The 31 best beach vacations

We’ve never found a beach we didn’t love, so to help us narrow down the list, we asked Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, to lend us his expertise. Every year, he picks America’s top 10 beaches after considering factors such as sand softness, water temperature, pollution, and views. Dr. Beach is currently the director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research, but when he isn’t working, he retreats to his favorite seashore, Cape Florida State Park.

Ocean City, New Jersey:

It has all the ingredients for a rousing good time: eight miles of wide, lifeguard-staffed beach, a boardwalk lined with souvenir shops and snack bars, an amusement park, and a water park. It’s also free of any rowdiness because it’s free of alcohol.
Stay: The unpretentious Forum Motor Inn (609/399-8700 or offers large, clean, well-stocked rooms for much less than you’d pay a block away on the boardwalk. Rates range from $72 to $194 for double occupancy. To see available vacation rentals, visit
Eat: Serving everything from scallops to grilled cheese, the Café Beach Club (609/398-7700 or is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with tables on the boardwalk. Everybody loves the saltwater taffy at Shriver’s (877/668-2339 or
Shop: Leave the boys in the arcade while the girls visit Hello Dollies (609/399-2800 or, a doll shop across from the Music Pier.
Local secret: Breakfast on homemade doughnuts at the open-air Oves restaurant (609/398-3712 or—which also rents bikes for working off the calories.

Long Beach Peninsula, Washington:

Kites reign; there’s a kite festival August 16–22 and a kite museum, plus a sand castle competition July 16–17 (800/451-2542 or

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Napili Beach, Kapalua, Hawaii:

The compact size and crescent shape of this northwest Maui beach keep kids always in view, and the swimming, boogie boarding, bodysurfing, and snorkeling keep them happy. “Low-key” sums up the Napili Kai Beach Resort (808/669-6271 or and other quiet condo resorts that perch above the sand. Bonuses: great sunsets and a cove full of turtles.

Sanibel Island, Florida: Absolutely the best shell-gathering anywhere; try quiet Bowman’s Beach (800/237-6444 or

Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica, California:

Wide beach with volleyball and surfing, plus an amusement park at the Santa Monica Pier (800/544-5319 or

Miami Beach, Florida:

South Beach remains “the hottest in the country,” says Dr. Beach. But the billion-dollar renovation of the Fontainebleau hotel has drawn the pretty party people to the less-frenetic charms of Miami Beach’s midtown.
Stay: You’ll feel like a billion bucks at the 1954-vintage Fontainebleau (305/538-2000 or—now so 21st-century it has an iMac in every room. Standard rooms start at $323. For beach houses and longer stays, try
Eat: For fabulous Asian-inspired cuisine in a romantic outdoor setting, stop at Wish (305/674-9474 or Snack time? Check out Solo (305/674-4740), the Fontainebleau’s patisserie.
Shop: Trends spring from the local boutiques on Washington Avenue in South Beach.
Local secret: Española Way (305/531-0038 or, tucked away in South Beach, feels like a Mediterranean village, with outdoor cafés and weekend street markets.

Alys Beach, Florida:

This luxe, European-feel New Urbanist town takes full advantage of its gorgeous setting along white sands and emerald Gulf water (866/732-1760 or The new airport at nearby Panama City should boost its jet-set appeal.

Gold Coast, Barbados:

So many celebrities now decorate the west coast beaches of graciously British Barbados that the nickname has inflated; it’s now usually the “Platinum Coast.” Whatever you call it, you can enjoy white sand, people-watching, and such beyond-lavish resorts as Sandy Lane (866/444-4080 or

Main Beach, East Hampton, New York:

It’s relatively uncrowded—because parking is a challenge—and surprisingly rustic, but with a high celeb quotient (631/324-0362 or

Zuma Beach, Malibu, California: 

Call this much-filmed beach (310/456-2489 or just “Zuma,” like the locals do. Watch or join the pickup volleyball games and beautiful people.

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Perdido Key State Park, Pensacola, Florida:

It has “some of the finest, whitest sand in the world and emerald-green water,” says Dr. Beach. Aside from picnic tables and outdoor showers, that’s all you get here. But it’s plenty.
Stay: Rental condos and beach houses rule in Perdido. Try and
Eat: Locals love the royal red shrimp, gumbo, and weekend bluegrass at the ramshackle Original Point Restaurant (850/492-3577 or The proudly ungenteel Flora-Bama Lounge (850/492-0611 or, which straddles the Florida-Alabama line, serves good oysters.
Shop: Tallulah’s Treasures (251/981-6003) in nearby Orange Beach, Alabama, stocks local and regional arts and crafts—what the owner calls “girlfriend gifts.”
Local secret: Still-warm weather and water make the uncrowded months of September and October the best time to visit.

