We’ve arrived at the precise moment when the winter starts to feel a little long, when we’ve had a bit too much of all the snow and cold—and when sunshine and sand dominate our thoughts.
But with many beach destinations still closed (or at least, uncertain) right now, international island-hopping may be out of the question, at least for the moment. Fortunately, from sea to shining sea, you’ll find plenty of warm and worthwhile beach towns, right here in the United States.
For those looking for seaside relaxation, plus other sunny pleasures—food, drink, culture, history—here are five of the very best beach towns in America.
Once home to King Kamehameha III and, for a time, the capital of the entire Kingdom of Hawaii, this small town is wedged between the green heights of the West Maui Mountains and the blue Pacific. It still maintains a royal feel. Surfing was once reserved only for “alii,” Hawaiian royalty, which is why it’s sometimes known as the “sport of kings,” and Kamehameha III himself once rode the waves here. Now open to all, the town is a perfect place to learn this quintessential Hawaiian sport, with surf breaks and beaches that are friendly to beginners. Sign up for a lesson with one of a number of great surf schools, many within a block or two of the heart of town.
Then, slide out of your wetsuit, and enjoy the town itself. Start at the massive banyan tree, which takes up a whole city block, a stroll to galleries, craft breweries, and even a coffee farm, where you can tour the fields and the operation and enjoy a steaming cup. Have dinner at a seaside place like Pacific’O, which uses local seafood (mahimahi, marlin, kampachi) plus fruits and vegetables from their own farm on the flanks of Haleakala, Maui’s volcano.
Then head to the Old Lahaina Luau, which retells the legends and history of Hawaii and the South Pacific through an entertaining show, with song, hula, and fire-knife dancing.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Set just down the road from Interstate 95, one of America’s busiest highways, thousands drive past the exit to this small, charming island town every day. And that’s a shame. Once known as Savannah Beach, this barrier island has a surfeit of southern charm. Walk its wooden piers lined with chatty fishermen, dine on super-fresh seafood, and visit the picture-perfect Tybee Island Light Station, one of the first in the region when it was built back in 1773.
Then, paddle over to Little Tybee Island, an uninhabited barrier island where you can carve out your own little paradise on its broad beach.
And then, visit Savannah, just 18 miles away. One of the oldest cities in the United States (and the former state capital), its series of 22 squares are lined with 19th-century buildings and filled with flowing fountains and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Throw away your map and get lost here, in the land of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
San Luis Obispo, California
Midway along the Pacific Coast Highway, SLO (or, locally, “slow”) is set on some of central California’s finest coastline. These aren’t manicured beaches—each one here has a bit of a wild feeling. For example, Moonstone Beach in Cambria is a windswept series of coves, skirted by a rugged headland, and traversed by a one-mile wooden boardwalk.
Walk into the salty breezes and spot seabirds circling overhead, and perhaps a humpback whale or a pod of dolphins, passing by. (Take a look in the tidal pools, as well, for snails, crabs, and sea urchins.) And nearby Morro Bay, with its Gibraltar-like, 550-foot volcanic rock, where you might be visited by a playful sea otter, many of which make this place their home.
Enjoy the sand, then explore. Right near Moonstone, the town of Cambria is an artist’s colony nestled into the Monterey Pines, where you can walk from studio to studio, chatting with these creative people as they do their work. And a can’t-miss—Hearst Castle, set on a hilltop just north of town. Drive to the visitors center on the PCH and ride a shuttle from there into another world. Here, media magnate William Randolph Hearst built his own palace (with 42 bedrooms, two pools, a movie theater, and the world’s largest private zoo), and hosted both world leaders and Hollywood royalty.
A short drive south of Houston, cross the causeway to this 64-mile barrier island, which is lined with 32 miles of beaches along the West Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Long the most-important port in Texas, the Queen City of the Gulf was once home to more millionaires than New York City. The town of some 50,000 maintains its grand, historic feel. Think cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and 19th-century Victorian and Gothic homes with wrap-around porches in the East End Historic District.
Head to Babe’s Beach, for a slice of sand that’s in the heart of the action, within walking distance of good shops, bars, and restaurants. Or for more active pleasures, try Galveston Island State Park, where you can paddle a canoe or kayak through hidden coves, then hike or bike along four miles of trails.
And the rest of your stay? You’ll have plenty to keep you occupied, from the Pleasure Pier, which celebrates the days when vacationers from across America flocked to the carnivals and casinos along Seawall Boulevard. (It’s now home to rides and roller coasters.) And make sure to include an afternoon at Moody Gardens, three pyramids that, among other things, are home to a rainforest and an aquarium.
Key West, Florida
The closest you’ll get in the continental U.S. to the Caribbean, this end-of-the-road town is, famously, just 90 miles north of Cuba. Getting here is a spectacular experience. Roll out on Route 1 (known as the Overseas Highway) from Miami, and once you cast off the urban busyness, you’ll find yourself in another world, surrounded by blue water and swaying palms. Proceed through 44 islands, connected by 42 bridges, the longest of the latter stretching seven miles; before crossing it, pull off and get a little exercise on an older section, now decommissioned and open only to foot and bicycle traffic.
Arriving at the end of the 125-mile island chain, you’ll find plenty to do in Key West. Yes, there are beaches, including Higgs Beach, where you can relax, or explore an on-site Civil War fort. Then, rent a bike and ride around the island. Visit the Little White House, where Harry Truman spent 11 sunny vacations, on orders to relax, issued by his doctor. (Other famous Americans also spent time in the same house, which was part of a naval station, including Thomas Edison.)
And then, pop into the former residence of perhaps the island’s most famous resident. A tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, designed in handsome 1851 French colonial style, includes stops in his personal study, where he wrote some of his well-known works, still set up with a typewriter. And enjoy visits with the descendants of his polydactyl (six-toed) cats, who still occupy the house and grounds.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.