Ahhh...the family beach vacation. It’s as all-American as apple pie, a time-honored tradition where some of the best childhood memories are made. Everyone has their favorite sands, but when it comes to family-friendly options, not all are created equal. We’ve picked 10 great family beaches across the country that parents and kids alike are guaranteed to love – whether for their gentle surf, range of activities, sand-castle potential, or educational elements. So gather the gang and pack up the SPF and beach ball – it's time to take the clan to the sand! Get a preview of our favorite shores with our Family Beaches slideshow.
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Set against verdant old-growth forests and punctuated by giant rock monoliths (including the 235-foot-high Haystack Rock), quaint and kid-friendly Cannon Beach lies just 80 miles west of Portland, Oregon. While the Pacific waters here are often too cold for swimming, kite flying, along with tide pooling and sand-castle building, reign supreme on this wide, sandy strip – and the kites sold at the town's weathered cedarwood-clad shops make the perfect family beach vacation souvenir. Every June brings the Sandcastle Festival (June 14-16, 2013), when kids of all ages can enter one of the West Coast's largest sand-castle-building contests.
Victorian house-lined streets might not be what comes to mind when you think of going “down the shore,” but this National Historic District in southern New Jersey is full of surprises. Indeed, while the family beach destination of Cape May has the beautiful expanse of sandy shoreline and requisite ice cream shops for little visitors, it also boasts boutique hotels, horse-drawn carriage rides, and a top-rated, seafood-centric culinary scene bound to please grown-ups. Plus, amusement park-style excitement awaits on the animated boardwalk of North Wildwood, just a short drive away.
It’s no wonder that after all these years, the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts still lures families in droves – after all, aren’t vast beaches, pounding surf, fried seafood, and ice cream shops what family beach vacation dreams are made of? But of all the Cape’s beaches, the National Seashore’s Coast Guard Beach stands out – not only for the large waves begging to be surfed, but also for its educational and natural attractions. Spend a day at the beach showing the kids the threatened piping plovers that nest here during the early summer months; and don't miss checking out the nearby site of the Mayflower's first New World landing.
Lather the kids with SPF and set 'em loose for a family beach vacation on the Coronado shore, a prime spot for fun-seeking families looking to boogie board, surf, and swim – all just a bridge or ferry ride away from downtown San Diego. Besides being the place to stay, the spectacular Hotel del Coronado makes a fabulous backdrop for a family photo and has kids' activities galore – think sand-castle building and kite making. If you visit in early winter, be sure to check out the gray whales breaching right offshore during their annual migration. Land activities like beach volleyball and biking can be enjoyed year-round, courtesy of sunny San Diego’s near-perfect weather.
Daytona Beach’s 23 miles of sparkling Florida sand promise plenty of family beach-time fun to keep the kiddies content, plus a plethora of off-beach activities to keep them occupied away from the surf. Wildlife excursions on the Halifax River and at the nearby Marine Science Center offer eco-education, while the 90-minute speedway tour at the Daytona 500 Experience thrills adults and kids alike. Don’t want to encourage your kids to be race-car drivers? Take them instead to the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, or to Orlando to see Mickey and the gang; both are only about an hour’s drive away.
Hilton Head Island’s 12 miles of South Carolina beachfront are child-friendly indeed, with shallow waters, gentle waves, and sand dollar-dotted shores. Watch the water for a while and you’ll likely spot frolicking pods of dolphins; you can even see the smiling mammals up close by chartering a dolphin cruise. With Harbour Town as your base, you can arrange cruises and water sports in the shadow of the island's iconic red-and-white-striped lighthouse, plus tee off on one of Hilton Head's some two dozen golf courses – a great place to get the kids started on the sport!
If your family is more trendy than traditional, look no further than Newport Beach in Southern California. Frequented by sunbathers, surfers, and yes, families, miles upon miles of sand-castle-ready beach is open to the public. Head to the “Wedge” at Balboa Peninsula to be wowed by serious surfers taking on 25-foot waves, or for calmer waters, take the kids for some family beach-time at Corona del Mar State Beach. Once you tire of the sand, push the stroller along the buzzing boardwalk or take older kids for a ride on a bicycle built for four. When it’s time for a change of scenery, Catalina Island is just a short 75-minute ferry ride away.
Long Island's (in New York) amazing family beaches are no secret, but there are still a few places to get away from the crowds and spread out your blanket in the sand. Delightfully desolate Orient Beach State Park, on the tip of the island’s North Fork, has a 300-foot sandy stretch and plenty of amenities like a playground, picnic area, and barbecue grills. If their skin needs a break from the sun, take the kids on a guided hike of the thick forest and marshes that border the beach and tell them to keep an eye out for the resident ospreys. Adventurous families who arrive without wheels needn't worry, as bike and kayak rentals are available to help you explore on your own.
The crescent-shaped family beaches of Poipu Beach Park, on Kauai’s sunny south shore, are tailor-made for the entire gang. Toddlers can splash safely in a calm and shallow cove; teenagers can take surfing or bodyboarding lessons near a reef; and while dad is out hitting drives on one of two championship golf courses, mom and the kids can snorkel in the crystal-clear Pacific, swim with green sea turtles, and snap photos of dolphins, whales, and endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Restrooms, picnic tables, showers, and a playground are located in a shaded park next to the lifeguard-protected beach.
Nearly 15 miles of seashells are yours for the pickin’ on Sanibel Island, known as one of the country’s top destinations for this family-friendly activity. This family beach destination on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico has all the ingredients for a kid’s dream vacation – soft white sand, gentle surf, and shallow water – plus the educational possibilities that parents love. Teach the children about ecotourism at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where bald eagles and more than 300 other species of birds, reptiles, and mammals reside, or, give them a thrill on an Everglades Day Safari in the Florida Everglades, less than 2 hours away. Tennis, golf, shopping, and biking mean that there’s plenty for grown-ups to enjoy on Sanibel, too.