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Travel

Think beach: 4 great options from coast to coast to coast, with one in between

For many people, only a couple of ingredients are needed for the perfect summer vacation: soft, warm sand and refreshing cool water. The combination can be found across America, from small ponds to sprawling oceans. This summer, destinations from coast to coast will serve up shore-side fun to families seeking a relaxing break.

Surf City

As singer Dean Torrence scanned the menu at Sancho's, a popular stop for burritos along the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, Calif., he had exciting news to share about his daughter Jillian.

"She just got an A in surfing!" he exclaimed.

Sure, surfing classes aren't common, but in Huntington Beach, they are indeed part of the curriculum at the local high school. And Torrence was delighted that his daughter relishes the sport he has enjoyed for decades.

As kids growing up in Los Angeles, Torrence and buddy Jan Berry would, after school, grab their surfboards, hop in Torrence's pickup and catch the waves down the coast in Huntington Beach.

"This was the best surf and the biggest beach. You weren't on top of each other," he recalled.

The city boasts Southern California's longest continuous beach and has trademarked the nickname Surf City. It's also, not at all coincidentally, the name of the pop record that Jan and Dean took to No. 1 back in 1963.

With its 10 miles of sand along the blue waters of the Pacific, Huntington Beach ranks among America's top family-friendly beach communities. And there's much more to "HB" — as you'll see on stickers on scores of cars along PCH — than just the surf action.

Where the sand stretches for as far as the eye can see, building sandcastles is a popular pastime. For those who want to create real works of art, Dig It! Sandcastles offers classes that show visitors how to use plastic pails and scoops to create towering masterpieces complete with archways, turrets and moats.

"You see these families coming down and not knowing what to expect, and then see them leaving jiving. I've seen it time and time again," Torrence added.

As the sun sets over the ocean, dozens of fire pots light up along the strand. On any given night, people will gather around them to toast marshmallows, sing songs or warm up when there's a chilly breeze. Being a family-friendly town, however, it's lights — and fires — out come 10 o'clock.

And don't try to order a Neptune Cocktail. First, no alcohol's allowed on the beach, and second, that's surfer slang for swallowing a gulp of saltwater after a wipeout.

Visitor info: 800-729-6232, surfcityusa.com; Dig It! Sandcastles: 714-206-2877, africano.org

Alabama's Gulf Coast

The twin communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach draw throngs of families to LA — that's Lower Alabama, y'all — each summer. But there always seems to be plenty of sand to share.

There's also plenty of history to be absorbed at or near the beaches in this area, once home to the first Native American village in the country to be visited by white explorers.

During the Civil War, Fort Morgan was an important Confederate outpost. Each Tuesday evening during June and July, docents lead guests on candlelight tours. There are other historic sites along the Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail.

Be sure to drop by Lulu's at Homeport, a bar and grill at Homeport Marina, to say "hey" to Lucy Buffett. A well-known cook in these parts, she's the sister of singer Jimmy Buffett. She, too, knows how to party. But though there's plenty of tequila and rum on the drinks menu, the place doesn't stay open late and caters to everyone, including those who are avoiding everything from dairy products to gluten.

Visitor info: 800-745-7263, gulfshores.com; Lulu's at Homeport: 251-967-5858, lulubuffett.com

Ocracoke Island

At the southern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks, intrepid families will discover Ocracoke Island.

Home to only a few hundred folks and some of the country's finest beaches, the island's remote location 24 miles offshore makes getting there part of the vacation adventure, because it's accessible only by ferry or private boat or plane.

Kicking back on the miles of isolated, unpopulated white beaches is the big draw to Ocracoke. But the village still has its share of shops and restaurants. When it comes to lodging, everything from camping to B&Bs to hotels is available.

Ocracoke is home to the nation's second-oldest lighthouse still in use, and it's an often-photographed attraction. Sport fishing and scuba diving among the many shipwrecks also are popular.

Don't worry about getting lost. One two-lane road stretches the length of the island.

Visitor info: 252-928-6711, ocracokevillage.com

Saugatuck, Mich.

Known as Michigan's Art Coast, the sister towns of Saugatuck and Douglas snuggle along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, where soaring sand dunes invite exploration.

Long popular with Midwesterners, Saugatuck now draws crowds from much farther afield, thanks to a growing community of artists. Galleries and studios dot the downtown, and outdoor sculptures can be seen seemingly on every corner.

For those who've soaked in enough sun or culture, a lengthy boardwalk beckons with ice cream parlors and cafes.

A popular, convenient way to get from downtown to Oval Beach, across the Kalamazoo River, is aboard the Saugatuck Chain Ferry. Using their own muscle-power, crew members using pulleys move the vessel back and forth across the waterway. The trip costs a dollar.

Since 1954, families have been enjoying dune rides in oversized Jeeps that climb and then, sometimes harrowingly, descend the mountains of sand. It's the local alternative to a roller coaster, and the setting's far more special than an amusement park.

Visitor info: 269-857-1701, saugatuck.com

ctc-travel@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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