From all-to-yourself islands to hidden beach towns to iconic coastal experiences, the West has the beach vacation of a lifetime in store for you.
Quintessential Oregon beach town
As any upstanding Oregonian knows, the real old school Oregon coast lies down south, in quintessential Oregon beach towns like Bandon. You expect festivity: seaside carnival barkers, maybe a roller coaster. But actually … nothing is happening in Bandon. Tourists schlump down the street sipping coffee at the mouth of the Coquille River, at the town's edge. Seagulls squawk on the Boardwalk, and a few sprightly old ladies sample the gratis cranberry candies at the Chamber of Commerce. The world slows down, and you notice things. Like the vibrant green algae growing on the rocks in the tidal flats south of town. Stroll out toward those rocks and look down, for Bandon's best beachcombing is here. Bandon's beaches can seem otherworldly, like a backdrop to a Maurice Sendak story. Stairs lead you down to the sand. Here is a little cave that someone has turned into a lean-to, lining thin driftwood logs across the front. Here is a curlicue tree limb, twisted in the surf like a giant elk antler. And here is a 40-foot-long tree trunk, bark and all, that will be swallowed up by the waves. Looming above everything are massive rocks that wade, humanlike, in the water.
Top beach hotels
Yellow-slickered fishermen mix with just a sprinkling of iPad-toting tourists in this small riverfront town with San Francisco-steep streets. Particularly fine stretches of sand with towering dunes and uninterrupted ocean views make Astoria a dreamy spot...and then there's the nostalgia. The young and hip love Astoria because it embraces the old and hip. Cozy up to the bar at Astoria Brewing Company's taproom-cafe (wetdogcafe.com), or ride to dinner from the Cannery Pier Hotel (from $209; cannerypierhotel.com) in a chauffeured Packard. That's right, it's The Great Gatsby on the Columbia.
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Capitola-by-the-Sea started in the 1860s as a resort town, a place for people from "over the hill" in San Jose to escape the heat. In the 1920s, it took on a Mediterranean feel, sprouting bungalows and stucco shacks reminiscent of those found in Italian fishing villages. But the Mediterranean doesn't have surf like Capitola's. That's why world-renowned surfboard and wetsuit manufacturer O'Neill is headquartered here, and why marine environmental causes are big. And why even residents like Stephen Hanecak, chef at the Paradise Beach Grille, learn to balance their time between hard work and play. "Four or five days a week," he says, "I'm out there first thing with my surfboard, trying to start my day by catching some waves."
Coastal Washington's sunniest town has the blue sky and outdoorsy vibe you'd expect, but lots of surprises too. if you've heard of Sequim (pronounced skwim) and its sunny skies, you've probably also heard that its world revolves around lavender. But young farmers--and bakers, chefs, and winemakers--have put down roots in Sequim, and now artisanal and organic are becoming the norm. It also doesn't hurt that you get a front-row seat to some of the most spectacular coast in Washington. As for Sequim's famous "blue hole," the sun patch formed by the Olympic Mountains' rain shadow, it's no joke. When you drive through the misty Olympic Peninsula and cross into the Dungeness Valley, blue sky appears above like a spotlight, as if on cue. Here, right smack-dab in the middle of cloud country, is a town almost as sunny as L.A., where serenity is the reality.
Depoe Bay, OR
Oregon's whale migration peaks in December. But some smart gray whales live all year in Depoe Bay. For a nose-to-blowhole encounter, book a 90-minute trip with Whale Research EcoExcursions ($40; 541/912-6734). For a splurge night near the big guys, book a room at cliffside Whale Cove Inn ($395; whalecoveinn.com) and slurp garlicky cioppino at Tidal Raves (279 N.W. U.S. 101; 541/765-2995), where a window seat lets you whale-watch.
The small surf town of Cayucos has remained miraculously immune to over-development for decades, despite its great wines to the east and white sandy beaches to the west. With sand dunes climbing hundreds of feet above miles-long beaches and eucalyptus-lined hiking trails, the Montaña de Oro park (parks.ca.gov) is a must. Have dinner there at Duckie's Chowder House (55 Cayucos Dr.; 805/995-2245), which serves super-fresh fish tacos, steamer clams, and yes, chowder--all of which go well with the local ale.
