Sanibel Island, Florida
Your pint-size seashell collector will go out of her mind on any of the beaches in this town. “Hundreds of thousands of seashells arrive daily from the Gulf of Mexico, and most are fully intact,” says Pam Rambo, founder of ILoveShelling.com. There are more than 300 different kinds; you can pick up a laminated shelling guide in local gift shops to help your kids ID the most common ones. The seashell selection is even better following a summertime storm or in November and December, explains Rambo. Since you’ll need to clean the seashells (buy bleach to reduce the odor), you’re better off staying at one of the many condo rentals in town or a resort like South Seas Island Resort (from $229 per night; all rates are for rooms that sleep four). In nearby Captiva, South Seas offers beach condos with kitchens plus shelling excursions with the on-site Sanibel Sea School.
Holland State Park beach, on Lakes Michigan and Macatawa, will keep your family happy with its kids’ fishing lessons, explorer rangers programs, and ice cream. The beach is only outdone by the charming Dutch-influenced activities in town. A few miles away at Windmill Island Gardens ($9 for age 16 and over, $5 for ages 3 to 15), kids can learn about the 250-year-old imported grain-grinding windmill, explore the gardens, and ride the antique Dutch carousel. Also nearby, Nelis’ Dutch Village ($12 for ages 16 and up, $10 for ages 3 to 15) will wow kids with a wooden-shoe-shaped slide. Stay at the Lake Ranch Resort (from $149 per night), and you can walk to Holland State Park from there.
Huntington Beach, California
During the day, the 3-mile Bolsa State Beach near Anaheim is perfect for kids—calm water, gradual drop-off, and even a basketball court. But come nighttime, it’s all about the fire rings. There are 200 rings (great for making s’mores) in Bolsa State and 300-plus at other beaches in town. You can BYOM (bring your own marshmallows) or hire Waterfront Adventures at the newly renovated Waterfront Beach Resort (from $189 per night) to reserve a fire pit for you and supply the s’mores ingredients, firewood, hot beverages, and beach chairs ($125 for 4 people).
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
The beach at Club Med Punta Cana is everything Caribbean dreams are made of: turquoise-blue water, white sand, and no crowds because it’s exclusive to resort guests. You may get a beach day with just your spouse because the kids will be loving the resort’s supervised programs, Club Med Creactive by Cirque du Soleil. It teaches children ages 4 and up more than 24 acrobatic and artistic activities from tightrope walking (while safely harnessed) to juggling, bungee jumping to painting masks. It’s only available at the Club Med locations at Punta Cana and Opio en Provence, France. A seven-night stay in the Dominican Republic in August for two adults and two kids ages 4 to 11 starts at $2,800, including meals, drinks, children’s club, and most activities.
Cape May, New Jersey
On the southern tip of the Jersey shore, Cape May’s Sunset Beach is literally sparkling. Quartz crystals, known as “Cape May Diamonds,” wash up on the shore daily. Most appear frosted; the rarer ones are as clear as crystal or teardrop-shaped. Unfortunately, swimming isn’t advised at Sunset Beach (the current is too rough), so once your kids find their treasures, head over to Cove Beach, which overlooks Cape May Lighthouse and the town’s historic Victorian mansions. Rent a beach house or stay at Congress Hall (from $189 per night), which has a great pool and hosts nostalgic children’s activities like a poolside carnival every Monday night.
La Jolla, California
This sun-soaked town near San Diego constructed a cove on the beach to protect kids from the waves. But the area, known as the “Children’s Pool,” is often filled with seals. “Hundreds of them sunbathe on the sand, and you may get lucky and see their pups too,” says Katie Dillon, founder of the blog La Jolla Mom. When you are ready to swim and build sand castles, drive to the mile-long La Jolla Shores beach, which offers gentle waves, lifeguards, a playground, and grassy picnic areas. The La Jolla Shores Hotel (starting at $219 per night) sits on the beach and near tide pools brimming with tiny sea creatures.
Santa Barbara, California
This seaside town—less than 100 miles from Los Angeles—is the gateway to Channel Islands National Park, one of the best places to explore sea caves and wildlife. Your family can hop on the Island Packers Ferry to Santa Cruz Island, where outfitters like Santa Barbara Adventure Co. offer 90-minute or 2 1/2-hour guided family kayak tours (kids must be 5 and up and share a double kayak with an adult). Your mini adventurers will think it’s cool to be inside a dark cave, listening to the barking of seals and sea lions. There is so much wildlife all around; the Channel Islands, dubbed the “Galápagos of North America,” are home to 145 animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. After you head back to Santa Barbara, check out Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, which offers three floors of hands-on exhibits, such as a giant walk-through guitar to create sound effects. Stay at The Wayfarer (from $279 per night), where the two-person floating pool chairs are Instagram-worthy.
Melbourne Beach, Florida
Talk about a baby boom: Every summer, tens of thousands of loggerhead sea turtles make nests on the beaches in this town, about 70 miles southeast of Orlando. Your family can see turtles laying eggs in June and July and hatchlings starting to emerge in August and early September, according to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which recorded 20,000 nests on its more than 20 miles of beach last year. Book a free ranger-led turtle walk in Sebastian Inlet State Park Fridays through Tuesdays in June and July; bring your swimsuits and other gear because you can swim, fish, or shell-hunt on the park’s 3 miles of beach after the walk. Later in the summer, turtle digs for hatchlings ($5 for adults, free for kids) take place at the Brevard County Barrier Island Center, which also has a beach, a picnic area, and the Sanctuary Trail, a mile-long hiking trail dotted with wildlife. Stay in between the turtle hot spots at Seashell Suites Resort, in a two-bedroom suite with a kitchen (from $225 per night).
Your family can ride the waves and the coasters at Cedar Point, one of the country’s largest theme parks. Your ticket or your stay at the park’s Hotel Breakers (from $229 per night) will grant you access to a mile-long private beach along Lake Erie. “You can see the Ferris wheel and several coasters right from the beach,” points out Nedra McDaniel, the founder of Adventuremomblog.com. “In fact, it’s just a five-minute walk from the beach to many of the rides.” Her daredevils, ages 11 and 14, hop from one coaster to another—the park operates 17 of them. But when her children were younger, they enjoyed the Snoopy Bounce and Sky Ride. If you’d prefer a quieter option that’s still near Cedar Point, stay about 7 miles down the road at Sawmill Creek Resort (from $199 per night), which offers a private lakefront with lots of shade, or search HomeAway or Airbnb for one of the many vacation rentals in the area.
Corolla, North Carolina
You’d never suspect this 11-mile stretch of sand at the tip of the state’s barrier island, known as the Currituck Outer Banks, is horse territory. But about 100 of them, descendants of Spanish mustangs that explorers brought there in the 1500s, roam on 7,000-plus acres—only accessible with a four-wheeldrive vehicle. If you don’t have one, you can stay in a vacation rental a few miles to the south (where there are beaches with gentle waves, lifeguards, and plenty of shells) or in a nearby beachfront resort (like Sanderling, from $229 per night) and take a guided tour. “Kids jump up and down when they see horses on the beach,” says Jay Bender, owner of Corolla Outback Adventures. “Once in a while, the horses even start playing around in the water, and the kids go wild.” If you have a four wheel-drive vehicle, you can drive in yourself and stay for the day (parking is abundant) or book one of the more than 500 vacation rentals. “If you do, chances are horses will be grazing in your backyard,” says Bender.