You’ve checked your calendar, and you’ve got a few days for a quick trip to the beach. The only problem: Beaches are, well, crowded, especially when you’re planning your vacation at the last minute.

Fortunately, if you’re willing to go slightly off the beaten path, you can find a beach town near you with a quaint, relaxed atmosphere. Here’s a look at some of the best options throughout the United States (including some suggestions to help you keep your itinerary in check).

Cape May, New Jersey

Yes, it’s technically on the Jersey shore, but if you’re picturing tacky amusement park rides and ostentatious casinos, think again. Elegant Victorian houses dot the landscape of this historic beach town located on the southern tip of New Jersey.

Stay at one of Cape May’s upscale bed and breakfast establishments to add some elegance to your weekend trip. The Mason Cottage downtown is a fine choice, although if you’re looking for something closer to the beach, you’ll want to rent a house or condo. Most of the town’s beaches get crowded in the summer, but you can always head over to the Higbee Wildlife Management Area to get away from the tourists and enjoy a nice walk on the beach.

A row of Cape May, New Jersey homes and inns

When you’re ready for a change of pace, hit the brick pathways of the Washington Street Mall, an outdoor walking mall with an array of specialty shops and artisanal craft stores. Foodies should check out Cape May Olive Oil Co., which offers balsamic vinegars, organic spices, pure cane sugars, and, of course, fine olive oils. The town has a number of fine restaurants, but the obvious choice for first-time tourists is Hemingway’s Prime Steaks & Seafood, located in the Grand Hotel.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Alabama might not be every vacationer’s first choice, but the state has some of the country’s most captivating white sand beaches. Gulf Shores and its sister city, Orange Beach, are wonderful communities for a quick trip, and of the two, Gulf Shores offers a slightly more relaxed vibe.

Beach house rentals are relatively inexpensive and offer some privacy while you’re enjoying the gorgeous views, but if you’re looking to save--or if you’re headed to Gulf Shores on a whim--the town has several great RV parks and campgrounds. With 32 miles of pristine beaches, you should be able to enjoy some peace and quiet without running into too many of your fellow tourists.

A closeup of the beautiful white sand on Gulf Shores' beaches with a blue sky and wispy clouds overh

Part of the fun of a beachfront vacation is the food, and Gulf Coast doesn’t disappoint; whether you’re looking for gumbo, po’ boys, barbecue, or traditional American cuisine, you’ll find some great options. Several of the town’s restaurants will even cook your catch. Our pick is the Delta Blue Bar and Grill, which serves a satisfying assortment of comfort foods.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Many towns claim to have “Old Florida" charm, but few can compare with Sanibel Island. With one of the greatest shelling beaches in the United States, it’s a fantastic place for nature lovers, and numerous historical landmarks in the city proper provide plenty of opportunities for interesting day trips.

A woman shelling on a Sanibel Island beach

Granted, you could always just kick off your shoes, walk the beaches, and enjoy the sun--on Sanibel Island, it’s easy to plan a vacation that works for you. We’d recommend booking a small inn or cottage, although the island has its share of resorts.

Take a day to explore the beaches and admire a few shells, then stop by the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum to view an extensive collection of miraculous mollusks. The Olde Sanibel Shoppes offer a pet-friendly boutique shopping experience, and restaurants like Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon give you a place to enjoy a fine meal while taking in the ocean views.

Gearhart, Oregon

Oregon’s northern coast is home to seaside communities that offer plenty of variety for the traveler in search of local color. Of all the northwest coastal cities, though, we recommend escaping for a weekend to Gearhart.

A quaint neighborhood in Gearhart, Oregon. Bungalows in the foreground, mountains and trees on the h

Why? A charming town center, the complete absence of traffic lights, and pristine beaches all make Gearhart the ideal place to relax. It’s located less than 100 miles from Portland, but visiting is like taking a trip to a simpler time.

