Falmouth, Massachusetts, Cape May, New Jersey, and Amelia Island, Florida
4. Falmouth, Massachusetts
Amelia Island Tourism Development Council
Oceanfront Fun Located in southern Cape Cod, Falmouth's nine beaches cover 12 miles of shoreline. "During low tide, Wood Neck Beach 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 Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary. You'll see 65 varieties of holly trees, frogs and birds, and, if you come in late summer or early fall, rare wildflowers. ($3 for adults, $2 for children 2 to 12; babies are free). 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 railroad car. If you're staying over on a Friday night, head to Coonamesset 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 cupcake decorating, family movie nights, and a new 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 $289 per night; beachbreezeinn.com.)
5. Cape May, New Jersey
Oceanfront Fun Spared from Hurricane Sandy, 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 trolley to get the lay of the land ($10 for adults, $7 for kids ages 3 to 12, free for younger kids) as guides point out cultural attractions, historic areas, and beaches. You might hear about the family tours of the Victorian museum Emlen Physick Estate ($10 for adults, $7 for kids ages 3 to 12), the 1859 lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park ($7 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 12), the free Cape May County Zoo, and the shopping and restaurants at Washington Street Mall. For dinner, try the Lobster House, where Taylor Swift ate during a recent visit. "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 Just a block or so from the beach, 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 Zumba classes on the lawn, will keep your family busy and happy. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $179 per night; congresshall.com.) If you want to cook some of your own meals, consider the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel, which offers apartment suites with a kitchen and balcony. (Apartment suites start at $257 per night; marquiscapemay.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 13; 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 just reopened after an $85 million renovation. The resort offers a kids' water playground, a nature center, and three golf courses. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $249 per night. Use the code PARENTS for 10 percent off and a free round of mini golf for four; omnihotels.com.) Or look into the Residence Inn -- Amelia Island, which is just two blocks from the beach. You get free breakfast daily, a free cookout once a week, and a full kitchen. (One-bedroom suites with two double beds start at $149 per night; residenceinnameliaisland.com.)