The fastest way to summer bliss? Plant your family in the ultimate beach haven. Here, how-to guides to seven of our favorites from coast to coast

Ericka McConnell

Only on the Web: two more beaches! See page 3.

Sandy feet, screen doors, gorgeous waters, and all the right small-town attractions (from boardwalk bandstands to turquoise ice cream). Presenting the inside scoop on some of this country's most idyllic seaside communities.

The Choicest Corner of Nantucket

Siasconset, Massachusetts

With its shingled cottages and sculpted privet hedges, the 17th-century fishing village of Siasconset makes vacationing families feel part of a serene, sun-dappled world where the roses refuse to fade, tennis is never played in anything but white, and there's a lobster in every pot. HOW TO PRONOUNCE IT Say "Sconset" if you don't want to sound as though you just stumbled off the ferry. STANDOUT BEACH Steps from the village center, uncrowded Siasconset Beach has soft sand, a playground, a lifeguard—and occasionally rough surf. Families with small children like shallow, calm Jetties Beach , just outside Nantucket town, eight miles down the island. DON'T MISS The warm, top-heavy blueberry muffins at the Sconset Market (508/257-9915). RENT FROM Siasconset specialist Edith Delker (508/257-4538; ); a summer week in a two-bedroom house near the water starts at $2,000. ESSENTIAL EATING Chef Rolf Nelson's crab cakes and coconut curry-rubbed halibut (and, on request, simple kid-pleasing pastas) at the 10-table Sconset Café (508/257-4008; ). CAVEAT Grocery prices are through the roof at the Sconset Market ($5.25 for Oreos?). Buy staples on the mainland. IDEAL OUTING Pack your 4 x 4 with rods and lunch, and drive on marked trails through the dunes to Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (Wauwinet; 508/228-5646; ; off-road driving permit $85, or $20 daily with on-island rental car). Cast for bluefish, collect driftwood, and spy on nesting seabirds.

—Meg Lukens Noonan

The Junk-Free Jersey Shore

Spring Lake, New Jersey

For every kid who can't get enough Skee-Ball, there are three who just want to dig in the sand. That's why families have been coming to Spring Lake, 90 minutes from Manhattan, for decades. Sure, there's a boardwalk—it's blessedly non-commercial. But the real lures are the castle-ready sand and manageable-yet-still-fun waves. LAY OF THE LAND Between the North End and South End pavilions—each with snack bar and rest rooms—are more than two miles of perfect beach. Three blocks inland, past vast, well-preserved Victorians, is the town's namesake lake and its Mayberry, R.F.D.-style main street, Third Avenue. DON'T MISS The 44 homemade flavors at Hoffman's Ice Cream (732/974-2253). STAY AT Doolan's (732/449-3666; ; doubles from $85, children seven and over $15 each) —it may be a classic old Jersey wedding factory, but you'll love the price and the large pool. B&B's are expensive in season, and not all of them welcome kids. One that does: the Villa Park House B&B (732/449-3642; ; doubles from $200), 4 1/2 blocks off the beach. RENT FROM Jackie Kennedy (yes, that's really her name) at Diane Turton Realtors (732/449-4441; ); three- and four-bedroom houses start at $4,000 per week. ESSENTIAL EATING The thin-crust pizza at Spring Lake Gourmet Pizzeria (732/449-9595). CAVEAT You have to arrive early in summer to snag a prime parking spot on Ocean Avenue. ALSO CONSIDER Nearby towns Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach , and Bay Head offer a similarly genteel Jersey Shore experience.

