Top 10 Unsung Beach Towns

Enjoy a heaping dose of sand and surf in these quintessential beach towns--but better keep these underrated spots (relatively) secret!

Bandon, OR

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.

More about Bandon

Astoria, OR

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.

More: Hang out in Astoria, Oregon

Capitola, CA

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.

Sequim, WA

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.

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.

Cayucos, CA

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 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.

Westport, WA

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 s 2ense of adventure.

More: Explore Westport, WA

Cannon Beach, OR

It's got dramatic coastal skies, a natural icon in the form of the striking Haystack Rock (pictured), 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, a Tokyo-worthy sushi restaurant; Evoo, a cooking school with a nightly dinner cooking show; and Bill's Tavern and Brewhouse with prizewinning Duckdive Pale Ale.

More: An art-filled weekend in Cannon Beach

Newport, OR

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 (pictured) 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.

Cambria, CA

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.

More: Escape to Cambria

Related:
Top 20 beach hotels
Top 10 lake vacations
Vacation cabins & cottages