A glorious hush falls over the country's favorite beach towns in autumn. Crowds disappear and locals exhale. While the water's still warm and the weather's still mild, scoop up a cheap oceanfront cottage rental and enjoy the golden moments of the season. Here are 10 iconic U.S. beach towns where you can pedal along quiet boardwalks, kayak among fall colors, and score excellent post-Labor Day deals.
Newport, Rhode Island
A quiet post-Labor Day calm envelops Newport after the families that crowd Easton's Beach return to the daily grind and couples arrive in town for romantic New England getaways. Just above the beach, you can walk hand-in-hand along the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, where opulent mansions are set among mature trees turning brilliant shades. It's not uncommon to see a cruise ship in the harbor this time of year, since Newport is a popular leaf-peeping stopover en route to Nova Scotia or Quebec. Vineyards and pastures are part of the stunning coastal landscape, and you'll find plenty of farmers' markets, you-pick berry farms, and venues for wine tasting. In fall, there's hardly ever a wait for a fantastic table downtown, even in the most popular restaurants.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
In fall, Gulf Shores visitors still linger on miles of sugar-sand beaches and play in the clear, turquoise Gulf of Mexico waters. The town's marinas, home to one of the world's largest fleets of charter fishing boats, offer anglers one last hurrah before the weather turns. Big runs of bull redfish continue through autumn, with opportunities to snag a keeper right from the Gulf State Park Pier. With less humidity in the air, golfers are more comfortable on the area's nine signature courses. Thrill seekers welcome cooler days on zip-lines and paddleboards at the new Gulf Adventure Center at Gulf State Park. But no visit is complete without a stop at King Neptune's Seafood Restaurant on the main drag for a heaping plate of royal reds (shrimp), a local delicacy.
Vice President Joe Biden, for one, skips Nantucket's high-season crowds and visits in the fall, when the Gulf Stream ushers in an Indian summer and the ocean is the warmest it's been all year. Under beautiful blue skies, you can relax on a lonesome beach or rent a bicycle and ride past weathered cedar-shake cottages and old whaling captains' mansions. Once the world's top whaling port, Nantucket's Historic District is now a National Historic Landmark, with more than 800 pre-Civil War buildings still standing. Crisp fall days are perfect for pulling on a cable-knit sweater and wandering the cobblestone streets to browse boutique shops and stop for steamy Nantucket Bay scallops. At the Nantucket Whaling Museum, learn about the Nantucketers who inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick.
This popular Lake Michigan beach town 140 miles from Chicago—with its cottages, Victorian-style B&Bs, ice cream counters, and fudge shops—settles down in fall. Oval Beach and the towering sand dunes in the adjacent Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area become desolate places for autumn walks. Come September, the focus in Saugatuck turns to the arts. More than 100 years ago, The Art Institute of Chicago established a summer-school program here, and many artists have stuck around. So it's no surprise that downtown's dozens of galleries manage to resist schlock in their displays of handcrafted pieces for cottage and home. Head to the countryside for a wagon tour at Fenn Valley Vineyards, fresh peach pie at the Crane's Pie Pantry family farm, or a swig of hard apple cider at Virtue Cider's orchards.
Nags Head, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Skip the Outer Banks' notorious standstill bridge traffic, with long lines of summer vacationers inching their cars along the one-lane road. Visit in fall, when you can drive happily and have beaches and lighthouses to yourself. The winds pick up again in autumn, an ideal time for kite-surfing or flying a kite in Nags Head. The sand cools off at Jockey's Ridge State Park, where you can climb the tallest natural sand dune in the eastern U.S. without burning your feet. In October, glide beneath the dark sky during a meteor shower and spot wildlife on a nighttime canoe or kayak tour. Find end-of-season sales in boutiques, surf shops, art galleries, and the outlet mall, then refuel with fall comfort food at the seven stops highlighted on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
For the come-what-may type of traveler, the little town of Cannon Beach is a delightful mixed bag in autumn. You never know if Mother Nature will enshroud the famous Haystack Rock monolith in rain, a dreamlike fog, or a bath of brilliant sunshine. Despite mild temperatures, the sky's unpredictability keeps gregarious summer crowds at bay, giving local shopkeepers more time to chat and giving visitors virtually empty parking lots along the coast. Take a brisk walk on the vast beach or a hike in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark at Ecola State Park before hopping from gallery to boutique to coffee shop to bakery. Finish the day by warming up by a wood-burning fireplace in a cozy lodge, rental cottage, or B&B. Staying in Portland? EverGreen Escapes runs an all-inclusive day trip with an expert naturalist guide.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
As summer ends, the sounds of crowded beaches and nightly concerts begin to fade in Virginia Beach. You can ride a bike on the boardwalk without dodging too many tourists, or kayak through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in solitude and admire the fall colors. First Landing State Park's 20 miles of trails quiet down, too. In fall, the park's salt marshes, cypress swamps, dunes, and forests are popular spots for watching birds as they fatten up for migration. The carved-duck decoys at the free Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum on the Virginia Beach boardwalk are worth a look even if you're not a Duck Dynasty fan. Five miles from the beach, Hunt Club Farm celebrates the season with farm tours and live entertainment every weekend in October.
Aside from the thinning of beach crowds, not much in Galveston indicates the onset of fall. With 80-degree days in September that drop only into the mid-70s in October, autumn on Galveston Island feels like an endless summer. For those in denial about the shift of seasons, summer's free Saturday-night outdoor movie and concert series continues through October. And still in full swing are the outdoor Schlitterbahn Waterpark slides and Historic Pleasure Pier's amusement rides. Fall in Galveston means you can stroll the trendy Postoffice Street Arts & Entertainment District or tour one of the historic districts without breaking a sweat. Stay at Hotel Galvez & Spa and use the complimentary bicycles for a self-guided Tree Sculpture Tour to see how local artists shaped the thousands of trees devastated by Hurricane Ike five years ago.
The Wildwoods, New Jersey
In the Wildwoods, the period from Labor Day weekend through the end of November—with its warm fall breezes, lower hotel rates, and relaxed pace—is known as the "Second Season." Hotel rates drop, but you can still catch events every weekend. The '50s and '60s concerts roll on through autumn, and the weather generally cooperates when you want to bike around town to see the doo-wop-style architecture. Fall is best for beachcombing. You'll likely uncover treasures that the summer crowds left behind, along with shells and starfish. If you're on the boardwalk on closing day (September 29), bid farewell to another season of rides with a discounted wristband.
Best Fall Events: Boardwalk Classic Car Show and Auction (September), Morey's Piers Souper Sunday Chili/Chowder Cook-Off (October), and
The Fabulous '50s & Beyond Weekend (October).
Pismo Beach, California
On central California's coast, warm weather lingers after summer has gone, so you're afforded last chances to dig for clams, ride dune buggies, and watch sunsets from the fishing pier without having to bundle up. In autumn at Pismo Beach, the ocean is rarely foggy, and nearby vineyards cloaked in fall colors are breathtaking. Harvest season brings numerous events at wineries throughout the Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, and Avila Valley. Look for downtown's beachfront wine-tasting rooms and restaurants that pair cuisine with local wine. Fall also signals the annual return of thousands of monarch butterflies that cluster in the eucalyptus grove at Pismo State Beach.
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