Highlights include boutique rental homes from Gearheart Lodging, the historic McMenamins Sand Trap Pub, and the oldest golf course in the region.

Saugatuck, Michigan

Don’t rule out Lake Michigan as a destination for your desired beach getaway. Saugatuck has several serene beaches and plenty of outdoor activities that’ll pep up your stay.

Oval Beach is a popular destination for those who want to enjoy the sand and water, with a peaceful atmosphere that includes a backdrop of beautiful rolling dunes. And if you want a better view of the beach and town, you can climb the stairs to the top of Mount Baldhead to see it all.

Brick buildings and trees near Saugatuck bridge in Michigan

There are also plenty of local shops and art galleries to check out in town. Butler Street seems to have at least one of everything--gourmet food shops, jewelry and clothing sellers, gift shops, fine arts establishments, as well as casual and fine dining. After a long day of shopping, you can relax with a tour of a nearby lavender farm.

Ogunquit, Maine

Reports say the Abenaki tribe named this seaside community Ogunquit, meaning “beautiful place by the sea.” It’s an apt name. Ogunquit has some of the most pristine beaches in the New England region. This is a true summer resort town, so for a relaxing visit, you might want to stick to the offseason.

Use the town’s footbridge to get to Ogunquit Beach and Footbridge Beach. Both offer beautiful views of the town and water, rolling dunes, and plenty of space for activities. You can also walk along 1.25 mile-long Marginal Way trail for a stunning view of the rocky Atlantic coastline.

A rocky beach in Ogunquit, Maine, with fog rolling in

After some time enjoying the scenery outside, explore the many boutiques and art galleries in town. Ogunquit Museum of American Art is the only museum in the state of Maine to dedicate itself entirely to American art. Or you can catch a show at the Ogunquit Playhouse. After working up an appetite, try some of the freshest seafood around from Barnacle Billy’s.

Isle Of Palms, South Carolina

When you’re enjoying the historical beauty of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, it’s hard to believe there’s an island paradise just 20 minutes away. Isle of Palms is a barrier island graced with white-sand beaches and southern charm. It’s only one mile wide and seven miles long, so you can get a taste of the whole island in a single weekend.

A beach house in Isle of Palms, South Carolina

And what a taste it is! Isle of Palms is packed with restaurants, from comfortable casual spots like the Sea Biscuit Cafe to fine-dining refuges like the Old Village Post House Inn. Sample the catch of the day at the beachside Acme Lowcountry Kitchen or The Boathouse at Breach Inlet.

For the coziest experience, book your stay at the Boardwalk Inn, which offers breakfast in bed and private balconies with views of the town’s boardwalk and the ocean beyond. Or rent a beach house at the Wild Dunes Resort for the comforts of home, just steps from the surf.

Isle of Palms is the ideal spot to relax on the beach and enjoy southern hospitality, but more adventurous travelers can enjoy kayaking in the surf, plus fishing, golf, horseback riding, and even ghost tours.

Key Biscayne, Florida

If you need a break from Miami’s party-spot mayhem, take a 15-minute trek down the Rickenbacker Causeway to the island town of Key Biscayne. This little beach community sits in between lovely Crandon Park and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, making it the ideal home base for nature exploration.

Book a stay in a local bed and breakfast to enjoy the island’s subtler charms. Or, if you’re looking for a more posh experience, try the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. The luxury hotel boasts a pair of pools with ocean views, an in-house spa, and even a Ritz Kids program to keep the little ones occupied while you relax.

An aerial shot of sunbathers on a beach in Key Biscayne

Wherever you sleep, be sure to stop off for a bite at the Golden Hog or Boater’s Grill, which offers a menu stacked with seafood and Cuban fare.

Don’t leave the island without a visit to The Island Shop for an afternoon of retail therapy. This home goods store features one-of-a-kind China sets, table linens, and even stationary. These products make ideal mementos of your peaceful weekend at the beach.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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