• David Andrews

12 Fantastic American Beaches

The Clarksvillian

The winter season always brings out the beach dreams in those of us unfortunate enough to be landlocked.

The United States is blessed to have a vast range of sights to see when planning your beach time, and there are always one or two in close proximity. I personally think it’s important to have some chilled and relaxed days on a beach vacation at least once a year! This is where those stunning beaches come in!

Big Sur, California

Big Sur is not just a destination, it's a state of mind. Stretching 90 miles between Monterey Bay and San Simeon on the west coast of central California, Big Sur's remote location, peaceful nature and incomparable beauty entices visitors to change gears, both figuratively and literally. Pacific Coast Highway, which was built less than 100 years ago, is the main road that runs through the region and becomes the most scenic in Big Sur. Sitting high above the surf, the highway clings to the edge of the area's cliffs, providing spectacular views as it weaves in and out of the seemingly endless coastline. Driving conditions aside, Big Sur's calming culture is contagious, and has attracted minds of all kinds seeking inspiration, refuge or transformation. It was Jack Kerouac who took off to Big Sur in search of inner peace, as recounted in his novel "Big Sur." Fellow writer Henry Miller called Big Sur the first place he felt at home in America, later penning the memoir "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch." Since then, countless musicians, artists, writers and photographers have chronicled Big Sur's powerful presence in their work, yet travelers say its grandeur remains indescribable.

Today, Big Sur draws millions of visitors every year, but it still hasn't lost its sense of place. Independent art galleries dot the highway, sharing space with wellness retreats and cliff-side eateries. But the diverse landscape trumps all the area's amenities by a landslide, with state parks and beaches reigning supreme as the main attractions. Mountains, beaches, rivers, valleys, creeks, coves, wildflowers and wildlife linger at every turn. If you can find them. Some of Big Sur's natural attractions are intentionally unmarked to preserve the sense of seclusion that the region is so famous for. Some areas, believe it or not, still don't have electricity. Big Sur, however, is an experience rather than just a typical vacation. So kick back, unwind, and open your eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of Big Sur.

Cape Code, Massachusetts

With its colorful clam shacks, shingle-style cottages and serene beaches, it's easy to see why Cape Cod – or simply "the Cape" to locals – is a top summer retreat for New England mainlanders. Quaint bed-and-breakfast accommodations wrap around rugged sand dunes, scenic bike trails bright kayaks and fishing boats carrying whale watchers punctuate snake along forests and the seemingly endless seashore. Life moves at a slower pace here – but that's part of the charm. And while the Cape is a sought-after spot for celebrities and athletes, it's actually an unassuming place, with a surprisingly laid-back personality.

Spend a day getting acquainted with the Cape's artsy side with a trip to Provincetown, a bohemian (and particularly gay-friendly) seaport that boasts quirky art galleries and excellent whale-watching spots. Then, continue south to Sandwich, the Cape's oldest town, where glass-blowing demonstrations and storied New England homes await. Spread across four diverse regions – the Upper Cape, Mid Cape, Lower Cape and Outer Cape – the area offers much to explore. And though you'll only need a few days to sample the Cape's pristine beaches, striking views and superlative seafood, to truly soak in the Cape's quiet calm, try to carve out a few weeks to experience the low-key vibes that captivate visitors each summer.

Destin, Florida

Nicknamed the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village," Destin has grown into one of the most popular vacation spots on the Florida Panhandle. Founded in the 1850s, Destin used to be a sleepy fishing town until a bridge connected the skinny peninsula with Florida's mainland. With a baseline population of 13,000 residents (which inflates to 25,000-plus during the summer), this town retains an intimate, friendly atmosphere. Midwestern and Southern families flock to Destin's beaches each summer for the city's trademark bright white shores, made up of pure Appalachian quartz. This unique sand not only stays cool in the summer heat, but with the sunlight's reflection, it also gives the waters an emerald tint. Golfers traverse seaside bunkers, while kids splash in the water parks. More adventurous visitors snorkel and scuba dive off the coast or charter a boat to try their luck at deep sea fishing. After all, casting a line is an integral part of this peninsular paradise.

Huntington Beach, California

Though you may initially think of action-packed Los Angeles or kid-friendly San Diego when planning a trip to Southern California, few Golden State destinations are as quintessentially Californian as Huntington Beach. Unlike the upscale beach communities of Laguna Beach and Malibu, Huntington Beach embraces a laid-back vibe fitting of its Surf City USA nickname. In this coastal city between Newport Beach and Long Beach, you'll find 10 miles of beaches that draw sports enthusiasts, families and dog lovers in droves, plus a 1,400-acre ecological reserve and a downtown packed with restaurants, bars and hotels. So whether you've come to surf, play beach volleyball or simply relax with loved ones by a waterfront bonfire, Huntington Beach is the place to go.

Kauai, Hawaii

Brilliant sunsets, pristine beaches, aquamarine skies – Kauai has mastered seduction. But the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain doesn't have to resort to over-the-top luxury or tourist traps to entice; instead, it appeals to a no-muss, no-fuss type of traveler. Resorts are no taller than a coconut tree (literally).You prefer rural to resplendent? Kauai's your island – there are only two major highways, and some regions can only be explored on foot or via one of the best Kauai boat tours.

Some would say that you need little more than a good pair of hiking boots, an umbrella and an adventurous spirit to visit. But we should warn you: You might also need a little cash. Kauai has put a premium on its natural beauty and prized hiking trails, and room rates during the winter can reach $500 a night. To get the most and save the most, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons.

Key West, Florida

Known for warm beaches and eccentric residents with a live-in-the-moment philosophy, Key West offers a relaxed yet unexpected seaside adventure. Do as the residents (known as Conchs) do and see where that free spirit might take you (possibly on a guided tour or a snorkeling trip). Perhaps you'll end up at a Duval Street bar, in a Mallory Square shop or even touring Ernest Hemingway's old home.

