America’s Favorite Beach Towns 2016
Boston restaurateur Brian Piccini has been coming to Provincetown, Massachusetts nearly every summer since he was a boy. “You’re surrounded by water, and at sunset when the light shines over the dunes and reflects off the boats, it’s spectacular,” says Piccini. “Even as a kid, I could sense the magic."
And Piccini isn’t alone. In this year’s America’s Favorite Places survey, Travel + Leisure readers voted the town at the tip of Cape Cod America’s favorite beach town. A winning trifecta of gorgeous natural scenery, charming architecture, and an everyone-is-welcome cultural scene, earned P-Town top honors. In the words of Piccini, “it hits the nail on all heads.”
In the annual America's Favorite Places survey, readers of all stripes evaluate hundreds of cities and towns across a range of categories, from the friendliness of the locals to the quality of the pizza. Unlike Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards, which encourages readers to weigh in on travel experiences across the globe, the America's Favorite Places survey is a way for locals to share what their hometowns do best.
As the results make clear, American beachgoers are looking for more than just expanses of sand on their summer vacations. Some travelers are looking for resorts with a longstanding tradition of leisure.
That’s the case for one California beach town, which is celebrating one hundred years as a haven for sun-seekers this year. Others have a more of-the-moment feel, including an up-and-coming Midwest destination that’s traded sawmills and canning factories for hip wineries and beach umbrellas.
Read on for this year’s ranking of America’s favorite beach towns, and get that sunscreen ready.
Travel + Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey opened on 10/8/2015 and closed on 04/15/2016. It was open to everyone, and ran alongside a sweepstakes. The open-response survey asked respondents to submit their favorite place and rate it in over 65 categories, including affordability, notable restaurants, and public parks. Cities are defined as governed bodies with a population over 100,000.
No. 15: Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA
“A village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach,” says the town plan for Carmel-by-the-Sea, founded as an arts colony in 1916. Fast forward a hundred years and the bohemian beach town has stayed true to its word, with storybook houses, charming inns, and top-notch art galleries. A popular stopover for roadtrippers on California’s State Highway One, it’s just twenty minutes north of Big Sur’s majestic cliffs, and makes the southern terminus for Pebble Beach’s famous 17-Mile Drive. Carmel also scores highly for its pet friendliness: restaurants, hotels, and the gorgeous Carmel Beach all welcome four-legged friends.
No. 14: St. Augustine, FL
Things move slowly in St. Augustine, a sweet tea-sipping town in northeast Florida, founded by conquistadors in 1565. Over four centuries later, the colonial fort, terracotta-roofed palazzos, and cobblestone streets still showcase the city’s Spanish heritage. Downtown, moss hangs languidly from the oak trees on King Street, where the grand Casa Monica Hotel has welcomed guests since 1888. Readers give St. Augustine high marks for its access to nature as well. Anastasia State Park protects 1,600 acres of wildlife-rich dunes, maritime forests, and salt marshes, as well as 4 miles of white-sand beaches.
No. 13: Newport, RI
Historic summer playground for nearly all of America’s early tycoons, Newport, Rhode Island is the type of town where “cottage” means a 70-room Italianate estate. The Vanderbilt and Astor families transformed this New England seaport into a yachting capital, and the town retains its nautical appeal. Newport also scores highly for its busy music scene, which includes the famous Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals every July. On warm days, stroll past historic mansions on the Cliff Walk as it follows coastal bluffs, all the way to Easton’s Beach, a south-facing stretch of sand dubbed First Beach by locals.
No. 12: Myrtle Beach, SC
Myrtle Beach has over 10 miles sandy shores, more than enough for the millions of visitors who flock to this sunny destination. It added a boardwalk and London Eye-type Ferris wheel at the beginning of the decade, bringing a renewed energy to a resort that has long cherished its campy vibe. Molten Mountain, a miniature golf course with a 50-foot artificial volcano that erupts every half hour, is still a necessary stop here. Myrtle Beach also scores highly as a romantic getaway, no doubt because of its many date spot options—the small town has a remarkable 1,900 restaurants.
No. 11: Atlantic City, NJ
Things are looking up in Atlantic City, and T+L readers have taken notice. A decline in gaming revenues and subsequent closure of multiple casinos has pushed the beach town to encourage more family-friendly endeavors. Case in point: the famed Showboat Hotel has just reopened, sans casino. Today’s visitors are drawn to Atlantic City for its historic boardwalk—the country’s first, immortalized in the boardgame Monopoly. And remember: no stroll along the five-mile promenade would be complete without a stop for taffy and funnel cake.
No. 10: La Jolla, CA
Academics aren’t quite sure how La Jolla got its name, but one theory suggests that it’s a misspelling of la joya, or “jewel,” in Spanish. Based solely on natural beauty—the hilly enclave in San Diego looks out onto water on three sides—that theory seems plausible. Throw in a fine dining scene that rivals cities 10 times its size; a community theater that regularly sends its productions to Broadway; and a contemporary art museum (soon to be expanded by Annabelle Selldorf), and the whole “gem” theory really makes sense.
