U.S. Beaches 101

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | May 15, 2009
Bethany Beach, Delaware
Bethany Beach, Delaware / iphotographer/iStock

By: Sherman's Travel Editorial Staff

For one glorious season each year, America’s beaches come into full bloom. To help you pick a great destination for a bit of summery respite – and to enlighten you to the country’s great diversity of sun and sand – Sherman’s Travel spoke to experts around the country, polled readers and staffers, and got the most in-the-know correspondents to divulge their favorite U.S. beaches. Then, we narrowed the selection down to specially themed categories consisting of several beaches each (it wasn’t easy!). Just for fun, we’ve thrown in our favorite beach movies, songs, bars, and restaurants, too.

Whether you lean towards the solitude of shells and seagulls, are scouting out an ideal honeymoon locale, or are more of a see-and-be-seen beachgoer, we've got you covered. All you have to do is click on your preferences to the right – and lather on the sunscreen.

Best Family U.S. Beaches

Indulge the whole family at these kid- and parent-friendly seaside hideaways.

Bethany Beach, DE
Sand Color Haystack 
Length .5 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 72
Location 127 miles E of Washington, D.C.
Bethany was founded in 1901 by Christian evangelicals as a summer camp, but unlike many of the neighboring U.S. beaches, it’s remained, as its founders wished, a “haven of rest for quiet people.” No longer a religious community, its uncrowded beaches, quaint old town, and simple boardwalk appeal to all. 

If you love this beach, try the more boisterous Rehoboth Beach, just to the north.

Ponce Inlet, FL

Sand Color Cotton 
Length 3 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 78
Location 63 miles NE of Orlando
Just over an hour from Disney World and Cape Canaveral, Ponce Inlet provides kid-friendly amenities and a bit of authentic colonial charm. The town’s 19th-century brick lighthouse (the nation’s second tallest), plentiful boat access, frequent manatee and turtle sightings, and a series of boardwalks winding through coastal hammocks give P.I. a rare Old Florida ambience. 

If you love this beach, try New Smyrna Beach, which has an artsier vibe and is just across the inlet.

Coronado Beach, CA
Sand Color Biscuit 
Length 1.75 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 66
Location 7 miles SE of San Diego
Lather the kids with SPF and set 'em loose on the Coronado shore, a prime spot for fun-seeking families looking to boogie board, surf, and swim just a bridge or ferry ride away from downtown San Diego. 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.

If you love this beach, try family-favored Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara.

Read our Top 10 Family Beaches article for more ideas on family-friendly seaside escapes, then hunt for travel deals to top family U.S. beaches with our Travel Search price comparison tool. 

Best Natural Wonder U.S. Beaches

Up the wilderness quotient at these distinctive U.S. beaches.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef Beach, Key Largo, FL
Sand Color Wheat 
Length .5 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 79
Location 52 miles S of Miami
Though there are two nice man-made beaches here, the real attraction is the coral reef just off beautiful Key Largo. The protected park is home to over 600 species of marine life so vivid and colorful that it’s been called an underwater rainforest. Divers will experience the most intense highlights, but glass-bottom boat tours are an excellent way for kids to see them, too.

If you love this beach, check out Sebastian Inlet’s man-made reefs just up the coast.

(Editors' Note: As of press time, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council notes that the Florida Keys remain unaffected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Find the latest updates on the Florida Keys website).

Papakolea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
Sand Color Olive 
Length .25 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 80
Location 64 miles SE of Kona
This rugged beach, situated in the remote Kau district, gleams with vivid, olive-colored sand, and is well worth the trek it takes to get there. The green hue comes from olivine (a form of volcanic rock) eroding from the cinder cone on the cliffs and mixing with the white sand. From South Point, a pitted jeep trail leads to the beach, but a special permit is needed, and the walk is only about 2 miles. There’s a steep descent down the south side of the eroding cliffside before reaching the beach – just be warned that swimming can be dangerous here due to the turbulant waters. 

If you love this beach, try Punalu’u, a nearby black-sand beach favored by sea turtles. 

