Why wait in line at a busy theme park when a family beach vacation serves up heaping helpings of fresh air, relaxation and plenty to explore? We’ve rounded up our favorite beaches for low-key summer fun. From building a sand castle to family surfing lessons, these spots are sure to please. Read on to check out all the beaches that should be on your (sand) bucket list this summer.
The Keys, FL
Bump the Florida Keys to the top of your beach list for its sandy beaches, turquoise waters and a rich array of activities, food and culture—all without a passport.
What to do: A sleepier Keys town, Key Largo has plenty of amenities along Hwy 1. Hit Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen for a super kid-friendly environment, great food and your perfect first Florida Keys vaycay photo opp. If you have a few hours to spare, it’s well worth a stop to go swimming or even snorkeling excursion at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Snorkeling tours are about 2.5 hours long, as are glass bottom boat tours. You can book everything at the park or in advance online if you want to guarantee your window.
Where to stay: Make Hawks Cay Resort in Duck Key your home-base, and venture to nearby Marathon Key and Key West for day trips. There are 5 pools + hot tubs and a salt-water swimming lagoon. The resort has a ton of daily, exciting activities for kids (like diving for jewels with the Pirate Queen Priscilla or swimming with the resident Mermaid, Coral). There’s an entire, well-stocked, craftacular Camp Hawk area that’s just a 30-second dash to a Pirate Ship splash pad (and another pool). There’s also a soccer field, playground and an 18-hole Putt-Putt course.
Find out more: floridakeys.com
Lake Michigan, MI
For a change-of-scenery experience, hit Michigan’s beach towns in Harbor Country and further north. These beach communities have tons of secrets to discover, the greatest of which is mild temperatures, fresh water, and a nostalgic vibe.
Where to go: In western Michigan, New Buffalo's blueberry picking can't be beaten July, and a trip to the Warren Dunes State Park before it gets too hot to conquer the massive dunes is definitely in order. Just up the road, the Silver Beach Center is a kiddie haven with a hand-painted giant carousel, Michigan's tallest kaleidoscope, and the Curious Kids' Museum, which is colorful and engaging enough to give Chicago museums a run for their money. For a different, tasty type of adventure, go a bit farther afield to Coloma and pick ripe cherries and peaches at Fruit Acres Farm Market.
Where to stay: In Holland, the Lake Ranch Resort is the only spot where you can stay on the water. It’s a 10-minute drive from downtown Holland and rooms range from two people up to 10. You can also check out the Holiday Inn and Conference Center that has cots and cribs, a game room, and babysitting services available ... not to mention a Michigan-shaped heated pool.
Find out more: michigan.org
You can’t go wrong planning a family vacation to Cancun. The travel time from anywhere in the U.S. is reasonable, even with young kids in tow. The beaches are pristine, the weather is a dream, and it offers activities whether you like to dig your toes in the sand for non-stop beach bumming or explore morning, noon and night. Be sure to check out the two ruin sites of Tulum (it's the only ruins with a gorgeous ocean view, so bring along a swimsuit to take a quick plunge in the sea) and Chichen Itza (also known as El Castillo, it was designated as one of the seven wonders of the world in 2007).
For hanging your hat, Panama Jack Resorts Cancun has two outdoor swimming pools, a stunning beach with water so clear you’ll think you’re in a bathtub, Camp Jack with supervised activities for ages 4-12, waterpark with slides and splash zones, an ocean-view mini golf and water park, live entertainment, movie nights and #Hashtag teen zone with video games and activities for ages 12-17. They also offer after-hours babysitting so you can schedule a kid-free date night.
Find out more: panamajackresorts/cancun
Isle of Palms, SC
While Charleston isn't located precisely on the beach, nearby Isle of Palms certainly is. Offering the best of both worlds—history and exploration as well as unsurpassed nature and pristine beaches—Isle of Palms is the perfect spot for an active family looking to mix up their beach vacation with a bit of culture.
