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COASTAL TWENTY 1997-2017

Best Places to Live

Moving to the coast is pretty much living the dream. These 20 truly remarkable small towns, big cities, colorful islands, cozy communities, and exotic international destinations make it the dream of a lifetime.


By Tracey Minkin
5 min

Above Image | Tristan Urry Grand Haven, Michigan

SMALL TOWNS

BEST UNSALTED LIFE
Grand Haven, MI

Anyone who has spent summers on the Great Lakes knows that this American playground has myriad towns of ample charms. But life among the historic storefronts and along the waterfront boardwalk of this town on Lake Michigan's eastern shore has an old-fashioned spirit that stands out among so many gems. Known as "Coast Guard City, U.S.A.," Grand Haven embraces its maritime life of fishing and boating, and combines small-town living with big-lake pleasures.

MORNING COFFEE

Tucked into Grand Haven's historic Armory building, Aldea Coffee pours handcrafted coffee beverages sourced directly from farmers in Honduras; aldeacoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

Grand Haven City Beach connects to Grand Haven State Park beach, making for a single strand of golden sand with terrific views of the town's two landmark lighthouses.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Grand Haven's boardwalk—lined with spots to eat, shop, book fishing charters, and pause for boat-watching—is the town's welcoming heart.

BEST BEACH VARIETY
Orleans, MA

With 54 miles of coastline, this charming New England town bridges the lower arm of Cape Cod to capture Atlantic wilds to the east and Cape Cod Bay serenity to the west. In the summer, Orleans hums with its own Cape Cod Baseball League team, more than a dozen art galleries, and lots of restaurants. Whether strolling its historic, cottage-lined streets or paddling its freshwater lakes, life is active, rich, and varied in this corner of the country.

MORNING COFFEE

Nauset Farms is a double win: It sells locally roasted Beanstock Coffee, as well as foodstuffs fueled by local farms. It's also on the way to the beach (a triple win); nausetfarms.com.

BEST BEACH

Nauset Beach stretches for 10 miles along the Atlantic and is beloved for its great surf, gorgeous sunrises, and strong sand (meaning excellent castle-building), plus top bass- and bluefishing.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Outer Beach, with offroad access and camping, is a spectacular spot that locals love.

BEST ARTS SCENE
Sarasota, FL

This is a city of surprises. Harboring world-class beaches and a top-shelf arts and culture scene (resident opera and ballet companies, plus its own symphony orchestra), Sarasota has beauty and brains in equal measure. Further, a collection of neighborhoods with small-scale homes (not to mention a heralded collection of midcentury modern architecture) makes days here sweet and easy, not to mention a visual joy. And then there's that Gulf—provider of breezes, local catch, and a laid-back cultural overlay that keeps life here in ideal balance.

MORNING COFFEE

Perq Coffee Bar brews single-origin roasts with nerdy passion; perqcoffeebar.us.

BEST BEACH

On Lido Key and a quick and scenic drive from downtown, Lido Beach is a 3,000-foot length of powdery white sand.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Bayfront Park is a magnet for strollers and picnickers. For tiki fans, O'Leary's lights up the night and welcomes Sarasota's canine contingent, as well.

BEST HISTORIC DOWNTOWN
Fernandina Beach, FL

With a 50-block historic downtown so pretty it demands its own series of postcards, a lively marina on the Amelia River, broad Atlantic beaches, surrounding nature preserves that include nearby Cumberland Island, and the bragging rights of being home to the oldest bar in Florida, Fernandina Beach has all the boxes checked when it comes to life on the coast. Its location on Amelia Island—home to six golf courses and 13 miles of pristine Appalachian quartz sand—makes Saturdays (or any day, for that matter) sweeter year-round.

MORNING COFFEE

At the hub of downtown on Centre Street (and featuring locally roasted beans), Amelia Island Coffee is the caffeine catbird seat; ameliaislandcoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

Amelia Island has 40 public beach access points, so there's a lot to choose from. Main Beach has playgrounds, a skate park, and a volleyball court. Walk north from there for a bit of serenity on the pristine sands of Fort Clinch State Park.

