These destinations deliver all the ingredients for a magical stay with the kids: pristine ocean water, nature activities, and a boatload of inland fun.
The 10 Best Beach Towns
A trip to the beach never feels like a family-vacation compromise -- the kids want to go as much as you do. But what are the shore bets? We combed thousands of beaches looking for clean water and low rates of closings. Once we narrowed the list to 100 or so, we factored in other deal-breakers, like lifeguards and restrooms, then turned our attention to the fun, low-cost attractions, nature activities, and family vibe of the rest of the town. Whether you're looking for somewhere to visit for the day or stay for the week, these picks provide the perfect combo of land and sea. Bon voyage!
1. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Oceanfront Fun You can't really go wrong with any of Hilton Head's 12-plus miles of white-sand beaches. "Driessen Beach and Islanders Beach parks are particularly good choices for families because they also have playgrounds and picnic shelters," says Steve Riley, town manager. While you'll probably spot tiny ocean critters, sea-turtle nests, or even dolphins at any of the beaches, Driessen Beach's wooden boardwalk actually takes you over a tidal marsh and sand dunes, so it's home to the most creatures. And Coligny Beach Park, which has a splash fountain, also stands out for its shallow, calm water. "You'd have to walk out 30 yards for it to get above 3 feet deep," says Riley. On the other side of the island, don't miss the candy-striped lighthouse (it's a manageable 114 steps to the top) in the Harbour Town area.
Inland Hot Spots With few streetlights (so you can easily see the stars!) and rules prohibiting neon signs and buildings over five stories tall, Hilton Head has retained its Southern charm. Check out The Sandbox, a children's museum with a pretend plane, bank, and supermarket café; it appeals most to kids 8 and under ($6 admission for kids and adults, free for babies under 1). School-age kids will have a blast at the Coastal Discovery Museum, which offers scavenger hunts, costumes, and a butterfly exhibit (free admission; hour-long guided tours, $10 for adults, $5 for children). For dinner, try The Harbour Town Grill (its kids' menu features everything from pizza to grilled salmon) and stay in that end of the island afterward for Gregg Russell's evening sing-alongs. "He plays guitar, teaches the crowd silly songs, and then the kids can volunteer to belt out their favorite tune," says Allison Burns, of Atlanta, who has vacationed in Hilton Head with her husband and 6-year-old daughter for the last four years. "It's a sweet way to end the night."
Castles in the Sand Many resorts have recently been renovated. You'll get the most space for the money at Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, located in Palmetto Dunes, a quiet coastal area. All of the resort's accommodations are suites. At more than 530 square feet, Omni's recently renovated Studio Suites are about one third larger than others on the island, and include a kitchen area with a mini fridge, a microwave, cabinets to store snacks, and a dining table. A family pool starts at just a few inches deep, and The Ocean Tides spa features unique treatments, such as bamboo massage. (Studio Suites with two queen beds start at $209 per night; omnihotels.com.) If you're torn between staying at a resort or renting a house, consider a villa at Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort, also in Palmetto Dunes. Each villa has a full kitchen, separate sleeping area for the kids, and many activities ranging from Goofy bingo to wildlife tours that are led by a naturalist. (Villas start at $216 per night; disneybeachresorts.com.) To be close to Islanders Beach Park, stay at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. The new Westin Family Program offers activities that help kids connect with their environment and learn about their destination. In Hilton Head, the jam-packed schedule of family events includes nature walks, starry sky adventures, potato-sack races, and poolside movies. (Rooms with two queen beds in the Sunsational Savings package start at $275 per night. The fourth night is free; westinhiltonheadisland.com.)
2. Coronado, California
Oceanfront Fun Just over the bridge from San Diego, Coronado's 7 miles of coastline encompass five main beaches. All beaches have lifeguards and, except for South Beach, restrooms. The most popular choice: Central Beach in the heart of town, just a short stroll to restaurants and ice-cream shops. For something more serene, head to the 3 ½-mile Silver Strand State Beach. The ocean side of the strand is strewn with shells, while the bay side has warmer water, gentler waves, and a nature preserve. Kids ages 7 to 12 can earn a Junior Ranger badge at Silver Strand on Saturdays.
Inland Hot Spots Grab an ice cream at MooTime Creamery -- it's made fresh daily -- and walk to the Coronado Children's Library, where there's a whimsical Wizard of Oz exhibit. (L. Frank Baum wrote some of the story in Coronado.) Or catch a flick at the old-timey Coronado Village Theatre and then take your kids to Delux Gourmet Hot Dogs, a popular restaurant serving up franks (plain or with all sorts of zany toppings, like The Tokyo with teriyaki glaze and dried seaweed chips) and flavored lemonades. The town also has tons of great shopping -- Seaside Papery is a must-stop for any Etsy fan.
Castles in the Sand The Loews Coronado Bay Resort is just a ten-minute walk or short shuttle ride to Silver Strand State Beach; in fact, the hotel has raised more than $1 million to help its nature preserves. On the property, Loews hosts dive-in movies, pool games, and marshmallow roasts; kids ages 5 to 12 can participate in the Go Wild! Kids Camp with The Living Coast Discovery Center, which brings San Diego's amazing wildlife to life through nature hunts, arts and crafts, beach exploration, animal interactions and games while you get a treatment at Sea Spa or take a fitness class. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $209 per night. Get a 20 percent discount when staying three or more nights; loewshotels.com.)
