Some destinations always come to mind when people think of beach getaways: Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, Miami’s South Beach and the crowded sands in Cancun. Some spots, however, are often overlooked and it makes them that much better. Fewer people, untouched nature, you name it; underrated beach destinations are hidden gems that can be just what you’re looking for. Check out our list of underrated beach destinations – and make a trip before the secret is out.
Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
This little island offers travelers pure, undeveloped land, mainly thanks to the U.S. Navy’s former use of a good portion of the island. The Navy left in 2003, and the land it once occupied is now a national wildlife refuge. Tourists to Puerto Rico often don’t leave the mainland because it takes an extra puddle-jumper to get to Vieques and there are few tourist attractions. Instead, attractions are nature-oriented. Stunning, untouched white-sand beaches and a famous bioluminescent bay are the highlights, but it also features walking trails, 300-year-old trees and top snorkeling spots.
Where to stay: The quaint Inn on the Blue Horizon ( www.bluehorizonboutiqueresort.com) is a smaller, more affordable option compared to the nearby W Vieques. The inn features ocean views, Mediterranean-style architecture and wild horses roaming the grounds. Area info: www.viequestourism.com.
Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
Jacksonville Beach is often overlooked for its Florida beach destination counterparts, but the area offers several nice beaches, and is home to world-renowned golf courses and a lively arts scene. The beach scene in Jacksonville is a bit limited by the weather; though the city experiences mild winters, the waters are too cold for beachgoers from November to March. But the upside is that, during the beach season, the sands are less crowded than southern Florida beaches, and are still great spots for surfing, swimming and fishing.
Where to stay: The Mediterranean-inspired Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach ( www.pontevedra.com/lodge-and-club) occupies a quiet, uncrowded beachfront. There are beautiful ocean views from balconies and romantic window seats in each of the hotel’s 66 rooms. Area info: www.visitjacksonville.com.
Though Montauk is in the Hamptons, there’s a lot of things that set this small town apart from other “quintessential Hamptons” destinations and make it a hidden gem. First, there’s the location. Montauk, nicknamed “The End,” is on the end of Long Island – the easternmost tip, surrounded on three sides by water, and 12 miles from the next Hamptons town. Its laid-back feel attracts more surfers and fishermen than socialites. Long-time lovers of Montauk worry about the area’s growing popularity and new hipster vibe. But a lack of chain restaurants and shops helps to preserve the small-town feel.
Where to stay: If you’re looking for an “old Montauk” scene, skip the more-hipster-with-every-day Sole East and stay at the Panoramic View ( www.panoramicview.com). The 10-acre site is on a hillside and includes pretty walkways, an outdoor pool, state-of-the-art fitness center and private beach access. Area info: www.onmontauk.com.
Lanai is a bit difficult to get to (most visitors take a ferry from Maui) which helps keep the island uncrowded, despite its growing popularity as a luxe getaway. But with not a single stoplight on the island, it really doesn’t need to be said that this island is a bit off Hawaii’s beaten path. Even though its jaw-dropping natural beauty (which includes cerulean ocean and lush forests) is its best asset, small-town coziness accompanies this undeveloped isle. Lanai also offers some of the typical resort destination activities, but with a distinct Lanai twist. For instance, the Challenge at Manele in Lanai City is your basic 18-hole golf course, but it spreads out over fields of lava pressing with scenic coastal cliffs.
Where to stay: Though the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is also luxurious, its sister Four Seasons at Manele Bay ( www.fourseasons.com/manelebay) trumps it with its beachfront. It also offers top-rated dining, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a pristine pool and spa. Area info: www.gohawaii.com/lanai.
San Juan Island, Wash.
San Juan Island is a popular summer getaway for Washingtonians, but otherwise it and the area’s islands are relatively quiet, unknown spots. With a relaxed, back-to-nature vibe, the islands are home to farmlands, evergreen forests, nature trails, whale-watching and mom-and-pop shops. Temperatures are moderate, and rainfall is about half that of Seattle’s, so it’s possible to spend plenty of time outdoors. Popular activities include hiking, wildlife spotting, sailing, swimming and kayaking.
Where to stay: It’s hard to beat Lakedale Resort ( www.lakedale.com), an 82-acre property in quiet Friday Harbor. With a lakefront location, the resort offers everything from an airstream trailer to canvas cabins so guests can choose how luxe or rugged they make their vacation. Area info: www.visitsanjuans.com.
This quaint town along Maine’s coast is notable for its history, beaches and outdoor activities. The 18th-century former jailhouse remains, as do historic homes and the Nubble Lighthouse – one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country. York experiences a surge of visitors during the summertime, but it rarely reaches a point of being overwhelming, like so many other beach destinations. Tourists flock to the coast, lined by sandy and rocky beaches, and enjoy activities such as swimming, surfing, kayaking, fishing and even whale-watching. Those looking for the area’s most secluded beaches may consider heading to York’s Cape Neddick, a quiet little beach with views of the lighthouse.
Where to stay: Stage Neck Inn ( www.stageneck.com) has a scenic oceanfront location, right next to York Harbor Beach. The 58-room hotel offers some outstanding features, such as an outdoor freshwater pool with ocean views, an indoor atrium pool and a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs. Area info: http://bit.ly/9DFCTE.
Bal Harbour, Fla.
While most tourists to Miami flock to South Beach, the ones in the know head to Bal Harbour. Known for its prime shopping at the Bal Harbour Shops, Bal Harbour is a posh Miami suburb. The pier down on the inlet is a nice place to people- and bird-watch. The locals fish out on the rocks; the pelicans take a more direct approach.
Where to stay: Though not as luxe as the nearby St. Regis and ONE, the Sea View Hotel ( www.seaview-hotel.com) is an affordable option just across the street from the shops. Rooms are simple, but the lobby is gorgeous and the hotel features an Olympic-size pool. Area info: www.balharbourflorida.com.
Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe is known as a ski destination and attracts plenty of visitors heading for the slopes. In the summer, a smaller – but equally outdoorsy – crowd comes for the hiking, fishing, swimming and kayaking, all revolving around the pristine lake. There are also a few dispersed museums and historic mansions, and hot-air ballooning and gondola rides are popular ways of taking in the views.
Where to stay: Sitting in a small forest area across the street from Lake Tahoe, the Cedar Glen Lodge ( www.tahoecedarglen.com) is a throwback to a simpler time with its motor-lodge design and woodsy cabins. Despite its 1930s-era vintage, the hotel is in a state of constant renewal. Friendly owners, lake access, a heated outdoor pool, charming lodge-style rooms and free continental breakfast all make the Cedar Glen a great value. Area info: www.visitinglaketahoe.com.