Grab your flip-flops and your popsicle money—and follow us to five of our all-time favorite waterfront towns. Welcome to the heart of summer
Party Like It's 1959
Wildwood, New Jersey
It isn't the mile-wide beach. It isn't the affordable rates, even in midsummer. And it isn't the gargantuan Ferris wheel casting its shadow at the end of the pier (though the Ferris wheel sure does help). No, what makes Wildwood such a prime beach spot is the Doo Wop: that's the name for the loopy, candy-colored 1950's aesthetic that predominates on this barrier island just north of Cape May. Like so many vacation capitals born at the dawn of the road-trip era, Wildwood endured a passé period during the seventies and eighties. But over the past decade, after Yale architecture professors began making field trips, a revitalization blossomed: those larger-than-life neon signs, kidney-shaped pools, and plastic palm trees have all been spruced up, with a big, knowing wink. Add a classic beach scene and an entire week's worth of rides and waterslides on the boardwalk (see www.moreyspiers.com), and you'll all be doing the twist. LAY OF THE LAND The Wildwoods—from north to south, North Wildwood, Wildwood proper, and Wildwood Crest—are at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, about 90 minutes from Philadelphia. There are plenty of new cookie-cutter condos in these parts, but the Crest, as it's known, is the most family-oriented area and home to the greatest concentration of Doo Wop motels. STAY AT The StarLux (305 E. Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood; 609/522-7412; www.thestarlux.com; doubles from $139, including breakfast), an artfully renovated motel that looks as if it's about to blast off. For waterfront quarters, follow the rotating globe to the Pan-American Hotel (5901 Ocean Ave., Wildwood Crest; 609/522-6936; www.panamericanhotel.com; doubles from $167). EAT AT The Doo Wop Diner (Boardwalk, between Youngs and Spencer Aves., Wildwood; 609/522-7880; lunch for four $28), a haven of chrome right on the boardwalk. At night, brave the line at Cool Scoops (12th and New Jersey Aves., North Wildwood; 609/729-2665), and stake out a car booth—you can sit in a '57 Ford Fairlane, or a '59 Cadillac (pink, of course). DON'T MISS The trolley tour offered by the MidAtlantic Center for the Arts (800/275-4278; www.capemaymac.org; weeknights JuneAugust). You'll learn that the spaceship motif was launched right after Sputnik, in 1957, and that the Polynesian tiki-and-torches look arrived when Hawaii became a state, in 1959. Now you're ready to crack the Wildwood code.
Mayberry by the Water
For decades, the Florida Panhandle, a.k.a. the Redneck Riviera, has been known for two things: its extraordinary flour-white beaches and its tacky, cheek-by-jowl resorts. And then there's Seaside, a 1980's model town that introduced conscientious urban planning not only to the neighborhood but to the nation—and went on to star as the set for The Truman Show. Picture brick-paved streets, a tiny, everything-you-need downtown, and 480 beach cottages, very few alike and 248 available for rent. On a typical August evening, a reggae band performs on the green, as parents lounge on picnic blankets and every kid around joins in a giant game of tag. Did someone say idyllic?WEATHER REPORT Climate-wise, the Panhandle is at its best in summer, not nearly as hot as the beaches down south. Expect breezy days hovering in the mid-eighties. STANDOUT BEACHES Besides looking like Tahiti, Seaside's strand has the added bonus of being scarcely farther than a roll out of bed. If you must roam, the glassy blue waters of Grayton Beach State Park (County Road 30-A; 850/231-4210; www.floridastateparks.org) are a lovely two-mile bike ride away. Rent From Seaside Cottage Rentals (888/732-7433; www.seasidefl.com; two-bedroom houses from $292 per night). Call guest services (850/231-2222) between 6 a.m. and midnight, and they'll arrange in-house massages or have a picnic lunch—and rental bikes—delivered to your door. HOTEL ALTERNATIVE WaterColor, a Seaside-inspired planned community nearby, is home to the David Rockwelldesigned WaterColor Inn (34 Goldenrod Circle, Seagrove Beach; 866/202-2930; www.watercolorinn.com; doubles from $395) and a standout kids' camp. EAT AT Two of Seaside's own: the burger hangout, Shades (83 Central Square; 850/231-1950; lunch for four $36), and Bud & Alley's (2236 E. County Rd. 30-A; 850/231-5900; dinner for four $140), which specializes in just-caught Gulf fish and is ideal for the big night out.
