America's Best Beach Towns

by Jordan Simon, an AOL Travel ContributorPosted Jun 18th 2010 01:15 PM

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rockmixer, flickr

As the summer season starts, finding the perfect beach for sunbathing and splashing in the surf becomes a national pastime, even obsession. But what happens off the sand is just as important. While we all hope that the sun will shine every day of our vacation, it's good to know there are options if the skies open up. These ten towns are classic Americana and are packed with museums, shops, and other rainy-day diversions, plus lots of fun festivals and outdoor activities if you want to do something more active then turning the pages of the latest chick-lit release (did someone say mini-golf?). So come along and tour America's best beach towns from the California Coast to the tip of Cape Cod. Just remember to pack the sunscreen.


10. Huntington Beach, California

You won't be able to stop yourself from humming Beach Boys tunes while you hang out, or hang ten, at this self-described Surf City, USA (they claim to have the West Coast's largest stretch of uninterrupted coastline). If you are looking for something beyond the epic waves and pick-up volleyball games, head to the International Surfing Museum or chill with the bohemian types at the HB Art Center. At sunset head to Huntington Beach Pier, located where Main Street meets the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, for stunning views.

Tip: Locals get amped for veggie burritos, shrimp tacos, and smoothies at Secret Spot, an aptly named tiny strip-mall storefront on Warner Avenue with a neo-hippie vibe.

9. Kennebunkport, Maine

The old-time fishing village of Kennebunkport is like a Currier and Ives print come to life (it's also the summer retreat of choice for George H.W. Bush). You can work on a lobster boat, fly-fish, or kayak past whimsical formations like Blowing Cave and Spouting Rock. Stroll by elaborate Federal and Victorian manses built by sea captains, many now housing inns, or experience history in motion at the Seashore Trolley Museum. Kennebunkport's riverside Dock Square teems with shops and galleries selling stoneware and watercolor seascapes, eco-chic boutiques stocking organic body gels, and of course purveyors of local blueberry jams. Old Orchard Beach features New England's only oceanfront amusement park where you can get your thrills on the Ferris wheel and roller coasters.

Tip:
Enjoy live jazz several nights weekly at 95 Ocean, which also offers a great prix fixe pre-theater dinner.

8. Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City's tawny beaches and towering dunes merit the moniker Malibu of Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore features wilderness islands, trails through diverse ecosystems, and preserved historic farmsteads. This part of Michigan has a deep history and South Manitou Island, reachable by ferry, recreates pioneer days from old schoolhouse to 1871 lighthouse while area museums celebrate everything from steam railroads to Scandinavian heritage. Traverse City's Victorian downtown boasts hundreds of galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Foodies should pick up a Tasty Traverse guide if they want to chat with brewers and bakers, fromageres and fishermen. There are also those great American summer activities like mini-golf, bumper boats, go karts, and video arcades. Early July brings the famous National Cherry Festival with arts-and-crafts fairs, air shows, and cherries baked, pressed, and jammed in every way possible.

Tip:
The picturesque Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas north of town proved surprisingly conducive to grape-growing, notable for Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, and ice wines (try Chateau Grand Traverse).

7. Cape May, New Jersey
This isn't the Jersey Shore you see on MTV: Rocking the night away here means settling into a chair on your B&B's porch. Cape May is America's oldest seaside resort and its entire downtown of framed, gingerbread Victorian architecture was declared a National Historic Landmark. Stroll the pedestrian Washington Street Mall and pop into the family-owned cafes, ice cream parlors, and specialty shops selling handmade leather sandals and saltwater taffy. The Promenade is a classic boardwalk scene with 50s-style arcades, leading to the 19th-century Lighthouse (climb 199 steps for smashing views) where nature trails access Cape May Point State Park, a birding bonanza.

Tip: The historic Chalfonte Hotel's Henry Sawyer Room presents cabarets, comedians, and the Concert by Candlelight series; its legendary King Edward Bar offers artisan cheeses alongside cocktails during weekend happy hours.

6. Boca Grande, Florida

The Gulf Barrier Islands off Florida's southwest coast define laidback lifestyle: Think Hemingway's Key West before the neon, noise and nonstop partying. Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island lacks traffic lights and chain stores, but it does have a century-old lighthouse, banyan tree-lined streets, and a converted railway station shopping complex showcasing local art. Land-based activities include hiking and biking along the former train tracks, or if you want to hit the water you can island-hop from Captiva to Cabbage Key (it's one of America's top-ranked sailing destinations) or kayak through manatee-filled mangrove swamps. After a full day, watch the setting sun fireball across the water from South Beach Bar & Grille's patio.

Tip:
Golf courses here incorporate the natural landscape with snaking water hazards and untamed scrub teeming with wildlife. The 18-hole at the Pinemoor Golf Club was designed by Pete Dye and is open to the public, but book your tee time early.

