Ranking the Beaches
Simplicity is the beauty of a beach vacation -- the shore is essentially a giant sandbox with free rocks and shells, and the waves are more fun than any pool. But there can be rough spots if you go to the wrong place. That's why Parents combed through water-quality reports, closings, and advisories for more than 1,000 U.S. beaches. Naturally, we nixed shores with persistent problems and ones where the water isn't tested. From there, we looked at three other deal breakers: restrooms, calm surf, and lifeguards. Nature trails and other extras helped determine which places made the final cut. These are the 10 best beaches we found, along with our 10 runners-up. All that's left for you to do: Dive into the most kid-friendly beaches under the sun.
Courtesy St. Petersburg/Clearwater
1. North Beach at Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde, Florida
Warm, clear water, seashell-dotted white sand, and nature activities galore helped this beach, located in a county park, rise to the top of our list. Protected by a sandbar, North Beach, near St. Petersburg, has a large lagoon that doesn't get above 3 feet deep. "It's like a natural kiddie pool," says Justin Hamilton, of Bardstown, Kentucky, who visited last summer. "My 2-year-old loved chasing minnows." The water doesn't get any cleaner than it is here: Out of more than 100 samples from 2009 and 2010, there wasn't one problem.
When you're ready for shade, walk over to the playground, where your kid can steer a pretend pirate ship or cool down with a snow cone from the snack bar. If your family is up for more, drive to the park's Gulf Pier, a great area for spotting dolphins. From there, explore the fort and cannon built for the Spanish-American War or take a surrey-bike ride along the nature trails.
Spend the Night
Sleep in a pink castle! The Loews Don CeSar is a ten-minute drive. Families keep busy with free cake- and cookie-decorating classes, scavenger hunts, and poolside movies. There's a drop-off kids' club for 4- to 12-year-olds, and babysitting. (Summer rates start at $199 per night for a room that sleeps four; loewshotels.com.)
Courtesy Coligny Beach Park
2. Coligny Beach Park, Hilton Head, South Carolina
You can't go wrong with any of the 12 miles of shoreline in Hilton Head, but Coligny stood out for its shallow, calm water. "You'd have to walk out 30 yards for it to get above 3 feet deep," says Steve Riley, the town manager. Your little swimmer will love to peek in the tidal pools that form during low tide and hunt for beach treasure -- sand dollars and seashells. And the beach's hard-packed sand is perfect for building castles and biking. You can rent three-wheeled dune bikes that are similar to tricycles from a nearby Shore Beach Service stand. At the end of the day, head across the street to the Coligny Plaza, which hosts free entertainment such as magic shows four times a week.
Spend the Night
Steps from Coligny Beach Park, the Holiday Inn Oceanfront organizes free pool- and beachside games. All rooms come with fridge and microwave. (Summer rates start at $189 per night for a room that sleeps four; hihiltonhead.com)
3. Kama'ole Beach Park III, Maui, Hawaii
Part of a a trio of pristine beaches separated by lava-rock outcropppings, this one, nicknamed Kam 3, is ideal for young kids. "The water has only small waves and it's so clear you can even see the fish from the surface." says Lindsey Ahrary, who was vacationing from San Jose, California. Kids might spot sea turtles or even puffer fish (remember Bloat from Finding Nemo?). For a better view, you can rent snorkeling gear across the street from the beach, usually for less than $2 per person. The large grassy area behind the beach is perfect for kite-flying, tossing a Frisbee, or eating shaved ice (Hawaii's version of sorbet) from one of the nearby stands.
Spend the Night
Since there isn't a resort on this beach, stay at a budget-friendly vacation-rental condo. A mile away, the Outrigger Palms at Wailea offers a full kitchen, a pool, and Island Explorer backpacks for kids staying three or more nights. (Summer rates start at $179 per night for a room that sleeps four; outrigger.com.)
Courtesy Hotel Del Coronado
4. Coronado Central Beach, San Diego
This 2-mile stretch of beach -- just over the bridge from downtown San Diego -- has everything families could want: perfect weather (it rarely rains in the summer), spotless white sand (the town even invented an environmentally-friendly rake to clean up the kelp), and warm, gentle water. Plus, there's no smoking allowed on this beach -- or any in California. Tide pools filled with sea creatures form in front of the famous Hotel del Coronado, where you cool off with a cone at MooTime Creamery.
