Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy

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

Cape May, NJ

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This Victorian town has long been impervious to any of those—let’s just say, not-so-quaint—stereotypes associated with the Jersey Shore. In its pedestrian-friendly downtown, you can rent bicycles, nibble on fudge and taffy, or shop for all manner of precious items, from antiques to high-end cat toys.

Stay: It’s chockablock with adorable Victorian B&Bs, but Cape May also has a beautifully renovated grande dame hotel. The 1816 Congress Hall—where John Philip Sousa once conducted concerts on the lawn—now offers beach cabanas, yoga classes, and free Wi-Fi.

Eat: Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel may be the epitome of Cape May’s fabulously decadent, high-priced dining options—tuna tartare with fennel and honeycrisp apple, Magret duck breast—but for excellent fare that’s actually economical, don’t miss the gourmet sandwiches and chocolate bread pudding at downtown’s Depot Market Café, next to the old train station.

Katrina Brown Hunt

America’s Best Little Beach Towns

Cape May, NJ

This Victorian town has long been impervious to any of those—let’s just say, not-so-quaint—stereotypes associated with the Jersey Shore. In its pedestrian-friendly downtown, you can rent bicycles, nibble on fudge and taffy, or shop for all manner of precious items, from antiques to high-end cat toys.

Stay: It’s chockablock with adorable Victorian B&Bs, but Cape May also has a beautifully renovated grande dame hotel. The 1816 Congress Hall—where John Philip Sousa once conducted concerts on the lawn—now offers beach cabanas, yoga classes, and free Wi-Fi.

Eat: Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel may be the epitome of Cape May’s fabulously decadent, high-priced dining options—tuna tartare with fennel and honeycrisp apple, Magret duck breast—but for excellent fare that’s actually economical, don’t miss the gourmet sandwiches and chocolate bread pudding at downtown’s Depot Market Café, next to the old train station.

Katrina Brown Hunt

Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / 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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