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Is a great beach more than a gazillion grains of sand mixed with sun and water? You bet. Here, the 15 best for families.

FAR AND AWAY

Crescent Beach, Block Island, Rhode Island
THE BEACH: Fastidious locals armed with free time and Hefty bags routinely troll for garbage on this two-mile stretch of white sand on Block Island's east coast. Who wouldn't want to keep Crescent Beach, and its backdrop of wildflower-dotted rolling dunes, clutter-free? And while they grumble about the increasing difficulty of finding parking places on their seven-by-three-and-a-half-mile, pork-chop-shaped island, locals still welcome families who appreciate the laid-back lifestyle as much as they do.
SWIMMABILITY: Though the water is a bit cooler—around 68 to 70 degrees midsummer—Crescent Beach is a better option than the island's cliffy west-side beaches.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Families can sea kayak, boogie board, bicycle, surf-cast, and ride horses. These activities are essentially self-serve: Just pay for the gear (or animal) and go. The Nature Conservancy (401-466-2129) maintains 25 miles of hiking trails and can point visitors to black-crowned night herons, eastern kingbirds, and deer. At day's end, regroup on Job's Hill at The Oar (401-466-8820) with its spectacular view of sailboats and the setting sun over New Harbor.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Not all hoteliers with painstakingly restored Victorians (most of the hotels) love kids, so rent your own cottage; call Offshore Property Ltd. (401-466-5446). For bike rentals call Old Harbor Bike Shop (401-466-2029); for horseback riding try Rustic Rides Farm (401-466-5060); and for boat rentals or fishing, check with Oceans and Ponds (401-466-5131). The Block Island Chamber of Commerce: 800-383-2474; www.blockislandchamber.com.
Matagorda Island State Park, Texas
THE BEACH: This barrier island seven miles off the south-central Texas Coast is an auto-free zone accessible by ferry; transportation is by foot, bicycle, or park shuttle only. You'll have to work for your entertainment, too. All you'll find at Matagorda Island State Park are 39 miles of solitary beach ringing the island, access to world-class fishing, bucketloads of sand dollars, and glorious sunsets.
SWIMMABILITY: The gulf side is the safest for swimming, with a silky sand bottom stretching far into the sea. Gulf waves can be as high as four feet, a bonus for bodyboarders, but watch the wee ones as there could be an undertow; on some days the water is downright placid.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Hiking and biking trails crisscross the 7,325-acre park and lure you away from wade-fishing for redfish, drum trout, and grouper in gin-clear water. The park also offers a tour to the oldest operational lighthouse in Texas, built in 1852, and beachcombing and shelling expeditions. The island's population of 360 bird species thins out by midsummer, but you still might spot alligators, western diamondback snakes, white-tailed deer, and possibly a bottle-nosed dolphin.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: On the gulf side, pitch a tent at Beach Campground, a primitive site, or try one of two dormitory-style barracks on the Esp’ritu Santo Bay side, each with a shower and refrigerator (call 512-389-8900 for barracks reservations). Texas Parks and Wildlife: 800-792-1112; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

St. George Island State Park, Florida
THE BEACH: This Panhandle throwback to the days of pre-Disney Florida is free of go-cart tracks and gauche mansions. Connected by bridge to the mainland, 29-mile-long and skinny St. George Island has zoning standards so strict that buildings higher than three stories are banned. The 2,000 acres of state park on the island's eastern tip are an ideal playground for families looking to get back to nature: Fish for pompano, comb the shore for seashells, or roam the dunes in search of loggerhead turtle nests.
SWIMMABILITY: The only thing you can't do here is surf—swells are nonexistent unless your visit coincides with a hurricane. Lack of surfing notwithstanding, the water is bathtub warm and shallow. Prepare to be abandoned by your kids.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: In the unlikely event that your offspring get out of the water before the sun goes down, visit the 246,766 acres and three massive fish tanks of Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (850-653-8063) across the bridge in Apalachicola. Afterward, stay in town for dinner at the Hut (850-653-9410), a family-style waterfront restaurant specializing in—what else? Fresh seafood.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Most families rent a cottage or house, especially since many of the island's 700 rental properties come with three floors: one for kids, one for parents, and one for grandparents. Call Prudential Realty (800-332-5196). Journeys of St. George Island (850-927-3259) focuses on children's ecotours, including dolphin watches, nighttime crab-catching (and -releasing) adventures, and marine-biology day camps. For boat rentals and charters call Tropical Charters and Boat Rentals (850-927-2300). The Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce: 850-653-9419; www.baynavigator.com.

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