Great American Beaches 2008
Some U.S. beaches are secluded enough to rival island oases in the Caribbean, with sparsely populated stretches of sand and remote points of entry. Horseshoe Beach, in La Jolla, California, is only accessible by a single, unmarked stairway; getting to Ladies Beach on Cape Cod’s Nantucket island requires four-wheeling along a series of dirt tracks.
For those who prefer community rather than isolation, there are plenty of U.S. beaches that function as social hubs-on-the-sea. Some are glamorous hotspots—like Santa Barbara’s Butterfly Beach, common for celebrity sightings. Others, like Fort Lauderdale’s city beach, attract all walks of local life, and are simply great places to get a feel for local culture.
Related: America's Best Warm-Weather Resorts
Nature lovers have lots of choices for getting their fix, too; some of America’s beaches double as wildlife preserves (or just fabulous landscape photo-ops). Among them are Big Sur’s Pfeiffer State Beach, framed by looming bluffs and dramatic rock outcroppings; and Meyers Creek Beach, in Oregon, where the beachside dunes are carpeted with wildflowers every summer.
Of course, what happens on land is only half the fun of beaches; for many of us, jumping into the water is the real point. Those who like splashing as much as sunning head to spots like Gooseberry Beach, in Newport, Rhode Island—with calm, protected waters and lots of tidepools for exploring. There’s also Malibu’s Zuma Beach, where the easy swells are perfect for bobbing and bodysurfing.
Related: America’s Best Little Beach Towns
Yes, American beaches run the gamut—from tranquil to clubby, and from terrestrial marvels to watery wonders. Some are so different it’s hard to fathom they’re part of the same country. But in the end, what’s greatest about beaches in the U.S. is what they all have in common: their closeness. True shore hounds could hit several of the beaches on our list in a single summer if they wanted—no passport or plane travel required.
Makes us feel downright patriotic.
Beach Buzz There are seven quintillion, 500 quadrillion (7,500,000,000,000,000,000) grains of beach sand in the world Wherever you are in Florida, you can't be farther than 60 miles from a beach—the state has 1,350 miles of them In July, Key West has the country's warmest water, at 87 degrees. The coldest, 50 degrees, is found off Eastport, Maine
Ladies Beach - Nantucket, Massachusetts
Great For: Seclusion. Follow dusty SUV’s as they dogleg left before Cisco Beach and bump through a maze of dirt roads to seek out laid-back Ladies Beach, on the southwestern edge of Nantucket.
T+L Tip: Beachcombing dogs are welcome, but bring a leash.
Where To Stay: Hang your towels in a bay-view room at the Wauwinet.
Pfeiffer State Beach - Big Sur, California
Great For: Nature. Windblown Pfeiffer beats out considerable coastal competition in California, thanks to stunning granite outcrops offshore—one with a tunnel worn through it. Walk on the sand 10 minutes north to Deer Canyon (there’s no sign, but it’s the only canyon you’ll see). A rugged trail angles up and left before ending on the bluffs.
Where To Stay: Post Ranch Inn has added 10 redwood rooms, but the “tree houses,” on nine-foot stilts, are still the best place to channel your inner child.
Pack a Snack: Pick up coffee and freshly made jelly doughnuts three miles away at Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.
Whitefish Dunes State Park - Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin
Great For: Families. A five-minute drive through a forest of birch and beech trees brings you to a wide strip of white sand and dunes fringed with high grass on turquoise Lake Michigan.
T+L Tip: At the Big Red Tent pavilion, naturalists answer questions about native flora and fauna.
Where To Stay: Relax on a hammock at Blacksmith Inn.
Beach Eats: Head to Door County’s The White Gull Inn for a classic fish boil: freshly caught whitefish cooked outdoors in a big black cauldron.
Long Branch Beach - Long Branch, New Jersey
Great For: Swimming. Long Branch’s wide sands are lapped by sometimes-sizeable waves (you’ll see surfers doing their thing on windy days). But on calm summer afternoons, they roll in gently enough that kids can play without fear.
Where To Stay: Escape the crowds at Victorian B&B Cedars & Beeches.
Beach Eats: South Beach chic has come to the Jersey Shore, with the opening of the David Collins-designed Avenue brasserie.
Waianapanapa Black-Sand Beach - Maui, Hawaii
Great For: Seclusion. On Honokalani Road, just off the Hana Highway, is Waianapanapa, a black-sand cove set between cliffs. Watch daredevils paddle their boards beyond the weathered rock arches and lava tubes jutting from the shore.
Shopping Detour: At the Hasegawa General Store, load up on bargain surf shorts and folding beach chairs.
Where To Stay: Book one of the Sea Ranch Cottages facing the Pacific Ocean at Hotel Hana-Maui.
Beach Eats: The half-pound burgers at Hana Ranch Restaurant are both substantial and delicious.