Key West once threatened to go rogue (in 1982 with a mock secessionist movement to create "The Conch Republic"); so this is definitely the place to throw a firm itinerary out the window. Take a stroll, sip a margarita, spy a six-toed cat and set your own pace. While Hurricane Irma did impact the area in late 2017, Key West is definitely back in business.

Laguna Beach, California

Laguna Beach is what California dreams are made of. Visitors are treated to cascading, verdant hillsides, breathtaking coastal parks and secluded beaches throughout this scenic destination. All of this plus its small town spirit and historic arts community are just some of the many aspects that make this southern California spot one for the books. Also, it's incredibly easy to get to. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, Laguna Beach is situated right along Pacific Coast Highway, making it a perfect stop on your California road trip.

Laguna Beach is the kind of destination so beautiful you have to see it to believe it, and when you do, you'll be in total awe of its splendor. But there is certainly more to Laguna Beach than its good looks. The town has a palpable penchant for the arts that can be found not only inside the many galleries that line PCH but also the streets; there are over 100 public art pieces spread throughout town. There is also a deep appreciation for flora and fauna here. Whale watching is a revered pastime, the headquarters for the rescue and rehabilitation for Orange County coast seal population is located here, and the town is home to plenty of wildflower-filled coastal parks, including one of the last preserved coastal canyons in southern California. So while in Laguna Beach, take time to immerse yourself in the local culture, soak up the coast as much as you can - and don't forget to take plenty of pictures along the way. Though, considering how unforgettable the scenery is, you probably won't have trouble remembering Laguna Beach's impressive beauty.

Maui, Hawaii

Maui is not nearly as large as the Big Island, nor is it as small as Lanai, as bustling as Oahu or as quiet as Kauai. For many Hawaii vacationers, Maui is just right – offering a taste of just about everything the Aloha State offers, from impressive wildlife to intriguing history and culture. While on a visit here, you can shimmy alongside professional hula dancers, golf along coastal fairways, sail down a zip line, snorkel alongside five different sea turtles or simply lounge along some of Hawaii's most notable beaches.

One of the archipelago's most popular tourism spots, Maui can be found sandwiched between the Big Island and the much tinier Molokai (which you can explore by signing up for one of the best Maui tours). Maui is divided into five distinct regions: Many travelers base themselves along the coasts of South Maui (home to the famous Wailea Beach) or West Maui, where the sands of Kaanapali Beach and the music from the Old Lahaina Luau.

Monterey, California

The Monterey Peninsula differs from any other part of California. Here, time slows, the architecture is humble (except for the homes in Pebble Beach), and the lifestyle is the perfect synthesis of SoCal laid back and NorCal sophisticated. On the northern side of the peninsula, the town of Monterey draws most of the tourists, while farther south, Carmel-by-the-Sea lures the easygoing wealthy set. Tremendous price tags on real estate help maintain the small-community atmosphere along Monterey's jaw-dropping coastline.

This area makes for a tremendous road-trip stop or romantic weekend stay. And did we mention the golf courses? This stretch of the California coastline boasts some of the most coveted fairways in the world. Plus, it's a year-round whale watching destination. Add to that an abundance of natural wonders, luxury resorts and seafood restaurants, and Monterey might just be the ideal destination for your next getaway.

Naples, Florida

Named after the coastal Italian city, Naples, Florida, is known for its laid-back ambiance, quiet luxury and world-class golf. Though Florida's version doesn't have the history, sights or artwork of its namesake, its extravagance mimics that of European waterholes along the Mediterranean. Instead of archaeological treasures and divine Italian food, you'll find high-end restaurants and first-class hotels awaiting those who retreat from the shore. With gently lapping waves on the white-sand beaches of southern Florida's Gulf Coast, America's Napoli qualifies as one of the most relaxing and romantic beach destinations in the States. That said, party animals and young families will probably want to seek another beach because Naples doesn't have the distractions (oops, we mean attractions) they are looking for. Relaxation is the name of the game here, so leave the tots with your parents or the keg at the frat house, pick up your special someone, and venture down to Florida's city of love.

Santa Monica, California

When you need a break from action-packed Los Angeles, do as the locals do and head west to Santa Monica. Easily accessible from LA via major thoroughfares like Santa Monica Boulevard and the Santa Monica Freeway (a stretch of Interstate 10), this chic California beach community offers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of its big-city neighbor. The western side of Santa Monica is where you'll find its two principal attractions – gorgeous Santa Monica State Beach and the family-friendly Santa Monica Pier. But there's so much more to this destination than its famous beach and pier. Step off of the sand to bike the scenic Marvin Braude Beach Trail and lounge in Santa Monica's beautiful parks. Or, enjoy some retail therapy and people-watching at the Third Street Promenade before grabbing a bite to eat at one of the city's highly regarded restaurants. No matter how you choose to pass the time, you'll instantly feel at ease in Santa Monica.

Sanibel Island, Florida

This secluded Fort Myers offshoot is even more low-key, quiet and quaint than its Gulf Coast neighbor, and that's saying a lot. Casual is the order of the day on Sanibel Island; a shabby chic vibe permeates the Periwinkle Way galleries, restaurants and shops; seashells cover every sandy and linoleum surface. In fact, the abundant seashells have become this island's (and its smaller sister, Captiva's) claim to fame. You'll find plenty of beachcombers practicing the "Sanibel Stoop" – what locals call shelling – on any lengthy stretch of sand. Plan on joining them for at least one afternoon of your stay; If the mood strikes you. The residents of laid-back Sanibel wouldn't have it any other way.