No. 9: Cape May, NJ
Cape May is a postcard-ready seaside resort where horse-drawn carriages shepherd visitors around streets lined with Victorian houses, many of which are now romantic inns and B&Bs. A compact town center, chock full of antique stores, fudge shops, and local boutiques keep families coming back year after year. After a day in the sand, locals converge outside the Beach Shack Hotel for happy hour at the Rusty Nail, an outdoor tiki bar with a firepit. Order the bar’s signature Hammer cocktail, a potent combination of spiced rum, coconut rum, passion fruit puree, and fresh lemon and pineapple juices.
No. 8: Sarasota, FL
It’s not just Sarasota’s 35 miles of white powder sand that earns this Florida town fans. Although they do help. (In-the-know sun-worshippers head to the top of North Lido Key beach for a crowd-free day on the Gulf.) A bustling downtown, developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Ringling family, also earns T+L readers’ hearts. The clan of circus magnates left Sarasota with a staggering collection of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velazquez, and other European masters. Today, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art preserves the artworks inside the Ringling estate, and is run by Florida State University.
No. 7: Laguna Beach, CA
Barely 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, this Orange County beach town supports a thriving arts community, with many posh galleries lining the Pacific Coast Highway. But there’s nothing stuffy about Laguna Beach. At the Pageant of the Masters Festival, for example, living participants recreate iconic paintings and sculptures each summer. A series of coastal bluffs makes for smaller, cove-like beaches, where the crowds are few and the views are superb. Climb up the steps from one such beach and you’ll find yourself at Montage Laguna Beach, a shingled, arts-and-crafts-style resort that grows its own produce.
No. 6: Monterey, CA
Readers appreciate Monterey, California for its unabashed love of the sea. The former canning town overlooks Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary that protects 4,600 square miles of wildlife-rich habitat. More than two million people a year visit Fisherman’s Wharf and its Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to 600 species of fish and a live kelp forest—just like the ones offshore. Whale watches, kayak expeditions, and scuba diving tours all leave from downtown, where a clutch of seafood restaurants and shops keeps landlubbers satiated. The entire bay is lined with gorgeous beaches, but readers recommend northwest-facing Asilomar State Beach. Rocky coves punctuate its mile-long stretch of sand—but beware: the cold waters that bring the whales means swimming here is not for the faint of heart.
No. 5: Traverse City, MI
Award winning wineries, a buzzing microbrewery scene, a film festival headed by Michael Moore, and some of the most gorgeous beaches in the country, Traverse City, Michigan is one hip town. The lone midwestern winner, it attracts visitors to the shores of Lake Michigan each year for its week-long National Cherry Festival—the region produces over 300 million pounds of the red fruit annually. Balmy summer temperatures also bring nature lovers to nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, where the 2.8-mile Sleeping Bear Point trail offers pinch-yourself views over the lake and nearby islands.
No. 4: Sanibel Island, FL
Just off the coast of Fort Myers, Sanibel Island benefits from its rare east-west orientation by being a natural repository for seashells. So many seashells, in fact, that there’s a verb for collecting them here: the Sanibel Stoop. Forward-thinking residents enacted regulations in the mid-20th century that spared the island from sprawl and overdevelopment so common in the rest of the state. Today, fully two-thirds of the island is protected land, including the alligator-filled J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
No. 3: Naples, FL
It’s mostly palm trees and single family houses—rather than glassy high-rises—that line the 10 miles of white-sand beaches of Naples, Florida. This tiny resort town on the Gulf Coast has long been a favorite destination for the jetsetters that prefer quiet relaxation over the glitzy see-and-be-seen parties of Miami. T+L readers appreciate the small but vibrant downtown of Old Naples, a square mile collection fashion boutiques and restaurants, bordered by Naples Bay to the east and the Gulf to the west. At sunset, follow the locals to Naples Pier to catch the day’s last light dip under the horizon.
No. 2: Hilton Head, SC
Repeat visitors have been championing this South Carolina golf and beach resort for decades. Palmetto Dunes General Store sells the island’s best fried chicken and beautiful waterfront hotels, such as Sea Pines Resort, welcome families to Hilton Head’s manicured golf courses, pristine beaches, and wildlife-filled nature preserves. Walk the 114 steps up the Harbour Town Lighthouse, and you’ll get views of all three. Pro tip: Come in early summer to see the loggerhead turtles nest on the beach, or in late summer and early fall to watch the baby turtles hatch and shuffle into the Atlantic.
No. 1: Provincetown, MA
It’s unlikely the Pilgrims knew they were standing on prime waterfront real estate when they signed the Mayflower Compact here in 1620. But nearly four centuries later, Travel + Leisure readers have named Provincetown America’s top beach destination. The sleepy town of 3,000 residents on the tip of Cape Cod balloons into an arts colony of 60,000 people come summertime, drawing a creative crowd that spends the days sunning at Race Point Beach or strolling the galleries on downtown’s Commercial Street. At night, P-Town’s bars play host to Broadway performers, drag shows, and a whole lot of dancing.