LOCAL HANGOUT

You'll meet every local worth meeting at the Palace Saloon, Florida's oldest bar and Fernandina Beach's de facto water cooler.

BEST ADVENTURE BASE
Langley, WA

Just one hour north of Seattle in Puget Sound, Whidbey Island's tiny waterfront village has a picturesque townscape that feels a bit like New England, a surprisingly sunny climate (thanks to the rain shadow), and a drumbeat of outdoor pursuits, such as kayaking and hiking, that are pure Pacific Northwest. What more perfect combination for a sense of escape that still connects to civilization via great coffee, excellent restaurants, and an arts scene that punches above its weight?

MORNING COFFEE

Useless Bay Coffee Company is a community stalwart and the home of in-house roasting and sure-handed brewing; uselessbaycoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

Ten minutes northwest of town, Double Bluff Beach is one of Whidbey Island's rare sandy strands.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Everything goes down at 2nd Street Plaza. It's surrounded by great coffeehouses and restaurants, as well as the town's local grocer.

CITIES

BEST SHOPPING
Santa Barbara, CA

You can barely believe it's real, it's so gorgeous. But real it is, and this sophisticated yet laid-back small city owes its beauty to an early urban-design code that meant streetscapes and public spaces grew together in harmony. Just traveling through—whether along the historic streets or out to the beaches—is like taking a sensory happy pill. So is a food and drink scene fueled by innovative chefs, and proximity to farms and wine country.

MORNING COFFEE

Founded by two former pro cyclists with a passion for coffee, Handlebar Coffee Roasters is known for its excellent brew and is right in the middle of downtown; handlebarcoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

East Beach—more than a mile and a half of pale sand—has spectacular views of the offshore Channel Islands and is backed by a tree-shaded park for taking a break from the sun.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Sandwiched between the beach and Highway 101, the Funk Zone district—with its growing coterie of boutique wine-tasting rooms, cafés, galleries, and shops—is where it's at.

BEST WATERFRONT
Boston, MA

One of America's great historic cities really does offer the perfect modern life—from an active urban core with stunning civic buildings, iconic sites, and a chain of emerald parks to picturesque residential neighborhoods that are lively, walkable, and transit-connected. And perhaps most stirringly, the dynamic waterfront embraces islands, a commercial harbor, one of the world's great aquariums, and pedestrian-loving spaces for breathing that New England salt air and gazing out to sea.

MORNING COFFEE

George Howell Coffee operates a stall in Boston Public Market and a café in Downtown Crossing. Both deliver impressive espresso and coffee; georgehowellcoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

Just north of the city, the three-mile tawny crescent of Revere Beach is reachable by public transportation.

LOCAL HANGOUT

For grabbing sun in the spring, shade in the summer, leaf-peeping in the fall, and a bit of skating in the winter, Boston Public Garden and Boston Common are the heart of the city.

BEST WHITE-SAND BEACHES
St. Petersburg, FL

Nestled on the bright blue waters of Tampa Bay, this cosmopolitan city just keeps getting better and better, with a downtown arts and culture scene best exemplified by the spectacular Dalí Museum anchoring the waterfront. Historic, small-scale neighborhoods balance the big-city pleasures. With mild winters, this is a year-round city of outdoor play, and the proximity of 35 miles of white-sand beaches adds a quality-of-life layer that few other sophisticated enclaves possess.

MORNING COFFEE

Kahwa Coffee is a homegrown mini-empire of 11 bright cafés with excellent coffee, plus a Kahwagon Mobile Coffee Shop truck that brings brew to special events; kahwacoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

It's hard to beat the five miles of white sand and the clear waters of St. Pete Beach, which also includes the grandly pink backdrop of The Don CeSar hotel.

LOCAL HANGOUT

In the center of downtown and steps from the waterfront, St. Petersburg's revitalized Sundial complex anchors some of the city's coolest food and drink hangouts, as well as shops.