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne, Florida:

Emerald water, gentle surf, white coral sand, palm trees, and a climbable lighthouse (305/361-5811 or

Carpinteria, California: 

Mild waves and no rip currents make it one of two claimants to the title of “world’s safest beach.” Great tide pooling, too (805/968-1033 or

Fort Myers Beach, Florida: 

Also promoted as “world’s safest” because it lacks rip currents, this white-sand beach slopes very gradually; you can walk a long way out into the warm, green-blue Gulf of Mexico (800/237-6444 or

Kiawah Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina: 

The Charleston area’s best beach, with dressing areas, showers, and seasonal lifeguards (843/768-9166 or

Saona Island, Dominican Republic:

Swim with the sea stars—hundreds of them—at this nature reserve off the southeastern Dominican mainland. You’ll share the shallow water with exotic wildlife and day-tripping tourists. Catalonia Gran Dominicus (888/774-0040 or arranges excursions from nearby Bayahibe.

Siesta Beach, Siesta Key, Sarasota, Florida:

Says Dr. Beach, “Sugar sand with a beach that is hundreds of yards wide; you’ve gotta love this place.” We do.
Stay: Sara Sea Beach Resort (800/235-3493 or has 21 beachy rooms, each with a kitchen and, on your arrival, a complimentary bottle of wine. Boutique rooms start at $237. For vacation rentals, visit
Eat: Try Ophelia’s on the Bay (877/229-9601 or for waterfront fine dining, Siesta Key Oyster Bar (941/346-5443 or for casual fun.
Shop: Hip fashions—shoes, clothing, swimwear—await at Foxy Lady (941/349-6644 or, in a cottage just across from the beach.
Local secret: The Siesta Key Drum Circle ( draws hundreds to the beach for music and dancing every Sunday before sundown.

Coast Guard Beach, Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts:

Cushy mounds—slightly coarse, but very clean—pile up against the cliff (508/771-2144 or

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina:

Twelve miles of fluffy beaches embrace this high-end resort island (800/523-3373 or

Shoal Bay (East), Anguilla: 

Sleepy Anguilla wakes up—a little—at this two-mile expanse of feathery white sand that glitters in the sun. The quiet Shoal Bay Villas (562/366-4813 or puts you just a few steps from the water.

Torrance, California: 

A little-known but wonderful mile and a half of soft sand framed by hills (310/316-3636 or

Huntington Beach, California:

Huntington fought a legal battle with Santa Cruz for the right to crown itself “Surf City, U.S.A.”—and won. It really does have a mellow surfer vibe; Dr. Beach calls it the “No. 1 family surf beach in the United States.”
Stay: The Shorebreak Hotel (877/744-1117 or overlooks the ocean and features surfer-chic design. Waterfront rooms start at $259. For charming rental cottages, visit
Eat: Join the locals for breakfast at the comfy Sugar Shack (714/536-0355 or Then join the tourists at Duke’s (714/374-6446 or You’ll pay for the ocean view, but it’s worth it.
Shop: Walk past the giant Huntington Surf & Sport (714/374-6266 or at the pier and down the block to the Billabong surf fashions at its sister store.
Local secret: Ocean vistas along the 1½-mile nature trail at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (714/846-1114 or can soothe away your stress.

Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina:

“The best board surfing on the East Coast,” says Dr. Beach; paddle out near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (877/629-4386 or

Northside Beach, Sheboygan, Wisconsin: 

This surfing beach, surprisingly on Lake Michigan, is the site of the Dairyland Surf Classic (

Santa Cruz, California: 

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (831/420-6289 or SantaCruzSurfingMuseum) at Lighthouse Point overlooks the famous Steamer Lane surf break.

Sebastian Inlet State Park, near Sebastian, Florida: 

Three miles of tranquil Atlantic beach beloved by surfers and fishermen (321/984-4852 or

Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site, Neskowin, Oregon:

From U.S. 101, you barely notice the village, let alone the beach. That’s why you might have this breathtaking confluence of sea, sand, and scenery all to yourself.
Stay: The 11 fireplace-equipped shorefront cottages of The Breakers Beach Houses (503/392-3417 or overlook the ocean. Private cottages start at $160. To see available vacation rentals, visit
Eat: Hawk Creek Cafe (503/392-3838) serves excellent pizza from a wood-fired oven.
Shop: Head 13 miles south to Lincoln City for glass art at The Volta Glass Gallery (541/996-7600 or Or create your own art across the street at The Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio (541/996-2569 or
Local secret: See that picturesque sea stack topped with trees? There’s a reason it’s called Proposal Rock.

Cumberland Island, Georgia:

Because there’s no bridge access to these 17 miles of Atlantic beach, you may not see another soul (912/882-4336 or

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California:

Steep terrain that requires a short hike is worth it for the sunset views (831/667-2100 or

Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington:

Dr. Beach’s “best wilderness beach” in the Pacific Northwest. Equal parts coastal forest and ocean beach that’s ideal for camping (800/833-6388 or National Park Service ).

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Port St. Joe, Florida: 

A little-known beach on the Panhandle with 10 miles of white sand and spectacular sunsets (850/227-1327 or