Everything Kids

The Best Little Beach Towns for Families

Summer = beach. Is that the way it works in your head?

Call it the shore, if you're from Jersey, or Cape Cod, if you're not from Massachusetts (natives just say "the Cape"). Go for paddling in the Pacific or wading in a little lake. Whatever the particulars, being by the water is synonymous with "vacation" for many families.

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And then there's the beach town, which depending on how much you like to get away from it all, can be the ice cream on the cake, preferably a soft-serve swirl.

Sitting in a little cabin miles from nowhere (and cell service)—we get it.

At the same time, we're all for those charming, slightly kitschy oases composed of clam shacks, cheek-by-jowl cottages, souvenir shops, boardwalks, sweet-scented, blowsy rugosa roses or shimmery palm trees, where fond memories are just waiting to be made. After all, sometimes on vacation, it rains. And rains. If the weather's not working out, a trip into town for a meal and a movie or a jigsaw puzzle from the local discount store can restore the kids, and you the parents, to that blissful holiday state of mind.

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Is there already a beloved beach town in your life—someplace you've been going to since you were old enough to wield a sand pail and shovel? Lucky you! If you're looking for suggestions of seaside spots to explore, read on.

When it comes to beaches, California might just be the big enchilada. The SoCal coast between Malibu and San Diego famously has much to offer: surfing at Doheny State Park, eyeing octopi and sea urchins at the Roundhouse Aquarium at the Manhattan Beach Pier, savoring the Girl Scout cookie-inspired gelato at N'Ice Cream in Venice Beach, and more. Its beach towns are on a larger scale than you might find in Rhode Island, say, but that just means more of everything, from restaurants and snack bars to bike trails and ferry rides.

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On the other hand, or rather, the other coast, there's the aforementioned Jersey Shore; its diehard fans are legion. Forget the MTV reality show—the Jersey Shore has 100-plus miles of oceanfront and 100-plus things to do and see, ranging from salt marsh tours given by the Wetlands Institute, roller coaster rides at the Ocean City boardwalk, spectacular views of the sunset at where else? Sunset Beach at Cape May Point, frozen custard at Kohr's, and caramel popcorn at Johnson's. Ocean Grove has a trove of  enchanting Victorian architecture, Sandy Hook has Fort Hancock to explore, and Margate City's draws include Lucy the Elephant, a nearly 150-year-old wood and metal pachyderm from which you can scan the Atlantic.

If you're from the Midwest or have explored its vacation options, you know you don't need an ocean to have a beach. Wisconsin, for instance, has 15,000 lakes, some of them truly great, with a capital G. Poking a pointy finger into Lake Michigan is Wisconsin's Door County, a 70-mile-long peninsula  with 53 public beaches, including the rare Schoolhouse Beach, one of five limestone beaches in the world. Among the shoreline villages to visit in Door County are Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Fish Creek, and Ephraim.

What else can you find in Door County? How about state parks, picturesque farms and The Farm, where the kids can get upclose with kittens and goats. Delis, such as Renards in Sturgeon Bay, selling Wisconsin cheddar and those cheese curds beloved of natives and outlanders alike. And Gordon Lodge, a hotel that dates from an earlier age (it's more than 80 years old) when the pace of life, and even the pace of vacationing, was slower--but offers up-to-date amenities.

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Where else? Take a look at the beach towns among the winning destinations, based on readers' picks, showcased in the 2015 FamilyFun Travel Awards. Then pack the swimsuits and the sunscreen and get those toes wiggling in the sand. (And don't leave home without a cool explorer bag for collecting treasures from the sea, made from a vegetable mesh bag.)

Faye Wolfe, FamilyFun's Copy Chief, is a beach nut.