Best Places to Live on the Coast

Photo: Matt Kurvin/offset Ready for your dream life to begin? These amazing locations, from little beach towns to humming coastal cities, from sweet domestic islands to expat escapes, are ready for you. Santa Cruz, California Population: 64,220
Sunny Days Per Year: 262

Like the kaleidoscopic amusements on its 1907 boardwalk, this Central California city on the Monterey Bay contains multitudes. From its founding by the Spanish in the 18th century to its emergence as a classic beach resort and its enduring identity as a college town, Santa Cruz has lured freethinkers to its redwood-flanked environs. And that legacy continues: The university is one of the city’s largest employers, but Santa Cruz also supports a lively cadre of entrepreneurs, including wetsuit and surfboard makers, coffee roasters, and small-batch distillers. And while the half-mile Wharf remains a classic place to fish, stroll, and tuck in for local seafood, the newest hot spot is right downtown: Abbott Square, a reimagined plaza with art, performance spaces, marketplace restaurants, and bars.

Your One Thing: Get to know Santa Cruz’s beaches by walking or biking West Cliff Drive, a three-mile path from the Wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach. 1 of 22 Advertisement Advertisement The Kennebunks, Maine Nick Cote/Maine Office of Tourism Population: 14,776
Sunny Days Per Year: 200

It may be impossible to choose which of these classic Maine seaports is best. Thank goodness they’re paired up in one mini-region known as the Kennebunks. (The inland town of Arundel also flies under this banner.) Each town is as perfect as the other: On the eastern side of the Kennebunk River, Kennebunkport is home to bustling Dock Square, windswept beaches, and the Bush family compound on Walker’s Point. A quick walk across the 52-foot-long Lanigan Bridge lands you in Kennebunk, home to its own thriving Lower Village, more lovely beaches, and a neat row of ship captains’ homes. Both towns have been summer getaways and retirement magnets for generations; now, a migration of young urban professionals looking to raise their families in a small-town setting has infused the Kennebunks with a creative, youthful energy.

Your One Thing: When in Maine, eat lobster: There’s a 21-stop Lobster Trail itinerary available online at 2 of 22 Long Branch, New Jersey Population: 30,941
Sunny Days Per Year: 213

Originally a beachy escape for millionaires, theater stars, and U.S. presidents, this late-1800s resort city on the Jersey Shore has maintained its summery sense of play while evolving over the years into a year-round escape from big-city life. With easy train access into Manhattan, a new boardwalk and promenade (rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy) anchoring its Pier Village, and the great distinction of being the birthplace of New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen, there is much to love about the reborn Mid-Atlantic city on the sea.

Your One Thing: The Seven Presidents Church has served more presidents than any church outside of Washington, D.C. Now housing a museum, the church is open for private tours. 3 of 22 Advertisement Habersham, South Carolina Courtesy of Jessica Ashley Population: 436
Sunny Days Per Year: 216

A master-planned community, Habersham is the small town you wish you’d grown up in. Combining New Urbanism–inspired design with inherited gifts from the original site, Habersham’s team created a place that really does feel like it’s been here a couple of centuries, instead of decades. The commercial village’s main street curves its way to a recovered oak allée, and the varied but harmoniously designed homes set along meandering lanes feel utterly individual. The result is both dreamy and timeless.

Your One Thing: Take advantage of Habersham’s Lowcountry location for easy excursions to the charming town of Beaufort (just seven miles away), as well as Charleston and Savannah. 4 of 22 Annapolis, Maryland Population: 39,474
Sunny Days Per Year: 208

There are historic cities, and then there is Annapolis. All it takes is a short walk along the brick sidewalks that circle the capitol (the oldest state house in legislative use in America), amid the storefronts and hotels, to feel that breathing connection to the Revolutionary era. And one need only walk a few short blocks to City Dock to feel the salty influence of Chesapeake Bay, from sailboats and crab joints to those scrubbed midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy in their dress uniforms. For maritime-history fans, there is no better place to call home.