BEST WELLNESS SCENE
San Diego, CA

One of the greatest charms of this southernmost big city on California's coastline is its humility. Which makes it all the sweeter a discovery: 70 miles of coastline (and gorgeous beaches); an ideal climate; a local passion for healthy living and exercise; walkable neighborhoods full of historic homes; a diverse economic base that includes the U.S. Navy, universities, research centers, and technology companies; and what is likely the best craft-beer scene in America. Perhaps it's time to brag.

MORNING COFFEE

Three of Lofty Coffee Co.'s locations (two in Encinitas, one in Solana Beach) are steps from the beach; loftycoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

It's a twofer: La Jolla Shores has one mile of tawny sand and gentle surf; the adjacent, wildly picturesque La Jolla Cove plays home to sea lions and other classic California marine life.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Green, leafy, and full of cultural action and places to play and hang out, Balboa Park is the ideal gathering spot in a city full of action.

COMMUNITIES

BEST SPORTING SCENE
Palmetto Bluff, SC

The romance begins, in this best-kept secret on the Southern coast, with those emblematic live oaks and Spanish moss. They grace the winding avenues here, where life combines a passion for nature with Southern civility, plus a sweet dose of sporting (golf, fishing, equestrian, and a new shooting club), yachting on the May River, and culinary pleasures including the annual Music to Your Mouth festival.

MORNING COFFEE

Hit Buffalo's corner café for locally roasted King Bean coffee with breakfast, or grab a cup of joe with your morning paper at RT's Market.

BEST BEACH

It's a gift that arrives twice a day—at low tide. That's when the May River Sandbar emerges, smooth and silky, from the water and becomes a slender beach playground.

LOCAL HANGOUT

It's a winning trio: Sit on the chapel dock and swing your feet over the May River, hang out at summer concerts under the live oaks on the Wilson Village Green, and grab a drink at the Octagon Bar.

BEST SMALL-TOWN VIBE
Seabrook, WA

Carved out along the Pacific coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, this 12-year-old New Urbanism community has quickly evolved into a place with substantial character. The town center, on a bluff above the coastal highway (and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond), is home to more than a dozen independent boutiques, restaurants, and markets, making daily life a pedestrian pleasure. The broad sands of Seabrook's beach are a short stroll away, and the riches of Olympic National Park are just up the road.

MORNING COFFEE

In the Seabrook town center, Red Velvet Bakery By The Sea serves Washington's own Batdorf & Bronson coffee; facebook.com/redvelvetbakerybythesea.

BEST BEACH

The wild beach that edges Seabrook is officially called Mocrocks Beach, and it's a glorious place for long walks.

LOCAL HANGOUT

A horse barn, pickleball and tennis courts, and fire pit, make Horseshoe park and its environs a real community magnet.

BEST RESORT VIBE
Kukui'ula, Kauai, HI

One word: Hawaii. One more word: golf. This stunning community on Kauai's South Shore overlooks the Pacific Ocean and embraces a Tom Weiskopf–designed course considered one of the best in the state. Which means the challenge here is to keep your eye on the ball while spinner dolphins and humpbacks play offshore. The architecturally diverse homes make aesthetic peace with the hillsides, creating a sense of space and privacy, and a gorgeous farm on the property is a center for both community gardening and farm dinners under the trees. Finally, a world-class spa and a high-end shopping and restaurant village layer in the requisite—and exquisite—indulgences.

MORNING COFFEE

Drip brews and an espresso bar get the day off on the right foot at Lappert's Hawaii in The Shops at Kukui'ula. And the handmade ice cream will definitely be calling you back by the afternoon.

BEST BEACH

The sand-bottom, saltwater pools at Kukui'ula are a sweet escape; for a glorious beach excursion, take a 10-minute drive to the beautiful shorelines of Poipu Beach.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Every Wednesday in The Shops at Kukui'ula, the Kauai Culinary Market pops up, a charming farmers' market with live music, chef demos, and local products for sale.

