Going to the beach is the great default summer vacation. Doesn’t matter if you live in Oklahoma or South Florida, for some reason summer’s long days and warm weather invite a day or nine somewhere near the coast. On the right days, it’s a relaxing little break to paradise, where you forget everything and just enjoy the waves crashing on the shore. Go on the wrong days to some of America’s most popular beaches, and it’s an exercise in Zen breathing just to find a parking spot.
Of course, we live in a giant country with more than 95,000 miles of coastline. Which means somewhere there’s a great beach that the entire world isn’t trying to visit. Some are in spots like Florida and Hawaii, surprising hidden gems beach-going tourists haven’t discovered. Others are quick escapes closer to home than you thought. But all of them are beaches most people overlook when planning a vacation.
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New York State doesn’t get much beach cred outside the mythical Hamptons, who few people from outside “the city” really much understand the appeal of anyway. And perhaps seeing the words “pristine beaches” and “New York” is making you spit out your coffee. But head to Long Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean just east of Brooklyn and Queens, and you’ll find a 2.1-mile boardwalk running along soft white sand and deep blue water, making it hard to remember you’re a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan. Long Beach often gets ignored when discussing best northeastern beach towns, though the 5 miles of beach are lined with lively restaurants, bars, and surf shops. For even more isolation, head a little out of town to Lido Beach and Point Lookout parks, where you won’t find much in the way of amenities. But won’t find much in the way of people either.
Okaloosa Island, Florida
Among Florida panhandle beaches, Destin is the ever-hyped choice. But if you’d like to get away from the entire SEC during your summer beach trip, head a little outside town to the beaches at Okaloosa Island. This 875-acre swath of pristine white sand is surrounded by Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico and is devoid of any hotels, condos, or tacky souvenir stores. What it does have plenty of is unobstructed views of the ocean, and long empty stretches of beach if you catch it on the right day. It’s a bastion of serenity in the sometimes-hectic panhandle, complete with a quarter-mile-long fishing pier with plenty of room to commune with the water.
Asbury Park, New Jersey
Underrated as a music city, Ashbury Park is not. But as a place to get your tan on, it seems to unfairly lag behind other, hotter spots along the Jersey Shore. That’s a shame! The birthplace of the Boss has sand as scenic as anywhere on the shore, with a beachfront promenade redone with vibrant murals from local artists, and a newly revamped Asbury Lanes just beyond. The city’s comeback continued this year with the opening of the Asbury Hotel, the first one to open here in half a century, and home to a beachfront rooftop bar and movie space.
Sombrero Beach, Florida
Those familiar with Florida beaches know the Keys can sometimes be lacking in tropical sandy waterfront. But those REALLY familiar know about Sombrero Beach, near Marathon at Mile Marker 50 on the Overseas Highway. The beach is often deserted during slow seasons, with nothing but you, the white sand, and the mangroves and palm trees aside the turquoise water of the Atlantic. The beach winds on for a bit, and if you’re keen on spending the day there you can see the sun rise from one side, then stroll to a rock formation down the beach for one of the best sunsets in the Keys at night.
While the state of Rhode Island has a highly misleading name, its best beaches are found on this actual island about an hour’s ferry ride from Newport. The island is nearly half nature preserve, leaving beaches like the one down 141 wooden steps at Mohegan Bluffs to feel isolated and natural. It’s also one of the better surf spots in New England, with the waves off Mansion Beach rarely too crowded and fun for even inexperienced surfers. It’s all best explored by bike, with plenty of B&Bs and little restaurants to stop and explore before ending your day with a sunset over Charlestown Beach.
Kailua Beach, Hawaii
It’s hard to think of any beach on Oahu as being “underrated,” with the fame of the North Shore and the tourist-clogged streets of Waikiki. But this beach park near the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay is an often-empty hidden paradise. The city around it is a quiet base-and-beach town, meaning you won’t find many tourists in a park geared more towards families than throngs of visitors. From the shoreline you’ll get all the white sand, deep blue Pacific water, and towering green mountains you’d expect in a Hawaiian vacation. The waves are relatively calm, making this 2.5-mile stretch perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. Just do your best to try and fit in.
Moonlight Beach, California
San Diego County beaches aren’t exactly a secret, but this beach at the bottom of a cliff in Encinitas seems sneakily overlooked. It sits in the heart of a quintessential California beach town, where cool breezes blow through rows of tightly packed beach homes, and the ocean peeks out from every intersection. Park at the top of a bluff and head down to the beach, where you’ll find a soft, sandy bottom perfect for playing with kids, replete with an expansive playground with a mesmerizing ocean view and surprisingly smooth cement sidewalks, perfect for skating.
It seems like the esteemed Dr. Beach has listed about every beach in Pinellas County, Florida atop his list of world’s best beaches. Except this one. Which is just fine by St. Petersburgers, since it keeps the snowbirds and tourists away from this southern stretch of St. Pete Beach. The historic little town boasts the longest strand of undeveloped public beach in the country, bordered on one side by the Gulf of Mexico and the other by Intracoastal Waterway. Waves here are small, and the scene is about as calming as you’ll find anywhere outside a state park in Florida. Beyond the sand, the streets across the sea grass form a charming historic district full of ice cream shops, restaurants, and funky boutiques.
You may recognize Monarch Bay as the place AIG execs made it rain with their $85 billion federal bailout back in 2008. But you don’t need to be an unscrupulous insurance exec at the St. Regis to enjoy the beach’s underrated beauty. While spots like Newport and Laguna have gotten most of the OC love in Hollywood, Dana Point stays understated, even as it boasts the golden sand and crashing waves of your SoCal fantasies. Monarch Bay is the best, most secluded spot here, set at the foot of a private beach club but still open to the public. The bay gives visitors an enclosed feeling, like you’re in your own little cove of West Coast paradise. And while the surfing here isn’t as great as Orange County spots further north, the waves are still calming as you listen to them from the sand.
Lucy Vincent Beach, Massachusetts
The irony of vaguely phallic rock formations sticking up from the sand along a nude beach should not be lost on anyone over the age of 7. But even if this cliff-lined beach in Martha’s Vineyard didn’t have a clothing-optional section, it would be one of the most remarkable beaches in the Northeast. The huge boulders and trademark rock column make this place seem a little more like the Pacific Northwest than New England, though erosion has taken its toll and scenery degrades a little every year. It’s a spectacular setting that’s also not usually jammed with tourists -- just keep in mind, it’s typically only accessible by town permit during high season.
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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who apologizes to everyone who wanted to keep these beaches a secret. Feel free to accept on his Instagram @meltrez1.