Your One Thing: About a half-mile from the State House, the U.S. Naval Academy is open to the public and offers guided tours from its visitors center. (Yes, they really feed more than 4,400 midshipmen within five minutes at every meal—learn how.) 5 of 22 Chatham, Massachusetts Population: 6,143
Sunny Days Per Year: 201

While most people dream of living on vacation all year, this charming little town on the elbow of Cape Cod makes that dream come true. With its streets lined with shingled cottages and its lively little downtown dotted with family-owned shops and restaurants, Chatham hums all year long. And when the summer crowds head home, you’ll practically have Chatham’s natural bounty—wildlife preserves, quiet ponds, and the Cape Cod National Seashore—all to yourself.

Your One Thing: Catch at least one game of the Cape Cod Baseball League—a beloved summer tradition here. 6 of 22 Advertisement Advertisement Newport, Rhode Island Population: 24,232
Sunny Days Per Year: 202

It’s no wonder the British occupied it during the American Revolution: Who wouldn’t want to live here? Set on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay as it edges the Atlantic Ocean, the walkable, cultured New England city of Newport has always been a place of independent thinking and a hub of commerce. And life here—whether in a circa-1700s saltbox near the lively wharfs (lined with yachts of every size), in colorful Victorians just outside downtown, or in breathtaking estates that keep company with the world-renowned mansions of Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive—feels like something out
of a storybook. Sorry, Brits. It’s ours now.

Your One Thing: The Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival are the hottest summer tickets in town. Do them in style by going by boat and dropping anchor off Fort Adams. 7 of 22 St. Simons Island, Georgia Population: 12,807
Sunny Days Per Year: 221

Nestled among Georgia’s Golden Isles, this century-old barrier-island community is shaded by moss-draped oaks and cooled by breezes that roll across its wildlife-rich salt marshes. Life is laid-back in that Lowcountry way here, with locals enjoying the year-round temperate climate to play golf (five courses, including three championship 18-hole courses on neighboring Sea Island) and fish right off the island’s community pier. The wide sands of East Beach add just the right laziness quotient to the weekend, and while the island’s Pier Village is a lively cluster of shops and restaurants, there’s always the siren call of artsy and cultured Savannah to the north.

Your One Thing: Go naturalist for the weekend on privately owned Little St. Simons Island: 11,000 acres of preserved lands and seven miles of private beaches a quick boat trip away. 8 of 22 Saugatuck, Michigan Courtesy of Saugatuck/Douglas CVB Population: 964
Sunny Days Per Year: 159

Great Lakes life reaches its pinnacle in this tiny, artsy town along the north bank of the Kalamazoo River and the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Old-fashioned (the hand-cranked Victorian-era ferry still runs and costs a dollar) and fashion-forward (the Ox-Bow School of Art has lured an eclectic community for more than a century) in the best ways, Saugatuck also boasts beautiful public beaches and 200-foot sand dunes. Less than four hours from Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, it’s the perfect escape for a weekend, or for a happy, small-town lifetime.

Your One Thing: The sands of Saugatuck Dunes State Park stretch along the lake for two miles of natural, secluded splendor. 9 of 22 Advertisement Captiva, Florida Population: 154
Sunny Days Per Year: 266

If you are a seashell fanatic, then welcome to your Gulf Coast mecca. This pale-sand barrier island just west of Fort Myers holds—along with its big sister, Sanibel Island—the best shell hunting and gathering anywhere (within regulations, of course). In fact, if you are a nature fanatic, you may never want to leave this five-mile isle known for its quirky neighborhood feel. With just one main road running corkscrew-like along its length, Captiva’s wild wetland gifts reveal themselves from the deck of a paddleboard, the cockpit of a kayak, or the seat of a canoe. And while the island is home to an opulent collection of homes along its “Gold Coast” at the southern end, the official Captiva uniform is absolutely shorts and flip-flops.

