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.
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Hidden and Affordable Beach Destinations
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 affordable beach destinations 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 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 $5.99, 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. Some Anna Maria Island rentals are priced as low as $500 per week. 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. Nightly rates start $263 and $206, 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’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.
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San Mateo County, California
The majority of leisure travelers who fly into Bay Area airports head into San Francisco, out to the wine regions, or down the freeway towards Monterey to explore Big Sur. Most skip over San Mateo County, the region in between San Francisco and Monterey. And that’s fine for those who do visit. Less crowding makes it easier to enjoy the region’s dramatic coastline, its charming small towns like Half Moon Bay and Princeton-by-the-Sea, and its bounty of locally produced vegetables, fruit, and flowers.
“There is so much diversity and so much to do here, especially if you like the outdoors,” says lifelong San Mateo resident Barbara Evers. “There are gorgeous long walking beaches along the coast and hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can hike through redwood forests and get spectacular vistas with the Pacific on one side and the Bay on the other.”
Half Moon Bay, an upscale but friendly little town, is nearby a number of good beaches. “Cowell Ranch State Beach is my favorite, a sort of hidden place that’s a half-mile walk off the highway,” says Evers. “My husband and I love to go there in the evening with a bottle of wine and watch the sun set.” You can see a spectacle of a different kind on the beach in Nuevo State Reserve, where the world’s largest mainland population of elephant seals comes to breed. Breeding season occurs in the winter and spring, but seals can be seen year-round.
In the summertime, visitors traveling through this rich horticultural and agricultural region can also shop at numerous farmers’ and floral markets, pick their own berries at organic farms, and go on nursery tours. Plus, the county supports area restaurants that use local produce, so foodies who like their meals farm-to-table fresh have lots of choices. Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero is one of my favorites,” says Evers. “I love their cream of artichoke and green chile soups.”
Where to stay: San Mateo County has a wide range of accommodations options, many quite affordable. Hostelling International runs an all-ages-welcome hostel with private rooms at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero. Dorm beds start at $28 per night, while private rooms start at $82. You’ll find a number of reasonably-priced B&Bs in and around Half Moon Bay, including the Victorian-era San Benito House. Summer rates start at only $99 per night. For outdoor lovers, Evers recommends staying in the tent bungalows at Costanoa, an “eco adventure resort” 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Summer rates start at $93 per night. “They have everything from horseback riding and guided hikes to kids’ activities and a spa,” says Evers.
Getting there: Half Moon Bay is about a half-hour drive from San Francisco International airport. To compares fares from your city, use SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool.
Online resources: For more information, visit the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau website, the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce website and the California State Parks website.
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Points East Coastal Drive, Prince Edward Island
If the fictional Anne of Green Gables were to visit her hometown of Cavendish on Prince Edward Island (PEI), today, she might turn her freckled nose up at the mini amusement parks, go-kart tracks, and other typical roadside attractions that have sprouted up since the area became a tourist magnet for Anne-fans. She’d probably feel more at home on the underdeveloped eastern side of the island, Points East Coastal Drive, an area of rolling farmland, pine forests, tiny towns with white gabled country houses, and quiet red- and white-sand beaches.
“Nature has sculpted eastern PEI’s coastline with an abundance of points of land that frame the bays and shelter the beaches,” says Joan Perrin, owner of Moonlight Cottage By-the-Sea, a vacation rental near the town of Montague. “Going for a drive along the coastal touring route is the best activity. Each day, one can head out for an excursion in a different direction–go to a beach or two, stop at a craft shop, buy an ice cream, walk around a few wharves, talk to the fishermen, visit a lighthouse.”
If you want to be more active, you can bike the Confederation Trail, which passes across the top of Points East Coastal Drive and runs all the way to the other side of the island. For not much money, you can also camp in one of the area’s five Provincial Parks, go on a seal-watching tour, golf, or kayak.
Scottish and Irish roots run deep for many area residents, and, according to Perrin,”ceilidhs” or gatherings with traditional music, happen in different towns almost every night in the summertime. Perrin says outsiders can usually attend for a fee of $6 to $10.
Where to stay: To get a better feel for the countryside, rent a vacation cottage or stay in a B&B. The official PEI visitor’s website has extensive listings of all the various accommodations in Points East Coastal Drive, including individual rental homes. You can search by weekly or daily rental rate, which makes it easy to find something in your price range. You’ll also find listings for cheap B&Bs, such as the Bubbling Brook Cottages in Mayfield, where nightly rates start at $67.
