To tell the truth, here at Budget Travel we've never signed off on the notion that summer ends on Labor Day. Not only does the season officially extend into late September, but balmy beach breezes, warm sun, and lobster rolls remain available well into October. And one of the benefits of hitting the shore in autumn is affordable hotel rates, putting dream destinations like Hilton Head, Montauk, Laguna Beach, and even Nantucket within your reach. Here, 10 of our favorite American beach towns with fall rates that say, "Welcome!"
1. HILTON HEAD
Warm beaches, warm welcome—plus pirates!
With fall temperatures in the 70s and 80s, miles of pristine lowcountry beaches, and the utterly unique Gullah culture, Hilton Head is truly like no other beach town in America. Learn more about what makes the island special at the Coastal Discovery Museum, or discover it for yourself on a quiet beach. If you're traveling with kids, don't miss Pirates of Hilton Head Island, with its ride aboard the Black Dagger ship. Or take a deep breath and explore the island on ZipLine Hilton Head's two-hour sky-high tour!
Where to eat: Dye's Gullah Fixin's (840 William Hilton Parkway, 843/681-8106, dyesgullahfixins.com, stuffed flounder $9.99, reservations required, cash only).
Where to stay: Holiday Inn Resort The Beach House (1 South Forest Beach Dr., ihg.com, from $119)
Get there: Hilton Head Island is 20 miles north of Savannah, Ga., and 95 miles south of Charleston, S.C.
Step back in time in this sleepy Lake Michigan town
Picket fences, a 19th-century vibe, and not a chain restaurant in sight. Saugatuck is one of the places savvy Chicagoans go to get away from the big city. Before you can plant yourself on Oval Beach, you've got to hop a hand-cranked ferry across the Kalamazoo River.
Where to eat: Phil's Bar and Grille (215 Butler St., philsbarandgrille.com, scallop pad thai $21).
Where to stay: Best Western Plaza Hotel Saugatuck (3457 Blue Star Highway, bestwestern.com, from $99).
Get there: Saugatuck is about 140 miles northeast of Chicago.
Live the SoCal beach dream
No, you don't have to surf just because you're on an iconic seven-mile stretch of Southern California sea and sand, but you can take a group surfing lesson for $75 with a guarantee that you'll "get up" on your board. Nearby Laguna Village offers excellent art galleries and shops, a nod to this gorgeous beach town's roots as an artists' colony.
Where to eat: Rock'n Fish (422 South Coast Highway, rocknfishlb.com, crab and avocado roll $16.95)
Where to stay: Pacific Edge Hotel (647 South Coast Highway, pacificedgehotel.com, from $125).
Get there: Laguna Beach is about 50 miles south of Los Angeles and 72 miles north of San Diego.
4. BAY ST. LOUIS
Gulf beaches, fresh seafood, and art galleries
One of Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns in America 2013, Bay St. Louis was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but has done more than recover since then. Explore Historic Old Town, go fishing, and take a walking tour of 19th-century homes, Creole cottages, and galleries, or just take Main Street straight down to the beach.
Where to eat: Mockingbird Café (110 South 2nd St., mockingbirdcafe.com, World-Famous Mockingburger featuring 100 percent Black Angus beef, cheedar cheese, fresh tomato, sweet red onion and green leaf lettuce on a jalapeno cheddar sourdough bun $9).
Where to stay: Carroll House Bed & Breakfast (304 Carroll Ave., carrollhousebnb.com, from $105).
Get there: Bay St. Louis is about 60 miles northeast of New Orleans.
5. POINT PLEASANT
The lines for the roller coaster and zeppoli are way shorter in September!
Point Pleasant is, well, pleasant enough in summer if you enjoy being part of a major scene, rubbing elbows with in-the-know New Yorkers, Philadelphians, and Jersey girls and boys who love Jenkinson's Boardwalk and the lovely stretch of beach here. But come September, the rides stay open, the cotton candy is just as sweet, but rates for hotel rooms just a block from the beach can be literally a third of the summer price.
Where to eat: Woodchucks BBQ (3009 Lakewood Rd., woodchucksbbq.com, half-slab of baby back ribs with cornbread and two sides $14).
Where to stay: The White Sands (1205 Ocean Ave., thewhitesands.com, from $130).
Get there: Point Pleasant is about 70 miles south of New York City and about 75 miles northeast of Philadelphia.
