The Last Best American Beach Towns

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 Bethanyoffers 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.
  • Orleans, Massachusetts: Keep Reading >
  • Manzanita, Oregon: Keep Reading >
  • Boca Grande, Florida: Keep Reading >

This piece, written by Bruce Schoenfeld, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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  1. Saugatuck Fan
    February 14, 2015, 9:14 am

    Saugatuck Michigan’s Oval Beach is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is a gorgeous two mile stretch of unbroken curved beach surrounded by pristine sand dunes. In the distance the dunes resemble the White Cliffs of Dover. The town is also a sweet little harbor town with darling shops,restaurants, art galleries and lots going on.

  2. andrew anfossi
    United States
    July 16, 2014, 3:31 am

    Encinitas is full whatever you do don’t come here. We have reached maximum capacity!

  3. Landon Scism
    United States
    July 15, 2014, 9:41 am

    Wrightsville Beach has a ‘serious’ parking problem. The problem is less serious if you live there, but not eliminated.

  4. Dee pearce
    Wrightsville Beach
    July 14, 2014, 10:16 pm

    The most wonderful part of living in Wrightsville is being able to walk or bike around the entire island,,, living in place you don’t have to get in a car is heaven on earth.. Walk to a restaurant on the Intracoastal waterway, paddle board to the Dockside for a cold beer and fresh shrimp,,, come on now, I never want to leave.

  5. RC
    Wilmington, NC
    July 13, 2014, 9:45 am

    Yes Brian the parking at WB can be a challenge but the reality is that’s part of what helps make it a great beach. If parking wasn’t somewhat limited there would be hundreds more on the beach every weekend. If WB sucks why do so many people happily deal with the traffic and parking? For those of us who live nearby we are extremely fortunate to have this gorgeous beach in our backyard.

  6. Tony C.
    South Bethany, DE
    July 13, 2014, 8:35 am

    South Bethany has a wonderful beach, and the Town is well run, I’ve been coming here for 25 years. You are even allowed to drink alcohol in non glass containers on its beach. The beach is wide, clean and well guarded. There is a 160 page full color history book that was published in June 2014, you can learn more by Google-ing the Town or It’s Property Owners Association. The Town is known at “The Best Little Beach In Delaware”, which happens to be the name of the history book.

  7. utk 97
    July 12, 2014, 6:24 pm

    encinitas isnt great, its far too crowded due to transplants. traffic sux, parking sux…

  8. Tony C.
    South Bethany, DE
    July 12, 2014, 10:47 am

    If you would like to know more about our beautiful Town of South Bethany and its beach you can buy our “Best Little Beach in Delaware” history book for $25. It’s full color, 160 pages, 250+ pictures and has been nominated for the prestigious “Gold Ink Award”. It was published in June. Here’s a link to more information:

  9. Eric
    New Orleans
    July 12, 2014, 10:30 am

    Gulf Shores, AL is awesome…they need to do everything they can to keep the laid back, small beach town vibe. Beautiful beaches too. Also like Ft Walton Beach in FL…Destin has become much too crowded, but does have my favorite beaches in the world.

  10. joe
    July 12, 2014, 8:30 am

    Fire Island, NY is the world’s best kept secret!

  11. Marcia
    July 12, 2014, 1:44 am

    The Great Lakes sports some fabulous freshwater beach towns. Saugatuck deserves a mention along with a dozen others. Friendly and eccentric and still real.

  12. slick
    July 12, 2014, 12:54 am

    Brian, sounds like you need to stay in New York and please tell all your friends how BAD Wrightsville Beach is so they stay away. We do just fine without all the input from our northern neighbors thank you

  13. Mark
    July 11, 2014, 6:03 pm

    Brian is obviously bitter that he wasn’t able to find a niche or friends in an amazingly friendly town. Yes parking can be a pain (unlike NY???) when trying to go to the beach on a sunny day. That ends the complaints. I’ve lived in NY, LI, San Diego, Coronado, Texas, Florida, and in several European Cities and trust me Wilmington has more to offer than any place I have visited. Article is right on, Kayaking, good food, surfing, night life, endless organized activities, free music at multiple locations, beautiful river front town, midtown martini bars, close outer beaches with camping, great people everywhere you look, bike paths, parks, sports, and all within a 15 minute drive max from one spot to another. Not to mention the annual festivals, talented local musicians, scuba diving and historic districts. The few people who move away either grew up here and want to explore or simply don’t enjoy life to the fullest and would rather troll Web blogs.

  14. Gene Meadows
    Wilmington, NC
    July 11, 2014, 1:56 pm

    Brian (New York). Sorry that you have such a negative disposition to perhaps the most beautiful beach on the south Atlantic coat of the US (Wrightsville Beach, NC) – see the photograph I have posted on my Linkedin page. As a lifelong (50 years) resident of the area, I must say I disagree with your assessment. WB has ample parking (unless you wait til noon to arrive). Also, as having identified yourself as a Wilmington resident for 10 years, you should know that WB is at its finest in the off-season. The air and water temps remain warm and comfortable well into November.

  15. brian
    New York
    July 11, 2014, 9:07 am

    Lived in Wrightsville Beach for one year and Wilmington for nearly 10. Whoever wrote this article has obviously never been. There absolutely no parking for anyone who doesn’t live at the beach. Even if you have a place to park at a friends house or something it takes nearly 45 minutes just to get over the bridge onto the beach…. #WB sucks

  16. John Grinnell
    Chapel Hill Nc
    July 10, 2014, 5:59 pm

    We hold our monthly leadership seminars at the Blockade Runner at Wrightsville Beach. Our clients who come in from around the USA and Canada love the location. Many love the downtown nightlife dining in the river as much as the beach experience. We love it!

  17. Rhonda McKeel
    Wilmington NC
    July 10, 2014, 11:05 am

    Relocating here in 2002, I thought there is no better way to get to know a place like being in the real estate business. I love being able to wake up in this beautiful place. Selling it as a career is wonderful!

  18. Janet
    July 4, 2014, 5:08 am

    I was in the US after I’ve passed matura exam. So beautiful country. I regret I’ve never been on the beach in Miami or on Florida too. I really enjoy these posts.
    What’s a pity in my Krakow is very short beach where most of people drink beers in the evenings. you can see photos of vistula river next to the wawel castle, where people usually spend their spare time