America's Best Beach Boardwalks
“All the couples take pictures on the Wonder Wheel. We push our heads together so the photo shows the New York City skyline behind us,” says Shani Coleman, a 20-year-old student who likes to snuggle with her boyfriend on the landmark 1920 Ferris wheel on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Boardwalk. Growing up, she spent many summer hours here with her family and still orders marshmallows dipped in bright red candy-apple coating.
Everyone loves beach boardwalks, with their mix of sea air and easy strolling. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel too far to find one: about 60 U.S. towns have boardwalks, and 25 percent of those include amusement parks that come alive in summer. Visiting one is a quintessentially American summer experience.
Consider iconic Coney Island, where the boardwalk amusement park Luna Park—which was closed for nearly 60 years—is thriving since its 2010 reopening. The rebirth came courtesy of Zamperla, a major Italian manufacturer of theme-park attractions, which spent $30 million (re)creating this three-acre playland, including its grand 1903 entrance. “It’s the beginning of a new Coney Island for the 21st century,” says Dick Zigun, a longtime resident who runs the nonprofit organization Coney Island USA.
But not all beachside promenades are neon-lit attractions. On the isolated Long Beach Boardwalk, built over cool, windswept dunes in southwestern Washington, bird-watchers flock to see adorable but endangered snowy plovers in one of the few places in the world where they still nest. Parents wander with their children on paths trod by Captain William Clark in 1805, when members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition explored here. Oregon resident Bonnie Teschner Carey has been visiting Long Beach since she was a child 60 years ago: “It’s still a quiet place, not trendy, not known,” she says, “just like when I was a child.” Only now it has a boardwalk, so even with two knee replacements she can still enjoy the beach.
Whether it’s an iconic summertime destination like Coney Island or a seaside oasis like Long Beach, such family retreats and playgrounds can inspire more than lifelong loyalty. Sacramento resident and roller coaster buff Gerry Watt says, “If there is a heaven, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is there.”
Coney Island Boardwalk, Brooklyn, NY
The 2.7-mile Coney Island Boardwalk reopened its carnival-style Luna Park amusement park to great fanfare Memorial Day weekend 2010. For summer 2014, the park will introduce The Thunderbolt, Coney Island’s first custom-built coaster since The Cyclone. Riders can expect to reach up to 65 miles per hour. But some boardwalk crowd-pleasers haven’t changed; many still come for ocean views and fat frankfurters at the original Nathan’s Famous, home of the world-renowned Fourth of July hot dog–eating contest.
Don’t Miss: Grabbing a Coney Island Lager at the Freak Bar (named for the next-door “freak show”—formally the Coney Island Circus Sideshow), where old-fashioned sword swallowers, fire-eaters, and snake charmers show off their talents.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, CA
Designed in 1907 to be the “Coney Island of the West,” Santa Cruz’s boardwalk, on Main Beach, is the last remaining major family-oriented carnival-style park on the West Coast. It plays host to the 1924 wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster and the 1911 Looff Carousel, both National Historic Landmarks. The carousel is one of few left where riders on outside horses can grab a dangling ring, toss it into the mouth of a clown head painted on the wall, and be rewarded with bells, lights, and cheers.
Don’t Miss: At Marini’s Candies, watch chocolate dippers make nut clusters, English toffee, and even chocolate-covered bacon.
Atlantic City Boardwalk, Atlantic City, NJ
Originally built in 1870, the godfather of boardwalks started humbly as a barrier to reduce beach sand in hotel lobbies but now stretches for four miles with neon-lit casinos, towering hotels, countless shops, noisy arcade games, and brash musical shows on the street side, while still letting visitors savor the natural beauty of Atlantic City Beach.
Don’t Miss: Getting pushed along the wooden boardwalk in a cushiony two-person rolling wicker chair—a tradition dating to 1887. You can get to within three blocks of Absecon Lighthouse, the third tallest in America. Climb the lighthouse’s 228 steps and ponder how A.C.’s skyline has changed since the lookout was built in 1857.
Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, Hollywood, FL
Begun in 1925, the glamorous 2.5-mile-long terracotta-colored path was always intended to be a broad walk, wide and sweeping for promenading. Today, 28 hotels border the pure white sand of adjacent Hollywood Beach. The Art Deco Walkabout Beach Resort is painted pink; others are turquoise to match the sea.
Don’t Miss: The Sunday organic farmers’ markets, which sell smoothies made from exotic fruits like locally grown mamey sapote (which tastes like maraschino cherries). Then hire bikes at Sun & Fun Cycles and ramble from the north end of the Broadwalk to John U. Lloyd Beach State Park for a glimpse of nature in Old Florida.