Point Bennett, Channel Islands, CA
Sand Color Faded khaki 
Length 1 mile 
Average Summer Water Temp 67
Location 40 miles SW of Santa Barbara
Pods of bottlenose dolphins vault through the air as your boat approaches San Miguel in the Channel Islands National Park, better known as North America’s Galapagos. Point Bennett, at the westernmost tip, is as far from Southern California freeway-culture as you can get. In addition to seasonally pupped pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), the islands are home to 145 uniquely evolved species. 

If you love this beach, try wildlife-rich San Onofre State Beach, 50 miles north of San Diego.

Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico
Sand Color Vanilla cream 
Length 2 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 81
Location 55 miles SW of San Juan
Recently demilitarized Vieques, just off the eastern shore of mainland Puerto Rico, offers hundreds of unspoiled beaches, but the real draw is the florescent light show in the bioluminescent bay. Millions of microscopic algae flash neon blue-green when disturbed, making halos around swimmers and boats. 

If you love this beach, try Merritt Island in Florida, which produces less bioluminescence, but has manatees to boot.

Use our Travel Search price comparison for savings on hotels, airfare, and packages for top U.S. beaches. 

Best Scene U.S. Beaches

Sun- and star-seekers alike haunt these high-profile U.S. beaches.

Fire Island, NY
Sand Color Cedarwood 
Length 2 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 69
Location 60 miles E of NYC
It’s telling that so many hardened New Yorkers describe Fire Island as magical. The placid barrier island teems with lush gardens, timid deer, and the rarest creatures of all: high-powered Gothamites relaxing. Cars are restricted, so beachgoers use old-fashioned wagons to tote luggage and groceries around the 32-mile-long island. Boardwalks wind through the sunken forest to areas like The Pines and Cherry Grove (both dominated by a gay crowd), and to the more mixed northern and southern tips.

If you love this beach,
try Montauk’s Ditch Plains Beach for its chic end-of-the-world vibe.
South Beach, FL
Sand Color Flour-white 
Length 1 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 78
In Miami's SoBe, bikini-clad hipsters mingle with half-naked rollerbladers at celebrity-packed parties that spill onto the sand from the many swanky beach-facing hotels. South Beach remains the place for the bronzed and beautiful. But the beach is only part of the appeal, thanks to non-stop action offered up at the restaurants, hotels, and bars lining Ocean Drive’s Art Deco strip.

If you love this beach, try Fort Lauderdale’s Central Beach for a similar, though admittedly less glam, scene.

Main Beach, East Hampton, NY
Sand Color Sea Oat
Length 300 feet
Average Summer Water Temp 71
Location 105 miles E of New York City
The Hamptons are known for A-list parties and well-heeled residents. But you don’t have to be famous to access the same waters that Martha and Diddy swim in. The crisp Atlantic surf and rolling dunes are pristine backdrops for star-watching. 

If you love this beach, try Mecox Beach in Bridgehampton.

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for the best scene U.S. beaches. 

Best Romantic U.S. Beaches

Escape ordinary U.S. beaches together at these sun-kissed locales.

Lumahai Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Sand Color Chalk
Length .75 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 74
Location 63 miles N of Kauai
Though it was here that Mitzi Gaynor “washed that man right out of her hair” in South Pacific, this sandy stretch on Kauai’s north shore is ripe for romance. Approach the beach via the hidden nature trail and emerge to some of Hawaii’s most dramatic scenery – waves pounding against lava rocks and a lush, green forest backdrop.

If you love this beach, try Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena State Park for spectacular sunset views.

Carmel Beach,CA

Sand Color Ivory 
Length .5 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 67
Location 54 miles S of Santa Cruz
Framed by cypress groves and set against the electric-blue Pacific, this cozy crescent of fine white sand has been a muse for writers, artists, and romantics like Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ansel Adams. Gallery-hop along cobblestone sidewalks and flower-filled courtyards en route to the beach. Bonfires are allowed until 10pm, so there’s no reason to leave after sunset. 

If you love this beach, try Half Moon Bay, where pristine beaches meet rustic redwoods.

Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Sand Color Eggshell
Length .75 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 72
Location 5 miles N of St. John Airport
Probably the most photographed beach on our list, Trunk Bay is the quintessential Caribbean honeymoon beach, replete with sparkling white sands, crystal-clear water, and swaying coconut palms. 