The Heartland on Half Speed
Fish Creek, Wisconsin
Scandinavian settlers were attracted to the wildflower meadows and summer days that stretch until nine. Today's drop-ins to this bayside village in Wisconsin's Door County, the pinkie-shaped peninsula that separates Green Bay from the rest of Lake Michigan, also get tidy fruit orchards, markets stocked with artisanal cheddars, and a marina with slips reserved for yachts. Main Street's white clapboard storefronts are enthusiastically sprinkled with Swedish kitsch (count the blue-and-yellow flags and the heart-shaped doodads). Swim in water so clean you can skip bath time, and hike, bike, boat, and fish along the Door's 250 miles of shore. STAY AT The White Gull Inn (4225 Main St., Fish Creek; 888/364-9542; www.whitegullinn.com; cottages for four from $299), a Victorian lodge with the best fish boil, a Nordic dish of whitefish and potatoes cooked over a hyperactive outdoor fire. (Hot dogs available on request.) RENT FROM JR Vacation Rentals (53 W. Spruce St., Sturgeon Bay; 888/481-1935; www.jrvacationrentals.com; three-bedroom condos from $1,485 per week). EAT AT Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant (702 North Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay; 920/854-2626; dinner for four $64), where goats chomp on the sod roof and waitresses in dirndls dish up Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and meatballs on the side. Dessert stop: Sweetie Pies (The Settlement Shops, Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; 920/868-2743) for cherry pie and cinnamon-piecrust cookies. IDEAL OUTING Rent wheels from Edge of Park Bike and Moped (Park Entrance Rd., Fish Creek; 920/868-3344; www.edgeofpark.com), at the main entrance of Peninsula State Park (920/868-3254; www.dnr.state.wi.us), then coast the gentle trails beneath the park's 3,776 acres of white birches and sugar maples. While you're there, swim and canoe at Nicolet Bay Beach, a crescent of shallow water (plus a playground and snack bar) on Green Bay. IT'S A JOKE Take a crash course in Midwestern humor at the American Folklore Theatre (9462 Shore Rd., Fish Creek; 920/854-6117; www.folkloretheatre.com) in the park's outdoor amphitheater. DON'T MISS Miniature golf at the delightfully creaky Red Putter (10404 Hwy. 42; 920/854-5114), in nearby Ephraim, or a flick at the 1950's Skyway Drive-in Theater (3475 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; 920/854-9938). PERFECT SOUVENIR A bucket of tart Montmorency cherries, harvested from mid-July to mid-August at Lautenbach's Orchard Country (9197 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; 920/868-3479; www.orchardcountry.com). Be sure to test your prowess at the local sport: pit spitting.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
Named for a cannon that washed ashore in 1846, Cannon Beach is sandwiched between Highway 101 and the pounding Pacific. Its big selling points: proximity to Portland and Seattle (80 miles east and 222 miles north, respectively); wild, undeveloped beaches; four blocks of galleries and kite stores; and a highly competitive annual sandcastle-building contest (June 11 this year). LAY OF THE LAND The town extends four miles along the Pacific, bordered on the north by Ecola State Park and on the south by Tolovana Beach Park. FIRST TOURISTS Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806, to buy 300 pounds of whale blubber from the Clatsop Indians. FAMOUS LANDMARK Haystack Rock, a 235-foot monolith, towers above the shore. At low tide during May and June, you can see black-and-white tufted puffins (try saying that 10 times fast!) nesting on its grassy north slope. Look for members of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program (they're the ones setting up microscopes and spotting scopes); they'll help you identify all the strange creatures in the tide pools. STANDOUT BEACHES The town's own stretch has soft sand and calm surf. Secluded and stunning Arch Cape lies five miles to the south. Five more miles down the coast, Short Sands Beach, a horseshoe-shaped cove at Oswald West State Park, is beloved by families and surfers for its sandy bottom, reliable waves, and shelter from strong winds. Caveat Pack wet suits: the water averages a teeth-chattering 54 degrees. STAY AT The beachfront Surfsand Resort (148 W. Gower St.; 800/547-6100; www.surfsand.com; doubles from $199), which has an indoor pool, plus a weenie roast on summer Sundays. The Ocean Lodge (2864 S. Pacific St.; 888/777-4047; www.theoceanlodge.com; doubles from $249, or $279 after June 21) caters to young guests, with sand buckets on arrival and a cookie jar in the lobby. RENT FROM Cannon Beach Property Management (877/386-3402 or 503/436-2021; www.cbpm.com); a two-bedroom house with ocean views goes for about $1,800 a week. ESSENTIAL EATING You'll find razor clams—breaded and panfried—on menus all over town; some of the best are at the Driftwood Inn (179 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-2439; dinner for four $130). SUGAR FIX Cannon Beach Cookie Company (239 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-1129) bakes starfish-shaped cookies and scones with marionberries, a grown-only-in-Oregon delicacy. Across the street, at Bruce's Candy Kitchen (256 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-2641), the saltwater taffy, made with a 1908 machine, comes in flavors like butter and molasses-mint. PERFECT SOUVENIR A kite from Once Upon a Breeze (240 N. Spruce St.; 503/436-1112).