What to See: In Charleston, take a stroll along the mansions of The Battery, then change your perspective and see the fair city by boat from the Charleston Harbor. Boone Hall Plantation, with its colonnade of live oaks and perfectly preserved farm, won't disappoint, and a tour of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War erupted, will satisfy your history requirement.
Where to Stay: The Boardwalk Inn or Village at Wild Dunes at Wild Dunes Resort offers concierge services, hotel guest rooms and suites, in-room dining and valet services, while the resort's vacation homes and condos offer guests a more private experience. You'll find a natural lowcountry landscape beckoning with adventure, just a short ride away from some of the nation's most historic sites.
Find out more: destinationhotels/wild-dunes
For an epic family adventure unlike any other, head to Dubai for glamour and culture through jaw-dropping architecture, extravagant theme parks and resorts, man-made islands and an abundance of markets and culinary delights. Dubai offers an array of memorable experiences for everyone. And with direct service to Dubai on Emirates, it’s easier than ever to experience this city and emirate in the Middle East.
What to do: Book a Sundown Dune Dinner Safari with Arabian Adventures for a desert excursion that will take you cruising over the sand dunes in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Head to Dubai Parks and Resorts—the Middle East’s largest integrated leisure and theme park destination—for more than 100 indoor and outdoor rides and attractions at three theme parks: Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai and LEGOLAND Dubai, and one water park: LEGOLAND Water Park.
Where to stay: Located on Jumeira Beach, on the coast of the Persian Gulf and approximately 20 minutes from the Dubai International Airport, is where you will find Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts’ six beachfront properties: Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Jumeirah Al Naseem, Jumeirah Al Qasr, Jumeirah Mina A`Salam, Jumeirah Dar Al Masyafand the iconic Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. In addition to being extremely family-friendly, each property boasts exceptional service, impeccable accommodations, an ah-mazing beach experience, gorgeous pools and access to 50 world-class restaurants.
Find out more: visitdubai.com
Morro Bay, CA
Right where the 101 hooks up with Highway 1 in California, you’ll find the small town of Morro Bay that offers the perfect spot for a long weekend with the kids. Full of beach days and a totally chill vibe, you can slow down, get to know the welcoming locals and enjoy some of the best seafood that the Pacific Ocean provides.
What to do: Spend some time getting to know Morro Bay from the water. Reserve a spot on a three-hour whale watching tour or one-hour harbor tour. The whale watch tour takes you out past the calm harbor waters to see if you can spot gray or humpback whales that come to feed on the abundant sea life offshore. Or, on land, explore downtown Morro Bay's life-sized chess board or pick up a surrey at Farmer’s Kites and Surreys and head out along the bike path to check out Morro Rock up close.
Where to eat: With easy access to super fresh seafood, Morro Bay is a seafood lover's paradise. The Bayside Cafe has some of the best no-frills dining in the area. The California Chowder in a bread bowl is a crowd favorite. This side-by-side combo of clam chowder and green chile soup is the perfect balance of spice and the sea. Save room for their boysenberry crisp, generously topped with whipped cream, it’s not to be missed!
Find out more: morrobay.org
St. Lucia - Bahamas
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, St. Lucia offers a diverse landscape, with volcanic, mountainous terrain, lush green vegetation and rainforest.
What to do: Board a catamaran and stop at several snorkeling spots to explore life below the surface. A favorite stop is Sugar Beach (Val des Pitons), as you can walk into the protected snorkeling area from the beach (a bonus for kids who are afraid of jumping off a boat). St. Lucia has one of the best kitesurfing beaches in the world (The best months are November through July.). Whether you’re a spectator (so much fun to watch!), a beginner or a seasoned kitesurfer, there’s a beach and teacher for you. Plus, kids over eight years old can enjoy a complimentary introductory kitesurfing lesson which includes flying a trainer kite on the beach.
Where to stay: Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa has a ton of perks for families (all-inclusive resort, close proximity to the airport, a kids’ club, petting zoo, heavenly spa treatments). Kids have free reign on the 40-acre campus, which includes a lazy river and multiple water slides, a paintball zone, a petting zoo with rescued animals, and an exclusive kids camp Cocoland Kids Club, that includes a mini zip line and mini rock climbing wall.