If you love this beach, try Brewer’s Bay Beach on St. Thomas.

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for romantic U.S. beaches. 

Best Secluded U.S. Beaches

Get away from absolutely everything at these remote seashore hideaways.

Roque Bluffs, Maine

Sand Color (Pebble beach) 
Length .5 mile
Average Summer Water Temp 68
Location 75 miles NE of Bar Harbor
Getting to Roque Bluffs is half the fun. From Route 1 in Machias, follow Roque Bluff Road for 6 miles, past lobster-trap-scattered blueberry barrens, dense stands of boreal fir trees, and finally through a thicket of fragrant beach roses, where you’ll access one of Maine’s hidden gems. The park consists of a freshwater kettle pond and an ocean-facing pebble beach, both of which provide pristine but chilly swimming (thanks to the Labrador current). Facilities include picnic tables, grills, changing rooms, and bathrooms, but the real draw is the solitude of the beach and the pure cobalt waters on Englishman’s Bay.

If you love this beach, try Jasper Beach in Machiasport. It’s much rockier, but just as quiet, and easier to find.
Bowman’s Beach, Sanibel Island, FL
Sand Color: Linen-white 
Length 2 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 86
Location 27 miles SW of Ft. Myers
The secret’s out about the beauty of Sanibel Island’s beaches, so you won’t be alone in searching for a stretch of sand to call your own. But that’s just what you’ll get when you leave your car and make the quarter-mile walk to Bowman’s Beach, Sanibel’s most peaceful place. The island is well-known as one of the best shelling spots in the country, but you’ll find little competition here. There’s minimal development and ditto on amenities – though Bowman’s does have one perk not found on any other beach on Sanibel: barbecue grills.

If you love this beach, try Algiers Beach at Gulfside City Park; the hard-to-find location keeps crowds away.

(Editors' Note: As of press time, the Sanibel Island and Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce notes that none of the islands’ beaches have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Find the latest updates on the chamber’s website).
Carova Beach, Outer Banks, NC

Sand Color Chardonnay 
Length 12 miles
Average Summer Water Temp 79
Location 27 miles SE of Virginia Beach
This barrier beach covers the upper stretches of the Outer Banks and is the most undeveloped of an already spartan beach chain. Part of what keeps the region mellow is the lack of paved roads, with Highway 12 stopping north of Corolla. Four-wheel-drive is a must, as the only route to these U.S. beaches is a ride on the sand or a primitive system of dirt roads connecting vacation homes in the wooded interior. Drive slowly to see the wild horses (many are descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs) that roam the protected dunes. 

If you love this beach, try Sandbridge Beach, VA; it’s more accessible than Carova.

Read our Top 10 Secluded U.S. Beaches article for more ideas on enjoying surf and sand in solitude, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find deals on airfare, hotels, and packages for top secluded U.S. beaches.

Best U.S. Beach Cities and Towns

Best Beach Cities
We found the best urban areas where you don’t have to sacrifice style for sand. Ditch the car and stay put in these cities alongside great U.S. beaches.

Los Angeles L.A. County’s urban sprawl comes to a crisp end along this 72-mile coastline boasting over 30 miles of sun-drenched beaches. Other sands may be cleaner, and other waves more surfable, but where else could Beach Blanket Babylon and Baywatch have been shot?

Miami Like many Sunshine State cities, Miami was built around the beach. But unlike its siblings, the city has evolved into a stylish cosmopolitan hub favored by sun-seeking models, actors, and designers, and peppered with Latin American flair. Still, beach-centric Ocean Drive is an Art Deco haven of chic hotels, restaurants, and shops that offer a relaxing vibe without sacrificing style.

Honolulu Honolulu offers some of the finest Polynesian culture without losing its beach appeal. Though condos and hotels line Waikiki Beach, its allure is as strong as ever.

Chicago With 30 miles of shore along Lake Michigan and dozens of beaches, Chicago is the Midwest’s best bet for a city/beach combo trip. Visit during the late summer to take advantage of the best conditions.

Best Beach Towns
These beach town gems offer the complete package: crashing waves, cozy inns, and fresh seafood.

