From the New England charm of Cape Cod to the celebrity cachet of Malibu, America's most exclusive beach destinations are famous for their beauty -- and for their sky-high prices. But these enclaves don't have a monopoly on quaint harbor villages, roadside seafood stands, or winding country roads revealing a beach or cove around every other turn. There are plenty of other beach towns across the country with a come-hither-and-stay-all-summer vibe. The difference is: You might actually be able to afford an extended stay. (Listed prices and availability reflect searches in early May.)
POMPANO BEACH, FL
Locals here like to say summer is their best-kept secret. The weather in this coastal community is generally cooler, breezier, and drier than the humid summers of the Northeast, and accommodation prices drop come May. Visitors can fill the days in Pompano Beach, known as the "Heart of the Gold Coast," with fishing, boating, and diving and snorkeling at a living reef offshore. On dry land, there's a 1,000-foot-long municipal fishing pier and 50 parks scattered throughout the community.
Stay: Beach Vacation Rentals lists charming accommodations in small cottage communities just a few blocks from the beach and a short walk from the pier. Options include studios, one-bedrooms, and two-bedrooms with kitchens and on-site laundry. Prices start at $119 a night and get cheaper the longer you rent. The cost for a week is $650.
TOPSAIL BEACH, NC
Located at the southern end of Topsail Island, off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, Topsail Beach is a town where you can catch your own seafood dinner from Jolly Roger Pier, if you're so inclined. One of three communities on the 26-mile island, Topsail oozes small-town charm. Above the Post Office, there's a roller-skating rink that still plays 45s on a turntable. The Missiles and More Museum hosts free weekly bingo during the summer. And for those who prefer sunshine and the outdoors, the options include surfing, fishing, and exploring the Intercoastal Waterway.
Stay: A variety of oceanfront homes are available for rent through local real estate agents. Sea Path Realty, for instance, lists a four-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage on the sound for $850 a week during the peak of summer.
GOLD BEACH, OR
Named after the hundreds of miners who extracted gold from nearby shores, southern Oregon's Gold Beach specializes in blending serenity and adventure. In addition to wandering along secluded beaches, tide pooling, fishing, and enjoying jet boat tours on the Rogue River, Gold Beach visitors can explore the rainforest or spend afternoons watching for passing pods of gray whales. Come evening, entertainment includes an oceanfront outdoor theater at the Pacific Reef Hotel.
Stay: Ranked one of the most popular resorts in the area on TripAdvisor, the Pacific Reef Hotel, just a short walk from the beach, offers summer rates for economy rooms starting at $99 a night and oceanfront rooms for $179 a night.
CHINCOTEAGUE ISLAND, VA
Famous for herds of wild ponies and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Chincoteauge Island has been recognized by Travel & Leisure as one of America's best little beach towns. There are no high-rises or boardwalks on the 7-mile-long island. Instead, visitors will find endless beaches, stunning sunsets, and unspoiled natural landscapes. Biking, hiking, bird-watching, and boating are popular activities, as are crabbing and clamming. There are also farmers markets to explore, and hang gliding for the more adventurous.
MEXICO BEACH, FL
"Old Florida" is the way travel blogger Becky Beall describes Mexico Beach. There isn't a single stoplight in the 5-mile-long community, and life moves at a leisurely pace. Biking, fishing from the pier, and searching for seashells along the beach are among the highlights here, ideal for those in search of a quiet respite. Don't miss the tiny diner Killer Seafood, says Beall, where the fish tacos are a must-try.
Stay: Accommodations range from quaint cottages to vacation homes. Parker Realty offers a cottage between the highway and beach that sleep as many as six people starting at about $135 a night for each person.
Another small beach town on Travel & Leisure's Best in America list, Lubec also has the unique distinction of being the most easterly town in the United States. Two lighthouses, quaint fishing wharves, nearly 100 miles of shoreline, and incredible natural beauty are notable draws. For a little more structured entertainment, check out the selection of summer arts workshops at Summer Keys, including piano lessons, photography classes, creative writing, dancing, and more.
Stay: The Inn on the Wharf, located in a renovated, 107-year-old sardine factory, offers two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments with covered decks overlooking the ocean for $150 to $180 a night.
