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Great American beach towns

Combine an awe-inspiring landscape with the aw-shucks attitude of a small town, and you get Saugatuck, just across the Kalamazoo River from a surprisingly sandy stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern shore.
Combine an awe-inspiring landscape with the aw-shucks attitude of a small town, and you get Saugatuck, just across the Kalamazoo River from a surprisingly sandy stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern shore.
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Enough with your fancy remote beaches. The Maldives? St. Tropez? With the economy what it is, we'll be lucky to get to the next state on a $73 tank of gas. We want close. We want old-fashioned. We want a town where we can park the car, drag a beach chair and a book to the sand, and then shuffle down the boardwalk in our flip-flops for fried clams and an icy-cold can of beer: a place with fireworks, friendly locals, and sticky scoop shops. So we dug up 11 great American seaside escapes, from classic fun-in-the-sun California to New England colonial charm. Because when it comes to precious summer weekends in the sun, there's no place like home.

For a full slideshow of Great American Beach Towns, click here.

1. Ogunquit, Maine

The sand: Three and a half miles of white-sand beaches on a long hook of land, separated from the mainland by the mouth of the Ogunquit River.

Marine life: Lobster? Ach, you can find that anywhere in Maine. But only in a few select spots along the state's 5,500 miles of rocky coastline will you find actual soft, bottom-inviting sand, and that's outside the hamlet of Ogunquit. To avoid the traffic of crustacean-seeking crowds, you'll also want to ditch the car. Snag a parking spot at Footbridge Bridge early in the morning ($15 for the day) and take the trolley back into town for blueberry pancakes at Bessie's. Then stroll with a cup of coffee through the galleries and too-cute shops. Cross back over at Ogunquit Beach to find the spot you've staked in the sand. Then you're free of obligations until your dinner reservation at Ogunquit's acclaimed Arrows Restaurant. It goes beyond typical beach fare, serving foie gras-and-oxtail dumplings, sea salt–roasted rabbit loin, and mango bubble pudding. And, yeah, Maine lobster, too.

The sanctuary: Book one of the 19 cottages at Dunes on the Waterfront: They have screened porches and Adirondack chairs just 200 yards from the main beach.

Dunes on the Waterfront
Tel: 888 295 3863
Cottages from $200 a night, with a minimum week stay

Tel: 207 646 0888

Arrows Restaurant
Tel: 207 361 1100

2. Mexico Beach, Florida

The sand: Around these three miles of confectioners'-sugar sands, you'll see bald eagles, sea turtles, dolphins—and only a few footprints.

Marine life: Never heard of Mexico Beach? Exactly. South of Destin, on the Florida Panhandle, the 1,200 residents have avoided high-rises, strip malls, and theme parks like the plague, keeping their low-slung town to themselves. The "government" is a five-person council that's put the kibosh on anything taller than 48 feet, and the focus is on small-town fun, with gumbo cook-offs, kingfish tournaments, and fireworks fundraisers. You can kill two beach birds with one stone at the souvenirs-and-seafood shop Shell Shack. If you want to get off the beach, pop into the pool bar at the El Governor motel or take a scuba dive through a sunken oil tanker just offshore.

The sanctuary: The Driftwood Inn has four-poster beds in its rooms and DIY barbecue grills on its back deck. If you want to play at being a local, opt for one of the separate, two-bedroom Victorian houses.

The Driftwood Inn
Tel: 850 648 5126
Doubles from $140, Victorian houses from $175

The Shell Shack
Tel: 850 648 8256

El Governor
Tel: 850 648 5757

3. Newport, Rhode Island

The sand: Beaches for every budget, from exclusive clubs to free, secluded spots on Aquidneck Island.

