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The iconic Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon (Photograph by Stefano Politi Markovina, Alamy)

Nat Geo Staff Picks: America’s Best Beach Towns

Is there a magic formula for the perfect beach town? No, but America could offer up more than a few candidates if they were doling out the title.

Here are just a few of them, recommended by Nat Geo Travel staffers:

  • Cannon Beach, Oregon: “At only an hour-and-a-half drive away, Cannon Beach was an easy day trip from Portland, where I used to live. With access to scenic hiking trails at Ecola State Park, great views of the towering Haystack Rock (which made a memorable appearance in the 1985 coming-of-age classic The Goonies), and a number of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, Cannon Beach has a little bit of everything I look for in a beach town.” —Tyler Metcalfe, associate photo producer, National Geographic Travel
  • Pawleys Island, South Carolina: “About 70 miles from Charleston, this sleepy retreat is the home of the Pawleys Island hammock, an institution since it was first crafted in the late 1800s—and symbolic of the slow-down-and-hang feeling of the place. Fronting the Atlantic are rustic, sea-blasted cottages, many on stilts and spacious enough to accommodate several families at close quarters. Behind the beach is an inlet bristling with crabs. Tradition here: At night, ride inner tubes from the inlet through a narrow channel to the ocean and stir up the twinkling phosphorescence that trails you like a meteor shower.” —Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler
  • Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: “At first glance, this seaside town seems more akin to its saucy Jersey Shore counterpoints to the north (think saltwater taffy, soft serve, and the sensory assault of arcade bling), but steps away lies a charming village of tree-lined streets and weathered beach cottages. For the locavore: After a day at the beach, head to Henlopen Oyster House for a platter of briny oysters and wash it down with locally brewed Dogfish Head ale. Afterward, hit the recently completed 11-mile Gordons Pond Trail for biking, hiking, and bird-watching through pristine pine forests, salt marshes, and craggy dunes.” —Jerry Sealy, creative director, National Geographic Traveler
  • Cape May, New Jersey: “Anyone looking for the Jersey Shore of TV fame won’t find it in Cape May. The southernmost point of the Garden State (shorthand, Exit 0), this understated destination has the distinction of being America’s oldest seaside resort. Once a popular summer escape for U.S. presidents, a five-day fire destroyed much of the downtown in the late 1800s. The result? The city, largely rebuilt in the wake of the blaze, boasts the largest collection of Victorian homes in the U.S. outside of San Francisco. Sure, typical East Coast beach-town fare (boardwalk fries, taffy, paper-plate pizza) can be had here, but you’ll also encounter an outsize collection of top-rated eateries, like the Washington Inn and 410 Bank, among the colorful “painted ladies” and one of the most celebrated spots for bird-watching in the world. Cape May is a vital stopover for migratory birds, especially in fall.” —Leslie Trew Magraw, editor/producer, Intelligent Travel
  • Carmel-by-the-Sea, California: “My sister has a cute bungalow in Carmel. Lucky me, because often when my husband and I go home to California she invites us to spend time there. The beach is ruggedly gorgeous, with tide pools at the northern end adored by her kids. It’s typically too cold to swim, but we like to spread a blanket on the sand and watch the sun fall into the Pacific over a glass of Salinas Valley wine. In the morning, after a run along beachfront Scenic Road to Carmel Mission and back, we stop into Carmel Valley Coffee or—for a splurge—the most amazing French toast smothered in homemade cinnamon maple syrup at Em Le’s. Then it’s off to hike in Point Lobos State Park in search of sea otters and sea lions, admire art in the many galleries on and off Ocean Avenue, or perhaps wine taste in any number of tasting rooms that have popped up around town as we wait again for the sun to set.” —Barbara A. Noe, senior editor, National Geographic Travel Books
  • Beaufort, North Carolina: “Beaufort leaves the tattoo parlors and taffy shops to other resort towns. Here you’ll stroll through a historic district of 18th- and 19th-century West Indian-style homes and dine at indie eateries (like Blue Moon Bistro) that serve truly local seafood and veggies. And your beach? It comes with wild horses. The pristine and largely empty sands of Shackleford Banks are a ferry ride away, part of the protected Cape Lookout National Seashore.” —Norie Quintos, executive editor, National Geographic Traveler
  • Edgartown, Massachusetts: “As a Massachusetts native, I’ve always spent part of my summer on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, about an hour-long ferry ride from Cape Cod. Edgartown is a charming seaside village with a rich maritime history, evident in the stately homes built by 19th-century whaling captains that line the downtown. Thanks to a law banning chain-owned retailers from the island, there’s an authentic and timeless quality to Edgartown that makes it stand out from other popular beach spots on the Cape. For the perfect day, pick up sandwiches to go at Humphrey’s on Winter Street on your way to Katama Beach. After a day in the surf, spend a quiet evening watching the boats in Edgartown Harbor, or head cross-island to Oak Bluffs for a more lively nightlife scene.” —Ben Fitch, associate photo editor, National Geographic Traveler

  • Northern Lower Michigan: “At the top of Michigan’s “mitten” is a Midwestern summer paradise with idyllic waterfront lake towns—Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Harbor Springs—that harken to summer vacations in simpler times. Ernest Hemingway spent his boyhood summers here and captured the area in an early novella, The Torrents of Spring. Standout diversions include running down the towering dunes to the crystal-blue shores of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, biking the non-motorized, 26-mile Little Traverse Wheelway that links all three charming towns beginning in Harbor Springs. Native son and architect, Earl Young‘s mid-century mushroom houses in Charlevoix are worth a drive by, maybe on your way to Jesperson’s, a century-old, family-run restaurant in Petoskey that serves delicious homemade pie made with the region’s famous tart cherries.” — Susan O’Keefe, associate editor, National Geographic Traveler
  • St. Petersburg, Florida: “My favorite beach town has to be Pass-A-Grille, a historic district at the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach on Florida’s beautiful Gulf coast. A native of neighboring St. Petersburg, I could often be found in Pass-A-Grille, whether I was skim boarding with friends on its white sandy shores or sampling the unbeatable catch at Hurricane Seafood Restaurant. Loews Don CeSar Hotel (nicknamed “the Don” by locals) is a hotspot for beach weddings and it’s always fun to sneak a peek while you’re passing by.” —Rebecca Davis, production assistant, National Geographic Travel

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