North Carolina

Home to one of the largest swaths of undeveloped beaches on the East Coast, this chain of barrier islands attracts adventurous souls who want to do more than just lounge. Lovingly known as OBX, the region is made up of four islands, six towns and 12 seaside villages. Shallow water and consistent wind make spots like Manteo and Jockey’s Ridge State Park kite-flying and windsurfing meccas. The waves in Nags Head and Rodanthe are magnets for surfers. And thousands of shipwrecks lure divers to the coast. Some of the best beach camping can be found within Cape Hatteras National Seashore. When it comes to childhood summertime nostalgia, you can’t beat the town of Duck, where families still go crabbing straight off the docks.

Stay: Sanderling Resort is a staple summer oasis set on 13 acres that front the Atlantic and Currituck Sound near the town of Duck. Private beach access means guests are always steps from the sand, though the world-class spa may have you wishing for a cloudy day. Rates start at $354.

Insider tip: Aviation fans can fly a reproduction of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider above the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park at Kitty Hawk Kites.

spinner image a beach in Saugatuck, Michigan under blue skies
The low coastal dunes create an air of seclusion at Oval Beach in Michigan.
ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

Oval Beach, Saugatuck, Michigan

One of the Midwest’s best-kept secrets is that its beaches hold their own against the ocean shores on the coasts. Though technically landlocked, Michigan hugs 3,200 miles of shoreline along four Great Lakes. Arguably the prettiest stretch of bronzed sand is Oval Beach. Located just over two hours from Chicago in the tiny “shore” town of Saugatuck, the nearly half-mile-long beach is so wide that it rarely feels crowded and low coastal dunes create an air of seclusion. Amenities such as bathrooms, a concession stand, showers and picnic tables make this a family favorite. Wineries, cideries, breweries and farm-to-table restaurants like Pennyroyal Café & Provisions have turned the hamlet of Saugatuck into a destination and made it a delicious base for a summer vacation.

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Stay: A former 30-room motor lodge, Lake Shore Resort was revamped with boutique hotel touches such as mod mid-century furnishings and a heated pool. A lakefront setting, private swimming beach and complimentary yoga classes are a few of the perks. Rates start at $285.​

Insider tip: In the back of the unassuming Saugatuck Drug Store, you’ll find an old-fashioned soda counter that’s been serving root beer floats and malts for more than a century.

spinner image a beach in cape cod at low tide
Cape Cod is a popular destination for swimmable beaches on the East Coast.
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

Cape Cod, Massachusetts 

Massachusetts’ hook-shaped peninsula offers the quintessential New England summer experience with its sandy, dune-swept beaches, lighthouses and “lobstah” shacks. Each of the region’s 15 towns and even smaller villages has its own special appeal. Hyannis Port, the summer getaway of John F. Kennedy, is steeped in presidential lore, while Provincetown has a vibrant artist and LBGTQ+ community. The more remote Outer Cape towns, including Provincetown, Wellfleet, Eastham and Truro, offer easy access to Cape Cod National Seashore and its 40-mile swatch of pristine coast with six swimmable beaches and nature-filled hiking trails. The towns and villages on Nantucket Sound, such as Dennis Port and Harwich, have more manicured beaches with warmer water and calmer surf.

Stay: The 27-room Pelham on Earle is located 300 feet from the grass-covered, white sand dunes of quiet Earle Road Beach near downtown Harwich Port. A free shuttle service transports guests to the sister property, Pelham House Resort, in Dennis Port. The rooftop restaurant is a nice spot for sunset cocktails. Rates start at $289.

Insider tip: Set within a retrofitted bar in Dennis Port, Sundae School still makes each batch of ice cream from scratch. The ice cream sundaes are worth every calorie.

spinner image a woman in a yellow jack rests her arms on a rail while looking out over a beach in oregon
Visitors can enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean along the 363 miles of coastline in Oregon.
Francesco Vaninetti Photo/Getty Images

Oregon Coast

Oregon’s wild coastline spans 363 miles of dune- and cliff-lined shore, from Astoria to Brookings, making it an ideal road trip for beach lovers. Each of the coast’s three regions has distinct draws. The north is known for its shipwrecks and historic beach towns, such as Seaside (the western end of the Lewis and Clark expedition). The central coast draws active and adventurous types with its fishing, surfing and long boardwalks for summer strolls. Travelers looking to get a bit more off the beaten path gravitate to the rugged southern coast, home to old-growth California laurel and redwood forests and towering dunes. The artistic port town of Coos Bay is a nice base to explore the south’s long, empty beaches, hike the trails of Shore Acres and Cape Arago state parks, and feast on local seafood.

Stay: Fronting over a mile of bayfront beach, Bay Point Landing is a modern camping sanctuary that’s minutes from the heart of Coos Bay. Guests can choose from 26 Scandinavian-style cabins and 14 stylish Airstreams or drive their own RV — all 126 sites have a firepit and picnic table and access to the heated saltwater pool. Snacks, beer and even Pendleton blankets are sold at the on-site general store. On the weekends, a food truck serves basics like clam chowder and fish and chips, plus brunch items including avocado toast and breakfast burritos. Rates start at $149 for Airstreams and $199 for cabins.