—Jeffrey Bauman

The Outer Banks, at Your Service

Duck, North Carolina

The slender barrier islands along the North Carolina coast known as the Outer Banks are a major stop on the Great Atlantic Flyway for egrets, herons, cormorants—and ducks, hence the name of this former fishing village on the northernmost island. Over the past two decades Duck has filled up with ambitious restaurants and vacation houses, but its wide beaches and wild oat-covered dunes are gloriously intact. STANDOUT BEACH You wouldn't do badly to plop down a few yards from your front door. For true isolation, drive 90 minutes south to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (252/995-4474; ), on the neighboring island of Hatteras. DON'T MISS The gigantic (1 1/2 miles long and more than 90 feet high) sand dune that is Jockey's Ridge State Park (Nags Head; 252/441-7132; ). STAY AT The Sanderling (800/701-4111 or 252/261-4111; ; doubles from $269), a resort with a private beach, spa, and indoor and outdoor pools. RENT FROM Twiddy & Co. (800/489-4339; ); four-bedroom houses from $1,300 per week. ESSENTIAL EATING The sophisticated soul food at the Blue Point Bar & Grill (252/261-8090), and the seafood with Japanese and Jamaican flavors at Tortugas' Lie Shellfish Bar & Grill (252/441-7299) in nearby Nags Head. CAVEAT Hurricanes pass over these shores, but local authorities have in place finely tuned evacuation plans. Ask your rental company about added insurance for lost vacation days. PERFECT SOUVENIR The OBX (for Outer Banks) bumper sticker. Spot them all over the country.

—Kristine Ziwica

Swells and Shells

Captiva Island, Florida

Captiva teeters so close to its natural state, you get the feeling that, given a few weeks without human intervention, the sea grape, allamanda, and mangroves would simply swallow up the bars and galleries and return the place to the alligators and ospreys. Families come here to revel in that wildness, swim in the placid Gulf waters, and soak up the village's end-of-the-road vibe. LAY OF THE LAND Fifteen miles from Fort Myers, the twin barrier islands of Captiva and Sanibel are connected to the mainland by a three-mile bridge. STANDOUT BEACH For stellar shelling and dolphin sightings, go to Turner Beach at the Blind Pass Bridge linking Sanibel and Captiva. STAY AT Palmy 330-acre South Seas Resort (800/965-7772 or 239/481-3636; ; doubles from $240, cottages from $280). It dominates the northern half of Captiva and has everything from hotel rooms to three-bedroom beach houses—plus sports, excursions, and kids' activities. DON'T MISS Sanibel's 5,000-acre J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (239/472-1100; ), home to manatees, alligators, and peregrine falcons. ESSENTIAL EATING The flamingo-pink Bubble Room (239/472-5558), with its colossal portions and junk-shop décor, will leave you agog. PERFECT SOUVENIR A flawless sand dollar.


Great Lakes Living

Grand Haven, Michigan

Squeak, squeak. That's the sound of the "singing" sand along this stretch of Lake Michigan, 30 miles west of Grand Rapids. Grand Haven's water is shallow and warm—think of it as a kiddie pool for giants. There's a sleepy downtown with a bustling marina, and plenty of U-Pick farms in the vicinity. STANDOUT BEACH Grand Haven State Park is the biggest, most popular swimming spot, but North Shore Beach has a shaded picnic area, rest rooms, and parking close to the lake. STAY AT The 1873 Khardomah Lodge (616/842-2990; ; doubles from $88), where the kitchen—with its 1930's stove—is open for guests' use. RENT FROM The list of privately owned rentals on ; the average weekly rate for a two-bedroom lake cottage is $1,200. ESSENTIAL EATING The surf and turf at the lakeside Bil-Mar Restaurant (616/842-5920). SPLASH OF VEGAS At dusk, families fill bleachers by the Grand River for the musical-fountain water show synchronized to tunes by Elvis, the Beatles, and Bach.

—Emily Holt

Santa Cruz's Chic Neighbor

Capitola, California

Where do Santa Cruz surfers go when it's time to raise a family?Six miles south to Capitola. With its calm beach on Monterey Bay and café-lined esplanade, the town is a great place for vacationing families, too. STAY AT The Inn at Depot Hill (800/572-2632 or 831/462-3376; ; doubles from $225), a converted 1809 railroad station with rooms styled after international ports of call. RENT FROM Vacations by the Sea (888/521-3500 or 831/479-9360; ). One-bedroom beach condos are $1,300 a week. ESSENTIAL EATING Everything at Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria (831/462-1200). Shadowbrook Restaurant (831/475-1511), a dinner spot in a 1920's summer house reached by cable car, has child-sized prime rib and free sundaes for kids who finish their vegetables. CAVEAT You may wake up to socked-in fog. Don't freak; it'll burn off by noon.


