Luxury Travel: Surf and Sand

Escape the crowds and put your toes in the sand on these less-populated shores

Butterfly Beach
Santa Barbara, California
On the West Coast, it's only natural to take golden sunsets over the Pacific for granted -- but not in Santa Barbara. In this charming, well-to-do coastal city about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, the angle of the coastline means that most of the beaches face south, not west, so for the most part, visitors will have to give up on notions of romantic beachfront walks at dusk. But there's an exception: the gently sloping, palm-tree-lined Butterfly Beach. Technically located just south of Santa Barbara in the posh community of Montecito, Butterfly is one of the area's only west-facing beaches -- and one of its most pristine. Beloved by locals for its dog-friendly, no-leash-required policy and its relatively plentiful neighborhood parking, Butterfly can be a little difficult for out-of-towners to find. But those in the know will make their way to the elegant Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara, which is right across the street -- perfect for a post-sunset aperitif.

Grayton Beach State Park
Grayton Beach, Florida
Most sunseekers who head to Florida opt for tourist meccas like Palm Beach or Miami. But those seeking something less crowded and more unique should consider the endearingly quirky Gulf Coast hamlet of Grayton Beach -- the unofficial motto is "nice dogs, strange people" -- with its 1,133-acre Grayton Beach State Park. It offers unspoiled, white sand beaches, picturesque dunes and miles of nature trails. The park also boasts a stunning dune lake: Surrounded by salt marshes, Western Lake even has its own boat ramp. Situated in an increasingly upscale section of the Emerald Coast, Grayton Beach began its life in the late 19th century; more than 100 years later, it's still characterized by weathered cottages and independent-minded locals, and because it's bordered by parkland, it hasn't succumbed to urban sprawl. In town, nightlife is scant -- the place to go is the popular, laid-back Red Bar, a haven for live jazz and local fare -- but every kind of outdoor activity is available here, from saltwater and freshwater fishing to kayaking and cycling. Eclectic accommodations are available at the Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse, in a structure that dates back to 1903.

Hanalei Beach
Kauai, Hawaii
Finally planning that long-overdue Hawaiian vacation? Skip the jam-packed beaches of Waikiki and Maui -- instead, schedule some downtime on Kauai, where you'll find the serene and secluded Hanalei Beach. Located on Kauai's North Shore, this long crescent of golden sand surrounds the vibrant blue waters of Hanalei Bay. Here, you can swim, sunbathe and surf to your heart's content; novice surfers can take lessons or ask a lifeguard for tips on finding the gentler waves, and pros can tempt fate out where the bigger waves break on the sandbars. Hanalei offers a public boat ramp -- perfect for fishing -- and it's also a good spot for scuba diving, as each side of this half-moon bay is lined by coral reefs. There are plenty of reasonably priced vacation rentals right in the area, but if you're looking for opulence and exclusivity, book a suite at the St. Regis Princeville, located just a few minutes from Hanalei Beach and set to reopen in October.

Lifeguard Beach
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
In the 1700s, pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard, menaced countless ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. But even a pirate needs a place to call home, and Blackbeard's favorite hideout was North Carolina's Ocracoke Island. One of the most isolated barrier islands of the state's Outer Banks, Ocracoke is better known for its 16 miles of meticulously maintained beaches, and in particular, Lifeguard Beach, lauded for its excellent water and sand quality and environmental management. You couldn't ask for a better spot for a secluded waterfront idyll, as the pace of life is slow here; there are no roads connecting Ocracoke to the mainland -- it's only accessible by ferry, private boat and aircraft. After a long day on the shore, rest easy at one of the island's independently run bed and breakfasts.

Monarch Beach
Dana Point, California
Monarch Beach got its name from the scores of Monarch butterflies that used to migrate en masse through the area. Today, you'll still see plenty of wildlife on Monarch Beach, where seals and sea lions soak up the sun and dolphins play in the surf. Creature comforts of the human variety are also close at hand, as the beach's immediate neighborhood is home to two of Orange County's top resorts, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and the St. Regis Monarch Beach. Perched on a bluff just above Monarch Beach, the St. Regis honors the winged creatures, hosting its Monarch Beach Ritual every Saturday all summer long, when dozens of butterflies are released into the air and celebrated with a champagne toast.

Moshup Beach
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Martha's Vineyard is hardly a secret as summer-weather destinations go, but while high-season crowds are unavoidable on many of the island's beaches, there's one that remains a bit of a secret. Located up-island, as the locals say, in Aquinnah, the blissfully secluded Moshup Beach takes its name from a benevolent being that the local Wampanoag tribe holds responsible for the shape of Martha's Vineyard. One of the distinguishing features of this public beach is its dramatic backdrop, the clay Gay Head Cliffs. And while Moshup is quite family-friendly, rumor has it that there's a nude section for the more adventurous.

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