From Washington to Virginia, the AFAR team pick their favorite seaside spots.
Great small beach towns come in many forms. They can be surrounded by sands baking under a constant sun or tucked away in the mist of a distant forest. They can be lively or pin-drop quiet retreats. But they also share many attributes: idiosyncratic charm; fresh local food, usually hauled off a boat in nearby waters; somewhere chic and cozy to bed down for the night.
From Hawaii to Virginia via the Pacific Northwest, these are some of our favorite small U.S. beach towns to recharge and recalibrate in 2019.
Aislyn Greene, Senior Editor
It’s not exactly a sun-lover’s dream, but what La Push, a small village on Washington’s northernmost coast, lacks in palm trees, it makes up for in dramatic beaches, teeming tide pools, and some of the freshest salmon in the state.
To reach La Push, you ferry from Seattle, skirt Olympic National Park, and finally pass through the gateway town of Forks. Towering evergreens and foggy mornings rule—it’s no surprise that Stephenie Meyer chose to set her vampire series, Twilight, in the region.
To make the most of a weekend, base yourself in the Quileute Oceanside Resort, run by the local Quileute Tribe. The resort sits on the crescent-shaped First Beach, where solid swells draw surfers from the area. Hike the short trail to Second Beach to explore tide pools and watch for bald and golden eagles, eat barbecued salmon at the River’s Edge Restaurant, day-trip to other beaches along the coast (don’t miss Ruby Beach), or head inland to explore the national park. From Forks, it’s easy to explore the region on two wheels, thanks to the ever-expanding Olympic Discovery Trail, a 134-mile multi-use system. Eventually, the trail will link up with the 4,000-mile Great American Rail-Trail that will connect both coasts.
Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii
Nicole Antonio, Managing Editor
Each year, over one million visitors flock to Hanauma Bay, a small cove that boasts some of the best snorkeling in the world. While the hype is justified, you should really drive 30 minutes north to Kailua, a town basking in chill vibes with easy access to less crowded beaches.
Live like a local by ordering oxtail soup from Zippy’s, grabbing some fresh poke from Foodland, and hitting up Teddy’s Bigger Burgers for a root beer milkshake. Experienced swimmers and surfers should check out Makapu’u Beach, a short drive south, but always be wary of the strong undertow. Those more inclined to gentle waves and sunbathing should make their way to nearby Lanikai Beach and Waimanalo Beach Park.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Ann Shields, Managing Editor, Travel Guides
With the newly renovated Cavalier Hotel injecting much-needed glamour to the area, Virginia Beach, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, is back on our radar. Flee the general-issue beach town souvenir shops and pancake houses on Atlantic Avenue to uncover Virginia Beach’s natural charms at First Landing State Park.
A bike ride along the park’s Cape Henry trail—through shady back bay forest and along a boardwalk that crosses a tidal marsh—gives you a sense of the landscape the settlers of the Virginia Company found when they landed here in 1607. Spanish moss drapes cypress and live oak trees, unseen frogs croak and cicadas thrum, a night heron poses beside a lake, and sun-heated beach roses give off a delicious perfume: It’s enough to make anyone consider colonizing here.
This beach experience may lack saltwater taffy and novelty flip-flops, but it’ll take you closer to the bays and dunes and southern forests that made the New World feel like a new world.
Rosalie Tinelli, Social Media Manager
Pass through all of the Hamptons and you’ll find yourself in Montauk, at the far end of Long Island. It’s a much less pretentious town with its own brewery, top-notch restaurants, and miles of white sand beaches facing the Atlantic. It can get crowded during the summer months, but think “families who ride bikes to the beach” rather than “avid celeb-spotters looking to spend top dollar.”
While there’s no shortage of delectable seafood, the jelly croissants at mainstay Montauk Bake Shoppe are an absolute must. Most vacation rentals or hotels (like the brand new Gurney’s Star Island) are either directly on the beach or within walking distance to a public beach. For a view of what feels like the end of the world, make your way to the top of Montauk Lighthouse at the very tip of Long Island.
Julia Cosgrove, VP, Editor in Chief
Since the late 1800s, the unincorporated community of Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara, has been a seaside hideaway for Hollywood stars and East Coast transplants living in Great Gatsby–esque estates. After a series of devastating natural disasters in 2017 and 2018, including wildfires, floods, and mudslides, Montecito is once again open for business.
