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Affordable beach destinations you may not know about

As many beach lovers know, the later in the summer you visit, the nicer your vacation will be. Families have headed home to prepare for the new school year, nice weather still lingers, vacancies open up, and prices start to drop to reflect the end of peak season.

Whether it’s a stretch of shore to have all to yourself, a boardwalk that seems from a former era, or feasts of lobsters and clams, the beach in late summer (particularly after Labor Day) can provide a memorable vacation that’s also budget friendly. If you haven’t gotten to the beach yet this year, here are some picks to squeeze in before fall arrives.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine

“I love Old Orchard,” says Barbara Rogers, author of Eating New England: A Food Lovers Guide. “The beach goes on for miles, unlike most northern New England beaches, so it’s easy to find a spot that’s not towel-to-towel. It has an old fashioned amusement park, Palace Playland, right on the beach—the view from the top of the Ferris wheel is a knockout. Everything is within sight—the beach, amusement park, pier, main street shops, restaurants, good lodgings—so you arrive, park free, and walk to everything. It’s just honky-tonk enough so you really feel like you’ve been to the beach. And local volunteers scour the beach once every 24 hours to clean up any trash left by careless visitors, so it is spotless.”

Easily accessed by the Maine Turnpike and U.S. Route 1, Old Orchard Beach offers a quintessential New England beach getaway without the high cost. Hotel rooms can be found for $200 per night or less, and dining options range from boardwalk clam shacks to fine restaurants. Or, be creative to save a little money. “Choose a place with a kitchenette so you can eat breakfast and lunch in. You’ll avoid the lines and can enjoy a long dinner at a restaurant in the evening,” recommends Rogers. “Or, you can eat all your meals ‘at home’ on the balcony overlooking the ocean. You can buy entire lobster dinners to take away for much less than a restaurant, and have a picnic on the beach. Then go out for ice cream.”

Days at Old Orchard Beach are often made up of budget-friendly activities such as beach and boardwalk lounging, lighthouse touring, whale watching, and miniature golf. The area is also popular for outdoor recreation including fishing, golf, and hiking. And visitors in late summer can take advantage of seasonal events such as Illumination Night, the annual festival of lights, live music, and strawberry shortcake scheduled for August 5 at nearby Ocean Park. There’s also the Tri-State Fishing Tournament, focusing on striped bass and blue fish, slotted for September 8 and 9; and Bikefest on the Pier, featuring motorcycle showcases, a pig roast, and vendors, to be held September 9.

For ideas on planning an Old Orchard Beach getaway, see the resources on the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce website.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

The [% 1272883 | | state shutdown of Atlantic City’s famous casinos %] is over, and the city eagerly calls back visitors for the end of summer. “People generally associate the city with gambling, but we’re very proud of our number-one natural resource: the beach,” says Jeffrey Vasser, executive director, Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. The beach is always free to visitors, and can be as bustling or as quiet as you like. Along the commercial district, visitors can hit the surf, then stroll up to the boardwalk for a drink, snack, shopping, or some gambling. And getting away from the crowds is possible, too, notes Vasser. “Further down the beach, out of the commercial district, the crowds are much thinner, more residential. You’ll still have restroom facilities, the boardwalk, [and it’s] much quieter.”

Located in southern New Jersey, Atlantic City’s accommodations range from $75 to upwards of $300 per night. For additional savings, Vasser suggests looking at properties along the Black Horse or White Horse Pike routes, as well as signing up for a players’ card at your preferred casino. “You’ll always get lucky if you are a player or have a casino card,” he says. “They’re free, and will certainly get you savings, from meals to hotel rooms. The more you play, the better your rewards will be.” Dining options range from the cheap, with famous subs at the White House and pizza at Tony’s Baltimore Grill, to the sophisticated, with new restaurants recently opened by Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay.

In recent years, the city has experienced a commercial boom, with many retailers setting up shop on the boardwalk. Options include outlets to upscale designer boutiques such as Gucci and Tiffany.

Additionally, for those less gambling- and shopping-inclined, the Gardner’s Basin region provides an outdoorsy alternative. Home to the Atlantic City Aquarium, Gardner’s Basin also features fishing cruises, parasailing, local seafood restaurants, and kayak rentals.

