Poipu Beach Park, Kauai, Hawaii
THE BEACH: Poipu Beach Park, on Kauai's south shorethe sunniest side of the islandproffers picnic tables, pavilions, swaying palms, and a four-acre string of moon-shaped beaches, all with distinct personalities. Families with toddlers will gravitate toward Keiki Pond, a shin-high natural saltwater basin linked to the Pacific. One cove over is a shallow swimming bay, perfect for beginner breaststrokers, and a bay over from that is a prime snorkeling site. Just down the shore is Brennecke's Beach, a favorite for boogie-boarders and bodysurfers.
SWIMMABILITY: There's a cove for every ability, and the park has lifeguards on duty seven days a week. Small summer swells, maybe four to six feet, from Australian storms are sometimes an issue at Brennecke's.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: The menu is varied: Horseback ride on the Mahaulepu Beach coastline trail for views of the ocean and mountains; head out for a half-day catamaran snorkeling cruise; kayak an inland river; take a downhill bike tour from Waimea Canyon to the sea; or hike the trails in Kokee State Park directly above the Canyon.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: The Sheraton Kauai (800-782-9488) and Kiahuna Plantation Resort (800-688-7444) offer summerlong children's day camps. There's a variety of other accommodations, from coveside condos to cozy B&B s; call the Poipu Beach Resort Association (888-744-0888; www.poipu-beach.org). For snorkeling and whale-watching tours, try Captain Andy's (808-335-6833) or Blue Dolphin Charters (808-742-6731). Blue Dolphin also offers scuba charters. Outfitters Kauai (808-742-9667) leads kayak tours through jungle streams and rents bikes. For horseback riding along the coast or inland, call CJM Country Stables (808-742-6096).
Crescent Beach, Siesta Key, Florida
THE BEACH: Siesta Key, off Sarasota, takes its sand seriously. The powder-soft, flour-fine quartz particles have long been the standard by which other Florida beaches are measured. Three-mile-long Crescent Beach is Siesta Key's crowning glory, a spot where you might be lucky enough to observe endangered loggerhead and green turtle nests from May to September. If you don't see them here, you're likely to find some south of Siesta Key at Casperson Beach County Park, near Venice.
SWIMMABILITY: Average summertime water temps are 85 degrees. Need we say more?
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Watch live circus performances at Circus Sarasota (941-355-9335), get your vitamin C while touring the Albritton Fruit plant (941-925-0013, Ext. 122), or visit nearby Myakka River State Park and Wilderness Preserve (941-365-0100) and take a ride through alligator-infested water on the world's largest airboat. For those interested in a closer look, kayak or canoe the Intracoastal Waterway, or take a hike or bird-watching tour with Walk on the Wild Side (941-351-6500).
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Captiva Beach Resort (941-349-4131), 400 feet off Crescent Beach, has kitchenettes and a heated poolnot that you need one with a sultry ocean out your back door. Visit www.sarasotafl.org for a list of accommodations. The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce: 941-349-3800; www.siestakeychamber.org.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
THE BEACH: Sun-dappled Gulf of Mexico water meets 32 miles of sugar-white sand. Often overshadowed by the Florida Panhandle, Gulf Shores and the neighboring community of Orange Beach are an unsung duo, providing myriad outlets for an ideal beach vacation. Summer is humid and scorching hot, with temps in the nineties, but the heat makes it that much easier to get wet.
SWIMMABILITY: There was a shark attack here a couple of summers ago, the second in 100 years. To avoid becoming the third victim, stay out of the ocean at night and during twilight.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Nearby Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (251-540-7720) is a 6,700-acre preserve with five miles of hiking trails and a freshwater lake where you can cast for bass and bluegill. Gulf State Park, on the eastern edge of Gulf Shores, has an 825-foot fishing pier, a golf course, and an inland lake. Book a daylong sailing excursion on the 48-foot ketch Windy Ways (251-974-5055) or charter a deep-sea fishing boat and prowl the Gulf for blue marlin, yellow tuna, amberjack, cobia, and red snapper. There are 100 boats to choose from through the Orange Beach Fishing Association (251-981-2300). Calypso's Fish Grill (251-981-1415) at the Orange Beach Marina keeps kids entertained with hermit-crab races while they wait for their entrees.
LODGING AND CONTACTs: Gulf State Park (800-252-7275) just renovated its guest cabins, but has yet to do the same for its 144-room Gulf State Park Resort hotel. Young's Realty (334-948-0410) rents oceanfront houses and condos. For more options, contact the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor's Bureau (800-745-7263; www.gulfshores.com).
THE BEACH: Locals like to think of it as the Carmel of Southern California, minus Clint Eastwood's stint as mayor. The beachSouth Carlsbad State Beach and the city shorelineis five miles long, skinny, and pebbly, but thanks to a $10 million Coastal Coalition refurbishing project, there will be far more ecru sand and far fewer pebbles to contend with in summers to come. A wide concrete walkway runs for three miles along the seawall and is the place to inline skate, cycle, and people-watch.
SWIMMABILITY: The water is clean and warm, albeit unwatched: There are no lifeguards on duty.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: The San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, and Disneyland are all within an hour's drive. But don't overlook the quaint city of Carlsbad where cafes line an antiques mall, making it possible to dine outside for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Legoland California (760-918-5346), also in Carlsbad, boasts 5,000 Lego models, including a life-size, light-saber-wielding Darth Vader. Oceanside-based Pacific Coast Sail Charters (760-722-2963) offers half-day sailing excursions for $240 for up to six people.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: The Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel (800-725-4723) overlooks the exquisite Carlsbad Flower Fields, in bloom from March to May. The La Costa Resort and Spa (760-438-9111) offers Camp La Costa for kids, where you can park the little ones while you enjoy the resort's world-renowned golf and tennis facilities. There's also a campground at South Carlsbad State Beach (800-444-7275). California Water Sports (760-434-3089) at Snug Harbor rents kayaks, canoes, paddleboats, jet skis, and water skis. Carlsbad Convention and Visitor's Bureau: 800-227-5722; carlsbadca.org.
Poipu Beach Park, Kauai, Hawaii