America’s Favorite Beach Towns 2014
“It would make more sense for me as a New Yorker to hit the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore each summer,” says the souvenir-shopping blogger. “But I skip these spots and take the longer drive to Chatham.” Along with the lobster at Chatham Pier Fish Market, she loves the handblown vases at Chatham Glass Company and the fudge at Chatham Candy Manor. “It has that small-town vibe.”
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Travel + Leisure readers also loved the Cape Cod destination, ranking Chatham, MA, among the top 10 beach towns nationwide. As part of our annual America’s Favorite Towns survey, readers evaluated hundreds of places for qualities like romantic hotels and live music. Not surprisingly, many of the towns that scored well for picnics, seafood shacks, and cool motels also sit right next to the shore.
Granted, beach towns come in a variety of flavors, from mansion-lined Newport, RI, to lovably kooky Key West, FL. One top 25 beach town provides easy access to wine country. In another, you can get an up-close look at the local pirate past. Either way, once you have found your ideal beach village, you want to keep coming back, like the tide itself.
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Mary Castillo, for instance, goes to Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, twice a year and gets more attached each time. During the summer, she looks forward to seeing dolphins surfing the waves, and in the winter, “after the storms, the sand is swept clear to reveal the bedrock underneath,” says the mystery writer. “When we walk on Carmel Beach, it’s never the same, and yet it feels like home.”
No. 1 St. Simons Island, GA
Lined with white sand and live oaks, the biggest of Georgia’s Golden Isles won the beach-town contest for offering a triple threat of southern charm, serenity, and affordability. It’s not hard, after all, to get hotel rates here under $200 a night. St. Simons Inn, for instance, overlooks a 19th-century lighthouse, while the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, a former dance club, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Simons also scored well with readers for its good picnicking spots, events like the 4th of July Sunshine Festival, and for romance. You two might rent a bike or catch a trolley to tour the area’s plantations.
No. 2 Beaufort, NC
Beaufort dates back to 1709 and landed its silver-medal position for classic boardwalk culture as well as easy-access kayaking in Taylors Creek. Gazing across the dock to Carrot Island, you might see wild horses, which have been a local staple since the town’s pirate days. While other beach towns boast about current celebrity visitors, Beaufort still has the remnants of its most famous (or infamous) regular: Blackbeard, whose pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, sank here. Today, “Queen Anne’s Revenge” also refers to a restaurant on the boardwalk, where you can eat fresh stuffed shrimp, choose from 400 craft beers and wines, and listen to Beaufort’s highly ranked live music.
No. 3 Amelia Island, FL
This barrier island off the northern coast of Florida has a worldly past, having existed under eight different flags, including Spain, Mexico, and France. Its dominant personality is now Victorian charm, manifested in such spots as the Palace Saloon, which purports to be the oldest bar in Florida (readers also ranked the town in the top 10 for good beer-quaffing). Another old-fashioned perk: Amelia Island State Park is one of the few beaches in the U.S. where you’re still allowed to ride horses right on the sand.
No. 4 Provincetown, MA
Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, comes across as both elegant and fun loving. You can hike the paths alongside the dunes at the Province Lands Trail and then kick back at Victor’s, known for its live jazz, cherry-blossom martinis, and raw bar, with local oysters and crab claws for 99 cents each. T+L readers ranked it in the top 10 for both active locals and B&Bs like the new unfussy Salt House Inn. P-town also scored highly as a gay-friendly and girlfriend-getaway destination.
No. 5 Newport, RI
This historic town on Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island scored in the top 10 for its vacation homes—and no wonder, since former part-time locals have included folks with last names like Vanderbilt and Morgan. For a lovely coastal stroll with mansion views, follow the Cliff Walk. And when you’re ready to swim, head to popular Easton’s Beach. Newport also ranked in the top 10 for its ice cream, such as the ironically dubbed Awful Awful shakes at Newport Creamery.
No. 6 Chatham, MA
Chatham still supports a commercial fishing operation, but clearly has a softer side: readers ranked it at the top of the survey for its sense of romance. One swoon-worthy hotel is the luxurious clapboard Chatham Bars Inn, set on 25 acres with its own private beach, spa, and more than two-dozen shingled cottages. Among public shores, Chatham Lighthouse Beach is considered the most scenic. The good times here on Cape Cod don’t die down after Labor Day: thanks in part to its annual Pumpkin People display, Chatham also ranked near the top for being a cool Halloween destination.
No. 7 Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA
If your idea of seaside bliss is waves crashing into the rocks, this former artists’ colony on Monterey Bay offers beach-town perfection. Readers’ favorite time to visit here was fall—perhaps because that’s also harvest time for the wineries (such as Heller and Galante) in neighboring Carmel Valley. Readers also loved the town for its romantic hotels; check in to the château-style L’Auberge Carmel or Mission Ranch, an old dairy farm saved from developers by past mayor Clint Eastwood.