BEST BOATING LIFE
Daniel Island, SC

While Charleston may have invented gracious urban living, this 20-year-old community on its own island within the city limits offers a small-town version of that ideal. The Lowcountry setting emphasizes open space, diverse architecture, and prime recreation facilities (including 25 miles of running and walking trails, two private golf courses, and a tennis center). Bordered by the Cooper and Wando rivers, this is a place of community boat ramps, fishing and crabbing docks, and weekend kayak expeditions, all just 15 miles from the city's center.

MORNING COFFEE

Blondies Bagels & Cafe is a bustling spot in the center of downtown; blondiesdi.com.

BEST BEACH

Edged with tidal marshes, Daniel Island is all about boats. For surf and sand lovers, the Atlantic beaches of Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms are a short drive away.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Daniel Island residents love their parks—all 400 acres of them. Smythe Park, with its lake, winding trails, beautiful landscaping, and a pirate-themed playground, is a true favorite.

BEST AESTHETIC
Alys Beach, FL

It begins with sheer beauty: bone-white beaches and the turquoise Gulf of Mexico play off bright-white buildings with exotic lines. But there's more to this development along Florida's Scenic Highway 30A, a state road that connects a chain of New Urbanism oases. Alys Beach's explicitly green design features streets of permeable pavers (to reduce stormwater runoff) that run perpendicular to the Gulf (to invite cooling breezes inland); a landscape of largely drought-resistant plants reduces water consumption. If chic were ever to really go barefoot, it would be in Alys Beach.

MORNING COFFEE

Fonville Press pours terrific coffee, sells books and newspapers, and has a shaded courtyard so inviting it might even keep you from the beach; alysbeach.com/dining/fonville.

BEST BEACH

Below Alys Beach's 30-foot bluffs lies a 1,500-foot-long strip of sand so pristine, you'll have a hard time convincing yourself every morning that it's where you actually live. And the Gulf really is those shades of green and blue, as well. Welcome to your new reality check.

LOCAL HANGOUT

The Gulf Green, flanked by bathhouses and edged by a broad wooden deck that faces directly out on the water, is the best place in Alys to watch the sunset.

ISLANDS

BEST PLACE TO PLAY
Gasparilla Island, FL

If ever a postcard for Old Florida made it into the 21st century, it would be of this thinnest of islands parked on the Gulf between Sarasota and Fort Myers. Locals love its playground setting (and its seven miles of sugar-sand beaches), and the seasons attract wealthy industrialists fleeing the frigid north, tarpon-obsessed fishermen, and maritime pleasure cruisers in boats of all sizes. The village of Boca Grande is the epicenter of Gasparilla life, with pastel cottages, palm-lined streets, nary a stoplight, and low-key preppy swagger.

MORNING COFFEE

The Inn Bakery in Boca Grande is the spot to grab your coffee; the-gasparilla-inn.com.

BEST BEACH

Cayo Costa State Park is a gorgeous getaway reachable only by boat. On-island, locals raft up on the sandbar by the causeway.

LOCAL HANGOUT

When on Gasparilla, hit the classic bars. The Temptation Restaurant is a must, as is South Beach Bar & Grille for watching the sunset.

BEST NAUTICAL VIBE
Shelter Island, NY

This little island held like a pearl between the pincers of Long Island's North and South forks has sophisticated style and island authenticity in equal measure. Being accessible only by ferry (or private plane) infuses life with a remote sensibility, despite being so close to wine country to the north, the buzzy Hamptons to the south, and the thrumming canyons of Manhattan just 90 miles west. With 20 miles of shoreline and harbors bobbing with boats, Shelter Island is a maritime gem hidden in plain sight—quiet, colorful, and staunchly original.

MORNING COFFEE

White Hill Café serves Jack's Stir Brew Coffee, straight outta NYC, along with superb baked goods; thechequit.com/cafe.

BEST BEACH

Crescent Beach has the island's best sunsets, as well as the celebrities who hang out here under the radar.

