Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia
THE BEACH: While the National Seashore has only two "eveloped"beaches with lifeguards, bathrooms, and picnic areasat the island's northern and southern tipsthe entire 37-mile-long Assateague Island is a gigantic sandbox in which horses and sika deer (an Asian elk released in the 1920s) freely roam. A 15-mile swath of seashore is accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The rest is hike-in or paddle-in only. A word to ochlophobics: Stay away during the last week of July. The island's famed pony swim attracts thousands of tourists.
SWIMMABILITY: The frothy surf can be a bit intimidating for toddlers. Be safe and stick to one of the two lifeguarded beaches.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: It's almost a sure bet you'll see a herd of wild horses on the beach on the Maryland sidethey gravitate to the shore to avoid marsh mosquitoes. Legend holds that their equine ancestors escaped a sinking Spanish galleon. The less-poetic reality: Main-landers first brought wild horses to Assateague in the late 17th century to avoid fence laws. Besides pony ogling, another tradition is to tie a raw chicken neck to a fishing line, drag it along the sea bottom, and catch a crab. Also popular are clamming and surf-casting for flounder, sea trout, bluefish, and sea bass.
LODGING AND CONTACTs: The Assateague National Seashore (410-641-1441; www.nps.gov/asis) and Assateague Island State Park (410-641-2120) manage campsites with some amenities. Chincoteague Resort Realty (800-668-7836) rents condos, beach cottages, townhouses, and private homes on nearby Chincoteague Island (also where outfitters are based). Captain Barry's Back Bay Cruises (757-336-6508) offers clamming, crabbing, and sightseeing tours. Rent bikes from Jus' Bikes (757-336-6700). Oyster Bay Outfitters (757-336-0070) offers sea-kayaking trips. Call the National Seashore for general information or four-wheel-drive permits.
Sunset Bay State Park, Oregon
THE BEACH: The bulk of Oregon's beaches are much too rugged for a carefree summer dip, but Sunset Bay State Park is an anomaly. A rocky offshore reef and 100-foot bluffs at the mouth of the bay repel the Pacific's dangerous rip tides and pounding surf, bringing tranquility to the area. Ospreys circle overhead in search of herring, while California sea lions and even gray whales patrol the waters. A cuticle of bone-colored sand a quarter-mile long makes this a choice spot for lounging, frolicking, or launching a kayak.
SWIMMABILITY: Most folks you see swimming here are under 12. Why? Although shallow and calm, it's a bit too chilly for anyone no longer immune to 55-degree water.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Hike south along the Oregon Coast Trail from Sunset Bay for about three miles through spruce forests along cliff tops overlooking the Pacific, passing through two additional state parks, Shore Acres and Cape Arago. Combined, the three areas form a 1,286-acre haven for cormorants, black oystercatchers, and other avifauna, with seals offshore. Don't miss the 200-foot sand dunes of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (541-271-6021; www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw/oregondunes), a ten-minute drive north.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Sunset Bay has 66 tent sites and eight canvas yurts that sleep eight each, all tucked among Douglas firs two minutes from the water; call 800-452-5687 for reservations. High Tide Rentals (541-888-3664) in Charleston, three miles north of Sunset Bay, rents kayaks, boogie boards, and bikes. Oregon State Parks Information Center: 800-551-6949; www.oregonstateparks.org/park_100.php.
Cape May, New Jersey
THE BEACH: Migrating shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds must like the Victorian architecture of this sophisticated resort city, considering they descend year-round on the Cape May area by the hundreds of thousands. Don't be surprised to see a peregrine falcon, northern harrier, or even a thousand robins floating overhead like a dense storm cloud (pack an umbrella). The three-mile stretch of wave-pounded, hard-packed sand is the perfect consistency for jogging, not to mention building a scaled-down version of your Gatsby-esque accommodations.