3. St. Pete Beach, Florida
Oceanfront Fun St. Pete Beach is the closest town to Fort De Soto Park -- home to miles of lifeguard-patrolled white-sand beaches along with nature trails, fishing piers, a fort, and playgrounds, as well as kayak and bike rentals. "The North Beach area is like nature's wading pool," says Jim Wilson, park supervisor. "The gentle gulf water and gradual slope makes it perfect for little kids." St. Pete Beach itself also has 6 miles of beaches but no lifeguards on duty.
Inland Hot Spots The Dali Museum's treasure hunts, stories, and craft projects occupy the kids so you can appreciate the nearly 100 paintings by the famed artist. The outdoor waterfront garden adds to the kid appeal ($24 for adults, $10 for kids 6 to 12, children 5 and under are free; thedali.org). For a sure hit with preschoolers, consider Great Explorations Houghton-Wagman Children's Museum ($10 admission, babies under 1 are free) or drive ten minutes to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium ($22 for adults, $17 for kids 3 to 12, children 2 and under are free), home to Winter, who was featured in the movie Dolphin Tale. Back in St. Pete Beach, eat at Snapper's Sea Grill, which has outdoor seating, free baked pita chips and hummus, and a kids' menu. Or try The Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport, which has delicious, family-friendly food with a direct view of the tarmac. The kids will love watching airplanes take off and land. Bonus: Everyone gets a balsam-wood airplane as a take-away gift!
Castles in the Sand The Vinoy Renaissance Resort at the downtown waterfront affords a luxurious experience for the family. The pool area is spacious and beautiful, the service is outstanding, and the plush guest rooms provide great views of the marina and surrounding area. (Rooms start at $179 per night, marriott.com.) Or book a room at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel -- aka the "pink palace." It has an oceanfront pool area with a splash pad; chic, child-proofed guest rooms (just request a kit); and loads of loaner baby and toddler equipment. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $249 per night; loewshotels.com.)
4. Falmouth, Massachusetts
Oceanfront Fun Located in southern Cape Cod, Falmouth's nine beaches cover 12 miles of shoreline. "During low tide, Wood Neck Beach on Buzzard's Bay has shallow warm wading areas and a marshy sandbar area with crabs and other little creatures," says Kimberly Kane, a mom of three in Bedford, New Hampshire. "My kids love this place!" If you want to do more swimming than exploring, try Old Silver Beach, which isn't as rocky.
Inland Hot Spots Hit the trails at the free Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary. You'll see 65 varieties of holly trees plus frogs and birds, and, if you come in late summer or early fall, rare wildflowers. Or explore the shops and galleries in downtown -- don't miss Eight Cousins Books and Bella of Cape Cod (all its jewelry and accessories are $25 or less). Grab dinner at the Silver Lounge, where you can eat in a genuine caboose. If you're staying over on a Friday night, head to Coonamessett Farm for a buffet under a pavilion overlooking the fields.
Castles in the Sand Located on Old Silver Beach, the newly renovated Sea Crest Beach Hotel offers face painting, family movie nights, and a kiddie pool. It also gives you a Plan B -- an indoor pool for days when the weather doesn't cooperate. (Rooms with two double beds start at $199 per night; seacrestbeachhotel.com.) Or stay at the cozy Beach Breeze Inn, located just 100 yards from Surf Drive Beach, where your rock-and-shell collector will be in heaven. (Rates for a room with two full beds and a kitchenette start at $325 per night; beachbreezeinn.com.)
5. Cape May, New Jersey
Oceanfront Fun The five main beaches in this historic town have 24 access points. You can't go wrong with any of the picks, but Sunset Beach, on the western side of the town, is a resident fave for its "Cape May diamonds," pretty pebbles that kids (and adults!) collect. Don't miss one of the town's best-kept secrets, the Nature Center of Cape May, which offers drop-off and family programs that take kids to the beach across the street to explore. (Most programs are $5 and up.)
Inland Hot Spots Full of Victorian houses and charming shops, Cape May isn't Snooki's Jersey Shore. Hop on the 30-minute children's trolley tour to get the lay of the land as guides point out cultural attractions, historic areas, and beaches. You might hear about the family tours of the Victorian museum Emlen Physick Estate ($12 for adults, $8 for kids ages 3 to 12), the 1859 lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park ($8 for adults, $5 for children ages 3 to 12; free for younger kids), the free Cape May County Zoo, and the shopping and restaurants at Washington Street Mall. For dinner, try the Lobster House. "You can sit in the dining room, go to the casual raw bar, or get take-out and find a table along the harbor to watch the boats go by," says Vivian Daly, a local and mom of four.
Castles in the Sand The beachfront Congress Hall offers free towels and lounge chairs oceanside for hotel guests. A jam-packed lineup of family activities, ranging from Monday-night carnivals with face painting and balloon fun to yoga classes on the lawn, will keep your family busy and happy. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $149 per night; congresshall.com.)