Down by San Diego Bay

Coronado, California

An old-fashioned shore haven in surfer-dude southern California? That's Coronado, eight miles from San Diego International Airport. LAY OF THE LAND On the bay side of this 13 1/2-mile isthmus: dramatic views of San Diego Harbor, the city skyline, and the two-mile bridge that connects Coronado to the metropolis (you can also take the fun, 15-minute ferry). On the Pacific side: nothing but water, all the way to Japan. STANDOUT BEACHES Central Beach —dominated by the Hotel Del Coronado ("the Del") but accessible to all—has lifeguards and rest rooms. The Silver Strand , mid-isthmus, is great for beachcombing (horn shells, moon shells, cockleshells, and sand dollars). Just for Sparky: Dog Beach , at Coronado's north end. DON'T MISS The free Sunday-evening concerts in the Spreckels Park Gazebo—blues, Latin jazz, and swing. IDEAL OUTING Rent wheels at Little Sam's Island & Beach Fun (619/435-4068) and go for a spin on the flat, 17-mile Silver Strand bike path. STAY AT The 115-year-old Hotel Del Coronado (800/468-3533; ; doubles from $265), a turreted national landmark, where Billy Wilder filmed Some Like It Hot. The Loews Coronado Bay Resort (800/ 815-6397; ; doubles from $265) offers surfing, waterskiing, and kung fu lessons. The Crown City Inn (800/442-1173 or 619/435-3116; ; doubles from $140, suites from $200) has big suites with kitchens. RENT FROM Lee Mather Co. (800/822-2892 or 619/435-1851; ). A two-bedroom condo starts at $4,000 for four weeks. CAVEAT There are two U.S. Navy bases here, so you'll see (and hear) screaming jets as they land. Kids find this thrilling. ESSENTIAL EATING At the ferry landing, stop for shrimp cocktails at the Bay Beach Café (619/435-4900), rice pudding at Spiro's Gyros Greek Restaurant (619/435-1225), and local produce at the Tuesday-afternoon farmers' market. The big draw at the Hotel Del's Moo Time Creamery? The Silly Vanilly Aqua—ice cream as blue as the sea.

—Cathryn Ramin

AWESOME SAND AND OTHER BEACH FACTS You hear a lot of bragging about who has the whitest sand (the powdery, quartz-based Florida beaches, for example), but there's also garnet sand (New England) and even green and black sand (Hawaii). Hobbyists save and swap samples (see the International Sand Collectors Society Web site, ). • The ideal time to hunt for seashells is after an offshore storm, particularly in winter. Florida's Captiva and Sanibel islands are known for having the nation's best shelling. • For a coastal-studies professor's own list of America's top public beaches, go to .

SUN-BLOCKING BEACHWEAR Keeping kids sun-protected is a lot easier these days—if you dress them right. T-shirts won't do: most cotton has an SPF equivalent of only 6 (markedly lower when wet). Instead, consider the latest beachwear—suits (one from New Zealand-based Ozone, $50), swim shirts, hats, and cover-ups with impressive sun-blocking powers. The secret?These garments are made of common, quick-drying materials, such as cotton and polyester, that have been specially woven to minimize the transmission of ultraviolet light. Get them from: Ozone Clothing Co. (64-27/433-8777; , to order see , which offers free shipping worldwide); Solumbra by Sun Precautions (800/882-7860 or 425/303-8585; ); or Sun Grubbies (888/970-1600 or 858/268-1600; ). ONLY ON THE WEB: Turn your clothes into sun-blocking armor: washing them in a detergent additive called Tinosorb makes fabrics 400 percent more effective as sun barriers—even after repeated launderings. It's the key ingredient in Sun Guard from Rit (available at most drugstores; $2.50 for a one-ounce package ).

