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These uncrowded and unpretentious beach towns, from Florida to Hawaii, promise fun that's (could it be?) actually affordable.

Gulf Shores, AL

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Gulf Shores is near miles of splendid beaches along Bon Secour National Wildlife refuge and is a mainstay of the American seafood industry. Apart from the National Shrimp Festival every fall, the beaches are known for the strange occurrence of “jubilees,” random nights when crabs, fish, and shrimp flop up on the beach and make for easy pickings.

Stay: Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast is a charmer with stained glass in the den, elaborate woodwork in the great hall, and hearty three-course breakfasts.

Eat: Set in a circa 1897 building surrounded by Spanish moss and live oak trees, the Wash House Restaurant serves fried oyster lettuce wraps and beef spring rolls.

Tom Austin

America’s Best Little Beach Towns

Gulf Shores, AL

Gulf Shores is near miles of splendid beaches along Bon Secour National Wildlife refuge and is a mainstay of the American seafood industry. Apart from the National Shrimp Festival every fall, the beaches are known for the strange occurrence of “jubilees,” random nights when crabs, fish, and shrimp flop up on the beach and make for easy pickings.

Stay: Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast is a charmer with stained glass in the den, elaborate woodwork in the great hall, and hearty three-course breakfasts.

Eat: Set in a circa 1897 building surrounded by Spanish moss and live oak trees, the Wash House Restaurant serves fried oyster lettuce wraps and beef spring rolls.

Tom Austin

Jeff Greenberg/Alamy

America’s Best Little Beach Towns

Nightlife-driven souls looking for Floridian action point their convertibles toward the likes of Fort Lauderdale and Key West. But a certain quieter, off-the-radar destination on the state’s Gulf Coast holds a different kind of allure.

The cult-fave town of Boca Grande is a throwback, an Old Florida time warp with such whimsically named streets as Damnificare and no chain stores or ye-olde theme restaurants. This idyllic escape features a much-photographed lighthouse watching over Gasparilla Island State Park and long, quiet beaches touched by gentle surf. Boca Grande is a wonderland, a place that defies the clichés of Florida beach towns—all the sloppy, party-hearty aspects—while embodying the best of what the state has to offer.

In the free and easy days of summer, the quest for a great American beach town like Boca Grande is a national passion. Beach towns are a mainstay of the hot months, a beacon for countless citizens looking for a reprieve from the daily grind. The Great American beach town, apart from being idle as all get out, is also resolutely democratic, conscious that the sand belongs to all. These spots serve as emblems of our God-given right to get too much sun and to eat tasty—if nutritionally unfortunate—fried food.

Take the island of Chincoteague, VA, the gateway to the not-to-be-missed seven-mile-long Assateague National Seashore, a wondrous backdrop for beach strolls rich with herons, bald eagles, foxes, and the famed wild ponies. Visit in July, when the Pony Round-up and Swim engulfs the island, with ocean-going cowboys herding the ponies across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague, where the colts are auctioned off to keep the herd at a manageable level.

Of course, the West Coast has no shortage of sandy attractions. In Santa Cruz, CA , the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Beach Boardwalk amusement park keeps visitors screaming for more cheap thrills. Check into the Casablanca Inn, where most rooms have ocean views, and order some fresh seafood at the restaurant, which also overlooks the mighty Pacific.

And salt water isn’t needed for a great beach town. On Lake Michigan, the Silver Lakes Sand Dunes Area draws a faithful midwestern crowd seeking downtime and summer fun.

So get that beach chair and cooler ready—and prepare for the simple pleasures of summer at one of these classic retreats. —Tom Austin

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