No. 8 Fairhope, AL
Readers gave this Gulf Coast town—where five rivers converge—high marks for its sense of local pride. One source of that self-esteem could be the regular slate of festivals, from antique shows and arts and crafts festivals to the annual L.A. Songwriters’ Festival (here, “L.A.” means Lower Alabama). Come summer, Fairhope’s location on Mobile Bay brings the possibility of jubilees—a natural phenomenon when live flounder, crabs, or shrimp suddenly wash ashore by the thousands. For a good vantage point, stay at one of the town’s bay-view B&Bs, such as Emma’s Bay House.
No. 9 St. Augustine, FL
Founded by the Spanish in 1565, this college town on Florida’s northern coast is still a showcase for Spanish forts, lovely moss-covered oaks, and good sweet tea. Readers loved its parks and kitschy souvenirs such as the two-ounce, blue-glass bottles of agua from the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the site of Ponce de Leon’s fabled discovery. For plenty of sand to yourself, go to the four-mile-long Anastasia State Park Beach, which features a maritime forest. Readers also liked the town’s historic inns; the Moorish-style Casa Monica Hotel once housed a railroad tycoon.
No. 10 Lahaina, HI
There’s an old-timey charm to this former whaling village on the west side of Maui, where island royals hung out in the 19th century. The quaint architecture remains, as does the old jail where misbehaving sailors did time. It’s still a great place to see the whales, from December to May, and readers declared Lahaina their favorite warm-weather escape in the survey. Readers also embraced the good picnicking potential—and a great spot to spread your blanket is under the town’s epic banyan tree, which shades nearly an acre in its own park. Surrounding streets are full of trinket shops, art galleries, and cafés.
No. 11 Key West, FL
The spiritual home of Margaritaville is, for many travelers, the ultimate beach-town paradise. Readers loved the retro-cool motels like the 1950s Art Deco–style El Patio Motel, which has Cuban-tile floors and comfort bikes for rent. A more famous landmark is Papa Hemingway’s house-turned-museum, still home to the descendants of his six-toed cats. For great local margaritas, go to the Rooftop Café, a few blocks from Mallory Square and the festivities that accompany the daily sunset. And don’t leave the Florida Keys without sampling a few slices of Key lime pie, perhaps from the Key Lime Pie Factory.
No. 12 Cape May, NJ
With its wealth of B&Bs, horse-drawn carriages, and convenient places to buy fudge, Cape May easily has the highest quaintness per capita of any Jersey Shore beach town. Readers ranked it in the top 10 for romantic inns and for family-friendly hotels; you can find both qualities at the 70-room Montreal Beach Resort, across the street from the water. It has its own wine shop as well as waiters who will deliver meals to your beach towel.
No. 13 Delray Beach, FL
The walkable, old-fashioned beach town of Delray claims to have the longest main street in the state: Atlantic Avenue, stretching all the way from the freeway to the ocean. (It’s the site of the annual Delray Beach Wine and Seafood Festival.) According to readers, this is a morning person’s beach village. Delray gets raves for its coffee, cafés, and brunch. To get a dose of all three, stay at the Queen Anne–style Sundy House, the inn that once served as a church, bank, and schoolhouse and now serves a fabulous weekly Sundy Brunch. For a quiet stretch of beach, go to the Atlantic Dunes Park.
No. 14 Bar Harbor, ME
Of all the beach towns in the survey, Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island ranked the highest for its parks—namely, Acadia National Park, with its otherwise unbeachy pine trees and moose. (For colorful blooms, stop off at Asticou Azalea Garden, near the park entrance.) Indeed, this New England town may attract more hikers than beachcombers. But it still has plenty of seaside charm. For a lobster fix with waterfront views, go to one of the two local Stewman’s Lobster Pounds, which also offer steamer clams, crab claws, native black mussels, and blueberry pie.
No. 15 Sag Harbor, NY
Readers loved the healthy attitude emanating from this Hamptons town, ranking it in the top 10 for active locals. No doubt, calm waters make Sag Harbor a good spot for taking a sailing lesson or paddling around in a kayak. Readers also loved the not-too-taxing activities of picnicking and drinking wine. Do your shopping at one of the highly ranked farmers’ markets outside the Breakwater Yacht Club and at Cavaniola’s Gourmet shop for local wines and cheese. Readers were also won over by Sag Harbor’s romantic hotels, such as the American Hotel (est. 1846).
No. 16 Beaufort, SC
This fishing-friendly town (say it bew-fort) near Hilton Head has found itself in the spotlight over the years as a backdrop in films like Forrest Gump and The Big Chill. But the Lowcountry destination also ranked well with readers for its historic inns. The original Ordinances of Secession were written in one of the cottages at the Beaufort Inn. Come for the shrimp festival in October, or stop any time of year for a Tiger Paw (made with chewy caramel and pecans) at beloved sweet shop Chocolate Tree.