This March, the much-anticipated Rosewood Miramar Beach resort opened its doors on one of the town’s toniest stretches of coastline. The glamorous hotel has 161 guestrooms and suites (some front the beach), six dining options (including Caruso’s, which serves pinsa Romana, a traditional Roman dish that chef Massimo Falsini had to be certified in Italy to make), the first Goop Sundries boutique in a hotel, two cabana-lined pools that evoke the Italian Riviera, a Sense Spa, and bocce courts. Families are very much welcome, as are dogs. The sand on Miramar Beach is silky soft and the water is generally calm, making it a perfect spot for building sand castles. If you check in for a few nights, you never have to leave.
But you’d remiss to not explore more of Montecito. In addition to Miramar Beach, locals love Butterfly Beach, a five-minute drive up the coast. Lotusland, the 37-acre estate and botanical garden created by the late opera singer Madame Ganna Walska, is home to more than 3,000 different plants from around the world, including cycads, cacti, palms, and euphorbias. Be sure to book ahead for a guided tour—the county caps the number of annual visitors at 15,000. Also make dinner reservations. Montecito’s dining scene is on the rise, with young chefs opening new restaurants. Of note: Bettina, a cool Neapolitan pizza place where you can enjoy a white negroni cocktail, cacio e pepe arancini, and a ramp confit pizza. On the fine dining side, the Monarch at the Montecito Inn serves a 20-course chef’s table menu in its restaurant within a restaurant, the Silver Bough. Come hungry.
Maggie Fuller, Associate Editor
Set on narrow Tomales Bay, Point Reyes Station isn’t your typical beach town. Shorts and flip-flops are rare here due to the weather, but for Bay Area locals, it’s the perfect, mellow escape. The weather-worn buildings house excellent eateries (like Bovine Bakery), carefully curated shops, and local art galleries.
Get your fill of sea air at the lighthouse or on a coastal hiking trail. Later, head to the Marshall Store or Hog Island Oyster Company to shuck bivalves and sip Sonoma bubbly in the late afternoon sun. The new, boutique Olema House is an exciting update of a classic hotel, and Nick’s Cove, with its overwater bungalows and nostalgic restaurant, is a perennial favorite.
Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina
Lyndsey Matthews, Destination News Editor
Charleston is surrounded by barrier islands with beach towns that have their own charms, but Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor is a local favorite for its wide beaches and restaurants as good as the ones you’ll find downtown.
If you’re spending the day on the beach, call up Sullivan’s Island Co-Op for pimento cheese, chicken salad sandwiches, and even beer delivered directly to the mile-marker where you’re soaking up the sun.
No trip is complete without a meal at The Obstinate Daughter, an always-packed spot that takes its name from a Revolutionary War nickname for the town’s historic Fort Sullivan. The hearty menu of pizza and pastas are more substantial than you’d expect from its seaside location, but the short rib ragu ricotta gnocchi is delicious.
Natalie Beauregard, Guides Editor
With art and music scenes to rival its beachfront, Asbury Park couldn’t be more different from its Jersey Shore neighbors. Just 90 minutes from New York City, the seaside town is experiencing a renaissance, with colorful street art, a bowling alley/music venue, and, come July, the five-star Asbury Ocean Club Hotel.
Of course, you can still get a taste of the town Springsteen made famous by catching a tribute band at the Stone Pony or playing pinball at the Silverball Museum Arcade. And go for Korean tacos at MOGO or wood-fired pizza at Talula afterward.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Cathryn Mahoney, Audience Marketing Coordinator
Menemsha, on the western side of Martha’s Vineyard, has a real fishing village vibe. Get yourself a hot lobster roll with butter or some chowder from the Menemsha Fish Market. If you’re in a group, send someone to the nearby beach while you’re waiting for the order so you’re all set to enjoy your seafood with the sunset. If you want to make a day out of it, get in early and charter a boat for some cruising or fishing. After some water excursions, try The Homeport, a delicious seafood spot opened in the 1930s and overlooking the harbor.
If you head to the east side of the island, to Norton Point, your search for the quintessential summer beach day will be over. Locals and vacationers in the know pull up to the entrance of South Beach in Edgartown, and, after they deflate their tires to the correct levels, purchase their permit for the season, and switch to four-wheel drive, they hang a right and drive directly onto the beach.
Once you’ve found the right spot, it’s time to park the car and unload snacks, drinks, grills, cornhole games, and anything else needed for a fun-filled beach day. On the north side, the gentle waves of Katama Bay lap the shore, a nice spot for young families to relax without the worry of the stronger currents on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. If you drive to the end of the point, you’ll see where the beach used to connect to Chappaquiddick Island.