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. 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 6 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 that doesn't have a public-beach access point, so there's plenty of space for hotel guests. At more than 530 square feet, Omni's deluxe rooms 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 new family pool starts at just a few inches deep, and The Ocean Tides spa features unique treatments, such as bamboo massage. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $169 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 $261 per night; disneybeachresorts.com.) To be close to Islanders Beach Park, stay at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. Its jam-packed schedule of family events includes nature walks, 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.)