Iconic beach experiences
This Northwestern surf town has lots to offer year-round. In addition to hitting the waves (wetsuit recommended!), explore the area's seafaring past at a martime museum and historic lighthouse, indulge in real salt-water taffy, and buy fresh-caught crab for your dinner right off the piers. The town is also a razor-clamming Mecca. Wedged an arm's length beneath the sand at low tide, razor clams take some effort to unearth--but pan-fried and buttered, they're worth it. What you'll need: a clam shovel, a bucket, a razor-clamming license (it takes just 5 minutes online), and a sense of adventure.
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Cannon Beach, OR
It's got dramatic coastal skies, a natural icon in the form of the striking Haystack Rock, and rows of galleries to help you while away the time when you need a break from the sun and sand. But Cannon Beach is also foodie central, ideal for getting your seafood and beer fix or indulging in a roster of ambitious restaurants. Some of our faves include Fishes (fishes-sushi.com), a Tokyo-worthy sushi restaurant; Evoo (evoo.biz), a cooking school with a nightly dinner cooking show; and Bill's Tavern and Brewhouse (billstavernandbrewhouse.com) with prizewinning Duckdive Pale Ale.
For a literary-minded beach escape, look no further than Newport. You'll find a bookstore on practically every block in Newport's oceanfront district, Nye Beach. The author-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel (from $115; 2-night min.; sylviabeachhotel.com) is the best place to relax and read your latest purchases. (The J.K. Rowling room features a Moaning Myrtle mural on the bathroom wall.) For a roomier stay, rent a classic three-bedroom Victorian cottage next door ($249; 2-night min.; vrbo.com/353645).
Quaint but not cloying
Rising from a rocky shoreline into hills covered by Monterey pines, Cambria has a spirit shaped equally by ocean and forest. Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this Central Coast town boasts several miles of coastline and is bordered by rolling hills green enough to evoke the Welsh origins of its name. The village itself sits deep in a knoll between wooded slopes. Quaint but not cloyingly so, it has 19th-century cottages set in lush gardens while a lawn-bowling green commands a prominent place on a main street named Main Street. Don't miss Moonstone Beach, the kind of beach that makes even seasoned coastal wanderers stop and whisper, "Wow."
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Twelve miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is the kind of place where you wish you'd learned to bodyboard as a kid, with a wide sandy beach and beginner-size waves. Mornings can be foggy, all the better to enjoy the slow pleasures of Linden Avenue--like Esau's (esauscafe.com) for a chile relleno omelet or Robitaille's (robitaillescandies.com) for homemade chocolate--before hitting the beach.
Tucked into the coast below Olympic National Park, Seabrook was founded in 2004 as a community of shingled cottages, where everything is within walking distance and parks, firepits, and bocce courts encourage neighborliness. The beach is just steps away, and a new summer street fair will bring farmers and artisans together each month. Cottage rentals from $199; 2-night min.; seabrookwa.com.
Rounding a bend along Highway 1, most people pass right by this hamlet of 250 people in their rush to the marquee town of Mendocino. But those who do pull over--not for gas, since there's not a single pump in town, but maybe for a slice of blackberry tart at Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe--learn that here, you can get away from it all. There's a handful of B&Bs like the Elk Cove Inn scattered atop the bluffs, a gloriously unpopulated salt-and-pepper spit of sand at Greenwood State Beach, and hardly any cell service. Queenie's: queeniesroadhousecafe.com. Elk Cove Inn: From $135; 2-night min.; elkcoveinn.com.
Port Orford, OR
A fishing village an hour north of the California border, Port Orford has rugged, driftwood-clogged beaches (surfers go to Battle Rock) and one of the last remaining open-water docks, where boats are lifted from the ocean by crane. At WildSpring Guest Habitat, there's a cliffside soaking tub and woodsy yet plush cabins with antiques and radiant heat. Battle Rock: enjoyportorford.com. Wildspring: From $278; 2-night min.; wildspring.com.