The 7 Best Family Beaches in the East
The long Memorial Day weekend has just come and gone, and you're ready to look ahead to your next trip. This time you're going huge: you'll spend a week on the beach, perhaps in a rented cabin, and you're inviting a ton of family and friends. Sounds perfect, right? Well it could be—as long as you can find a place that's family-friendly, safe for the kids, and enjoyable for the adults as well. Here are our top suggestions.
Tampa Bay area
Clearwater Beach. This gem for families features gorgeous white sand, attentive lifeguards, shallow waters that are clear and warm, a pier, and plenty showers and restrooms. Bring some cash for renting certain amenities, like a beach umbrella or cabana, or for taking a whirl in the waves aboard a watercraft. Kids will want to have a pail and shovel in tow, especially if you're coming during the Clearwater Fun 'n Sun Festival in May, where sandcastle building contests are part of the festivities.
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Edisto Beach State Park. Edisto is one of the less-costly, more down-home of the Carolina sea islands. Adults sing their hearts out on karaoke nights while their kids sip root beer floats. The small "downtown" beachfront is a mix of public beach-access spots, restaurants, and old, shabby-chic beach homes that are a far cry from the palatial villas rented out on the resort islands. Meanwhile, the outlying Edisto Beach State Park is a pristine wilderness and camper's delight: it covers 1,255 acres and includes marshland and tidal rivers, a 1.5-mi-long beachfront, towering palmettos, and a lush maritime forest with a 3.5-mi trail running through it. Overnight options include rustic furnished cabins (with basic, no-frills decor) by the marsh and campsites by the ocean.
Coquina Beach. Located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Coquina Beach is considered by locals to be the loveliest beach in the Outer Banks— and kids will love hunting for the wide-beam ribs of the shipwreck Laura Barnes that rest in the dunes here. Driven onto the Outer Banks by a nor'easter in 1921, she ran aground north of this location; the entire crew survived. The wreck was moved to Coquina Beach in 1973 and displayed behind ropes, but subsequent hurricanes have scattered the remains and covered them with sand, making it difficult to discern. Free parking, public changing rooms, showers, and picnic shelters are available. Kids will also love the nearby Jockey's Ridge State Park where they can scamper up the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. Off Rte. 12, MM 26, 8 mi south of U.S. 158.
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Sunset Beach. Cape May, the southernmost point in New Jersey and believed to be the oldest beachfront resort in the country, is also a National Historic Landmark. There are many vacation rentals and beaches to choose from here, but one of the most charming is Sunset Beach, walking distance from the Cape May lighthouse. Here you'll find plenty Cape May "diamonds" (pebbles of pure, rounded quartz) that have washed up on the shore, and your kids will love hunting around for them. Be sure to drive—or better yet bicycle—the 3 mi to the south end of Sunset Boulevard for the sunset flag ceremony held from June through September.
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Fire Island. With the Atlantic Ocean to its south and the Great South Bay to its north, Fire Island is basically a long stretch of pristine beach. Most of the 32-mi-long barrier island belongs to the Fire Island National Seashore. Deer roam freely here, finding shelter in the thickets, and migrating ducks and geese seek sanctuary in the marshes; wildlife is abundant along the seashore. Vehicles aren't allowed on most of the island, which is accessible by ferry, private boat, and water taxi, although you can drive to Robert Moses State Park and Smith Point County Park, on opposite ends of the island. Ocean Beach, a major hub of activity on the otherwise low-key island, is family-friendly. In summer the population swells to the tens of thousands. The island doesn't have many lodging places, so most of these fair-weather visitors rent houses. You can see them and Fire Island homeowners coming off the ferries, pulling behind them little red wagons filled with their belongings.
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Bass Hole. One of Yarmouth Port's most beautiful areas is Bass Hole, which stretches from Homer's Dock Road to the salt marsh. Bass Hole Boardwalk (Trail entrance on Center St. near Gray's Beach parking lot) extends over a marshy creek; amid the salt marshes, vegetated wetlands, and upland woods meander the 2.5-mi Callery-Darling nature trails. Gray's Beach is a little crescent of sand with still water good for kids—but don't go beyond the roped-in swimming area, the only section where the current isn't strong. At the end of the boardwalk, benches provide a place to relax and look out over abundant marsh life and, across the creek, the beautiful, sandy shores of Dennis's Chapin Beach. At low tide you can walk out on the flats for almost a mile.
Nearby, don't miss the Edward Gorey Museum, showcasing the instantly-recognizable drawings of this darkly playful illustrator. Kids and adults alike will have an enjoyable time.
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Beaches are everywhere in the town of York Beach. Like many shorefront towns in Maine, this one has a long, long history of entertaining summer visitors. Take away today's bikinis and boom-box music and it's easy to imagine squealing bathers adorned in the full-length bathing garb of the late 19th century. Just as they did back then, visitors today come here to eat ice cream, enjoy carnival-like novelties, and indulge in the sun and sea air.
York Beach is a real family destination, devoid of all things staid and stuffy—children are meant to be both seen and heard here, and that's part of what gives the area its invigorating feel. Just beyond the sands of Short Sand Beach are a host of amusements, from bowling to indoor minigolf and the Fun-O-Rama arcade. In fact, if you need a break from all this, consider a 10-mi drive north to Ogunquit, where you can take a stroll along the peaceful oceanfront path called Marginal Way.
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