SEND YOUR FAMILY TO SURF CAMP Hey, all you grommets, these programs teach parents and kids how to take on the waves. Boards and wet suits provided. Endless Summer Surf Camp (San Onofre State Beach, Calif.; 949/498-7862; ; $695 per person for five days, including tents and meals). Weeklong programs June through August are for anyone 11 or older. This is where Julia Roberts learned to ride with surf-bum boyfriend Benjamin Bratt. Groundswell (San Elijo, Calif.; 949/361-4906; ; $750 per person for five days, including tents and meals). Camp on the bluffs above the Pacific while attending this school on southern California's San Elijo State Beach. The July 14-20 program is just for families. Surf Camp (Wrightsville Beach, N.C.; 866/844-7873 or 910/256-7873; ; $450 per person for five days, lodging not included). Three family sessions in July and August offer 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. instruction, plus field trips. Anyone up for a canoe outing to Zeak's Island?

IS IT SAFE TO SWIM? The Natural Resources Defense Council publishes an annual report on water quality at America's vacation beaches. Check out its ratings of more than 2,400 locales at .


Bethany Beach, Delaware

Unless you live somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, you've probably never even heard of Bethany Beach. But families from D.C. and Philly have long been smitten with its all-American sands and small-town pleasures. Bare feet are allowed in the stores. Evenings, the sounds coming from the boardwalk bandstand may be courtesy of the U.S. Navy Commodores, the AARP Chorus, or various Elvis impersonators. And the roller coasters and water parks of Ocean City, Maryland (just south), and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (just north), are minutes away. Plus, farm country—and roadside stands piled with tomatoes and corn—is a quick drive inland. STANDOUT BEACH A stroll down Bethany's main drag, Garfield Parkway, takes you right to Sea Colony, where lifeguards patrol the shore and the boardwalk offers window-service hotdogs, French fries, and fruit slushes. DON'T MISS There's no sign outside Dickey's Frozen Custard (97 Garfield on the Boardwalk; 302/537-7992 ) so look for the mural of lifeÐsized dolphins and tropical fish next to the entrance. Head to Salt Pond Golf Club (400 Bethany Loop; 302/539-7525 ) for 18 holes (kids welcome) or to try the "all-natural" mini golf: grasses, sand traps, and water hazards but no cutesy windmills. STAY AT Sea Colony (Rte. 1 at Westway Dr.; 800/732-2656; ; condos from $690 per week; from $960 after June 26 ), the fourth-largest tennis resort in the country. It has 12 pools and 20 nearby golf courses, as well as condos, villas, and town houses on or near the beach. RENT FROM Long and Foster (1150 Coastal Hwy.; 800/228-8833 or 302/539-9040; ). Two-bedroom houses within walking distance of the beach start at $1,500 per week; beachfront houses range from $3,000 to $5,500. ESSENTIAL EATING At Redfin (Coastal Hwy. 1; 302/537-0100; , dinner for four $60 ), which overlooks a salt pond, there's shrimp piccata and saffron sun-dried tomato risotto for you, fish-and-chips for the kids. Grotto Pizza (793 Garfield Pkwy.; 302/537-3278 ) delivers. THRIFTY NIFTY Go on a tax-free shopping spree at the Rehoboth Outlets (302/226-9223; )—140 stores including OshKosh B'Gosh, Little Me, J. Crew, and Nautica. IDEAL OUTING Drive two hours and 15 minutes south to Chincoteague, Virginia. (Required reading: Misty of Chincoteague , of course.) Rent bikes and take a spin around the seven-mile-long island, and across the bike bridge to neighboring Assateague Island, home to 37 miles of beaches (for information, call 410/641-1441). As you pedal, keep an eye out for wild horses. —Leah Cumsky Whitlock