North Avenue Beach - Chicago, Illinois
Great For: People-watching. A short drive from downtown, you’ll see everyone from lobster-red Ditka fans to bronzed, buff young professionals swimming, sunning, and spiking volleyballs.
T+L Tip: Rent bikes and all types of sports equipment at the North Avenue Beach House.
Where To Stay: At day’s end, beachgoers clean up for the J Bar at The James Chicago.
Beach Eats: Try the meaty, charred burgers at R. J. Grunts, a restaurant with a 1970’s hippie shtick. (It’s where über-chef Grant Achatz takes his kids when he’s not at his restaurant Alinea.)
Zuma Beach - Malibu, California
Zuma Beach - Malibu, California
Great For: Swimming. Over 40 miles of coast hug the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, but natives know to take the Pacific Coast Highway straight to Zuma for mellow swells and two miles of sizzling sand.
T+L Tip: The area has 2,025 parking spaces, but be sure to arrive by 10:30 a.m.—come noon, the lots are full.
Check-In: Media mogul David Geffen revamped a faded 18-year-old hotel to open Malibu Beach Inn on Carbon Beach. All 47 wood-and-stone rooms have fireplaces and oceanfront balconies.
Beach Eats: Sit down to a plate of grilled salmon and sourdough bread at the casual, terraced Malibu Seafood.
Napeague State Park - Long Island, New York
Great For: Seclusion. Ask any surfer or fisherman, and he’ll extol the virtues of Montauk’s shoreline. Not as well known, however, is Napeague, between Montauk and Amagansett.
T+L Tip: The only way to reach the beach is via a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it right turn off Route 27 East.
Shopping Detour: For fashionable swimwear, head to Tracy Feith’s summer-only shop.
Where To Stay: There’s no need for a permit at Napeague, but guests at gray-shingled Gansett Green Manor receive free parking permits for other Hamptons beaches.
Beach Eats: Lobster rolls are a local favorite at the roadside Lobster Roll Restaurant, a.k.a. Lunch.
Butterfly Beach - Santa Barbara, California
Great For: People-watching. This golden half-mile sliver, in the tony Montecito neighborhood, has head-on views of Santa Cruz Island and almost-as-reliable sightings of local celebs like Kevin Costner.
T+L Tip: The patio scene at Cava almost upstages the rock-shrimp tacos.
Where To Stay: Ask for the complimentary Beach Butler services (chair setup, two-way cordless phones) at the Four Seasons Biltmore.
Cool Down: Sip a chilled local white wine at the Montecito Inn’s quaint Montecito Cafe.
Kiawah Island - Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Great For: Families. South of Charleston, starfish and conch shells dot Kiawah Island’s expansive 10-mile crescent.
T+L Tip: For privacy, head to the two easternmost miles of the beach.
Where To Stay: From its PGA-worthy golf courses to tie-dyeing sessions at the kids’ camp, the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island has everyone covered.
Pack a Lunch: Specializing in creamy she-crab soup (lump crabmeat, crab roe, and mirepoix), The Market at Town Center, prepares everything to go.
Hanakapiai Beach - Kauai, Hawaii
Great For: Nature. Two miles into the 11-mile-long Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Napali coast, Hanakapiai is a welcome pitstop. Tucked between two narrow cliffs, the beach is framed by a deposit of boulders.
T+L Tip: The beach is a bit of a tease: swimming is strongly discouraged, because of the violent surf.
Where To Stay: Plan ahead to book the one-room Jungle Cabana, if only for the outdoor, torch-lit bathtub shielded by a bamboo fence.
Beach Eats: One of the last stops on the way to the trailhead, the Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant and Fish Market has just the perfect fish dish: ahi poke, a yellowfin tuna salad with wasabi and pickled ginger.
Gooseberry Beach - Newport, Rhode Island
Great For: Swimming. Protected by granite boulders and grassy dunes, Gooseberry’s conditions are ideal for swimming or splashing in tidal pools. Reach the Beach Bicycle along Bellevue Avenue to Newport’s 15-mile Ocean Drive, which follows the rocky Atlantic coastline facing Rhode Island Sound.
Shopping Detour: Stop at Angela Moore for colorfully beaded sarongs and pink and green flip-flops.
Where To Stay: Rinse off the sea salt before heading west to the Castle Hill Inn & Resort for sunset cocktails on the oceanfront lawn.
Beach Eats: The grilled hot dogs and homemade lemonade at the Gooseberry Concession & Cafe are perfect picnic snacks.
Fort Lauderdale City Beach - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Great For: People-watching. A complete cross-section of the city can be found along the three-mile stretch between Las Olas and Sunrise Boulevards: at the corner of Route A1A, coeds congregate over drinks; across from Sebastian Road, the gay area runs for a block or so; and on the northernmost end, families and retirees gather.
T+L Tip: Head north of Sunrise for the most elbow room.