Essential summertime activities here include exploring the pristine lengths of Crane Beach in nearby Ipswich and ending the day with a feast of fried clams at Woodman's. A place that typifies small-town New England beach life, Essex has yet to be overdeveloped or overrun by crowds. It's still dominated by winding country roads and vast picturesque marshes and estuaries that can be navigated in small rowboats or kayaks. It's also known as America's antiques capital, with more than two dozen shops clustered within a mile of each other. The Essex Shipbuilding Museum is home to a fascinating collection of photos and artifacts.
Named one of the top 25 beach towns in New England by Yankee magazine, Wellfleet is classic, unspoiled Cape Cod. Located on the outer end of the cape, it is dominated by Cape Cod National Seashore, which makes up more than half the land area. Beyond the pristine coastline, there are many spring-fed ponds; a charming downtown filled with art galleries, shops, and restaurants; and picturesque Wellfleet Harbor, with a nonstop parade of sailboats and yachts. Wellfleet is also home to the 1,000-acre Massachusetts Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary.
Stay: Quintessential New England cottages are available on HomeAway for less than $200 a night. An air-conditioned cottage on Drummer Cove, for example, can cost about $100 in June. But be warned: Cottages anywhere on Cape Cod book up quickly for the popular summer season.
With a population of less than 2,000 and not a single traffic light, Gearhart is another one of America's best small beach towns, according to Travel & Leisure. What makes the community so alluring, in addition to its unhurried pace, is pristine beaches, antique shops, art galleries, and abundant hiking.
Stay: Beachside cottages for less than $200 a night are available through Rogers Inn Vacation Rentals. A few are even less than $100 a night.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TX
While South Padre may be a notorious spring break haunt, come summer the crowds are long gone and the community becomes an alluring, family-friendly destination. There are 34 miles of white sand beach, emerald water, fishing, water sports, sandcastle lessons, and the Schlitterbahn Waterpark.
Stay: Two-bedroom cottages rent for around $1,000 a week during the summer through Affordable Beach House Vacation Rentals.
TYBEE ISLAND, GA
Tybee Island is a picturesque barrier island perfect for whiling away summer days. Less than 20 miles from historic Savannah, Tybee is known for wide, sandy beaches, tasty local cuisine, and salt marshes full of birds and wildlife unique to the Georgia coast. There are plenty of fishing opportunities and more than two dozen restaurants, should you not feel like catching your meals. Southern chef Paula Deen has a vacation home (available to rent) on the island.
Stay: Summer stays at the Atlantis Inn can be rented starting at $169.
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC
A beach community recognized by a dizzying list of publications, including Travel & Leisure, USA Today, and Forbes, Hilton Head can easily entertain visitors for a long string of summer days. With 12 miles of beach, golf courses, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and hundreds of restaurants, Hilton Head Island may actually sound a bit overwhelming at first blush. But there's a concerted effort to keep it feeling like, well, an island retreat, with a deliberate absence of bright street lights and brash colors.
Stay: Vacation Company lists some one-bedroom, one-bathroom villa rentals can go as low as $638 a week in summer months.
CAROLINA BEACH, NC
Located between Myrtle Beach and Nags Head, Carolina Beach offers a quieter, slower-paced, and more affordable take on a summer getaway, says Clem Bason, CEO of the hotel deal site GoSeek. Described as one of the most down-to-earth beaches on the Atlantic coast, Carolina Beach has a vintage boardwalk lined by rides and restaurants, regular live music, surfing, and hiking and bird-watching in Carolina Beach State Park -- all of which just scratches the surface of this classic American beach community.
Stay: Blue Water Realty offers some prime, one-bedroom beachfront condos that start at about $890 a week. A few drop their rate to about $695 a week in early and late summer.
LA JOLLA, CA
Known in Southern California and beyond for its beauty, seaside mansions, and entertaining community of sea lions, La Jolla is a place where you could spend a lifetime, not just a summer. There's endless shopping, trendy restaurants (many with stellar views of La Jolla Cove), and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, run by the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The world-famous Torrey Pines Golf Course commands prime oceanfront real estate. Down the road is Torrey Pines State Park, with stellar hiking trails providing views of the California coast.
Stay: Airbnb lists one-bedroom bungalows, cottages, and some small apartments for less than $200. But as in any popular beach community, the affordable listings book fast.
A classic Maine community, York is a quaint village with a postcard-perfect shoreline, ice cream stands that date back generations, and plenty of picturesque country roads passing iconic regional architecture, pastoral fields, and the occasional cove or estuary. Kayaking, golf, biking, and wandering along the many nature trails are top activities here. There are also a variety of summer theaters in the area, including the Ogunquit Playhouse and the Hackmatack Playhouse.
Stay: HomeToGo lists small turn-of-the-century cottages, apartments, and even houses for less than $150 a night.
SUNSET BEACH, HI
A place synonymous with beach life, Hawaii cannot be overlooked when it comes to oceanfront communities worthy of a summer escape. One of the most pleasant places to pass a few weeks is the North Shore of Oahu. Sunset Beach is a vibrant surfer community during winter but practically abandoned come summer, when the waves all but disappear. There's amazing snorkeling to be done here, as well as hiking and zip lining. Sunset Beach State Park is a prime place for beachcombing, not to mention sunsets.
Stay: Sunset Beach is a blink-and-you-miss-it community; accommodations can be found in the general North Shore Oahu and Haleiwa region. TripAdvisor lists some bungalows and cottages that charge less than $800 for a weeklong stay.
AVILA BEACH, CA
An unincorporated community in San Luis Obispo County, about two hours north of Los Angeles, Avila Beach provides an escape from big-city life. Located just off picturesque Highway 1, this small beach town is known for local wines, oceanfront dining, and spas featuring natural mineral hot springs. Visitors can spend time visiting the Central Coast Aquarium, wandering along the Bob Jones biking and walking trail, or exploring the area via the free Avila Beach Trolley, which shuttles passengers to the equally charming Pismo Beach.
Stay: VRBO lists many summer rentals throughout the Avila and Pismo Beach area, some for less than $150 a night.
There are enough forms of entertainment in Rehoboth to fill a few summer months and then some. The beachfront boardwalk provides endless fun for kids. Adults are attracted to the vibrant restaurant scene, art galleries, and shops. There are free concerts at the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand, and the Rehoboth Beach Museum presents town history through displays of vintage postcards and yearbooks.
Stay: Airbnb lists summer rental options ranging from cottages to beachfront condos for less than $200 a night.
LONG BEACH, WA
Long Beach is popular throughout the year but especially so in summer, once the region's famous rains are gone. There are 28 miles of sand beaches for sunbathing, swimming, or surfing. Other notable options for summertime entertainment include eco tours of the Columbia River, the nearly half-mile Long Beach Boardwalk, and the Willapa Wildlife Refuge, which is home to an ancient grove of red cedars that are about 1,000 years old.
Stay: At Enchanted Cottages, fully remodeled vacation rentals originally built in 1926 can be found for $96 or $106 a night in midsummer.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA
Huntington Beach is far more affordable than its famous neighbors to the north, such as Santa Monica, Venice, and Laguna, says GoSeek's Bason. The walkable downtown features trendy shops and great restaurants. But what Huntington Beach does best, of course, is beach life, whether it's surfing, playing volleyball, strolling the pier, or ending the day by a bonfire. The community is home to 10 miles of beach and prime surf (its nickname is Surf City USA). Its five beaches are connected by a paved path designed for walking, jogging, and bike riding.
Stay: Airbnb lists beach homes and apartments for less than $150 a night.
GULF SHORES, AL
Travel publications have named Gulf Shores one of the most charming beach communities in America, one of the most underrated vacations spots in the country, and one of the best Southern beaches, among other accolades. In addition to 32 miles of beach, one of the top attractions is Gulf State Park, where there are hiking trails, kayak rentals, a zip line over the dunes, and a golf course. Just across the street is the second-largest pier in the Gulf of Mexico. The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is home to sea turtles and migratory birds.
Stay: Southern Vacation Rentals lists properties in the area starting at $60 a night in mid-June.
KIAWAH ISLAND, SC
Kiawah Island, a barrier island not far from Charleston, offers 10 miles of coastline, more than 100 acres of parks, and 30 miles of hiking and biking trails. Visitors can explore maritime forests; observe wildlife living in the island marshes, including turtles, whitetail deer, and seabirds; or venture out via kayak or stand-up paddleboard. For a change of scenery, head over to Charleston to meander along its cobblestone streets and see stunning historic homes.
Stay: Airbnb offers a diverse selection of summer options, from apartments to condos to small homes, for less than $200 a night. But they book fast -- worst-case scenario, you may have to put this one on tap for next summer.