5. Cannon Beach, Oregon
Artists have long contemplated nature's creativity along this rugged volcanic coast. It's no wonder why: The landscape features hulking boulders like 235-foot basalt Haystack Rock, tidal pools, and forests plunging to the Pacific, all punctuated by powdery strands. Numerous galleries and artists' ateliers showcase various media from glass to candle making. Several nearby museums celebrate the region's maritime and military heritage, the History Center recreates a Native American longhouse, and ranger-led tours follow in explorers' footsteps at Lewis & Clark National Historic Park. After checking those off your list, join Portland scenesters in the unpretentious wine lounges.

Tip:
At the EVOO Cooking School you can take classes like Artisan Bread Making and Crepes 101, or reserve a spot at one of the wine dinners and let them do the cooking.

4. Pismo Beach, California
This stretch of sand is California's "Clam Capital," wonderfully illustrated by the giant concrete bivalve sculpture. But if you are looking for something more land-based, head to nearby San Luis Obispo. The town offers classic Spanish Colonial structures including the Serra-founded Tolosa Mission, the neo-Romanesque Carnegie Library that now houses the County Historical Museum, and more architectural bounty from Frank Lloyd Wright designs to Art Deco theaters. Mission Plaza is the focal point for top shops and restaurants, and, while it's no Napa, world-class, lesser-known wineries beckon just 10 minutes from the beach for tasting/tours, including the coolly contemporary Tolosa.

Tip:
Famously flamboyant Madonna Inn is a temple to kitsch, boldly juxtaposing Western and Alpine accents, reaching its campy climax in a rock waterfall urinal that attracts thousands of gawkers.

3. Provincetown, Massachusetts

Welcoming all ages, races, creeds and sexual orientations, P-Town crowns the tip of Cape Cod, where it curls like a tongue stuck out at convention. Yet the Puritans' Mayflower Compact was signed here pre-Plymouth Rock; the commemorative 252-foot all-granite Pilgrim Monument offers spectacular vistas. The adjacent Provincetown Museum portrays historic events and people from the native Wampanoag tribe. Colonial clapboard buildings house B&Bs, boutiques, restaurants, and galleries. Also be sure to check what (and who) is onstage at the Provincetown Theater, where O'Neill, Stewart and Fonda honed their crafts.

Tip:
The Province Lands Visitor Center offers a fantastic observation deck plus ranger-guided walking tours of cranberry bogs, tidal flats, and salt marshes.

2. Rockport, Texas
Studies perennially rank Rockport among the nation's cleanest beaches, but you can get down 'n' dirty at the many seafood shacks and shanty bars where returning fishermen tell tales of tackling Texas-sized tarpon. Key Allegro Marina bustles, especially during July's Rockport Offshore Challenge, and The Heritage downtown district offers upscale shopping and walking tours. The Rockport Center for the Arts, Texas Maritime Museum, and Victorian landmark Fulton Mansion detail the area's history. Natural wonders include The Big Tree (a 1,000-year-old coastal live oak that is one of the country's largest), and spotting whooping cranes and ruby-throated hummingbirds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Tip:
Stevie Lew's BBQ Kitchen smokes the competition with mouth- and eye-watering eats, including savory sausages, spare ribs and tender melting pulled pork.

1. Chincoteague Island, Virginia

This tranquil landfall off Virginia's coast is famed for the feral Chincoteague ponies that roam nearby Assateague Island. Every July since 1925, the Pony Penning and auction floods the town with tourists there to watch the ponies gallop down Main Street. This area is a nature-lover's nirvana all year round, though, with Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore, home to herons, bald eagles, and woodpeckers. If the weather is keeping you from visiting the birds' natural habitat, the Refuge Waterfowl Museum exhibits extensive wildlife murals, skipjack boat models, and wildfowl woodcarvings by renowned decoy crafters like carver-in-residence Delbert "Cigar" Daisy. Victorian inns and ice cream parlors, clam shacks serving Chincoteague oysters, and beachfront BBQs complete the Norman Rockwell picture.

Tip:
Watch rocket launches at the NASA Visitor Center at the Wallops Flight Facility where Science on a Sphere Theatre projects 3-D effects on a suspended six-foot-diameter globe, depicting the moon, Jupiter storms, and Earth as seen by astronauts.


Photo Credits: Huntington Beach - Kevin Labianco, flickr; Pismo Beach - centralcoastpictures, flickr; Boca Grande - Aenneken, flickr; Kennebunkport - skyobrienpics, flickr; Provincetown - Hbarrison, flickr; Traverse City - .jowo., flickr; Cape May - akuban, flickr; Cannon Beach - zug55, flickr; Rockport - osunikon, flickr; Chincoteague - USFWS, flickr
Filed Under: Beach
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