The perfect family summer vacation has key ingredients: some action, a good dose chill and lots of fresh air and sunshine. Which is why a trip to the beach will beat out an amusement park or long road trip any day. We’ve rounded up our favorite beaches for low-key summer fun—whether it’s building a sand castle or catching up on the latest beach read, these spots are sure to please. Scroll on to get planning.
Georgetown and Wells, Maine
The state of Maine has many wonderful unassuming kid-centric beaches—it’s hard to list just one.
What to do: If you want to be sure that you’ll have a beach mostly all to yourself, check out Laudholm Beach in Wells, which is accessible via short hike on Barrier Beach Trail. Part of Wells National estuarine research reserve, this beach is flanked by dunes and rewarded with soft uncrowded sands. You’ll notice plenty of birds, and if you walk north to the mouth of the Little River, you’ll see the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Reserve.
In Georgetown, you’ll find Reid State Park, just north of Bath. Full of sandy coastlines, marshes, grassy mounds, tidal rivers and a lagoon, you’ll find all sorts of sea life here—sand dollars, crabs, and the like.
What to eat: Either bring a picnic or plan on visiting a restaurant along the way and enjoying fresh lobster.
Find out more: visitmaine.com/places-to-go
Washington Island: Door County, WI
Wisconsin and the Midwest may not be top of mind when thinking of great beach vacations, but Door County, with its 300 miles of shoreline (53 Lake Michigan beaches) and waterfront villages, is worth a look-see for your next family-friendly beach vacation.
What to do: For starters, check out School House Beach. Located about seven miles north of Door Peninsula, the beach isn't made of sand, but instead, it’s covered in smooth, super round, foot-massaging limestone rocks. You can hike to Mountain Park Lookout Tower for panoramic views of the island and surrounding lake; golf at Deer Run Golf Course; and hop on the ferry and cruise over to Rock Island where you’ll find a sandy beach and Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Also, no trip to Washington Island is complete without a stop at Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop, the largest lavender farm in the Midwest. Here you’ll find a quaint bistro, open for lunch, tours and demonstrations on the working farm and a large shop full of take-home treasures.
Where to stay: Check travelwisconsin.com for a plethora of lodging options (waterfront cabins, historic hotels, boutique properties, tiny bed and breakfasts, camping—you name it, they have it.).
Find out more: travelwisconsin.com/doorcounty
Astoria, Seaside and Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cruise along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, and you’ll reach Astoria, Seaside, Pacific City, Cannon Beach and more.
What to do: USA Today lists Astoria among one of the best Oregon coasts worth a visit (there’s a great riverfront trolley you can take here). Beyond historical landmarks and shipwreck remnants sits Astoria Column and the Garden of Surging Waves. You’ll also find lots of art galleries and cinematic nostalgia (Goonies was filmed near here.) Cannon Beach is popular for families and offers bird and whale watching and water activities like surfing and boating. Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is another cool place to explore. This rolling-hills beach with giant dunes covers nearly 40 miles—it’s the largest dune expanse in North America. Of course, you’ll find lots of activities suited to the area: ATV riding, hiking, camping, etc.
Where to stay: From hotels to home rentals, you’ll find something to fit your budget here.
Find out more: visittheoregoncoast.com/astoria
South Walton, FL
If you’ve never been to Florida’s Gulf coast, the 26-mile stretch of unique seaside communities that make up South Walton, you will be pleasantly surprised. Your family will love the white pristine sugar-sand beaches, the turquoise water and the charming towns—Seaside (every cottage in Seaside has a short, white picket fence with a unique pattern), Rosemary Beach (don’t miss the Farmer’s Market) and Alys Beach (a nature trail curves in and out of a small forest here) are standouts.
What to do: You’ll want to rent bikes and cruise along the sand-dusted trails, past the beach pavilions, and stop at the coastal dunes recreation park and protected forests. Long stretches of boardwalk wind through grassy dunes, creating an ethereal nature experience. Also, kids as young as five, as long as they are great swimmers, can take a surfing lesson on the gentle Florida waves with Austin Magee’s Surf School. The new urbanism design of many of the beach communities in South Walton offers something distinctive and magical for vacationing families.
Where to stay: Book lodging for your whole family with Cottage Rental Agency for choice accommodations or check out visitsouthwalton.com, where you can search for lodging by a particular beach.
Find out more: visitsouthwalton.com
Bolivar Peninsula, TX
Beach towns in Texas? Yup, there’s a whole stretch of National Seashore to be explored in the Lone Star State.
What to do: Crystal Beach is a mellow, fun stretch of sand located on the Bolivar Peninsula, spanning seven or so miles. Fully recovered from any remaining Hurricane Ike damage, this ecological beach is popular for fishing, crabbing, swimming and enjoying a late-night fire pit. It’s also a short ferry ride away from Galveston so you and your crew can head in for the day to do the touristy things (The Strand, Pleasure Pier, Railroad Museum), before heading back to the quiet stretches of the Peninsula.
What to eat: We recommend picking up some freshly caught shrimp from local JB's Seafood and having a proper at-home low-down boil. If you want to eat out, Stingaree fits the bill.
Where to stay: Check Airbnb for local rentals.
