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 cooleraround 68 to 70 degrees midsummerCrescent 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 Espritu 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 surfswells 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 inwhat 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.
By the Lake
Following the leader: Lake Superior's sandy coast
Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada
THE BEACH: On the southern end of Lake Huron's South Georgian Bay, Wasaga Beach is Baywatch North. The nine-mile-long beach two hours north of Toronto is the world's longest string of freshwater sand and the only beach in Canada as far as everyone east of Calgary is concerned. On 420 acres of beach and picnic areas managed by Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, hardbodies bat around volleyballs and bands perform at the "Dard," the band shell, while the waterfront patrol keeps the adolescent throngs under control.
SWIMMABILITY: Remember, this is Baywatch North. Canadians can handle the water from Victoria Day to Labor Day, but the rest of us should hold off until July, when water temperatures soar into the seventies.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Take your towel and head to Wasaga Waterworld (705-429-4400). The waterfront park boasts not one but four high-speed waterslides. The Nancy Island Museum (705-429-2516), at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, houses a replica of aN1880s lighthouse and hull of the sunken schooner Nancy. South of the town of Wasaga Beach are the Blueberry Plains Trails, which wind through 3,700 acres of forested dunes. Don't meander too far from the beachsunsets are showstoppers.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Saga Resort (800-263-7053; www.sagaresort.com), located midway up Wasaga Beach, has a comfy, provincial-Ontario feel. Most of the mini-condos and cottages were renovated after a fire that gutted the resort a couple of years back. For more lodging options contact the Wasaga Beach Chamber of Commerce (705-429-2247; www.wasagainfo.com) or www.wasagabeach.com. Fish for chinook salmon and rainbow, brown, and lake trout with Off Duty Fishing Charters (705-429-1615). Wasaga Beach Provincial Park: 705-429-2516.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Michigan
THE BEACH: Acadia National Park meets Redwood National Park in this towering sugar-maple, pine, and hemlock forest33,000 acres of which is old-growth, making it the largest virgin tract in the Midwestfringing 22 miles of Lake Superior coastline. For a sand-between-the-toes vacation, head to the half-mile-long spot adjoining Union Bay Campground. Rock skippers and agate seekers can migrate west along the rugged 19-mile shoreline, a dead ringer for the Maine coast.
SWIMMABILITY: Imagine cutting a hole in a frozen lake and taking the plunge. That's Superior swimming in June. By August it warms up to just plain cold at 55 degrees.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: The park has more than 100 miles of hiking trails. Start with the mile-long Summit Peak Tower Trail, which tops out at 1,958 feet, the highest point in the park. For an overnighter, try the six-mile loop on the Little Carp and Beaver Creek Trails. Start at Summit Peak Road, climb 2.5 miles to Mirror Lake, and pitch a tent at one of the designated sites about a mile and a half past the lake. Or skip the hiking and surf-cast for brown or rainbow trout and steelhead at the mouth of the Union River.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: The park has eight rustic lakeshore cabins (most were built in the 1940s and have no water or electricity) that each sleep four. Union Bay Campground on the sandy beach has 100 sites, hot showers, and electricity. Presque Isle Campground, on a bluff on the far-west side of the park, has 50 primitive sites and trails to four waterfalls, including the 30-foot-high Manabezho on the Presque Isle River. For camping reservations, call 800-447-2757. For cabin reservations and park info, 906-885-5275; www.midnr.com or www.porcupinemountains.com.
Whitefish Dunes State Park, Wisconsin
THE BEACH: This mile-long strip located in the 900-acre state park harbors the softest sand north of Sarasota. The secret is in the dolomite limestone, pulverized to a fine powder. The other Whitefish superlative is 93-foot Old Baldy, the tallest sand dune in Wisconsin, which can be climbed on a wooden boardwalk.
SWIMMABILITY: Since the beach is in a bay, there's little threat of big waves unless the wind is whipping in from the east. Do watch for warnings posted about a rip current that can materialize at the far end of the beach. Lake Michigan temperatures hover in the midsixties to low seventies in July and August, making swimming nippy but possible.
AFTER TOWELING OFF: Budding (and accomplished) photographers flock here. The swaying sea grass and undulating dunes make for dreamy compositions. Come on the weekend and the park naturalist likely will be in her beach tent orchestrating sand-sculpture competitions, monarch butterfly observation, junior angler classes, and dune-ecology workshops. Families also can hike the park's 13-mile trail system.
LODGING AND CONTACTS: Most of the park's annual quarter-million visitors stay at one of Door County's famously Uber-quaint inns or rental cottages. The Square Rigger (920-823-2404), a few miles up the lakeshore in Jacksonport, has its own sandy beach and hosts fish boilsa peninsula tradition. Camping is not allowed at Whitefish Dunes but is fine at other state parks nearby. D.C. Bicycles (920-743-4434) in Sturgeon Bay rents bikes and offers kayak tours. Wisconsin State Parks: 920-823-2400; www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks. Door County Chamber of Commerce: 920-743-4456; www.doorcountyvacations.com.
Why the hesitation?: Kauai's Poipu Beach
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.
Blinded by the light: Oregon's rocky coastline
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.