Marine life: Hey, if we were a Vanderbilt, we would have built a summer cottage here, too. Only an hour and a half from Beantown, Newport has a dramatic, ocean-crashing-on-rocks side facing the Atlantic; a cutesy, colonial side facing Narragansett Bay; and a third, Rhode Island Sound–oriented side that's swept with beaches. Easton's Beach—better known as First Beach—is the classic Americana spot, with a carousel, snack bar, and cabanas; Sachuset (Second) Beach is a 1.25-mile stretch below St. George's prep school that catches the crowd runoff. Few make it as far as Third Beach, a quiet spot for kiteboarding, kayaking, and bird-watching. Fewer still know about Bailey's Beach, reached at the end of the mansion-lined Bellevue Avenue. Most of the sand belongs to the blue-blooded members of the Spouting Rock Beach Association, but the west end is open to the public, with no fee for parking. Spend your cash instead on a platter of fried clams from Flo's Clam Shack.

The sanctuary: The Victorian furniture at the Chanler at Cliff Walk invokes the Gilded Age of the nearby mansions, and most of the 20 rooms have views of First Beach, plus Vanderbilt-quality niceties like Fili D'Oro linens and working fireplaces.

The Chanler at Cliff Walk
Tel: 401 847 1300
Doubles from $595

Flo's Clam Shack
Tel: 401 847 8141

4. Folly Beach, South Carolina

The sand: A six-mile barrier island with room for surfers, beachcombers, and shellfish aficionados, 15 minutes south of Charleston.

Marine life: Officially, Folly Beach is part of the Charleston metro area, but there's not a smidgen of anything metropolitan here. Communing with nature is more common than commuting to the office, honking is what the birds do, and a board meeting is a bunch of surfers hanging out at the Washout. Newcomers' first stop should be McKevlin's Surf Shop, here since 1965. They'll set you up with a rental and one-hour lesson for $40. Or head straight for Folly Beach County Park, which is quieter than busy Center Street beach, but still has boogie boards, umbrellas, and bikes for rent. Take those wheels to Folly Beach Crab Shack, grab a hammock chair, and munch on buckets of seafood as "traffic" goes by.

The sanctuary: The new Water's Edge Inn, just three blocks from the Atlantic, is shaded by palms trees and has eight rooms with crisp white sheets and flat-screen TVs.

Water's Edge Inn
Tel: 800 738 0884
Doubles from $229

Tel: 843 588 2247

Tel: 843 588 3080

5. Saugatuck, Michigan

The sand: Dunes that will remind you of Cape Cod, and khaki beaches that mimic Malibu—right in the heart of the Midwest.

Marine life: Combine an awe-inspiring landscape with the aw-shucks attitude of a small town, and you get Saugatuck, just across the Kalamazoo River from a surprisingly sandy stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern shore. The historic, gallery-lined town (within a three-hour drive from Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee) has long drawn those seeking a watery muse, rugged adventures, or simple beach pleasures. Beachgoers can cross the bridge or, more fun, board a 1913 hand-cranked ferry that chugs from Saugatuck across the Kalamazoo. The quick and quaint ride costs just $1 and rewards passengers with the unspoiled stretch of Oval Beach, which frequently finds itself listed as one of the world's best—despite being miles from any ocean. For an even less populated place to stake your umbrella, there's the nearby Saugatuck Dunes State Park, with two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 200-foot-tall dunes, and 1,000 acres of hiking terrain. "Dune schooners" (think stretch ATVs) rumble through here from 10 am to 7:30 pm most summer days; some folks might want to retreat to the Saugatuck Drug Store, a soda fountain as sweet and as storied as the ferry.

The sanctuary: "Silver Palate" cookbook co-author Julee Rosso runs the Wickwood Inn, so expect complimentary hors d'oeuvres like crab crostini as lovely as the 11 guest rooms, each based on a different theme, like an English garden or mountain cabin.

Tel: 269 857 1465
Doubles from $295

Saugatuck Drug Store
Tel: 269 857 2300

Saugatuck Visitor’s Bureau

6. Coral Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

The sand: There are more than 40 beaches on the island—many protected by a national park—with hiking trails to nearly all of 'em.