6. PORT TOWNSEND
Old-timey seaport in the Pacific Northwest
We love the harbor and the foodie scene in this Victorian-era Olympic coast seaport, which was one of our Coolest Small Towns last year. A sea kayaker's dream town, Port Townsend also boasts nearby mountains for hiking and biking, and is an especially great place to cast for fish.
Where to eat: Fins Coastal Cuisine (1019 Water St., finscoastal.com, wild cod fish-and-chips with hand-cut garlic fries, field greens, and tarragon tartar sauce $16).
Where to stay: Chevy Chase Beach Cabins (7310 South Discovery Rd., chevychasebeachcabins.com, from $150 through September, from $110 October through May).
Get there: Port Townsend is about 56 miles northwest of Seattle, but set aside two hours for the drive, along winding coastal highways. From Victoria, B.C., take a two-hour ferry ride to Port Angeles, Wash., then drive 47 miles east.
7. KEY WEST
You can't go any farther—or ask for a more beautiful location—down the East Coast
Well-known as one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite locales—with a party reputation to match—this gorgeous spot at the waaaaaaaaaay bottom of the U.S.'s East Coast boasts a much wider variety of activities, including tours of Victorian homes, nature kayaking, and unique art galleries. Sunset-watching here is not mandatory, but thoroughly recommended. No matter how cliché, it never gets old.
Where to eat: B.O.'s Fish Wagon (801 Carolina St., 305/294-9272, grouper sandwich $13,50).
Where to stay: Parrot Key Hotel & Resort (2801 North Roosevelt Blvd, parrotkeyresort.com, from $131
Get there: Key West is 161 miles southwest of Miami.
Parkland and board shorts at the very end of Long Island's East End
Sure, this dreamy beach town at the tip of New York's Long Island has gone a bit more upscale over the years, with some classic motels closing and serious eateries moving in. But with only 17 square miles bounded by water and 40 percent of the land devoted to state and county parkland, this place is still pretty wild, and one stop at the Ditch Plains beach and its surfing scene will make you feel as if you've traveled back to the days when trekking the 100+ miles from NYC kept most folks away.
Where to eat: The Crow's Nest (4 Old Westlake Dr., crowsnestmtk.com, mezze platter, including hummus, babaganoush, tabouli, olives, and pita $22).
Where to stay: Ocean Beach Resort (108 South Emerson Ave., oceanbeachmontauk.com, from $178).
Get there: Montauk is about 110 miles from Manhattan.
A hoppin' main street in paradise
For some people, the words "beautiful beach" and Maui are synonymous, and it's difficult to argue. But you'll also find a beautiful town—Hawaii's former capital, Lahaina—on the unparalleled island, with one of the U.S.'s most thriving main streets, the result, in part, of the 19th century whaling industry, for which Lahaina served as something of an unofficial capital as well. Nearby Kaanapali Beach, mountains you can almost reach out and touch, and a tranquil harbor make Lahaina a perfect town for kicking back.
Where to eat: Aloha Mixed Plate (1285 Front St., alohamixedplate.com, lau lau, featuring pork and beef wrapped in taro leaves, with white rice and potato mac salad $7.95).
Where to stay: Kaanapali Ocean Inn (2780 Kekaa Dr., kaanapalioceaninn.com, from $149).
Get there: Maui is an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles, with one stop in Honolulu (Hawaiian Airlines flights from $571).
Eighteenth-century architecture meets 21st-century style
"See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse," wrote Herman Melville about Nantucket in Moby-Dick. This charmingly whale-shaped island still holds its lonely position off the coast of Cape Cod, but of course these days the whaling captains, sailors, and harpooners who made the island home two centuries ago have been replaced by captains of industry who can meet the sky-high summer rates. But things cool down literally and figuratively come September, when you can have perfect beaches, 18th-century cobblestone streets lined with contemporary galleries—and a table with a view—to yourself. (And don't miss the Nantucket Historical Association, with its beautifully designed whaling exhibits and exceptional docents, in the heart of downtown.)
Where to eat: The Jetties (4 Bathing Beach Rd., thejetties.com, lobster roll with French fries $17.75).
Where to stay: Nantucket Inn (1 Miller Ln., nantucketinn.net, from $204).
Get there: Hyannis, Mass., is 70 miles southeast of Boston; from there, opt for the slower, more affordable ferry option (great clam chowder and cold beer!) to Nantucket, and remember Herman Melville's great prose as the island appears on the horizon.