Nothing restores body and soul quite like a stay at the beach. But which beach? Pick the wrong one (jammed parking lots, wall-to-wall flesh, overbooked hotels) and you'll come home a wreck. In this happy hunt, do not expect to find a great beach nobody's heard about. People are passionate about beaches, and the good ones get discovered. You have to bypass the obvious, travel out of the way, go against the grain.
Massachusetts Wise Boston beach-goers avoid the pokey ride to crowded Cape Cod and head for Crane Beach, a half-hour north via colonial Ipswich. The three-mile Crane is a model of cleanliness and control: no T-shirt stalls, no video parlors, just a concession hut, a bathhouse and acres of soft, white sand. Crane's gets lots of backpacks and BMWs, minimal boomboxes and gold lame'. On warm weekends, you can walk a half mile and get away from humanity, or nestle into the vast network of dunes. Nearby Plum Island has other fine North Shore beaches, but beware: The 350-car limit for parking for the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (access to one of the beaches) may be reached by 8 a.m.
New Jersey On days when the mile-long seashore at historic Cape May can't hold another blanket, you can find acres of sandy space a few miles away at Cape May Point. Here where the Atlantic meets Delaware Bay at the southern tip of New Jersey, the warm water and curving shoreline bring to mind a faraway island. Look for "Cape May diamonds," rounded pieces of pure quartz shaped by the waves. Look, too, for the All-American mix of Victoriana vultures, Jersey guys and gals, summering families. Cape May, one of America's oldest beach resorts, is a National Historic Landmark.
Georgia Unlike many causeway-connected islands on the Atlantic seaboard, Cumberland Island and its 16 miles of beach are delightfully cut off. From Fernandina Beach, Fla. (a half-hour drive from the Jacksonville airport), it's a 20-minute ferry ride; from St. Marys, Ga., the ferry ride is closer to 45 minutes. There are no golf courses, tennis courts or boutiques on Cumberland. You can walk the wide, hard-packed beach of this national seashore for miles and see only other nature lovers, a few good old boys with their beer coolers, and wild ponies conferring in the dunes.
Shelling is supreme: sand dollars, cockles, the conch-like whelks. Or poke around the ruins of ivy-tangled mansions, once the winter retreat of Carnegies.
The only overnight accommodations on Cumberland are national park campgrounds and the white-columned, nine-room, circa 1900 Greyfield Inn. Stepping through the Greyfield's wide screen door, you feel you've arrived not at a hotel but at the island mansion of a well-connected friend. The guest rooms are airy hideaways furnished with antique armoires and overhead fans; screened windows look onto marshland or oak-shaded lawn. The food runs from down-home Dixie to health-nut California, from scrambled eggs with yellow grits at breakfast to curried, stir-fried shrimp for dinner.
North Carolina North Carolina's Outer Banks, more than 100 miles of windswept, dune-backed shoreline, should be beach enough for most, but if not, press on. Near the south end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a little car ferry crosses to Ocracoke Island, a narrow barrier island blessed with flat beach, dunes and marshland. With a modest number of guest rooms, Ocracoke -- a sort of poor man's Nantucket -- doesn't know about crowds (though it does know about mosquitoes -- take repellent). Walk or jog the hard-packed shore, eyeball the half-buried bones of wrecked ships, visit Ocracoke's penned-in wild ponies, eat in seafood shanties and commune with Blackbeard the Pirate, the scourge of the Outer Banks 250 years ago.
As for the beach, which begins just at the village and runs more than 12 miles to the ferry dock, there may be no lovelier, truer, less cluttered stretch on the Eastern Seaboard. When the tide is out, the sand sweeps 150 yards from high, hummocky dunes down to the surf. There are two areas posted with lifeguards, but even at these major congregations you may not see 50 people.
Florida Florida's Panhandle is sometimes called the Redneck Riviera, and indeed U.S. 98 seems a monument to trashy taste ... until you hit the six miles between Destin and Fort Walton Beach. Nothing so much as a parking lot mars the narrow strip, washed on one side by Choctawhatchee Bay, on the other by the open gulf. Pull off the road, park the car and kick off your shoes. The dunes are as high as a McDonald's arch, the sand is sugary white and the water changes colors at the sun's whim, from inky blue to peacock green.