Jekyll Island, GA
With miles of wide, flat beaches, bike trails through Spanish-moss covered live oaks, and wildlife interactions at world-class facilities, Jekyll Island is a family vacation jackpot only four-and-a-half hours from Atlanta. One of Georgia's barrier islands, it was once a privately owned island by industrial era millionaires who used it as a sporting club. It is now one of Georgia's most untouched barrier islands—thanks to a stipulation that it should remain no more than 30% developed when it was sold to the State of Georgia in 1947 and established as a State Park. Stay at the Jekyll Island Club Resort the recently revitalized historic resort, for an experience that is as family-friendly as it is charming.
What to do: For the beach lovers, Jekyll Island offers wide, flat beaches that are particularly appealing to kiddos for their endless supply of castle-ready sand that doesn't seem to invade swimsuits and swim diapers as much as the fluffy white dunes found at the Gulf. And while many of the beaches on Jekyll Island are sure to please, don't pass up a chance to take the littles to Driftwood Beach.
Where to eat: While the island's developed space is limited, there are still plenty of dining options for families. Playground-side pizza at Red Bug Motors Pizza is served up hot and al fresco, Zachary's River House overlooks the Jekyll River, and Tortuga Jacks dishes solid Mexican food and live music nightly. Additional options can be found at the newly developed Beach Village (The Jekyll Market—complete with a deli, bbq and ice cream options—Fuse Frozen Yogurt, and the Jekyll Island Seafood Company, to name a few) and in the historic district.
Find out more: jekyllisland.com
If pristine white-sand beaches, a vibrant culinary scene and activities galore sound like the perfect recipe for your family’s next vacay, look no further than Sarasota. Located on the southwestern coast of Florida, Sarasota is one of Florida’s primary Gulf Coast cities that offers a little something for everyone and warm, year-round temps—making it the ideal destination for fun and sun any time of the year.
Where to stay: Finding a luxury resort property that is also family friendly can come with many challenges. But The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota totally hits the mark by offering a sophisticated yet casual Gulf Coast vibe along with impeccable service, sophisticated surroundings, top-notch cuisine and activities and experiences for all ages.
What to do: In addition to gorgeous beaches and waterfront activities, Sarasota offers a variety of family attractions. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is recognized as the official State Arts Museum of Florida and should definitely be at the top of your must-do list. Located just a few miles west of the Sarasota airport, The Ringling sits on 66 acres of bayfront property and houses The Ringling Museum of Art which includes 21 galleries of paintings, Cypriot antiques, Asian art, American paintings and contemporary art collected by American circus owner, developer and art collector John Ringling and his wife Mable.
Find out more: visitsarasota.com
Playa Paraíso, Mexico
When it comes to taking a vacation with kids, built-in entertainment is like hitting the parenting lottery. And, with the re-imagined kids club at Iberostar Paraíso complex in Playa Paraíso, Mexico, your crew will hardly notice the crystal blue waters and powdery sand beaches. They'll be too busy with their mini-chef challenges, hanging out at a cool facility just for guests ages 4-17, cruising the lazy river, playing capture the flag, doing escape room challenges.
What to do: There are plenty of activities every day: beach volleyball, pool games, archery, group workouts and more. The hotel design was inspired by the local Mayan culture (there are even real artifacts around the resort), and the grounds themselves are gorgeous, with peacocks strutting, iguana hanging around and coati just about everywhere.
Find out more: iberostar.com
The Abacos, Bahamas
If you’re looking for a tropical family destination that’s as easy to access as it is to navigate once you’re there, look no further than The Abacos. An island getaway in the Bahamas that beckons with powdery white beaches and sparkling turquoise waters, The Abacos offer both thrills and relaxation to delight everyone in the family.