Insider tip: Some of the best food in the area is at North Bend Lanes, a bowling alley 10 minutes north of Coos Bay. The family-run institution serves stellar flatbread pizzas and indulgent tri-tip sandwiches, and hosts concerts, comedy shows and wine tastings on its patio.

spinner image Aerial drone view of the Huntington Beach Pier
The Huntington Beach Pier in California is an iconic landmark and one of the longest piers on the West Coast.
KKStock/Getty Images

Huntington Beach, California

Nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego, this 10-mile stretch of uninterrupted coastline embodies laid-back SoCal surf culture. Hailed as Surf City USA, it’s a mecca for wave riders. Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, famously rode waves under the Huntington Beach Pier in the 1920s. Today, the world’s best wave riders flock here each summer to compete in the same spot, at the Wallex U.S. Open of Surfing. But the action isn’t just in the water. Volleyball courts line the sand, and a 6-mile bike path is always bustling with cyclists, joggers and roller skaters. The city’s vibrant waterfront downtown has breweries, distilleries and tasting rooms. Beach bonfires are a summer tradition here, and three of Huntington’s five beaches have first-come, first-served bonfire rings for sunset s’mores sessions.

Stay: The 457-room Waterfront Beach Resort has an unbeatable location that’s walking distance to the beach, the landmark pier and downtown’s Pacific City mall. On site, you’ll find two lagoon-style pools and a spa, plus five bars and restaurants. Rates start at $370.

Insider tip: Located within Huntington Beach Central Park’s 350 acres, the Shipley Nature Center offers some of the best year-round birding in Southern California and access to the preserve’s three-quarter-mile network of interpretive trails. Entry is free with a $3 suggested donation per person.

spinner image a catamaran on a beach at kaanapali
The Kāʻanapali coast is a destination for water sports on the island of Maui.
Douglas Peebles/Getty Images

Kāʻanapali Coast, Maui, Hawaiʻi

As soon as you step foot on the coconut palm-dotted shores of Kāʻanapali, you’ll understand why this white-sand beach on Maui’s west side was once a retreat for Hawaiian royalty. In the 1960s, it was developed to postcard perfection, becoming the first master-planned resort in the state. Today, the 3 miles of beach remain the epitome of paradise. Calm, crystal-clear waters are great for snorkeling, swimming and traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddling. And most nights at sunset, a cliff diving ceremony takes place off of Puʻu.

Kekaʻa, the beach’s northernmost cliffs, is named in honor of Maui’s last ruling chief, who was an avid cliff jumper. Nearby you’ll find two golf courses with ocean views, some of the island’s top hotels and Whalers Village, a beachfront hub of retail stores and restaurants.

The west coast of Maui is still recovering from devastating wildfires that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina just south of Kāʻanapali. Visitors traveling to Kāʻanapali will drive past the clean-up efforts and are asked to not stop or take photos, even from a distance.

Stay: The Westin Resort & Spa, Kāʻanapali, has a separate 217-room tower called Hokupaʻa that features special guest perks including access to a private bar, infinity pool and free cultural activities like ukulele lessons.

In April, the hotel will debut Hana Hou, an entertainment space with Top Golf swing suites, duckpin bowling and other options for all ages. Rates start at $599.

Insider tip: The Kapalua Coastal Trail is a mellow hike of around 3.5 miles, out and back, that departs from neighboring Kapalua Bay Beach. Plan your departure so you can grab a well-earned burger and shake at the Burger Shack at D.T. Fleming Beach, your turn-around point.

spinner image Colorful homes in Cape May, New Jersey
Visitors can find colorful and interesting architecture in historic Cape May, New Jersey.
Alamy

Cape May, New Jersey

America’s oldest seaside resort is known for its long, sweeping beaches, Victorian architecture and historic lighthouse. The city of Cape May has a 2.5-mile stretch of more than a dozen beaches that are patrolled by lifeguards and equipped with restrooms. (Note: Memorial Day through Labor Day visitors must purchase a tag for $10 to access the beaches.) A paved promenade runs parallel to the shore and is dotted with arcades and sweet shops, and the three-block Washington Street Mall has fountains, benches and independent businesses. Designated a national historic landmark, the historic district boasts one of the country’s largest collections of free-standing 19th-century architecture. Set aside time to make the 217-step climb to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse and be sure to catch a sunset at Sunset Beach.

Stay: The Hugh, an eight-room boutique bed-and-breakfast, is named for the family that originally lived in the 19th-century French Second Empire house. The owners have a background in fashion and food, and the hotel’s restaurant, Maison Bleue, serves French bistro classics such as steak frites. Located in the heart of Cape May, the property is a quick walk to shopping and music venues and a 10-minute walk to the beach. Guests receive complimentary beach tags, beach chairs and umbrellas. Rates start at $250 with a two-night minimum. 

Insider tip: Farm-to-table dinners are hosted at Beach Plum. Arrive early to tour the gorgeous grounds. Tickets start at $125 and the meals are BYOB.

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