The Artsy O.C.
Laguna Beach, California
MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County recently put the city on the map for a new generation. But this beach town, an hour south of Los Angeles, with its stunning Pacific vistas and ruddy sandstone cliffs, has been an artist's haven since the 1920's. Laguna still has a thriving gallery scene; it also hosts three major summer art fairs. But for families, the surf-and-turf diversions are the draw—from the wild (bodysurfing and kiteboarding) to the mild (whale watching and toe-ring shopping). LAY OF THE LAND Situated between the suburban sprawl of Newport Beach and the fishing wharves of Dana Point, Laguna Beach stretches 7 1/2 miles along the Pacific, with swimming beaches, surf breaks, and tide pools. To the east, Laguna Canyon (www.lagunacanyon.org) is the place for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. Disneyland and Legoland are each a half-hour away; Universal Studios and San Diego's animal attractions are 90 minutes, tops. BEST BEACH Main Beach is smack-dab downtown with volleyball nets and a boardwalk. Wave riders congregate at Thalia Street Beach, home to the coolest surf shops. STAY AT The two-year-old Arts and Craftsstyle Montage Resort & Spa (30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 949/715-2057; www.montagelagunabeach.com; doubles from $590), the most architecturally impressive spot on the beach. Also consider the newly remodeled, all oceanfront rooms at Surf & Sand (1555 S. Coast Hwy.; 800/524-8621; www.surfandsandresort.com; doubles from $430), an easy walk into town. In nearby Dana Point, the Ritz-Carlton (1 Ritz-Carlton Dr.; 949/240-2000; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles through June 16 from $345, June 17Sept. 4 $425) offers surfing lessons and a Healthy Taste menu for kids. EAT AT Javier's Cantina (480 South Coast Hwy.; 949/494-1239; dinner for four $60), the local kids' favorite Mexican joint. For more sophisticated fare, try chef Nancy Wilhelm's California twist on seafood and steaks at Tabu Grill (2892 S. Coast Hwy.; 949/494-7743; dinner for four $176). SUGAR FIX Scandia Bakery (248 Forest Ave.; 949/497-1495) stuffs chocolate cream puffs with fresh strawberries. CAVEAT Parking can be brutal, particularly when the art fairs are in swing. The Montage provides car service; the rest of the world hops the free Laguna Beach Trolley that runs from mid-June through August. SPECTACLE Every summer evening, at the Festival of the Arts' Pageant of the Masters (650 Laguna Canyon Rd.; 949/494-1145; www.foapom.com), volunteer models, lighting and set designers, and makeup artists bring famous paintings and sculptures to life. Que Seurat, Seurat!
—DAVID A. KEEPS
Bruce's Candy Kitchen
Cannon Beach Cookie Company
Driftwood Restaurant & Lounge
American Folklore Theatre
Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
Holding fast to the area’s Swedish heritage, Al Johnson’s meatballs and pancakes are notable, and so is the restaurant’s grass roof with grazing goats.
Bud & Alley's
Grayton Beach State Park
Save room for the Go Ape Daddy-O, a classic banana split at this old-fashioned ice cream shop decked out with jukeboxes and vintage Cadillac front-ends.
Doo Wop Diner
Head to this classic diner for Black Angus burgers survey up under neon lights.
Surf & Sand
Mediterranean-style resort with a casual vibe and unbeatable access to the secluded 930-foot Bluebird Beach.
Room to Book: Those in the Towers Building are the largest.
The Ocean Lodge
White Gull Inn
The antiques-decorated rooms and suites at the historic inn have private baths and cozy fireplaces. While here, experience a fish boil at the inn, where you can learn about and watch the preparation of Lake Michigan whitefish over an open fire.
Go nouveau at this funky 1950’s-themed resort straight out of The Jetsons. Don’t worry, though: The retro lines and colors of the bright rooms are in fact new.
Montage Laguna Beach
Montage aims for an experience you might find in Positano, crisp service and the smell of the surf. The location is exceptional: 240 rooms on 30 acres with a panoramic view of the Pacific. The shingle-style architecture, all twists and turns and gables and porches, is incurably romantic, though interiors are also impressive, as they include a prominent collection of art from early in the 20th century, including works by William Wendt, Jean Mannheim and other air painters who put Laguna Beach on the map. For dinner, choose from one of three restaurants—Studio, The Loft, and Mosaic Bar & Grille—and then retire to the lobby to hear the resident pianist.
Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
On a bluff between L.A. and San Diego, the Ritz-Carlton offers surfing lessons and a Healthy Taste menu for kids. For adults, the property boasts beachy-hued rooms and a serious spa.