In the free and easy days of summer, the quest for a great American beach town like Boca Grande, Fla., is a national passion. Beach towns are a mainstay of the hot months, a beacon for countless citizens looking for a reprieve from the daily grind. The Great American beach town, apart from being idle as all get out, is also resolutely democratic, conscious that the sand belongs to all. These spots serve as emblems of our God-given right to get too much sun and to eat tasty—if nutritionally unfortunate—fried food.
So get that beach chair and cooler ready—and prepare for the simple pleasures of summer at one of these classic retreats.
This is nature Texas-style, big and ready to roll, with an enormous flock of whooping cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, stunning beaches along nearby Matagorda Island, and a 1,000-year-old oak known simply as “the Big Tree.”
Stay: A funky little place with classic beach lodgings, the Fulton Beach Bungalows overlook Aransas Bay.
Eat: Steve Lew’s BBQ Kitchen will take you way down home, with pulled pork and Texas-style sausage.
This small, serene island just off the Virginia coast is the gateway to the 37-mile-long Assateague Island National Seashore—a nature refuge that’s home to wild ponies, herons, woodpeckers, and foxes. It’s accessible to boaters and via car over the Route 175 bridge.
Stay: A Victorian-era home has been turned into Miss Molly’s Inn, a seven-room B&B that offers high tea in the afternoons.
Eat: The Seashell Café is a welcome destination after a long day on the beach. Fill up on clam chowder and platters of fried Atlantic shrimp and Chincoteague oysters.
Lubec is all the way Down East, right near the border with New Brunswick, Canada. Its assets include an elegant Victorian/Greek Revival–style downtown, 97 miles of shoreline, two lighthouses, and easy access to the former Roosevelt summer home on Campobello Island, which is now an international park.
Stay: The Peacock House Bed & Breakfast, installed in an 1860 Federal-style residence, has ocean views, an eclectic library, and manicured gardens.
Eat: Drop by Annabell’s Pub for informal fare like fish chowder and a genuine, breezy Maine ambience.
With its antiques shops and picturesque hiking trails, Gearhart—just north of the renowned, more-bustling Cannon Beach—is an in-the-know haven for Portland hipsters like Paige Powell and Gus Van Sant. In the evenings, people drive onto the hard-packed sand for wine and stargazing parties.
Stay: The 12 attached cottages of the Gearhart Ocean Inn, constructed in 1941, are an easy walk to the beach, and the owners will furnish a “clam gun” for scooping up clams from the sand.
Eat: The nicely refined Pacific Way Bakery & Café serves top-notch muffins and coffee in the morning, and later a menu that includes bay shrimp, designer pizzas, and flawless crab cakes.
Santa Cruz, CA
Thrill-seekers flock to the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Beach Boardwalk amusement park, but Santa Cruz has a surfeit of other attractions: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, surfers at Pleasure Point (and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum), and frolicsome seals at Natural Bridges State Beach.
Stay: At the Casablanca Inn, most rooms have ocean views (and a handful have fireplaces, for when those NoCal nights get chilly). The restaurant looks out on the awesome expanse of the Pacific.
Eat: Center Street Grill is the go-to restaurant for salads, pastas, homemade hollandaise sauce, ahi tuna, and freshly squeezed lemonade and orange juice on the outdoor patio.
Sunset Beach, HI
Sunset Beach is the world capital of surfing, but in summer, all the wave-riding frenzy ebbs, and this town on the North Shore of Oahu becomes resolutely and wonderfully idle.
Stay: The oceanfront Ke Iki Beach Bungalows, a quick drive from the commercial district along the Kamehameha Highway, are all about easy atmosphere, to the sounds of the North Shore’s endless surf.
Eat: Ted’s Bakery, down the road from the mythical Pipeline, is a casual center of surfer life known for bento-box lunches, garlic shrimp, and mahimahi sandwiches. Finish it off with a slice of decadent Haupia chocolate pie.
An all-American classic—saltwater taffy and ice cream on the boardwalk, days of baking in the sun on Dewey Beach—with a lively art gallery scene and such august institutions as the Biggs Museum of American Art. In the evenings, visitors dance at places like the Rusty Rudder or Shag, or just stroll the boardwalk.
Stay: Opened last year, the Hotel Rehoboth, a plush boutique lodging, has a welcoming fireplace and a mod cottage-furnishings store off the lobby.
Eat: Eden, a high-end restaurant that often lives up to its name, features such dishes as a lobster and crab tower and pan-roasted Atlantic salmon.
Silver Lake Sand Dunes Area, MI
A beach staple of the Midwest, this strip along Lake Michigan—encompassing the towns of Hart, Mears, and Pentwater—has no shortage of massive sand dunes, beach buggies, and farmers’ markets along with over-the-top July 4th fireworks.
Stay: A simple affair overlooking the lake and a spread of sand, Dunes Waterfront Resort is not a bad way to get lost on a summer weekend.
Eat: That Place Restaurant, a 1950s and ‘60s theme joint with posters of James Dean and Elvis, is, well, the place to get a hamburger and shake.
Boca Grande, FL
This Edenic escape on the Gulf of Mexico is a real slice of Old Florida, with whimsically named streets such as Damnificare, a much-photographed lighthouse watching over Gasparilla Island State Park, and long, quiet beaches touched by gentle surf.
Stay: The Gasparilla Inn, a member of the Historic Hotels of America and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is the classic resort and comes complete with a golf course. It’s closed during the hottest months, though; the best alternative is its sister property, the Innlet, which features a waterside restaurant and a relaxed vibe.
Eat: A funky Florida spot with character, Temptation—think murals of leaping tarpon and a neon martini sign—serves local grouper, pompano, and soft-shell crabs.