Spend the Night
The only resort along this stretch of sand, the Victorian-style Hotel del Coronado offers family s'mores nights, a drop-off kids' program for 4- to 12-year-olds, and babysitting. (Summer rates in June start at $296 per night for a room that sleeps four when you mention promo code PARENTS; hoteldel.com.) A lower-cost resort: Ten minutes away, the Loews Coronado Bay has a kids' club plus Baby Loves Disco parties, loaner baby equipment, and kids' cooking classes. (Summer rates at the Loews begin at $209 per night for a room that sleeps four; loewshotels.com)
Photo Courtesy Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
5. West Beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Porter
On the southern tip of Lake Michigan, this beach has great views of the Chicago skyline. But what draws families here are the normally calm water and Junior Ranger program. Kids can earn a "beachcomber badge" by completing a dozen or so family activities on a sheet handed out by park rangers. "We ask kids to do things like find three different-colored types of rocks near the shoreline, and look at the plants in the dunes and point out which kind they saw the most," says Bruce Rowe, the supervisory park ranger. When the kids are done at the beach, head to one of the four nearby nature trails, each about 1? miles long. The stroller-friendly Long Lake Trail takes you past forests and marshes.
Spend the Night
The closest place to stay just opened last fall: The Duneswalk Inn, about a ten-minute drive from the beach, is a renovated 1881 mansion. The rooms aren't froufrou, and one suite even has bunk beds. (Summer rates are $125 per night for rooms and $175 per night for suites; duneswalkinn.com.)
Courtesy of Mayflower Beach
6. Mayflower Beach, Dennis, Massachusetts
Cape Cod has more than its share of beautiful beaches, but the water here is calmer than at most. "It has huge tidal flats that are teeming with sea life," says Karen Flam, who makes the trek to Mayflower every year from Philadelphia. "My 6-year-old daughter, Allison, sits out there for hours digging for sea snails and hermit crabs." Make plans to come to the beach for the annual sand-sculpture contest in late August -- there are categories for kids 3 to 6 and 7 to 11, as well as for families working together.
Spend the Night
The Lighthouse Inn, about 5 miles from Mayflower Beach, offers family entertainment such as sing-alongs, clowns, and magicians. Plus, the inn coordinates a daytime and evening drop-off program for children 3 and up. (Summer rates start at $215 per night for a room that sleeps four; lighthouseinn.com)
Courtesy of Coquina Beach Park
7. Coquina Beach Park, Bradenton, Florida
This beach, on the southern tip of Anna Marie Island, near Sarasota, is famous for "coquinas," colorful mini seashells. "Every morning, there's a row of shells on the shoreline for kids to scoop up," says Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Another activity: kayaking. You can rent one on the beach or sign up for a guided eco-tour; either way, you're likely to see dolphins, manatees, and stingrays. Shady Australian pines, warm water (it averages 82?F year-round), and a 1?-mile paved nature trail also make Coquina fun.
Spend the Night
The Tradewinds Resort, just a 1-mile trolley ride from the beach, gives families a seashell guide and loans out buckets, sand tools, and floaties. A great money saver: Each room has a full kitchen. (Summer rates start at $140 per night for a one-bedroom apartment that sleeps four; tradewinds-resort.com)
Courtesy of George Vetter/Cannon-Beach.net
8. Cannon Beach, Oregon
You can't miss Haystack Rock sticking 235 feet out of the water on Cannon Beach, about 90 minutes from Portland. A state-protected marine garden, the tidal pools near the rock are filled with sea life such as orange and purple starfish. "We often have volunteers at Haystack Rock during the summer to talk about the tide-pool creatures and nesting seabirds," says Nala Cardillo, coordinator of the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. The downside: The water, while pristine, rarely gets above 60?F in the summer -- so if your kid wants to do more than dip his toes, rent a wetsuit (they come in toddler sizes) at the nearby Cannon Beach Surf Shop.
Spend the Night
On Cannon Beach, the Surfsand Resort hosts free ice-cream socials and hot-dog roasts for families. Check out the indoor pool, fun games like beach musical chairs, and a program for kids 4 and up with ocean-themed activities like seashell crafts and sand art. Plus, kids eat free in the resort's two restaurants. (Summer rates start at $219 per night for a room that sleeps four; surfandsand.com.)