Oceanfront Boardwalk, San Diego, CA
Outdoor activities are serious business year-round along this three-mile boardwalk that runs along Pacific and Mission beaches. Here you’ll find rental gear for surfing, kayaking, biking, and beach volleyball, as well as beach toys at Hamel’s Surf Shop. Plus, the Belmont Park amusement park scores with its Giant Dipper roller coaster and other stomach-churning rides. Too much SoCal sun? Visit The Plunge, the Olympic-size indoor pool.
Don’t Miss: Grabbing an outdoor table and Caesar Salad at Wave House Bar & Grill. Watch the surfers at the adjacent FlowRider, an artificial wave-generating machine for beginners, and the FlowBarrel, a continuous 10-foot barrel-wave for pros.
Virginia Beach Boardwalk, Virginia Beach, VA
This three-mile-long boardwalk celebrates the ocean. It wends its way past a statue of Neptune, god of the sea; the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum and its crafted decoys; and the historic Old Coast Guard Station, which sells fun nautical gifts. Parents and kids love the four-seat surrey bikes, the small family-friendly parks, and the 15th Street Amusement Park, with its wild spinning Skyscraper ride.
Don’t Miss: Dining on blue crab at Catch 31 on the boardwalk.
Myrtle Beach Oceanfront Boardwalk & Promenade, Myrtle Beach, SC
Opened May 15, 2010, the 1.2-mile boardwalk revitalizes downtown. The traditional raised wooden boardwalk in the northern end is lined with shops, while the southern end has a path that undulates between sand dunes. Marvin McHone, owner of Marvin’s Bar & Grill, says, “They did it right—it’s a classic.”
Don’t Miss: The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, a labyrinthine souvenir store covering 30,000 square feet on eight levels, has 70,000 different (mostly kitschy) items—from seashells (two for five cents) to a $19,000 bronze dolphin sculpture.
Huron Boardwalk, St. Ignace, MI
Built over the past 35 years, the spruce-and-maple-lined wooden boardwalk curves along the scenic shore for one mile, from Kiwanis Beach Park to American Legion Memorial Park, past small shops on one side and Lake Huron on the other. The nearby Museum of Ojibwa Culture, a National Historic Landmark, features a birch-bark canoe and handmade Native American crafts, and the Mackinac Grille serves fresh local whitefish baked on a maple plank.
Don’t Miss: Murdick’s Fudge Kitchen stirs up a local favorite: coconut-laced German chocolate fudge.
Kemah Boardwalk, Kemah, TX
Designed to capture the energy and vibe of a traditional carnival, this half-mile-long family-oriented boardwalk amusement park (opened in 1998) has a wooden roller coaster; a 65-foot Ferris wheel; a carousel; and a reproduction of an 1863 Central Pacific train. Throw in African elephant and lowland gorilla animatronics in a rainforest exhibit, a stingray petting tank, a 140-passenger open-decked speedboat ride, and an aquarium-themed restaurant, and you have an afternoon’s worth of entertainment.
Don’t Miss: Cooling off in the Dancing Fountains—75 ground-level water jets that shoot water 10–12 feet up into the air.
Long Beach Boardwalk, Long Beach, WA
Nature lovers stroll the half-mile wooden boardwalk across the tops of dunes looking for bald eagles, red-backed sandpipers, and rare snowy plovers. The beach probably hasn’t changed much in the two centuries since the Lewis and Clark Expedition explored here, and the 8.5-mile Discovery Trail that traces part of their route crosses under the boardwalk. Kids love the giant gray whale skeleton. Tip: There’s no snack bar, so pick up sandwiches in town—and then settle at one of the many picnic tables.
Don’t Miss: The World Kite Museum’s 1,500 kites, including military kites from World War II, Chinese dragon kites, and bird- and horse-shaped Indonesian kites.
Old Orchard Beach Pier & Boardwalk, Old Orchard Beach, ME
Palace Playground, the only beachfront amusement park left in New England, has a small boardwalk, but the summertime food and entertainment action continues out in the salt air of the wooden pier. Local favorites are Maine steamers, “lobstah,” and Pier Fries seasoned with malt vinegar. Another seasonal Down East favorite is black raspberry ice cream (although the many French Canadians who visit prefer caramel fudge).
Don’t Miss: Watching saltwater taffy being pulled at Dickinson’s Candy, which concocts some 24 flavors, including Beachball—a blend of raspberry, blueberry, orange, lemon, and mint.