SWIMMABILITY: The water temperature is tolerableright between the tropical warm of Miami and the ice-cube cold of the Great Lakesthat is, 74 degrees in midsummer. Waves are big enough to surf, so keep kids in sight.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Take a drive three miles south to Sunset Beach, so-named for its views of the sinking orb as it brightens the western sky. While the sun goes down, search for "Cape May diamonds," quartz rocks that, after polishing by a local jeweler, are good multicarat impersonators. A favored family tradition is attending the sunset ceremony across from the S.S. Atlantus, a sunken warship partially visible 300 yards off Sunset Beach. Flags honoring U.S. servicemen are lowered and folded, while Kate Smith's "God Bless America" blares in the background.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Victorian Guest Accommodations (609-884-9199) is a consortium of 15 inns. For kayak rentals and tours, call Aqua Trails Kayak and Nature Tours (609-884-5600). The Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center (609-898-0055) offers whale- and dolphin-watching tours aboard a 75-foot motorized boat with a catamaran hull. For birding information and tours, try the Cape May Bird Observatory (609-884-2736) or its hot line (609-898-2473). Cape May Chamber of Commerce: 609-884-5508; www.capemaychamber.com.
Rathtrevor Beach, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
THE BEACH: Palm treesyes, palm treessway in the breeze. Despite its northerly latitudeit lies on the east-central coast of Vancouver Island, just south of ParksvilleRathtrevor Beach has what is classified as a Mediterranean climate. (Never mind the snow-dappled Vancouver Island mountain range that is the beach's backdrop.) At low tide, the water recedes as much as half a mile, unearthing an array of sand dollars, seashells, starfish, and other marine life.
SWIMMABILITY: Think hot sand and bathtub-warm water. This is, after all, Canada's Riviera.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Deer, bears, rabbits, eagles, and more than 250 other bird species flit in and out of the old-growth pine forests lining the beach. To find them, hike the 3.3-mile Top Bridge Trail from Rathtrevor Beach to Top Bridge Park, the only preserve on Vancouver Island dedicated to mountain bikers. Two miles north of Rathtrevor Beach is Lions Venture Playground, a seaside playland and water park containing every slide, swing, and jungle-gym contraption known to man. In mid-August this is also the site of the annual Kidfest children's sand-castle competition, which draws 1,000 competitors.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Beach Acres Resort (800-663-7309), Ocean Trails Resort (888-248-6212), Gray Crest Seaside Resort (800-663-2636), and Madrona Beach Resort (800-663-7302) all sit right on Rathtrevor Beach and have family units. Tigh-Na-Mara Resort Hotel (800-663-7373) is a more rustic option with log cabins and mountain-bike rentals. Oceanside Tourism Association: 888-799-3222; .
Head of the Meadow, North Truro, Massachusetts
THE BEACH: The massive dunes and scrubby forests of this stretch of the Cape Cod National Seashore are safe havens for deer and shorebirds like the endangered piping plover, but the most titillating wildlife are the North Atlantic right, finback, and humpback whales swimming offshore. Also easy to spot (in town): whitewashed cottages and profuse lilac bushes.
SWIMMABILITY: The sweeping panorama on the Atlantic side is unmatched, but the strong undertow and crashing waves make swimming dicey. Luckily, the warm, shallow waters of Cape Cod Bay are nearby. Our pick: Corn Hill beach.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Rent bikes and ride the gently undulating eight-mile Province Lands Trail through the National Seashore. Or drive Route 6 to the Beachcomber at Wellfleet (508-349-6055), a tiny restaurant with a view of the sea framed by two sand dunes. You can always head into Provincetown for a morning whale-watching tour and an afternoon of cruising the many art galleries and candy shops. Better yet, sit on the front porch of your cottage and wait for the ice-cream man to come by.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Most families prefer their own shingled Cape Cod cottage to a hotel room; call Binnacle Real Estate (800-367-3167). North Truro's Outer Reach Resort (800-942-5388) sits atop the lower Cape's highest bluff, making sunset views spectacular. For whale-watching tours try the Portuguese Princess (508-487-2651) or Dolphin's Fleet (508-349-1900), both in Provincetown. Cape Cod visitor information: 888-332-2732; capecodchamber.org.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia