Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Group-friendly beaches: Shoes optional

Courtesy Emerald CVB

You don’t have to be a dedicated beach person to appreciate the calming effects of the northwestern Florida coastline along the Gulf of Mexico.

“Everybody enjoys the gulf,” said Sarah Leahy, travel industry sales manager for the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have tons of gulf-front hotels. People might not want to go swimming, but they can just sit on the balcony and enjoy the view and the slow pace. It’s hard not to appreciate the backdrop of the gulf, whether you are a beach person or not.”

Whether it’s the laidback, sugary, white-sand beaches of the Emerald Coast, the hustle and bustle of the Wildwoods Boardwalk in New Jersey, the surfboarders off Newport Beach, Calif., or the rocky shoreline of northern Maine, the United States has a wide variety of ocean beaches from which to choose.

Florida’s Emerald Coast
“We have 24 miles of what we say are sugar-white sand and emerald water,” said Leahy. “The sand really does feel like sugar in your hands. It’s made of Appalachian quartz; that is why it is so white and so round. It kind of squeaks when you walk on it. A lot of groups do walk on the beach.”

The beautiful white sand escaped relatively unscathed from the gulf oil spill. “In the worst of it, we didn’t see much,” said Leahy. “We only had four or five days with some tar balls, which were cleaned up within 24 hours.

“We did a happy dance when the media stopped talking about it every day. Our beaches are as clean and pristine as ever.”

Sometimes people think the brilliant green water that gives the area around Destin and Fort Walton Beach its name is too good to be true. “Our ad agency has sent pictures to publications that have altered them to make them more blue. They thought we had done something to them,” said Leahy.

Leahy said there are many opportunities for groups to get out on that emerald green water. “Destin has the largest fishing fleet in the state of Florida,” she said. “We have a lot of dolphin cruises, charter fishing trips, sailboats you can charter.”

There are varied and extensive shopping opportunities for landlubbers in the area, from one of the nation’s largest outdoor outlet malls to distinctive, locally owned shops in downtown Fort Walton Beach and Destin Commons.

Other interesting attractions in the area include the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base, the Destin History and Fishing Museum, the Indian Temple Mound and Museum and Florida’s Gulfarium, the state’s oldest marine park, which showcases Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, tropical black-foot penguins, sea turtles and sharks.

The Wildwoods, N.J.
The beaches are so large in the Wildwoods, N.J., that there is a permanent 3,000-seat grandstand on the beach for the many events held on the sand.

“We have the largest beaches on the East Coast; that is one of our main selling points,” said Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority.

“We have many major events on our beaches, such as monster truck races. They build the course right on the beach. We have a large soccer tournament on the beach and an international kite festival.”

Ten square concrete platforms are a permanent part of the beach for the National Marbles Tournament each June.

The white-sand beach stretches for five miles through North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest on a barrier island at the southern end of the state. “And they are all free,” said Rose.

Rose said the Wildwoods beaches offer a full array of water activities, such as surfing, boogie boarding, fishing, power boarding, jet skiing, sailing, kayaking and whale watching.

However, the major attraction of the Wildwoods beach is the two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk, one of the largest seaside amusement parks in the world with more than 100 rides and attractions. There are world-class roller coasters, including one of the tallest wooden roller coasters on the East Coast; water parks; carnival-style midway games; arcades; retails shops; and numerous places to eat.

“The restaurants run the gamut from fresh seafood to barbecue to family restaurants, from gourmet Italian to pizza places,” said Rose. “There is a lot of outdoor dining overlooking the beach and ocean.”

A great way to traverse the boardwalk is aboard one of the eight electric-powered Sightseer Tram Cars, five of which were originally built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. You’ll know where they are when you hear the iconic “Watch the tram car,  please” broadcast from speakers in the cars.

Delaware’s beaches stretch for 25 miles along its eastern shore with the Delaware Bay and encompass five beachfront towns and 12 miles of state park land.

“Each beach town is different; each has its own personality,” said Aubrey Manzo, tourism marketing manager for Southern Delaware Tourism.

The northernmost beach town, Lewes, is a historic town known as the “First Town in the First State.”

“There is a lot of history there,” said Manzo. “The Lewes Historical Society offers trolley tours, walking tours and kayak tours to introduce visitors to fascinating stories and locations.”

The picturesque Lewes Harbor on the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal is a popular subject for artists and is home to a fleet of charter boats that offer fishing and sightseeing excursions.