Duck, NC Duck is the perfect gateway to the Outer Banks (or OBX, as the stickers say). It remains quaint and neat, with superior food and nearby attractions to keep the kids happy.

Gulf Shores, AL Strikes a fine balance between natural beauty and southern charm with 80-degree Gulf waters to boot. (Editors' Note: As of press time, the Alabama Department of Public Health has issued a swimming advisory for a large area of coastal waters, including Gulf Shores, due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Individuals are discouraged from swimming in these areas. Find the latest updates on the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau website).

Mackinac Island, MI Reachable by ferry, the town teems with Victorian-style architecture, green parks, and sandy beaches. No cars allowed.

Provincetown, MA Long known for its thriving gay and art communities, laid-back Provincetown dangles at the end of Cape Cod’s sandy, windswept hook. If you think the town is bustling during the day, just check out the lively bar scene after sunset.

Cape May, NJ The antidote to the Jersey Shore’s tawdry charisma, verdant and Victorian Cape May offers a romantic escape you won’t find anywhere else between the sprawl of D.C. and New York.

Cannon Beach, OR Weather-worn salt boxes, charming art galleries, and organic veggie dogs for the kids make this Pacific-swept town (and renowned artists’ community), a dependable left coast favorite.

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for top U.S. beach cities and towns. 

Best Vintage U.S. Beaches

A few of our favorite (and rapidly disappearing) vintage U.S. beaches. 

Myrtle Beach, SC With family-friendly throwbacks like a boardwalk, classic amusement park, and miniature golf courses, the more than 60 miles of Myrtle Beach are only one asset of this coastal town.

Asbury Park, NJ Although this classic beach is a long way from its heyday, and your chances of catching the Boss or the E Street Band are pretty slim, Asbury Park is worth visiting for a peek into summers of the past with its classic architecture, long boardwalk, and kitschy charm.

Wildwood, NJ Since the 1950s, hordes of summerers from Philadelphia and Southern Jersey have flocked to Wildwood’s space-age motels and boardwalk, hosting a veritable pleasure island of games, amusement parks, and shops.

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for top vintage U.S. beaches. 

Best U.S. Beach Eats and Bars

Best Beach Take-Out Eats
Whether you’re after seafood, burgers, or an overstuffed burrito, get it to go at these classic take-away joints near top U.S. beaches.

* Emilia’s Tex Mex Brownsville, TX (956-504-9899)
* Pacific Oyster Bay City, OR (503-377-2323)
* The Wreck Mt. Pleasant, SC (www.wreckrc.com)
* Dew Drop Inn Mobile, AL (251-473-7872)
* White House Sub Shop Atlantic City, NJ (609-345-1564)
* Cherry Hut  Beulah, MI (www.cherryhutstore.com)
* Nunan Lobster Hut Cape Porpoise, ME (207-967-4362)
* Hodad’s Ocean Beach, CA (www.hodadies.com)

Best American Beach Bars
Nothing complements a tan like a cool summer cocktail. These watering holes serve post-beach libations in style. 

* The Beachcomber  Wellfleet, MA (www.thebeachcomber.com)
* Louie's Backyard  Key West, FL (www.louiesbackyard.com)
* Duke's Malibu, CA (www.dukesmalibu.com)
* Sunset Beach Shelter Island, NY (www.sunsetbeachli.com)
* Castaways Bar & Grill Chicago (www.stefanirestaurants.com)
* Moorea Beach Club Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas (www.mandalaybay.com)

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for top U.S. beaches. 

Best Beach Tunes and Movies

Best American Beach Tunes
Add these songs to your playlist before you hit your favorite U.S. beaches.

* "Surf City" Jan and Dean
* "Wouldn’t it Be Nice" Beach Boys
* "Rock Lobster" B-52’s
* "Breakdown" Jack Johnson
* "Wicked Game" Chris Isaak
* "Wipeout" Ventures

Best American Beach Movies
Rained out? Here are a few favorite beach flicks.

* From Here to Eternity
* Gidget
* Beach Blanket Bingo
* The Endless Summer
* Psycho Beach Party
* Where the Boys Are
* Blue Hawaii
* Riding Giants
* Beaches
* Jaws

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool for savings on airfare, hotels, and packages for top U.S. beaches.

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