Your One Thing: Built in 1903 as a schoolhouse, Captiva’s Chapel by the Sea holds weekly interdenominational services, as well as an achingly beautiful candlelit Christmas Eve service. 10 of 22 RELATED: 20 Beautiful Beach Views From Around The World 11 of 22 Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida Courtesy of Ponte Vedra Inn & Club Population: 29,495
Sunny Days Per Year: 221

An Old Florida resort town with New Florida amenities, this growing seaside community on the Atlantic coast has embraced its nostalgic setting, anchored by the beloved Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Golfers love Ponte Vedra, which is well known for its place on the PGA Tour and The Players Championship, and tennis players have traditionally flocked here, as well. Paddleboarders love the streams, rivers, marshes, and lagoons, and surfers take advantage of the consistent reef break. And with historic St. Augustine just 26 miles to the south and Jacksonville 18 miles to the west, there’s plenty of access to city pleasures.

Your One Thing: The Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) National Estuarine Research Reserve hosts public walks, talks, and more that will connect you to this wild and crucial part of the coastal environment. 12 of 22 Advertisement Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic Population: 39,221
Sunny Days Per Year: 245

Talk about a fantasy commute: Leave New York in the morning and be on the beach in Las Terrenas, on the Dominican Republic’s northeast coast, for lunch. If sun, sand, and aquamarine waters are your life’s top priorities, this little beach town tucked among the palms is a dream realized. The community, long a favorite with French and Italian expats, has an upmarket European feel. And with reasonable real estate prices and a strong rental market, your financial outlook is as sunny as the weather forecast.

Your One Thing: Open your days with authentic French breads and local conversation at Boulangerie Française. 13 of 22 Southport, Connecticut Courtesy of Emily Jennings Population: 1,711
Sunny Days Per Year: 175

Evidently no one let this stately little enclave on Long Island Sound know that the 20th (or 21st) centuries had arrived. And more the better for Southport’s lucky residents—here sits an extensive collection of exquisite 18th- and 19th-century homes, and a community dedicated to their upkeep. But there’s more to Southport than meets the aesthetic eye: a quiet harbor, two beaches, a small commercial village, a beloved private library, and a spot on the Metro North line that puts one at Grand Central Station in 80 minutes. That is, if one wants to meet up with the 21st century.

Your One Thing: Southport’s annual “Rooms With a View” showhouse is a high-wattage designer showcase. 14 of 22 Beaufort, North Carolina Population: 4,212
Sunny Days Per Year: 211

Perched on Beaufort Inlet, this colorful and cozy port has deep roots in all forms of seafaring. And no wonder: The 5.6-square-mile town is surrounded by nearly a mile of water. It’s maritime heaven here, whether you boat, want to learn to boat, or just like looking at boats. Docks dot the charming and walkable waterfront of the historic downtown, which is also home to a welcoming bundle of coffee shops, seafood restaurants, and shops, plus a remarkable variety of maritime purveyors.

Your One Thing: It’s a scenic ferry ride to Cape Lookout National Seashore, a spectacular destination for shelling, birding, and climbing its famous lighthouse. 15 of 22 Advertisement Hermosa Beach, California Image Source/Jordan Lutes/Offset Population: 19,860
Sunny Days Per Year: 283

For urbanites who are ready to trade out chrome and steel for sand and surf, this small city in Los Angeles County’s South Bay area is a small-scale, play-fueled version of the pop and sizzle of city life, including a nationally recognized group of nightclubs. Easy to navigate, with an accelerating food and shopping scene, Hermosa Beach also has easy access to LAX, making it an alluring home base for professionals with national and international needs. Meanwhile, kids spend their days on two wheels and in the water, adults are more into their bikes than their cars, and designers report that “the beach room”—that space that gives way to the street and sand—is the most popular room in the house.

Your One Thing: Palm-flanked Pier Plaza remains Hermosa Beach’s epicenter of hanging out, from bars and clubs to restaurants and boutiques. 16 of 22 Las Catalinas, Costa Rica Courtesy of Las Catalinas Population: 325
Sunny Days Per Year: 181

Central America’s peaceful nation with excellent healthcare services has been an American expat destination for years. Now this new community on the quiet Guanacaste Coast offers a sophisticated way to live the national ideal of pura vida in a beautifully imagined seaside resort town inspired by New Urbanism. With two beaches on one side and nearly 1,000 acres of protected tropical dry forest on the other, the car-free community has set a tone of staying quietly connected to the region’s natural gifts. And the red-tile rooflines look just perfect against that cerulean sea.