Getting there: Set above Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, PEI is a good 630-mile drive from Boston, so you might consider flying into the airport at Charlottetown. To check prices from your area, use SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool.
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The Big island’s visitor’s bureau has dubbed East Hawaii the “Wild, Wild East” — the underexplored half of the island where Hawaii’s volcanoes make the beaches black and the rainforest conceals delicate tropical flowers and towering waterfalls. Most Big Island visitors just pass through this part of the island on their way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but East Hawaii has charms not found elsewhere.
“It’s a great destination for the traveler who wants to see the ‘real’ Hawaii, as opposed to another beautiful resort that could be in any warm climate,” says Hawaii-based writer Leslie Lang, who wrote Exploring Historic Hilo. “The type of people who’d enjoy it here are more adventurous; they like to meet local people, try local foods, and don’t require room service or fancy drinks with umbrellas.”
Using the town of Hilo as a base, you can go in search of the perfect black- or green-sand beach or hike to waterfalls. Alternatively you can get a great view of the heavens by visiting the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, the world’s largest observatory for several types of astronomy, on the slopes of Mauna Kea. “Every night of the year at 6 p.m. there is free public star gazing at the visitor center,” says Lang. “They roll out portable telescopes and tell you about what you’re seeing–it’s unbelievable.” You can learn more about astronomy and the role it plays in native Hawaiian culture at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.
To see wilder country, drive down to Puna, a place known as the Big Island’s “outlaw” coast thanks in part to the lava that periodically flows down from Kilauea. Outdoor enthusiasts can experience the volcanic action up close for free, checking out Puna’s geothermal ponds, lava beds, steam caves, and vents.
Everyone should visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the realm of the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea, which is a 30-mile drive from Hilo. Looking down into volcanic craters and watching active lava flows is well worth the $10 admission fee. You can also hike and bike around the craters.
Where to stay: East Hawaii has no five-star resorts, but is home to smaller hotels, inns, and B&Bs. Some affordable places worth looking at are the Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel in Hilo where rates start at $82 per night and the Seekers’ Hive – Orchid in Orchidlands Estates, where rooms start at $60 per night.
Getting there: You can compare fares from your departure city using SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool.
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Gulf Shores, Alabama
When most Americans think of Alabama, sugar-sand beaches and palm trees aren’t the first things that come to mind. Many forget that Alabama’s heel nudges onto the Gulf of Mexico, its coastline a natural extension of the Florida Panhandle. In fact, this region, Gulf Shores, has 32 miles of enviable waterfront real estate. Once again, the ignorance of others is a boon to the enlightened traveler.
“Gulf Shores is a bit of Florida mixed with southern charm and hospitality,” says writer Andrew Der, who visited the area in 2005. “It rivals any Florida destination I’ve seen, but without the expense or the crowds.”
The area has tried to make itself into a laid-back beach destination for families and outdoor enthusiasts, without the flash of theme parks, swanky resorts, and college spring break action. Most visitors come to spend a week relaxing on the beach with occasional forays out to visit the attractions. Nature lovers can explore Gulf Shores’ protected wilderness areas including the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and Gulf State Park. Those interested in learning about Alabama history can check out Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a Civil War era fort. Playing golf at one of Gulf Shores’ championship golf courses and fishing are also popular pursuits.
Going out to sample some of the local cuisine, fresh seafood with a southern flair, is a must. “Gulf Shores is known for some of the best seafood in the country–you should not eat anything else while there,” says Der. Try the highly acclaimed Gulf Shores Steamer, where a steamed platter of shrimp, crab legs, oysters, and mussels costs $35 for two people. Or, try a shrimp, oyster, or soft-shelled crab po’ boy from King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant for around $18.
Where to stay: The vast majority of accommodations in Gulf Shores are rental homes and condos. On the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau website, you can search and link to the websites of available properties and rental brokers. One of the most well-reputed condo resorts, Gulf Shores Plantation, rents studio and multi-bedroom condominiums, plus a variety of beachfront vacation cottages. I found weekly rates in July starting around $1,000 with all the fees included.
Getting there: Gulf Shores is located about an hour’s drive from the Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, airports. You can use SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool to check for the lowest airfares from multiple travel providers.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2009. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.