Rehoboth Beach is a popular summer family destination with its recently renovated boardwalk, beach, numerous restaurants and Tanger Outlets, with tax-free shopping in 130-brand-name outlets at three locations.

“Rehoboth Beach also has a wonderful bandstand overlooking the boardwalk and beach that hosts free shows and movies throughout the summer,” said Manzo.

Dewey Beach, known as the East Coast Skimboarding Capital, holds the annual Skimboarding Championships. “The town also hosts Monday Movie Nights with family movies right on the beach and Wednesday bonfires where families can bring their blankets and marshmallows,” said Manzo.

“Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, known as the quiet resorts, are the perfect locations for relaxation,” she said. “Bethany Beach has a boardwalk ideal for quiet beachfront strolls. There is also the Bethany Beach Bandstand that hosts free summer shows.”

The three coastal state parks have year-round programs such as lantern tours of historic venues, pontoon boat tours, culinary classes and kayak tours.

Cape Henlopen State Park is home to Fort Miles, a key World War II coastal fortification. “Visitors can explore the battery and even climb inside one of the World War II observation towers that are dotted along our coastline,” said Manzo.

Building sandcastles on white sandy beaches might not be your first thought of the Maine coast. But southern Maine has more than 30 miles of such beaches from Kittery to Old Orchard.

“What sets southern Maine apart from the rest of the state is we have more than 30 miles of white sandy beaches, the kind you can dig your toes in and walk along,” said Paige Farmer of the Maine Beaches Association.

“We have quintessential beach communities with boardwalks, seaside amusements and arcades and a lot of storefronts with that old-fashioned beach town feeling. In addition to those more bustling beaches, we do have quieter beaches with more nature experiences, such as birding and tide pools.

“Other parts of the state have beautiful beaches, but they are more rocky coasts, not the place you can throw a lawn chair and umbrella and have a typical beach experience,” said Farmer.

It is this diversity that makes Maine a great coastal attraction, said Patricia Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

“Our beaches hold appeal to the group travel market because of the variety within our state, along with the distinct Maine experience of nearby lighthouses, bustling villages and choices for dining from lobster shacks to upscale award-winning restaurants,” she said.

“The dramatic rocky coastline, coupled with sandy shores, border quaint towns and villages worth exploring.”

The southern Maine coast has several historic coastal towns with scenic downtown centers filled with local shops and restaurants. The area has a combination of large outlets such as Kittery Outlets and boutiques and antique shops.

Although Maine’s rugged midcoast is a rocky ledge broken up with a maze of peninsulas, rivers and inlets, there are several beaches, including miles of pristine sand in Popham Beach State Park and Reid State Park.

The more Victorian coastal towns in the region have a strong maritime heritage of boat building and commercial fishing that is preserved in several museums.

Maine’s windjammers, which sail from Camden and Rockland, are a popular way to experience the ocean.

Newport Beach, Calif.
If you are looking for the quintessential Southern California lifestyle, Newport Beach, the Orange County community between Los Angeles and San Diego, would be a good choice.

The city has nine miles of pristine beaches on the Pacific Ocean, numerous outdoor recreational opportunities, a scenic harbor filled with sailboats and yachts — it’s considered the world’s largest small-yacht harbor with more than 9,000 vessels — and world-famous surfing.

Five public beaches offer access to what are considered some of the cleanest beaches in the United States — the Natural Resources Defense Council gave the beaches a five-star rating for water quality in 2009.

A local company provides private and semiprivate surfing lessons complete with wetsuits, boards and leashes, or you can watch experienced bodysurfers challenge the Wedge, where water that breaks over a manmade jetty creates waves up to 20 feet high.

In 2007, Esquire magazine ranked the Newport Wedge among “60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For.”

Groups that want to do more than just ogle the yachts in the harbor can charter a private yacht through Hornblower Cruises, pilot an electric canopied Duffy boat, book a whale-watching cruise, take a 45-minute harbor cruise past the multimillion-dollar homes on the harbor’s seven manmade islands or ride under the harbor bridges on an Italian gondola, complete with serenading gondolier.

Newport Beach has an international film festival, three annual epicurean festivals and the nation’s oldest holiday boat parade.

For more beaches:

Group-friendly beaches: Shoes optional

WEB EXCLUSIVE! Wildwoods beach rocks and rolls
WEB EXCLUSIVE! 5 more beach havens