Find out more: bolivarpeninsulatexas.com
Kiawah Island - South Carolina
Beachgoers have long known about South Carolina for soaking up vitamin sea, so the challenge here is finding the less populated beaches to enjoy with your family in tow.
What to do: Consider Kiawah Island, a coastal island off South Carolina with 10 miles of clean beaches and nearly 10,000 acres of natural woodlands. On Kiawah, the wide, mellow beach is lined by mostly townhomes and private residences, so there’s a homey vibe. You can rent bicycles, kayaks, shop in the quaint village center or walk the miles of paved trails perfect for spotting gators, fish and other creatures. Charleston is about 45 minutes away, perfect for a day trip to check out the historical sites and the amazing homes of Rainbow Row.
What to eat: Seafood joints are plenteous in the area, so take advantage of the local offerings. Red’s Ice House, on nearby Johns Island, has reasonably priced eats and amazing sunset views.
Find out more: kiawahisland.org
Los Cabos - Mexico
This easy to get to spot on the southern tip of Baja California Península is affordable and full of great beaches.
What to do: A quieter crescent-shaped beach is Playa Santa Maria. This bay is protected and has a great marine sanctuary, snorkeling above tropical and bright fish, swimming and a pinkish sandy beach. Chilleno Beach is a delight for families looking for great snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. There are several reefs, home to over 80 species of marine life. The beaches all along Los Cabos afford travelers whale and dolphin watching opportunities, bring some binoculars along with you and keep your peepers out for turtles. Kids will love watching the fishing boats return in the afternoon. Punta Palmilla is also a fantastic option, with its long and fat bay, swimming, snorkeling and natural beauty.
Where to stay: Hacienda Encantada Resort & Residences with its family-centric atmosphere, large pools with beautiful views and delicious dining options (including fun guacamole-making classes) is an ideal family-friendly option. The beaches all along Los Cabos afford travelers whale and dolphin watching opportunities, bring some binoculars along with you.
Find out more: loscabosguide.com
SLO CAL: San Luis Obispo County, CA
One of the most underrated beach vacation destinations sits between LA and San Francisco, on the central coast of California. With more than 80 miles of coastline (and charming beach towns), you’ll be sure to find a stretch of sand to relish without being bombarded with hordes of other beachgoers.
What to do: Pismo Beach is a great start for your adventure. Here you’ll find a long boardwalk to stroll and a pier that stretches over the water. You’ll be able to check out the low-key surfing, go fishing, take a kayak on the water to explore the Dinosaur Cave or even play a round of sand volleyball. A short walk off the beach is where you’ll find dining and shops—clam chowder is popular in many of the restaurants.
Go a little north, and you’ll spot Avila Beach, perfect for families that want a quiet place to enjoy quality time. Parents can enjoy great wine and quaint boutique shopping along the waterfront, and everyone will enjoy the natural hot springs. Visit Morro Bay to see a traditional fishing village, kayak near playful seals, and see where sustainable fishing experts harvest oysters.
Where to stay: There are many lodging options available—from vacation rentals to camping to B & Bs' to vineyard stays to boutique hotels. Check slocal.com for more info.
Find out more: slocal.com
Brunswick Islands - North Carolina
From lighthouse climbs to sea turtle sightings, the six coastal towns that make up the Brunswick Islands are teeming with just as much laid back and low key fun offshore as there is on shore. Adventure seekers can zipline at Shallotte River Swamp Park, while foodies can get a crash course in Calabash-style seafood.
Where to stay: You won’t find any high rise hotels here, the better to catch the amazing sunset views. Make it a double (or triple) family vacation by renting out one of the many beach houses available on Brunswick Islands. Check out Holden Beach Properties or Brunswick Island Realty for your home away from home.
Find out more: ncbrunswick.com
Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, Florida
Near Tampa, on the central coast of Florida, sits amazing coastline that is perfect for families looking for an experience to usurp all other beach vacations.
What to do: Start off in Tarpon Springs, where you’ll enjoy Greek culture at its best, with its bakeries, shops, shrines and cathedrals. This is also where you’ll embark on a unique experience: a boat tour that celebrates the “Sponge Capital of the World.” You’ll want to visit Honeymoon Island, a 385-acre secluded natural barrier island off Dunedin. Kids can fish, snorkel, ride bikes, picnic beneath a covered pavilion, hike on nature trails, visit a dog park and build sand castles. Adventurous families will love the four-mile kayaking trail through the shallow waters full of mangrove forests where mangrove crabs, osprey and other wildlife can be seen. The trail opens up to St. Joseph Sound into open water and sunshine providing a unique experience you can’t have anywhere else.
Where to stay: One of the best places to stay, that also offers a shuttle to Honeymoon Island, is Innisbrook Resort, centrally located on 900 acres, not too far from the airport. Kids and families can take part in golfing, tennis, swimming (the Loch Ness Monster Pool has amazing water slides and one of the pools has a sandy beach), fishing and biking. The dining at Innisbrook is top-notch: Packard’s Steakhouse, Market Salamander Grille, The Market (for grab and go items) and The Grill at Loch Ness.
Find out more: visitpeteclearwater.com
— Wendy Altschuler with Ayren Jackson-Cannady