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14 GREAT BEACH TOWNS
Life's a Beach -- and More -- at These 14 Top Beach Towns
Way back when well our master plan
Was havin' fun fun fun as America's band
Well we came out rockin' with Rhonda and Barbara Ann
Singin' of surf and sand
                                                           The Beach Boys, “Summer in Paradise”

There’s simply something about beaches that makes them feel like a bit of paradise on earth. The surf, the sand, the shells, and the sun are all soothing to the soul. The same could be said for top beach towns, where the paradise-like beach vibe continues with friendly people, super shopping (for shells, beach bric-a-brac, and more), fresh seafood, and much more await.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and out to the Pacific Ocean, great beach communities abound in America, making it easy to sing their praises—even if it’s not in perfect harmony like The Beach Boys. Of course, top beach towns have to have a beautiful beach nearby.

“This past year’s winner [Cooper Beach] is a great example of the idyllic connection between a beach and a beach town [Southampton],” says Dr. Stephen Leatherman (a.k.a. “Dr. Beach”), whose “America’s Best Beaches” work and more has chronicled the best Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Pacific beaches for 20 years (he’s adding Great Lakes beaches this summer). “It’s great when you can walk or bike from a great beach to a great beach town.”

Dr. Leatherman uses 50 criteria when it comes to ranking top beaches, including beach width, sand quality, water temperature, sunny days, swimming conditions, wildlife, bugs, cleanliness, lifeguards, and many more.

With so much United States coastline (we saved some great Canadian and Mexican beach towns for later), choosing a dozen top beach towns is a difficult task. We went for geographical and sheer vibe variety and realize that many top beach towns couldn’t be included. Here’s our top 14, plus a few more we couldn’t help mentioning:

Bar Harbor, Maine

Located on Mount Desert Island (Maine’s largest) off the rocky coastline, Bar Harbor on Frenchman Bay became famous decades ago as a Down East “summer colony” for artists and other visitors. It’s still famous thanks to a cute town that welcomes tourists with only-in-Maine shopping, dining (including local “lobstah” in-season), and history along Main Street, Mount Desert Street, and more. Bar Harbor Whale Museum is a big indoors draw, while nearby Acadia National Park is an outdoors lure (including miles of old carriage trails now ideal for biking and hiking). The island’s carbonate Sand Beach (broken up shells and sea creatures) features rock walls on each side and a stunning southern sun exposure—warming the frigid seas at least a little bit.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Generally referred to as “The Cape,” and located in the far eastern part of Massachusetts and reaching far out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod features a number of classic northeast U.S. beach towns—and beaches. Part of the first-reached Upper Cape, famed Falmouth is known as the home of research-driven Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and actually has many villages, including Woods Hole, East Falmouth, Falmouth Village, and more. The location of beloved Kalmus Beach in Hyannis, the Mid-Cape area is home to beautiful beaches all along Nantucket Sound, as well as world-class windsurfing. The Lower Cape includes sprawling Cape Cod National Seashore and perhaps some of America’s most famous beaches—like Nauset Light Beach and Coast Guard Beach—and many nearby oh-so-Cape Cod beach towns. Situated in Nantucket Sound, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket remain classic Cape Cod islands.

Southampton, New York

Situated on the south shore fork of Long Island, Southampton’s Cooper Beach is the reigning national winner of Dr. Leatherman’s “Best Beach in America” awards. He says some of the best beach access in the Hamptons exists at Cooper Beach and that the beach itself is hundreds of yards wide and features large sand dunes of American beach grass (and many only-in-the-Hamptons mansions). The historic Village of Southampton was originally settled in the mid-1600s and there are a number of historic buildings in the quiet hamlet. Main Beach in East Hampton--also included in Dr. Leatherman’s top 10 for 2010 features a quaint beachside village worth exploring.

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Long a favorite east coast getaway from spring to fall, the town of Rehoboth Beach is known as the “The Nation’s Summer Capital” due to its proximity to Washington, D.C. Rehoboth’s roots as a beach town go back to 1873 and the founding of the Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Rehoboth appears in the bible and generally means “place for all”). Today’s place has a great beach, a classic wooden boardwalk, and an array of shopping and dining options. Devoted craft beer fans make the pilgrimage to Dogfish Head Brewery’s original brewpub (also featuring great food) on bustling Rehoboth Avenue on the way to or from the beach.

Cape May, New Jersey

Welcoming beach town visitors since the 18th century, Victorian Cape May is generally recognized as American’s oldest seaside resort. With a collection of preserved Victorian homes second only to San Francisco, the entire beach town of Cape May is designated a National Historic Landmark. Classic beach town shops and restaurants line Washington Street Mall and elsewhere, while Sunset Beach is one of several classic beaches to head in search of “Cape May Diamonds”—clear quartz pebbles created by sand and water in the Delaware River. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry provides a classic way to get to or from Cape May across the Delaware River from Lewes, Delaware. While in and around Cape May or on the ferry, bird watching is renowned.

Chincoteague Island, Virginia

Located on Virginia’s quiet Eastern Shore, the town of Chincoteague Island is famed as the gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore (and some great beaches!). Made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague, there are still wild horses out on Assateague Island. Quaint Chincoteague Island proper was recently ranked #1 in Aol Travel’s “America’s Best Beach Towns,” thanks to the area’s Main Street (which corralled horses gallops down every year in a famous round-up), a waterfowl museum, seafood and barbeque shacks, and more. Historic Assateague Light House is known for its red-and-white “candy cane” striping.

