What makes a superior beach town? I’ve thought about that often, usually while gorging on steamed clams with butter or pedaling a bike along a seawall.
America does beaches extremely well, a point I didn’t begin to realize until my 20s, when I tried to sunbathe on a jam-packed stretch of Spanish shore. But too many of the towns along our coastlines have become charmless and generic. They feel like shopping malls with sand.
A great beach town must have shores that are spacious, picturesque, relatively uncrowded, and clean. Beyond that, its local culture not only has to service tourism but also transcend it. The town must have a prettiness about it that makes even a stroll to the grocery store an occasion for delight.
Finally, it has to be timeless, meaning that though restaurants come and go and shops get sold, the contours and vistas around them remain recognizable through generations.
My favorites go further. Their allure springs from distinctiveness. On first visit, they already feel comfortable, even familiar, while having that ineffable sense of being unlike anywhere you’ve been before.
Traveling around the country, I’ve rejoiced each time I have come across another of these American idylls. Weary of vacations that feel homogenized down to the margarita mix, I’ve resolved to celebrate as many as I can, lest the thousands of miles of U.S. coastline become one long, featureless stretch of big-box hotels and franchised stores, impossible to tell apart.
Here are seven of America’s last best beach towns:
- Encinitas, California: Just half an hour up the coast from the sprawl of San Diego, this thriving town of 60,000 travels in its own orbit. A surf culture coexists with holistic healing centers, vegan groceries, and what seems like a yoga studio on every block. Even the chain hotels seem to be individually styled.
- Bethany Beach, Delaware: Bethany, together with South Bethany, offers a respite from the mass-scale tourism of this part of the Atlantic coast. They’re known as the quiet resorts, and though the mood occasionally gets raucous between late June and Labor Day, it’s an innocent 1950s kind of raucous.
- Gulf Shores, Alabama: Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill may have left their mark and the casino culture of nearby Biloxi and Gulfport may beckon, yet Gulf Shores remains a languid, delightfully timeless place that feels like nowhere else. It’s worth coming just to eat the seafood, and to visit the shimmering West Beach.
- Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina: A typical day here is two hours in a kayak paddling the marshlands, a grouper sandwich with slaw for lunch, an afternoon spent with a fishing rod, then a night out listening to a live country-rock band.
This piece, written by Bruce Schoenfeld, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.