Image: Mother and child at Cannon Beach
Mark Gamba  /  © Mark Gamba/CORBIS
Quaint and kid-friendly Cannon Beach, lies just 80 miles west of Portland, Ore. Go kite flying and tide pooling or build a sandcastle on this wide sandy beach.
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updated 5/18/2007 1:41:00 PM ET 2007-05-18T17:41:00

Ahhh . . . the family beach vacation. It’s as all-American as apple pie, a time-honored tradition where some of the best childhood memories are made. Everyone has their favorite sands, but when it comes to family-friendly options, not all are created equal. We’ve picked ten great family beaches across the country that parents and kids alike are guaranteed to love – whether for their gentle surf, range of activities, sand-castle potential, or educational elements. So pack up the car, hit the road, and, whatever you do, don’t forget the SPF.

1. Cannon Beach
Set against verdant old-growth forests and punctuated by giant rock monoliths, including the 235-foot high Haystack Rock, quaint and kid-friendly Cannon Beach, lies just 80 miles west of Portland, Oregon. While the Pacific waters here are often too cold for swimming, kite flying, along with tide pooling and sandcastle building, reign supreme on this wide sandy beach – and the kites sold at the town's weathered cedar-wood-clad shops make the perfect summer vacation souvenir. Every June brings Sandcastle Day (June 16 this year), when kids of all ages can enter one of the West Coast's largest sandcastle-building contests.

2. Cape May
Victorian-house-lined streets might not be what comes to mind when you think of going “down the Shore,” but this National Historic District in southern New Jersey is full of surprises. Indeed, while Cape May has the beautiful expanse of beach and requisite ice-cream shops for little visitors, it also boasts boutique hotels, horse-drawn carriage rides, and a top-rated, seafood-centric culinary scene bound to please grown-ups. Plus, amusement park–style excitement awaits on the animated boardwalk of North Wildwood, just a short drive away.

3. Coast Guard Beach
It’s no wonder that after all these years, the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts still lures families in droves – after all, aren’t vast beaches, pounding surf, fried seafood, and ice-cream shops what vacation dreams are made of? But of all the Cape’s beaches, the National Seashore’s Coast Guard Beach stands out – not only for the large waves begging to be body surfed, but also for its educational and natural attractions. Spend a day at the beach showing the kids the endangered piping plovers that nest here in early summer months, plus the site of the Mayflower's first New World landing, all while enjoying fun in the sun.

4. Coronado
Lather the kids with SPF and set 'em loose on the Coronado shore, a prime spot for fun-seeking families looking to boogie board, surf, and swim just a bridge or ferry ride away from downtown San Diego. Besides being the place to stay, the spectacular Hotel del Coronado (www.hoteldel.com) makes a fabulous backdrop for a family photo and has kids activities galore – think sandcastle building and kite making. If you visit in early winter, be sure to check out the gray whales breaching right offshore during their annual migration. Land activities like beach volleyball and biking can be enjoyed year-round courtesy of sunny San Diego’s near-perfect weather.

5. Daytona Beach
Daytona Beach’s 23 miles of sparkling Florida sand promise plenty of surfside family fun to keep the kiddies content, plus a plethora of off-beach activities to keep them occupied away from the sun. Wildlife excursions on the Halifax River and the nearby Marine Science Center (www.marinesciencecenter.com) offer eco-education, while the race-car simulator at Daytona USA (www.daytonausa.com) thrills adults and kids alike. Don’t want to encourage your kids to be race-car drivers? Take them instead to the NASA Kennedy Space Center (www.kennedyspacecenter.com) in Cape Canaveral, or to Orlando to see Mickey and the gang; both are only about an hour’s drive away.

6. Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head Island’s 14 miles of South Carolina beachfront are child-friendly indeed, with shallow waters, gentle waves, and sand dollar–dotted shores. Watch the water for awhile and you’ll likely spot frolicking pods of dolphins; you can even see the smiling mammals up close by chartering a dolphin cruise. With Harbour Town as your base, you can arrange cruises and water sports in the shadow of the island's iconic red-and-white-striped lighthouse, plus tee-off on the most famous of Hilton Head's 25 golf courses – a great place to get the kids started on the sport!

7. Newport Beach
If your family is more trendy than traditional, look no further than Newport Beach in Southern California. Frequented by sunbathers, surfers, and yes, families, miles upon miles of sand-castle-ready beach is open to the public. Head to the “Wedge” at Balboa Peninsula to be wowed by serious surfers taking on 25-foot waves, or for calmer waters, take the kids to Corona del Mar State Beach. Once you tire of the sand, push the stroller along the buzzing boardwalk or take older kids for a ride on a bicycle built for four. When it’s time for a change of scenery, Catalina Island (www.catalina.com) is just a short 75-minute ferry ride away.

8. Orient Beach State Park
Long Island, New York’s amazing beaches are no secret, but there are still a few places a family can get away from the crowds and spread out their blankets in the sand. Delightfully desolate Orient Beach State Park, on the tip of the island’s North Fork, has a 300-foot sandy stretch and plenty of amenities like a playground, picnic area, and barbecue grills. If their skin needs a break from the sun, take the kids on a guided hike of the thick forest and marshes that border the beach and tell them to keep an eye out for the resident ospreys. Adventurous families who arrive without wheels needn't worry, as bike and kayak rentals are available to help you explore on your own.

9. Poipu Beach Park
The crescent-shaped beaches of Poipu Beach Park, on Kauai’s sunny south shore, are tailor made for families. Toddlers can splash safely in a calm and shallow cove; teenagers can take surfing or body-boarding lessons near a reef; and while dad is out hitting drives on one of two championship golf courses, mom and the kids can snorkel in the crystal-clear Pacific, swim with green sea turtles (noted for their yellow-striped heads), and snap photos of dolphins, whales, and endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Restrooms, picnic tables, showers, and a playground are located in a shaded park next to the lifeguard-protected beach.

10. Sanibel Island
17 miles of seashells are yours for the pickin’ on Sanibel Island, known as one of the country’s top spots for this family-friendly activity. This spot on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico has all the ingredients for a kid’s dream vacation – soft white sand, gentle surf, and shallow water – plus the educational possibilities that parents love. Teach the children about ecotourism at the J.N. 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where bald eagles and over 240 other species of birds, reptiles, and mammals reside, or, give them a thrill on an Everglades Day Safari (www.ecosafari.com) in the Florida Everglades, less than two hour's away. Tennis, golf, shopping, and biking means there’s plenty for grown-ups to enjoy on Sanibel too.

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