Ocracoke, North Carolina

Reached only by ferry (which welcome RVs!), the town of Ocracoke is a quintessential Outer Banks beach town. Everything’s within walking distance and miles of protected beaches like Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach (which was Dr. Leatherman’s top beach in 2007) are nearby. Ocracoke Island’s beaches are part of 75-mile Cape Hatteras National Seashore (the nation’s first). Along with classic beach town eating and shopping (including excellent art galleries), the harborfront village of Ocracoke also features Ocracoke Island Lighthouse and the Ocracoke Island Museum and Preservation Society. Live music is quite popular in town and several local musicians performed in the feature film, “Nights in Rodanthe.”

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Located near Charleston, Kiawah Island is typical of many island towns in South Carolina, with wide beaches, world-class golf and tennis, seafood-focused restaurants, and much more. But it’s the island’s Beachwalker Park on the southern end of the island that also draws beach-lovers. Ranked #8 in 2010 by Dr. Leatherman, he recommends the interpretative tours that focus on island flora and fauna, as well as kayaking, biking (even on the beach!), and birdwatching. The 11-mile beach also features a boardwalk though the unspoiled landscape. West Beach Village (the island’s original town), East Beach Village, and The Village at Turtle Beach are all modern takes on classic beach towns.

Siesta Key, Florida

Siesta Beach on Siesta Key near Sarasota ranked number two in Dr. Leatherman’s 2010 list, thanks to “some of the whitest, finest sand in the world.” A Harvard study found the beach’s sugary sand was 99% quartz. The protected crescent-shaped beach has excellent access for visitors. The cute town and eight-mile-long island was originally named Sarasota Key before it was changed to Siesta Key in the early-1900s. Fresh seafood is found at many island restaurants and the beach village vibe is one of Florida’s best (and that’s saying something in a state packed with beach towns).

Grayton Beach, Florida

The historic village of Grayton Beach is a great introduction to the Panhandle’s plethora of top beach towns. Created in 1967, nearby Grayton Beach State Recreation Area is protected—and perfect for a variety of quiet water- and beach-oriented activities (including shimmering Western Lake and an excellent hiking trail through the dunes and coastal landscape). The beach was Dr. Leatherman’s top pick back in 1994. No visit is complete without a drink or meal at famed Red Bar. Nearby Seaside is also worth a visit, in that it’s a modern beach village developed in a classic and colorful way.

Pacific Grove, California

Ideally situated between Monterey and Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove—like Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach—also has roots with a religious group seeking a peaceful retreat. Modeled on Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and Lake Chautauqua, New York, a group of Methodists founded Pacific Grove in 1875. John Steinbeck lived in a Pacific Grove cottage for many years and there are a plethora of Victorian-style houses in town. Other area highlights here have to include: a beachfront main street not marred by development on the ocean side; peaceful Asilomar State Beach; Lovers Point Park; Point Pinos Lighthouse; Cannery Row; Monterey Bay Aquarium; and much more.

Gearhart, Oregon

Oregon’s craggy coastline features many classic beach towns awaiting discovery by those on the road. With streets featuring historic vacation homes like those found in East Coast beach towns, little Gearhart is a big hit with beach fans—and golfers, thanks to two dramatic layouts. Other highlights here have to include: intimate restaurants and shops; Oregon’s Pacific Coast Scenic Byway (running right through Gearhart), area state parks (including Gearhart Ocean State Park and Arcadia Beach State Recreation Sit), and one of the few beaches in Oregon where visitors are allowed to drive on the sand.

Coronado, California

Of course, San Diego proper—four miles and another world away—is a big city. But the town around Coronado Island’s Coronado Beach has a small beach town feel to it in many ways, thanks to the downtown area locals call “The Village” and lots of parks. Coronado Beach was #3 on Dr. Leatherman’s top ten beaches in 2010 and he praises the “lush subtropical vegetation, unique Mediterranean climate, and fine sparkling sand.” He also recommends visiting historic the Hotel del Coronado, which opened back in 1888. Coronado is connected to San Diego by a stunning bridge with views that make it a joy to cross in either direction.

Poipu, Hawaii

The Aloha State is blessed with some of the nation’s finest beaches (with a total of ten ranked “top beach” by Dr. Leatherman over the years) and the town of Poipu on the island of Kauai offers one of the best. Poipu Beach was Dr. Leatherman’s top pick in 2001. Poipu means “crashing waves” in the Hawaiian dialect and it’s certainly fitting for this Hawaiian beach and beach town. Poipu Beach is actually a series of golden sand crescents—surfing (including lessons) and yoga on the beach make it oh-so-Hawaii. The small town is quintessentially Hawaiian, with a laid-back and casual South Shore and lots of nearby outdoor-oriented options for visitors (including world-class golf).

Of course, many other great beaches and beach towns exist along America’s coastline. Where there’s a beach, there’s often a great beach town awaiting discovery. A few other possibilities from AOL Travel’s “America’s Best Beach Towns” and elsewhere include: Lubec, Maine; Tybee Island, Georgia; St. Pete Beach, Florida; Rockport, Texas; Traverse City, Michigan (the Great Lakes have superb beaches and beach towns); Pismo Beach, California; and Hanelei Bay (Kauai), Hawaii—Dr. Leatherman’s 2009 top beach.

Dr. Beach Knows Beaches—and Beach Towns

Miami, Florida-based Dr. Stephen Leatherman (a.k.a. “Dr. Beach”) loves beaches. His “America’s Best Beaches” rating system and rankings celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010, with Coopers Beach taking top billing and several other beaches with great beach towns making it in the top ten (as has often been the case over the years). Dr. Leatherman will begin ranking Great Lakes beaches in 2011. His website (www.drbeach.org) and helpful beach finder site www.beachfinder.org provide tips for visiting top beaches—and beach towns.