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Named after a cannon that washed ashore in 1846, artsy Cannon Beach is sandwiched between Highway 101 and the pounding Pacific. Its big selling points: proximity to Seattle and Portland (210 miles south and 80 miles west, respectively); wild, undeveloped beaches; four blocks of galleries and kite stores; and a highly competitive annual sandcastle contest (this year, June 14). LAY OF THE LAND The town extends for four miles along the Pacific, bordered in the north by Ecola State Park and in the south by Tolovana Beach Park. FIRST TOURISTS Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806 to buy 300 pounds of whale blubber from the native Clatsop Indians. FAMOUS LANDMARK Haystack Rock, a 235-foot boulder, towers above the shore. At low tide during May and June, you can see black-and-white tufted puffins (try saying that 10 times fast!) nesting on its grassy north slope. Look for members of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program (they're the ones setting up microscopes and spotting scopes—telescopes that work in daylight—near the rock); they'll teach you how to dig for crabs and clams and help you identify all the strange creatures you'll find in the shallow tide pools around the rock: bright starfish, sea anemones, sea slugs, and limpets. STANDOUT BEACHES The town beach is four miles long and broad, with soft beige sand and calm surf. Secluded and stunning Arch Cape lies five miles to the south. Five more miles down the coast, at Oswald West State Park, is Short Sands Beach, a horseshoe-shaped cove favored by families and surfers for its sandy bottom, reliable waves, and shelter from strong winds. Caveat: The water is a teeth-chattering 54 degrees—only kids and thick-skinned adults brave it. Pack wet suits. STAY AT The beachfront Surfsand Resort (Oceanfront and Gower Sts., 800/547-6100 or 503/436-2274;; doubles from $199 ), which has an indoor pool and a Jacuzzi, free ice cream on Saturdays, and a weenie roast on summer Sundays. It's also the site of the Puffin Kite Festival in April. The Ocean Lodge (2864 S. Pacific St.; 888/777-4047 or 503/436-2241;; doubles from $219; $279 after June 21 ) caters to young guests, with sand buckets on arrival, a cookie jar in the lobby, and a library stocked with kids' games and books. RENT FROM Cannon Beach Property Management (877/386-3402 or 503/436-2021: ); a two-bedroom house with ocean views costs about $1,800 a week. ESSENTIAL EATING Locals line up for eggs Benedict (the vegetarian version substitutes spinach and tomatoes for the ham) and oatmeal waffles topped with strawberries and bananas at the Lazy Susan Café (126 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-2816; breakfast for four $40; no credit cards accepted ), where antique toasters and teapots hang from cedar walls. You'll find razor clams—breaded and panfried—on menus all over town; some of the best are at the Driftwood Inn (179 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-2439; dinner for four $85 ). SUGAR FIX Cannon Beach Cookie Company (239 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-1129 ) bakes starfish-shaped sugar cookies and scones made with marionberries, a specialty of Marion County, Oregon. Across the street at Bruce's Candy Kitchen (256 N. Hemlock St.; 503/436-2641 ), saltwater taffy comes in exotic flavors like butter, blackberry, and molasses mint—all made in-house with a 1908 machine. OUTING Bring your binoculars to Ecola State Park , where several trails lead to stunning viewing points. Search the waves for whales, sea lions, and shore birds. ANOTHER WORLD Six miles beyond Ecola State Park is Seaside , a kitschy, buzzing beach town (and favorite destination of spring-breakers). Rent a five-person surrey bike and cruise the boardwalk lined with video arcades, corn dog stands, bumper cars, and an ocean-themed carousel. Your kids will also love the slightly run-down Seaside Aquarium (200 N. Promenade; 503/738-6211 ). RAINY DAY Tour the Tillamook County Creamery Association (4185 Hwy. 101 N.; 503/815-1300 ) to learn about the cheese-making process and sample Tillamook cheddar. PERFECT SOUVENIR A kite from Once Upon a Breeze (240 N. Spruce St.; 503/436-1112 ). —Jaime Gross