As Memorial Day weekend approaches, our brains instinctually begin to daydream about the beach. Summer vacation planning might mean returning to a seashore that's been a family tradition for years or heading to a new beach you've always wanted to visit. If you're still undecided about where to head this summer, here's a look at the 10 best beach vacation destinations in the U.S.
Few beach destinations are as quintessentially New England as this hook-shaped island whose scenic sand dunes and shingled cottages have made it an annual summer vacation favorite for generations of Americans. A succession of charming beach towns — including Hyannis to the west, Chatham at the easternmost point and artsy Provincetown at road's end — offer house rentals, B&Bs and hotels or motels with pools and spa facilities. And any Cape Cod beach experience must include lobster roll lunches and sunset clambakes. It's all wicked cool.
For summer R&R that includes gallery hopping, wine sipping and spa going, this upscale beach community located about 90 minutes north of San Diego is ideal. Several large resorts — Montage Laguna Beach, The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and Surf & Sand Resort among them — are set along the area's picturesque cliffs and are perfect for a romantic couple's escape or a girlfriends' getaway. The town is a longtime art colony (with more than 100 galleries), so it's easy to find a one-of-a-kind souvenir, while the region's focus on healthy California cuisine means you'll eat well, too.
Some places just make you go ahhh, and these neighboring islands on the west coast of Florida are among them. Their endless white-sand beaches — many scattered with delicate sea shells — offer panoramic views of the clear, calm waters and golden sunsets of the Gulf of Mexico. Sanibel has a distinctly casual charm with small traditional beachfront motels, while Captiva is golf-cart-friendly, with legendary eatery The Bubble Room and the large South Seas Island Resort offering activities of all kinds.
Historic lighthouses, wild horses and scenic flights in open-cockpit biplanes above the spot where the Wright Brothers first flew — a vacation in the Outer Banks can include all this, and more. With a large inventory of beach house rentals (and quite a few resorts and inns, too) towns such as Duck, Corolla, Hatteras, Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are scattered along this series of sand-dune-studded barrier islands, making it a top spot for leisurely getaways with friends and multi-generational family vacations. Fresh seafood is plentiful and activities include hang gliding, bike riding and deep-sea fishing.
To experience nature at its finest, it's hard to top Cannon Beach, a wide, wild swath of sand on the Oregon Coast about 90 minutes from Portland. Known for its dramatic rock formations (235-foot-tall Haystack being the most famous), lush rainforests (complete with waterfalls), large artist population (galleries abound) and wildlife (you can easily spot nesting puffins and grazing elk), Cannon Beach is ideal as a romantic getaway spot for eco-loving couples. Aside from beachcombing and surfing, hiking is the thing to do (the views from Ecola State Park are sublime) and accommodations include dozens of inns to suit all budgets.
Each summer, this string of charming villages located on the southeast coast of Long Island plays host to New York's A-list — from Wall Street bigwigs to music moguls — who escape the city to weekend at beachfront estates worthy of an Architectural Digest cover. But if you plan ahead, more modest house rentals are also available in Southampton, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Amagansett and Wainscott. Besides sunning and socializing, the Hamptons are known for farm stands offering fresh local produce, restaurants specializing in Long Island seafood and farm-to-table cuisine and vineyards ideal for lazy afternoons sipping wine.
Maui is nicknamed "The Magic Isle," and with good reason. In addition to its famous beaches (Kaanapali, Wailea and Makena to name a few), this Hawaiian island is home to Haleakala (a surreal volcanic crater that's 10,023 feet above sea level), Molokini (a crescent-shaped offshore lava formation offering superb snorkeling, Upcountry (a lush area with historic cowboy towns and lavender farms) and Hana (a remote spot perched on black-lava landscape and accessible solely via the twisting, turning Hana Highway). Add in humpback whales (from November to March), spinner dolphins and a half dozen golf courses and Maui has something for everyone.
Whether you're into surfing, sailing or touring Gilded Age mansions, Newport is a beach vacation destination with a star-spangled pedigree. Its largest beach, Ruggles, is sweeping crescent of sand favored by surfers, while its historic Thames Street is lined with antique shops, pubs and seafood restaurants. Choose from an array of romantic inns (The Chandler at Cliff Walk and Forty 1 North, for instance) or full-service hotels (Newport Marriott or Hotel Viking). For active sightseeing, stroll or jog the scenic 3½ -mile Cliff Walk with grand mansions on one side and the sailboat-studded waters of Narragansett Bay on the other.
Want to tick another state off your visited list? Then make it Alabama, where Gulf Shores offers nature (it's home to 6,500-acre Gulf State Park), entertainment (outdoor concerts) and foodie fun (from shrimp to barbecue). In total, there are 32 miles of white-sand beaches that let you explore the region's beautiful landscapes as you spy on seabirds (eagles, too), alligators and even black bears. Accommodations include condo rentals, B&Bs, motels, hotels and campsites.
If you're looking for a beach vacation destination that offers active summer sports as well as easy access to a city famous for its history and quirky charm, check out Hilton Head Island. Located 45 minutes from Savannah, Georgia, it has carved a niche with its focus on golf, tennis, biking and nature walks, along with a plentiful supply of hotel rooms (major resorts include Marriott, Sonesta, Omni and Disney) and condo and house rentals in all price ranges. Day trips to Savannah add antiquing, historic home tours and lowcountry cuisine (shrimp and grits, anyone?) to the mix.