Finally, the later your visit, the more you’ll save. “The best time of year is September and October here,” says Vassar. “The water is still nice, still warm, and you can go to the beach. The crowds are gone and the rooms are a bit cheaper at the casinos. Even if it’s just a day after Labor Day, you’ll see savings.”

For more Atlantic City getaway ideas, visit the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority website.

Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

“Ocracoke Island, Blackbeard’s old stomping grounds, is just fantastic,” says Dr. Stephen Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach,” director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. Each year, Leatherman puts together a list of America’s 10 best swimming beaches, and this year Ocracoke came in at number three. “[There’s] no McDonald’s, no golf, no Ritz on the beach,” says Leatherman, noting the seclusion of the island is its main draw. On the island, you’ll find “very small, old fashioned, mom-and-pop B&Bs and motels, and miles of beach all to your own.”

Ocracoke Island, set on the southernmost point of the Outer Banks, is accessible by car ferry, private boat, or plane. A quiet fishing hamlet, Ocracoke offers summer visitors 16 miles of beaches, fresh seafood restaurants, pirate history, and a historic lighthouse. Lodging ranges from $75 to $250 per night.

Outdoorsy travelers will find much to occupy their time, too. Visitors can rent a boat or kayak and head out on the water, or go fishing. And there are plenty of tours for those who want to learn the island’s history or just get a better feel for its layout, with options including ghost walks, parasailing or ATV excursions, and boat tours.

To put your Ocracoke getaway together, check upcoming events, lodging listings, and attractions on the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau websites.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, Florida

With 35 miles of beaches, fresh seafood, wildlife, and nature trails, Florida’s St. Petersburg/Clearwater area offers sunny spots and many affordable vacation activities along the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. Beach options include out-of-the-way islands; shores with family-friendly piers and festive waterfront bars; and sprawling parks with picnic areas, crisscrossing bike and walking trails, and historic forts. And at nearly every beach, there’s something to do [% 92550 | | for free %].

Located along Florida’s Gulf Coast just outside Tampa, the St. Petersburg/Clearwater region offers a little something for everyone. If you really want to get away from the crowds, Leatherman recommends nearby Caladesi Island, which got his number-two ranking for 2006. Accessible only by ferry, the island offers private relaxation and stretches of unspoiled palms, surf, and sand. “Not very many people go out there,” Leatherman notes. “Take the ferry, walk down the beach, and have it all to yourself. Yet [you’re] only 30 miles from Tampa.” He also chose the area’s Fort de Soto Park as the number-one beach last year.

The region offers a host of accommodations, from budget motels to elite resorts. Rates start as low as $39 per night and can go upwards of $250. Late-summer nightlife and activities can be as laid-back or lively as you like, with a host of options from Devil Rays baseball, golf, museums and festivals, to beachfront concerts. To plan a visit, see the listings on the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau website.

Pismo Beach, California

California’s Pismo Beach offers rugged vistas, 23 miles of beaches, wildlife viewing, and many outdoor activities, including horseback riding, golf, ATV tours, kayaking, and surfing. Located off Highway 101 on California’s Central Coast, Pismo Beach is also famous for its seaside cliffs, outlet shopping, and golf.

Unlike other seaside towns along the California coast, known for their expensive price tags, Pismo Beach can still be visited on a budget. Accommodations in the area start at just over $100 per night. And if you want to splurge, that too can be arranged, with luxury options ranging up to $500 per night.

Pismo Beach welcomes summer travelers with events such as the Art in the Park festival at Dinosaur Caves Park, held the first Sunday of each month through October, featuring vendors, food booths, and live music, as well as the August 19 and 20 St. Anthony’s Celebration, a Portuguese festival honoring the saint. For more information on the beaches, events, and nightlife throughout the region, visit the online Pismo Beach Visitor Information Guide.

Whether it’s a week or a long weekend, a late-summer beach vacation fully demonstrates the strengths of the season: warm weather, less-crowded beaches, and more budget-friendly options. So grab your towel, dig your toes in the sand, and relax.

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