Where to eat: When in Rome, eat spaghetti. When in The Abacos, eat seafood. Bahamian food is simple, delicious, and fresh. Keep an eye out for conch salad, a diced concoction with fresh conch, peppers, onions and lime juice, and don’t miss a chance to eat grilled spiny lobster—smaller in size than regular lobsters but twice as sweet. Firefly Bar & Grill at Firefly Sunset Resort on Elbow Cay serves a lobster quesadilla that you’ll write home about, while Nipper’s—known for it’s epic Sunday parties—serves both lightly fried lobster and conch fillets “burgers” that you won’t want to miss.
Where to stay: While home rentals and resorts are available throughout The Abacos, staying on Marsh Harbor affords guests an easy transfer from the airport and proximity to the Albury’s ferry dock. The Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina is ideally situated near restaurants in Marsh Harbour—though the on-property restaurant, Angler's, is excellent.
Find out more: bahamas.com/islands/abacos
Georgetown and Wells, ME
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
Port Aransas & Mustang Island - TX
Voted as one of Vacation Critic’s 2019 Best Beaches for Families, Port Aransas (known as Port A to locals) has made a full recovery since being battered by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Located on 18 miles of beachfront on Mustang Island, there’s no end to the fun for families. You can go birding at one of six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, take the ferry to San Jose Island, a former ranch that is now an uninhabited wildlife preserve that’s perfect for a day trip, play with the kids on Port A beaches like Mustang Island State Park and Padre Island National Seashore. If you vacation in Port A in July, be sure to catch the Gulf Coast’s oldest fishing tournament the Annual Deep Sea Roundup (Jul. 11-14). As far as food goes, this fishing mecca has 11 different restaurants that’ll cook up what you catch that very day.
From hotels to vacation rentals, lodging abounds. A few best-bet spots are the re-invented Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club (their new links-style golf course officially opens on Jun. 1st, 2019)—not only is there a restaurant and pool on site, but the resort offers one of the nicest beaches on the island—the Sunflower Beach Resort & Residences, which is nestled among 50 acres of protected dunes along Mustang Island and offers amenities like a beach club, bike rentals and restaurants, and Cinnamon Shore, which offers a ton of family activities like Movie Night at Town Center, S'mores night, surfing lessons and shrimp boils on the beach.
Find out more: portaransas.org
Astoria, Seaside and Cannon Beach, OR
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
Beaches of 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, WaterColor, Rosemary, and Alys Beaches are standouts.
What to do: Rent bikes and cruise along the sand-dusted trails, past the beach pavilions, and stop at the coastal dunes recreation park and protected forests. Check out one of the regions many farmer's markets, while you're pedaling. 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
Kiawah Island, SC
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
Redondo Beach, CA
This quintessential beach town and picturesque locale boasts a laid-back vibe where you and the fam can soak up the seaside fun and plenty of adventures from taking a dip in a lagoon or whale watching to cruising the town and the shore on bikes––with the added perk that everything in the heart of Redondo is accessible via a short bicycle ride. Visit the Pier—originally built in 1889, and reconstructed in 1995—there are dozens of souvenir shops and food vendors and locals dub it a west coast “Coney Island” filled with novelties including funnel cakes, churros, popcorn and the freshest seafood in town. Head to the Seaside Lagoon for play time—this large saltwater lagoon (open from May 24-Sept. 2, 2019) boasts play equipment, lifeguard supervision, a snack bar with food from Ruby’s Restaurant, volleyball courts and both sand and grassy areas to set up shop. Finally, don't leave without feeding the turtles and climbing trees at Hopkins Wilderness Park. This 11-acre park is perfect for kids who love to climb trees. The site has four ecological habitats: forest, meadows, streams and a pond filled with turtles you can feed. Pack a picnic and soak up the serenity.
Brunswick Islands, NC
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
—Shelley Massey with Wendy Altschuler, Amber Guetebier, Ayren Jackson-Cannady & Beth Shea
Feature photo: courtesy Port Aransas/Mustang Island Tourism Bureau & Chamber of Commerce