LOCAL HANGOUT

The Shipwreck Bar at Salt Waterfront Bar & Grill—a gutted schooner—draws locals, boaters, and jet-setters; saltshelterisland.com.

BEST SURF SCENE
Oahu, HI

If you've dreamed of a tropical island with everything you'd ever want—from a buzzing, cosmopolitan city to pure surf towns, from verdant ridges to cerulean waters, from roadside shrimp shacks to cutting-edge restaurants—then welcome to Oahu. Long a center of Hawaiian culture, the third-largest island in the archipelago has never been hotter, thanks to Honolulu's renaissance and the North Shore's enduring draw as a center of the bohemian life.

MORNING COFFEE

As the only state in the nation climactically able to farm coffee, everything is good—and local—here. In Honolulu, check out Honolulu Coffee, one of the pioneers of the scene; honolulucoffee.com.

BEST BEACH

Impossible to choose. But a start may be the insanely beautiful Kailua Beach, which arcs in powdery white-sand splendor for two and a half miles in its hometown of the same name on Oahu's windward shore.

LOCAL HANGOUT

For culture lovers, head to Honolulu's Chinatown, the latest hub of upstart, knockout dining. For surf fiends, go north to Haleiwa Town for a dose of hanging out on shore watching the pros work the waves.

INTERNATIONAL

BEST BOHEMIAN VIBE
Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Mexico

Just south of Cancún, this town is easy and affordable to get to, and it has become genuinely international; digital nomads who can work from wherever there's Wi-Fi have figured this out and are making Playa del Carmen their base. And with good reason: The beaches along this stretch of coast are gorgeous, from Playa del Carmen all the way south to Tulum. And of course, with Cancún just about an hour north, there's access to good hospitals and other amenities one might long for in more far-flung locations.

MORNING COFFEE

With three locations in town, Ah Cacao Chocolate Café also sells a variety of Mexican chocolate products; ahcacao.com.

BEST BEACH

For heart-stoppingly spectacular shores, drive 25 minutes north to Maroma Beach.

LOCAL HANGOUT

The heart of expat shopping and dining is Quinta Avenida, a miles-long pedestrian magnet that's fantastic for strolling.

BEST CHIC HIDEOUT
Harbour Island, Bahamas

Have you died and gone to heaven? You may think this every time you wake up in Briland (as it's known to residents), this tiny, sophisticated, and laid-back jewel of the Out Islands. Live among clusters of pastel cottages where all streets seem to lead to the water, get to know the variations in pink sands, and watch the beautiful people quietly come and go. The sparkling flats teem with fish, the boutiques quietly flaunt their wares, and Bahamian culture infuses everything with ease.

MORNING COFFEE

Bahamas Coffee Roasters in Dunmore Town serves locally roasted, organic coffee; bahamascoffeeroasters.com.

BEST BEACH

Pink Sands Beach runs for three blush miles along the length of the eastern shore of the island.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Sip Sip is the center of Harbour Island life—as in food, drink, and gossip. Don't miss a day.

BEST UP-AND-COMER
Ambergris Caye, Belize

Lying just south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Belize is an expat's dream destination: The Belizean dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, the local language is English, and there's a well-established expat population, which makes for an easy transition. For the ultimate Belizean escape, Ambergris Caye—a 25-mile-long, slender offshore island—has a new vibrance at the southern end with the development of Mahogany Bay Village, a New Urbanism–inspired community that also offers hotel stays in its whitewashed, elegant cottages, plus a cluster of some of the best food and drink on the island.

MORNING COFFEE

Rum + Bean, at Mahogany Bay Village, pours strong brew (and rum); mahoganybayvillage.com.

BEST BEACH

Several of the island's finest stretches lie along the southern shore, fronted by resorts including Ramon's Village and The Villas at Banyan Bay.

LOCAL HANGOUT

Ambergris Caye's town center of San Pedro is a buzzy, funky scene with outdoor bars and restaurants.