Courtesy of East Hampton, New York
9. Main Beach, East Hampton, New York
With clear-blue water and towering dunes, this wide white-sand Long Island beach is the place to be for families in the summer. Even though multimillion-dollar mansions overlook the beach, the atmosphere is down-to-earth. The Chowder Bowl sells club sandwiches and, of course, clam chowder, and there are fireworks on Labor Day weekend. "It's common to see three or four generations of a family enjoying the beach together," says Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton Village administrator. Since parking is by permit only on weekends and hard to come by always, it's best to bike here or stay at a hotel that will drop you off or give you a pass.
Spend the Night
Three miles away, East Hampton House Resort entices families with a heated pool, a playground, tennis, and a parking pass to Main Beach. (Summer rates start at $245 per night for a room that sleeps four; easthamptonhouseresort.com)
Photo Courtesy City of Racine
10. North Beach, Racine, Wisconsin
On the shore of Lake Michigan, this beach in downtown Racine will keep your family active. When your kid isn't enjoying the summer water, she'll probably want to set sail on the pirate ships and swing on the ropes at Kids' Cove, one of the state's largest playgrounds. Your family can play volleyball on nets available to borrow or rent a kayak or surrey bike at the nearby pier. Pedal or walk on the bike path about three blocks to Racine Zoo, where kids can feed a giraffe.
Spend the Night
A short trolley ride away, the newly renovated Radisson Hotel Racine Harbourwalk has a heated indoor pool, a kid-friendly restaurant, and family specials on the weekend. (Summer rates start at $129 per night for a room that sleeps four; radisson.com.)
Photo Courtesy www.sarasotafl.org
11. Siesta Key Public Beach, Siesta Key, Florida (Runner Up)
With a playground, volleyball court, fitness trail, and seashells galore, nobody in your family will be sitting on the white-sand beach near Sarasota for long.
Courtesy Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau
12. South Beach, Virginia Beach, Virginia (Runner Up)
You can't go wrong with any beach in this family-friendly town, but this spot located near Second Street has the first beach playground in the country that accommodates kids with physical disabilities.
Photo Courtesy Oahu Visitors Bureau
13. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, Oahu (Runner Up)
This marine life conversation area 10 miles east of famous Waikiki Beach is snorkeling central. Even if your kid doesn't want to gear up, he'll see fish swimming around him.
Photo Coutesy Tybee Island Tourism Council
14. South Beach, Tybee Island, Georgia (Runner Up)
This sand dune-laden beach about 20 miles from Savannah is a hop, skip, and jump from the Tybee Marine Science Center (it offers low-cost beach discovery walks for families) and the Tybee Pier (for awesome fishing).
Photo Courtesy Southern Delaware Tourism
Courtesy of South County Tourism Council
16. Misquamicut State Beach, Westerly, Rhode Island (Runner Up)
This 7-mile long beach gives families plenty of room to spread out. When the kids grow weary of the sand and water, hit the adjacent playground.
Courtesy Hawaii Convention Visitors Bureau
17. Hapuna Beach Park, Big Island, Hawaii (Runner Up)
This beach boasts more than one-quarter of a mile of soft white sand. In the summer, the water is usually calm and crystal blue -- perfect for swimming with the kids. Stick close to the south end of the beach where the lifeguards are.
Courtesy of Cape May Magazine/CapeMay.com
18. Cape May Point Beach, Cape May, New Jersey (Runner Up)
Bring your nature-loving kids to see dolphins during the summer and monarch butterflies in the early fall. You can also walk to the nearby lighthouse.
Photo Courtesy of Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau
19. Aliso Beach Park, South Laguna Beach, California (Runner Up)
Located on the Pacific Coast Highway, Aliso Beach boasts tidepools filled with sea life, volleyball courts, great fishing (and gear rental), and a playground.
Photo Courtesy Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
20. Gulf State Park Beach, Gulf Shores, Alabama (Runner Up)
Among sand dunes and sea oats, this pretty, uncrowded stretch of sand has a modern beach pavilion with air-conditioned restrooms, plenty of shady spots for a picnic, and even a fireplace for chilly days.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
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.