Where To Stay: The latest luxury hotel to arrive is the 187-room St. Regis.
Beach Eats: American cuisine gets a tropical and Asian makeover at Casablanca Cafe.
Meyers Creek Beach - Gold Beach, Oregon
Great For: Nature. In summer, the dunes blaze with purple and yellow flowers, and a rainbow of windsurfers—drawn by the waves, strong winds, and shallow sloping beach—fills the horizon.
T+L Tip: Don’t leave anything behind in the car. The most scenic entry is from the top of Cape Sebastian, 700 feet above the ocean. It’s a steep two miles down.
Where To Stay: The eight newly renovated rooms at nearby Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge incorporate wooden wainscoting, hand-knotted Tibetan rugs, and Italian linens.
Beach Eats: In the nearby town of Gold Beach, Harborfront Porthole Café is famous for its just-crisp-enough fish-and-chips.
North Beach - Chatham, Massachusetts
Great For: Swimming. With its posh boutiques and summer homes, Chatham is the Beverly Hills of Cape Cod. So it’s surprising to discover that right offshore is a nearly deserted stretch of white sand.
T+L Tip: The boat journey to the beach through Aunt Lydia’s Cove is half the fun, as schools of seals pop their heads above the water.
Where To Stay: The Chatham Bars Inn is a shingled 1914 resort with white cottages along the shore.
Beach Eats: For the best lobster rolls around, visit Nickerson’s Fish and Lobster.
Crandon Park Beach - Key Biscayne, Florida
Great For: Families. Right offshore, a vast sandbar makes for endless wading, and on the beach you’ll also find a baseball diamond, volleyball courts, and a nature center with trails through the adjacent mangroves.
T+L Tip: Rent a private beach cabana on the park’s south end.
Check-In: The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne has sandcastle competitions, sailing lessons, and seashell hunts.
Beach Eats: At the Donut Gallery, families snuggle into the black vinyl booths and order hearty brunches of pancakes and French toast, but they arrive early because the restaurant closes at 1:30 p.m.
Cumberland Island State Park - Cumberland Island, Georgia
Great For: Nature. The undeveloped barrier island—a former Carnegie family retreat—has majestic wild horses, 18 miles of sugary beaches, and an abundance of hiking trails through sand dunes, palmetto forests, and bird-filled salt marshes.
T+L Tip: No more than 300 visitors are allowed on the island at a time, so make your ferry reservation (912-882-4335) several months ahead.
Where To Stay: At spectacular Greyfield Inn, the island’s only hotel, resident naturalist Fred Whitehead leads Jeep tours exploring the local ecology.
Picnic Lunch: The only place to eat and sleep on the island is the Greyfield Inn (on the Cumberland Island shore), and it’s closed to non-guests on weekends. Before boarding the ferry for the 45-minute ride to the island, day-trippers should swing by the St. Marys Market on the Square grocery.
Popham Beach State Park - Georgetown, Maine
Great For: Families. Midcoast Maine isn’t all rocky coves, as this 1 1/2-mile stretch of fine sand in Phippsburg proves.
T+L Tip: At low tide, a land bridge links the beach to Fox Island, a favorite for tide-pool hunting.
Where To Stay: Ten of the 137 rooms at Sebasco Harbor Resort are in a 1940 lighthouse.
Beach Eats: Overlooking historic Popham Fort and the beach, Spinney’s Oceanfront Restaurant serves lobsters straight from the tank, with drawn butter and bibs.
Rosemary Beach - South Walton, Florida
Great For: Swimming. Rosemary has the same calm Gulf waters and sparkly quartz sand (it actually squeaks between your toes) as its neighbors along the 26-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle. The difference: vacationers jam the beaches of Easter egg-colored Seaside, but it’s possible to find yourself alone here if you time things right (between September and December, the water still averages 79 degrees).
Where To Stay: Try for one of the four Gulf-view rooms at The Pensione, a brick-red hotel with blond-wood furnishings.
Cool Down: Sip a glass of limeade from old-timey purveyor Sugar Shak, a five-minute stroll from the beach.
Horseshoe Beach - La Jolla, California
Great For: Seclusion. The closest thing to an undiscovered find on a bustling, built-up coast, Horseshoe will never draw big crowds with its location; the crescent moon of shoreline is only accessible by an unmarked stairwell (off Coast Boulevard near Prospect Street). It’s so secluded, in fact, that you can barely make it out in the above photo.
T+L Tip: At high tide, a rock jetty on the northern end of the beach doubles as a natural diving platform.
Where To Stay: The nearby 28-room Hotel Parisi is a locally owned boutique hotel with suitably So-Cal services (craniosacral massage, Pilates).
Last-Minute Shopping: Three blocks away from the beach, JEP boutique carries a small but chic collection of beachwear, from punky-preppy designs by Trovata to hipster shades by Initium.