California Even with all their gorgeous beaches at hand, residents of San Diego and La Jolla like to sneak up the coast a dozen miles to little Del Mar and its unsung golden sands. Well, not entirely unsung. From a ditty of yore, Del Mar is where "the surf meets the turf," a reference to the popular summer racing season at Del Mar Fairgrounds. And a local lifeguard boasted to me recently: "We're the first surf spot mentioned in the Beach Boys' song, 'Surfin' USA.' "
This hardly unbiased source also observed, "Del Mar is the least crowded beach in California." Indeed, on a quiet weekday afternoon I shared the hard-packed shoreline with an older woman in tennis shoes carrying a newspaper, a few teenage girls with their dogs, a mom jogging behind a three-wheeled stroller and some long-billed sandpipers.
On weekends, the beach -- 2 1/2 miles long, backed here and there by 30-foot cliffs etched with hiking and jogging trails -- heats up some. Swimsuited customers spill over the edges of the beachfront Poseidon cafe, known for its spicy PoJo burgers. Later, people move next door to the slightly less informal Jake's, whose broad windows open onto the sea.
Though not as trendy as neighboring La Jolla, Del Mar has a lively assortment of galleries, outdoor cafes and small hotels on its main drag a few blocks from the beach. You can come to town the scenic way via Amtrak from San Diego or Los Angeles and climb off at the little brick depot across the road from the lifeguard station.
In Northern California, just an hour's drive north of San Francisco, the wild beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore appeal to varying tastes. Beach potatoes can flake out on four-mile Drake's or three-mile Limantour, walkers and stalkers prefer Kehoe and Abbott's Lagoon, and foodies, drawn by a fine little batch of local restaurants (Czech, French, nouvelle California), may come down to dangle a toe. Some days your only company will be cows and mountain goats peeking out of the moorland edging the beach. Early morning fog may blanket the peninsula, but it usually rolls back by 10 a.m.
Oregon Halfway down the 400-mile Oregon coast, far from the popular northern resort towns, little Florence (pop. 5,000) can engulf you in its myriad sandy ways. South of town begins the vast Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 40 miles of sandy hummocks and hills that roll down to the sea. This beach was made for: walking, flying kites, shelling, surfing, beachcombing (agates and floats), bird-watching. The water's rough and cold, so some swimmers head inland a few miles to the lake that sounds like a bleach, Cleawox. It's clear, clean and edged by dunes that rise to 160 feet. Try the local version of summer sledding: riding down the dunes on sand disks.
WAYS & MEANS
For more information about individual beaches, as well as local accommodations:
Crane Beach, Mass. Contact the Ipswich Chamber of Commerce, 46 Newmarch St., Ipswich, Mass. 01938, (508) 356-3231. For information about Plum Island, contact the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, 29 State St., Newburyport, Mass. 01950, (508) 462-6680.
Cape May, N.J. Contact the Cape May Chamber of Commerce, P.O. 109, Cape May, N.J. 08204, (609) 884-5508.
Cumberland Island, Ga. The ferry between St. Marys, Ga., and Cumberland Island makes two round trips daily during the summer. Reservations for ferry tickets ($7.95 for adults, $4.08 for children 12 and under) and campsites are recommended; call (912) 882-4335 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Greyfield Inn rates are $190 to $210 double per night, including three meals; for reservations: Greyfield Inn, Drawer B, Fernandina Beach, Fla. 32034, (904) 261-6408.
Ocracoke Island, N.C. Contact the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Route 1, Box 675, Manteo, N.C. 27954, (919) 473-2111.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Contact the Destin Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 8, Destin, Fla. 32541, (904) 837-6241, or the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer 640, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. 32549, (904) 244-8191.
Del Mar, Calif. Contact the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce, 1401 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, Calif. 92014, (619) 755-4844.
Point Reyes, Calif. Contact the West Marin County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1045, Point Reyes Station, Calif. 94956, (415) 663-9232. Point Reyes is delightfully devoid of big hotels and motels, so try the Inns at Point Reyes, an association of seven excellent B&Bs: P.O. 145, Inverness, Calif. 94937, (415) 663-1420.
Florence, Ore. Contact the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 2600, Florence, Ore. 97439, (503) 997-3128.
David Butwin is a writer in Leonia, N.J.