No. 17 Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Martha’s Vineyard has been a vacation spot of choice for presidents dating back to John Adams, which may explain why this island scored in the top 10 for feeling patriotic. But readers seem to love it most for its picturesque charm. You can stroll the dune-covered beach at Long Point Wildlife Refuge, tour the Victorian-era Campground cottages, or look at the world-class photographs at the Granary Gallery, located inside a converted barn. And despite the A-list vibe, staying on Martha’s Vineyard need not be high end: the Beach Plum Inn, on seven acres above the Menemsha Harbor, starts at less than $200 a night.
No. 18 Tybee Island, GA
Just a half hour from Savannah, this island town has a sense of fun—like the Pirate Fest, come fall—as well as bike-friendly paths and kayaking tours, where you can explore the coastal salt marshes and perhaps see the local dolphins. To land your own temporary vacation home, rent one of the preppy-chic fishing bungalows that make up the Mermaid Cottages (one is even owned by Paula Deen). Tybee Island is not too removed from civilization, though: locals scored as being both smart and tech savvy.
No. 19 Laguna Beach, CA
Set midway between L.A. and San Diego, this Orange County beach town has a Hollywood backstory (Humphrey Bogart loved it here), art galleries, and, given the quirky coastline, a string of intimate-feeling beaches set in coves. Most hotels around here sit on the bluffs, without direct beach access, but you can wade right into the water from the Surf & Sand Resort, a So Cal–sleek hotel set squarely on Bluebird Beach. Readers also raved about Laguna’s great year-round weather.
No. 20 Kailua, HI
About a half hour from Honolulu, on the windward side of Oahu, this little beach town presents a mellow alternative to Waikiki, with plenty of room for kiteboarding or windsurfing. Start the day with a ham-cheese-and-pineapple crêpe from Crepes No Ka ’Oi, and save room for a shave ice at Island Snow, which has been frequented by the Obamas. Indeed, readers ranked Kailua highly for family vacations and for its friendly locals.
No. 21 La Jolla, CA
This little enclave tucked into San Diego’s coastline has some of the best dining in the metro area—like the California cuisine of George’s at the Cove, or Nine-Ten, in the Grande Colonial Hotel. But it also packs in a lot of nature, such as the sunbathing sea lions at the Children’s Pool beach, and the uniquely fluttery pine trees at the Torrey Pines State Reserve. If you opt for a stand-up paddleboard lesson, you might hear some authentic surfer-speak—and indeed, readers gave La Jolla locals props for their accents.
No. 22 Sanibel Island, FL
If you’re the kind of beach traveler who always brings home a few seashells in your suitcase, you’ll stay busy on this island off the coast from Fort Meyers, whose east-west orientation makes it a magnet for conchs and more. While you can come anytime of year to do the so-called Sanibel Stoop for shells (as opposed to the Captiva Crouch on its sister island), readers liked the area best during the Christmas season, when the town gets festooned with holiday lights. Sanibel Island also scored in the top 10 for being LGBT-friendly.
No. 23 Myrtle Beach, SC
This South Carolina resort town has sometimes taken heat for its spring break crowds, but the Oceanfront Boardwalk that opened in 2010 has helped it recapture an old-school appeal. Today, readers’ favorite consumables are found at the seafood shacks—such as the crab rangoons and spicy gumbo at the original Mr. Fish, in the Grand Strand—with a close second being beer. The kid-friendly town has a campy sense of fun, too, with attractions such as Molten Mountain, the miniature golf course where a faux volcano erupts every 30 minutes.
No. 24 Santa Cruz, CA
With a seaside amusement park and redwoods in the background, this central-coast beach town tends not to get blazing hot. Perhaps coincidentally, readers also ranked it in the top 10 for being cool—as in hip—and its surfing culture offers good proof of why. (If you want a shorter learning curve, you can easily take up stand-up paddleboarding at Santa Cruz Harbor.) The only place in town where you can stay right on the beach is the Dream Inn, a boutique hotel whose in-house lounge, Jack O’Neill’s, salutes the local who invented the surfing wetsuit. You can experience another type of local history when you ride the Giant Dipper, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the nation.
No. 25 Montauk, NY
Readers hailed this Hamptons town, on the eastern edge of Long Island, for its good quality of life, which includes fine fishing, some of the best surfing on the East Coast, and a mix of quirky and trendy boutiques, such as Kelly B. and Vintage Pink. Readers also applauded Montauk’s tasteful take on motels, such as Solé East Beach, done up in crisp whites and sitting across the street from the sand, or the Surf Lodge, a 32-boutique hotel where surf movies play in the lobby (the outdoor deck is its own hot spot after dark). Readers overwhelmingly preferred Montauk during the summer, compared to other seasons—and the good-looking locals caught their eyes as well.