6. Amelia Island, Florida
Oceanfront Fun On the island's 13 miles of coastline, Main Beach Park is a gem because it has a playground, restrooms, picnic areas, and volleyball courts. "It's also an excellent place for kids to try to find shark teeth," says Nan Voit, director of parks and recreation.
Inland Hot Spots Take a 30-minute horse-drawn carriage ride through the historic district as a guide tells you about the island's past -- your kids will perk up when they hear about the pirates ($15 for adults, $7 for kids 2 to 12; free for kids under 2). Then catch dinner at Timoti's Seafood Shak, which serves up local fare. Eat outside and after dinner your kids can let off steam at the on-site pirate ship playground.
Castles in the Sand Set on 3½ miles of shoreline, The Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort offers the largest pool deck in Northeast Florida, a nature center, and three golf courses. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $329 per night; omniameliaislandplantation.com.) Or look into the newly renovated Residence Inn -- Amelia Island, which is just two blocks from the beach. You get free breakfast daily, an outdoor pool, and a full kitchen. (Suites start at $169 per night; residenceinnameliaisland.com.)
7. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Oceanfront Fun Part of the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk boasts 3 miles of uncrowded beaches. Use the Kitty Hawk Bath House and Byrd Street beach entrances because they're nearest the restrooms and lifeguards.
Inland Hot Spots Spend a morning at the Outer Banks Children at Play Museum; kids can explore the teddy-bear hospital and lighthouse ($7 per person, kids age 1 and under are free). Then check out the Wright Brothers National Memorial in nearby Kill Devil Hills. There are kite-flying demos and Junior Ranger programs.
Castles in the Sand All rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk have a balcony and ocean views. The resort supplies complimentary fishing from the on-site pier. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $199 per night; hiltongardeninnouterbanks.com.) Or book one of the hundreds of beach houses in the town; go to outerbanks.org for a list of rental companies.
8. Kohala Coast, Hawaii, the Big Island
Oceanfront Fun The shoreline at Hapuna Beach State Park Recreation Area is everything you envision when you think of Hawaii: turquoise water, clean white sand, and stunning views. Go the northern end of the beach; there's a cove made from black volcanic rock where kids will have no trouble spotting little fish.
Inland Hot Spots Catch a free Polynesian Hula or Hawaiian hula show on Monday and Thursday nights at The Shops at Mauna Lani. From 5 to 6 P.M. daily, the shops also offer free 4-D movies for families staying at nearby hotels. Don't leave without going to a luau. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has a great one for families, where kids can sit in front of the stage and even participate at the end of the show ($106 for adults, $53 for kids 5 to 11, children 4 and under are free, including a buffet and a cocktail for adults).
Castles in the Sand The Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel offers stargazing with telescopes, a family-friendly pool, and free or low-cost hula lessons, lei-making, and Hawaiian crafts. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $225 per night; princeresortshawaii .com.) Find local vacation rentals at hawaiioceanfront.com.
9. Gulf Shores, Alabama
Oceanfront Fun On Gulf State Park's guarded coastline, "The beaches are clean and the sand is sugar-white," says Sarah Barnhill, a mom of a 3-year-old in nearby Adger, Alabama.
Inland Hot Spots The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is the perfect size for kids -- you can get a good view of its 300-plus creatures and drop in for its summertime animal shows during a three-hour visit ($10 for adults, $7 for kids 3 to 12, free for younger kids.) Drop by Fort Morgan, where kids can see real cannons and learn about Civil War history. ($7 for adults, $4 for kids ages 6 to 12, younger kids are free). End a great day with dinner at LuLu's at Homeport Marina, which has a food-allergy menu and a beach-sand area to occupy kids.
Castles in the Sand Vacation rentals are abundant in Gulf Shores. A great pick: a condo at The Beach Club Gulf Shores; all units have full kitchens, access to pools, and a fitness center. (One-bedroom condos that sleep four start at $264 per night; thebeachclub.spectrumresorts.com.)
10. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Oceanfront Fun The 2-mile stretch of guarded beach attracts a sea of families. But there's plenty of space to build sand castles and fly kites.
Inland Hot Spots On the mile-long boardwalk, kids can ride on the carousel, the Ferris wheel, and antique wooden boats. "My kids love the haunted mansion from the 1940s," says frequent visitor Christy Hume, a mom of four in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "It's so cheesy, it's fun." But just a couple of blocks away, in this 1-square-mile town, there are more than 200 boutique shops. Off the boardwalk Jungle Jim's has waterslides, mini-golf, and more.
Castles in the Sand Steps from the beach sit lots of great places to stay. At the Avenue Inn & Spa, you'll find a place to unwind that has free cookies for the kids and wine and cheese for you at night. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $169 per night; avenueinn.com.) The Hotel Rehoboth offers free shuttle service to the beach, chairs and towels, free breakfast and a heated outdoor pool. (Rooms with two double beds start at $319 per night; hotelrehoboth.com.)
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Parents magazine. Hotel and attraction information updated in March 2016.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.