Marine life: As one of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John may fly the red, white,and blue, but an expat vibe runs through the well-sheltered harbor of Coral Bay. Long a hippie-ish hideout for old salts and new beach bums alike, the funky little town—on the far side of the island from the main settlement of Cruz Bay—has none of the bling and bustle of sister islands St. Thomas and St. Croix, with their cruise ports and duty-free shop-o-ramas. Here, the entire economy depends on the sale of tropical trinkets from rickety shacks and bikinis from a VW bus. The unofficial town hall is Skinny Legs, a beachfront bar where the burger selections are scrawled on an old windsurfing board and an old sail serves as the awning. For those who insist on earning their Heinekens with a bit of exercise, Crabby's rents sea kayaks and snorkeling gear.

The sanctuary: Forget staying at a hotel—truth is, there aren't any this side of the island. Instead, lord over the coast in a villa like the Starlit Escape, a 2,500-square-foot house with five bedrooms and a freshwater swimming pool.

Tel: 800 965 1650
From $1,400 per week

Tel: 340 779 4982

Tel: 340 714 2415

7. Port Aransas, Texas

The sand: An 18-mile stretch of beaches, marinas, and seafood shacks on the Gulf of Mexico. You'll find "Port A" (pop. 3,300) at the tip of Mustang Island, near Corpus Christi.

Marine life: So you're building a sand castle here? Be prepared for some competition, pal. Port A has its own official Sandcastle Guy, who can whip up intricate turrets, archways, moats, and stairways faster than you can whip out your towel. Lucky for you, Mark Landrum also offers lessons, making the Gulf Coast hideaway a must-sea spot for family bonding. The older kids (or kids at heart) will dig surfing the swells off the town jetty, kiteboarding off the beginner-friendly sandbars, and casting the bays and flats for trophy tuna and tarpon. Fishing tournaments nearly every weekend in July and August add to the competitive spirit, but everybody's chummy over burgers and beers back at the oceanfront Beach Lodge.

The sanctuary: Stash your shovels, sandals, and saltwater tackle at the Tarpon Inn, an 1886 hotel whose 24 rooms have antiques and air conditioning but no phones or TVs.

Tel: 361 749 5555
Doubles from $89

Tel: 361 749 5713

Tel: 361 290 0414

8. Santa Cruz, California

The sand: You've struck gold in the Golden State, with 29 miles of beaches and a seaside amusement park.

Marine life: Our teeth hurt and our stomachs drop just thinking about all the cotton candy to be consumed and the roller coasters to be ridden at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the oceanfront park that's been whirling and twirling Californians for more than a century. But it's only one source of amusement in this college town on Monterey Bay, where bookish students and buff Laird Hamilton types alike spend their downtime mountain biking, long-boarding, and refueling on organic, farm-fresh fare (or at least a great fish taco). Rookie surfers should head to Cowell Beach, while volleyball players can pick up a game—or maybe a new friend—at busy Main Beach. On the menu at the Pearl Alley Bistro, diners discover hormone-free short ribs and sustainable cod, helping to make up for all that cotton candy.

SANTA CRUZ, CA - JULY 29: Visitors enjoy the beach below West Cliff Drive on July 29, 2007 in Santa Cruz, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)Stephen Dunn / Getty Images North America

The sanctuary: Invoking the jumbled, whitewashed villages of the Greek Islands, the Pleasure Point Inn has four tropics-themed rooms overlooking a surf break; ask about their learn-to-surf specials.

Tel: 831 429 8070

9. Jekyll Island, Georgia

The sand: A barrier island with ten miles of dune-swept beaches, a "Prince of Tides" feel, and 63 holes of golf.

