Last summer, when you were sitting in an endless traffic jam waiting to get on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard or laying down a month's pay for a family trip to Maui, you may have wondered if your relaxing beach vacation was all worth it.
There must be alternatives, you think—and you're right, there are. With a little guidance, you can still find beach destinations unmarred by development, with opportunities for adventure, culture, great food, and yes, even reasonable prices. After doing thorough research and consulting with numerous other travel writers, I found five places in the U.S. and Canada that fit the bill.
Anna Maria Island, Florida
The hidden beach destination Floridians escape to, Anna Maria Island has somehow managed to keep condo towers, all-fast-food chains, amusement parks, and glitzy mega-resorts off its shores. In fact, no construction on the this seven-mile long barrier island on Florida's Gulf Coast is more than three stories tall, Subway is the only franchise, and 60 percent of its land is open beach. And, it's affordable, especially in the summer. You can rent vacation homes with water views and pools for well under $1,000 per week and get seafood entrees at beachfront restaurants for under $15.
"My trip to Anna Maria made me feel in a nostalgic sense what beach vacations must have been like 20 or 30 years ago," says Tim Leffel, author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, who visited the island with his family in 2006. "It has something other destinations have lost. It's an old-fashioned place where you can just relax and hang out on the beach with your kids, without arcades and other distractions."
While doing nothing is the island's prime pastime, there are plenty of options when you want something to do. You can snorkel, kayak, or fish in the Gulf's clear waters, or explore the island's three small communities, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and the town of Anna Maria. A free trolley runs up and down the length of the island, making it easy to check out the island's boutique shops or restaurants. For dining, you can try affordable local favorites such as the Cafe on the Beach, which is known for its all-you-can-eat pancakes for $4.25, and Star Fish Company, whose dockside restaurant serves the local catch with sides from $7 to $15 per meal.
Where to stay: Most accommodations on Anna Maria are vacation rentals or small condo resorts. Vacation Rentals by Owner has pages of Anna Maria Island rentals, some priced as low as $500 per week. A number of rental brokers can also set you up with a vacation house. If you'd prefer to stay at a condo resort, two of the most well-know properties are the Tradewinds Resort and Tortuga Inn Beach Resort, which are both managed by the same company. Nightly rates start $110 and $115, respectively.
Getting there: A pair of bridges connects the island to the mainland. Anna Maria is about an hour's drive from the Tampa airport and 45 minutes from St. Petersburg. To check prices from your city, use SmarterTravel.com's price-comparison tool.
Online resources: Learn more by browsing the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce website and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website, which also covers nearby Longboat Key and the greater Bradenton area on the mainland.