Your One Thing: Outdoor adventure and Costa Rica go hand in hand. Get into the spirit with Pura Vida Ride’s mountain bike, SUP, and hiking experiences. 17 of 22 Gibsons, British Columbia Greg Eymundson/Insight Photography Population: 4,605
Sunny Days Per Year: 289

Canada’s wilderness-blessed province holds many surprises along its coastline, and this stunning little town northwest of Vancouver is a treasure amid the wild. With its bright little buildings clustered around a cobalt harbor bristling with fishing and pleasure boats, Gibsons is a place for artists, entrepreneurs, and seafarers who take full advantage of its unexpectedly sunny weather. The town has more than 20 parks and beaches among its hillsides and coastal flats, and locals love to play outside.

Your One Thing: Salmon is king in this part of the world, but so are halibut, prawns, and crab. Find them all for sale at the historic marina at Gibsons Landing. 18 of 22 Advertisement Astoria, Oregon Population: 9,626
Sunny Days Per Year: 127

Yes, The Goonies was filmed here. But there’s so much more to say about Oregon’s under-the-radar star. Perched along the south shore of the Columbia River as it yields to the Pacific, this first permanent U.S. settlement on the West Coast is a historic port town marked by elegantly restored Victorian homes. But Astoria is looking forward with the same zeal that fueled its fishery and timber booms—this time to arts and culture. Known as “little San Francisco,” Astoria channels a youthful vibe that supports museums, a boutique hotel, independent shops, and chef-driven restaurants in the busy downtown.

Your One Thing: Get on line for the legendary fish-and-chips (beer-battered albacore tuna and steak fries) at Bowpicker, a converted gillnet boat. 19 of 22 Coupeville, Washington Michael Hanson/Getty Images Population: 1,887
Sunny Days Per Year: 161

Unassuming and charming, this tiny 19th-century waterfront town at Whidbey Island’s slender waist has retained deep connections to its past as a frontier port and farming community. The result is a serene rhythm that feels removed from the buzz of Seattle to the south (and Whidbey’s culinary hot spot, Langley, down the road). And yet the influence of the city has spawned a vibrant new wave of agri- and aquaculture, including Penn Cove’s renowned mussels. Coupeville’s timeless quality might also owe to its being part of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve—a preserved cluster of parkland, farmland, historical buildings, and Victorian homes along the waterfront.

Your One Thing: Artists have long been drawn to the area’s beauty; Coupeville has a number of galleries and its own school of art, the Pacific NorthWest Art School. 20 of 22 Pā‘ia, Maui, Hawai‘i Population: 2,542
Sunny Days Per Year: 275

There’s bliss, and then there’s Pā‘ia. And it’s hard to tell them apart. With the sweet and loose-limbed zeitgeist of a true surf town (the world-famous Jaws break is offshore here), the main street seems to offer more bathing suits and surfboards for sale than anything else—except perhaps tie-dye and kombucha. Being traditionally ignored by visitors driving West Maui’s famous Road to Hāna has been Pā‘ia’s gain: The former plantation town has remained more focused on its own value system of healthy food, remnant hippie culture, sunshine, and surf than on pleasing the Hawai‘i-hungry tourist.

Your One Thing: Mana Foods, the town’s revered natural-foods store, is not only a great place to eat well, but also one of Pā‘ia’s de facto social centers. 21 of 22 Advertisement Meet Our Experts Photo: Matt Kurvin/offset Doug Gray | CMO/co-founder, Barton & Gray Mariners Club

Jennifer Stevens | Executive editor, International Living

Jack S. Ezon | President, Ovation Vacations, a Virtuoso agency

Stephen Poulakos | Resident town urbanist/garden designer, Seabrook, Washington

Chuck Wolfe | Principal advisor, Seeing Better Cities Group; Seattle land-use lawyer; and author of Seeing the Better City

Julia Starr Sanford | Owner, Starr Sanford Design

R. Eric Moser | Principal, Moser Design Group, Inc., specializing in vernacular building design and urban planning for mixed-use, walkable communities 22 of 22