Marine life: Though you won't find Mr. Rourke and Tattoo, Jekyll could be Fantasy Island, thanks to its array of fun-time activities. You can go horseback riding on the beach. There's kayaking and canoeing through salt marshes and estuaries, plus biking along 20 miles of trails along the sands, notching birds in the Audubon book, and visiting a water park to work off the kids' waffle-cone sugar highs. This bounty of outdoors options is matched by the historic district, a 240-acre compound on Jekyll Creek. Named in 1734 for a financial backer of the Georgia colony, the island long belonged to co-owners J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Rockefeller, and their moneyed manners still linger in elegant boutiques. But just about any budget can afford Blackbeard's Seafood Restaurant, where the fried oysters and flounder almondine are better than the restaurant name suggests.

The sanctuary: The Queen Anne–style Jekyll Island Club Hotel, with 157 rooms, has been hosting guests from Joseph Pulitzer to regular Joes since 1886. It's also where you'll find the four golf courses.

Jekyll Island Club Hotel
Tel: 912 635 2600
Doubles from $189

Blackbeard's Seafood Restaurant
Tel: 912 635 3522

10. Cannon Beach, Oregon

The sand: Four miles of Pacific Northwest grandeur, with towering rocks, tidal pools, forests, and waterfalls, all connected by soft stretches of sand.

Marine life: Picket fences, surf shops, and glassworks boutiques have helped tame Cannon Beach, a town of 1,700 artsy and outdoorsy souls 80 miles west of Portland, into a perfectly stroll-worthy seaside escape. But its wild side still rules: Born of volcanoes and still constantly smashed by the sea, the Oregon outpost overspills with fascinating formations, from the 235-foot basalt Haystack Rock and the forest-shrouded waves of Indian Beach to calmer spots at Arcadia Beach and the Tolovana Wayside. All but the most adventuresome (and wet suit–clad) will want to look, but not touch, as the tides can be deadly and the water rarely rises above 60 degrees. But you'll find plenty of gentle warmth in the surrounding community, which celebrates Sandcastle Days in June. At the Wayfarer Restaurant & Lounge, you can feast on Dungeness crab and sip an Oregon pinot noir while gazing at Haystack and all those crashing waves.

The sanctuary: Views from the 45 rooms at the stone-and-timber Ocean Lodge will blow your socks off; luckily, the place is pet-friendly, so Fido can go fetch 'em.

Tel: 503 436 2241
Doubles from $229

Tel: 503 436 1108

11. Haleiwa, Hawaii

The sand: Oahu has 112 miles of coastline and 130 beaches, but the stretch surrounding Haleiwa has 40 surf breaks and is known as the Seven-Mile Miracle. Aloha.

Flyn Novak, of Haleiwa, Hawaii, takes a flying leap as he wipes on a huge wave during the third round of the Monster Energy Pipeline Pro, at the Banzai Pipeline in Haleiwa, Hawii, on the North Shore of Oahu, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007. The contest is one of the most dangerous on the surfing circuit. Novak advanced through Round 3 and Round 4. One more day of competition will be held by Friday, Feb. 9. (AP Photo/Carol Cunningham)Carol Cunningham / AP

Marine life: Maybe if you'd been born in Haleiwa, you'd write lyrics like Jack Johnson. OK, maybe not. But the surfer and musician was certainly inspired by the surroundings of his sleepy hometown on the north shore of Oahu, with tumbling turquoise waves that swell to 25 feet, pineapple plantations, and dozens of hip little eateries, shops, and studios tucked among the prodigious palm trees.

Surf N Sea, one of the island's oldest surf shops, has rentals and lessons, plus scuba diving. In between sessions, hit the Haleiwa Arts Festival, which takes place in mid-July and exhibits sculptures, watercolors, photos, and jewelry by 130 island artists. Another work of art: a banana-coconut-pineapple shave ice from the legendary M. Matsumoto Grocery Store.

The sanctuary: Indulge your daydreams at one at the five beachfront bungalows at Keiki Beach. They have kitchens, grills, and cable, but the real amenities are the hammocks, tropical cocktails, and gorgeous sunsets.

Tel: 808 638 8229
One-bedroom bungalows from $135

Tel: 808 637 9887

Tel: 808 637 4827