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High tide!

They may be God’s perfect playgrounds — with soft sand, rolling waves, scenic views and abundant sunshine, beaches appeal to travelers of all ages.

In the United States, we’re blessed to enjoy three major coastlines. And when you count the hundreds of lakes around the country that have sandy swimming beaches, the possibilities for a great beach vacation become nearly endless.

Those possibilities are also quite diverse. From the West Coast cool of San Diego to the white sands of the Florida Panhandle and the classic New England charm of coastal Rhode Island, America’s beaches offer an array of distinct experiences.

Though they’re often regarded as family vacation spots, beaches can be great for groups, too. The abundance of open space and activity options makes them an ideal spot for youth group trips and retreats, but adults enjoy the scenic beauty and relaxing pace as well. Here are some suggestions for beach destinations that attract young and old alike.

South County, R.I.

The smallest state in the Union, Rhode Island has a surprising number of beach options for groups. The state’s South County has been praised by many as a jewel East Coast beach destination.

“We are 100 miles of some of the finest East Coast beaches,” said Myrna George, president of the South County Tourism Council. “We’re more rural and less populated than many of the other beaches on the East Coast.”

Many of the county’s 16 beaches are available to the public. Strong southwesterly winds help keep the ocean water warm enough for comfortable swimming during the summer.

Rhode Island’s South County has 100 miles of coastline, with 16 public areas. Courtesy South County Tourism Council

For youth or other groups looking for a very active beach scene, George recommends Misquamicut Beach in the town of Westerly.

“They have waterslides and bumper cars and that sort of thing,” she said. “They work very hard to provide movies on the beach, a music festival and the sort of activity that would appeal to older family crowds.”

At Watch Hill Beach, visitors can take a ride on an antique flying-horse carousel. Napatree Point has a mile-and-a-quarter-long beach that is also a wildlife conservation area.

Strong waves also make several South County beaches great spots for water activities.

“Narragansett State Beach has some of the best surfing in New England due to its smooth curling waves,” George said. “And Scarborough State Beach is the most popular beach in Rhode Island. It’s great for body boarding.”

Myrtle Beach, S.C.

With thousands of hotel rooms and a huge variety of entertainment options, the Myrtle Beach area has been one

Le Grand Cirque is one of several evening shows in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Courtesy Myrtle Beach Area CVB

of the Southeast’s favorite coastal destinations for decades. There’s enough to enjoy on the beach, on the boardwalk and beyond to keep a group busy for days on end.

For some fun and adventure, visitors can take to the waves on jet skis or banana boats, which are available up and down the beach. Boat tours in the area introduce guests to local wildlife.

“Captain Dick’s Marina has ecotours,” said Sandy Haines, group sales manager at the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “On one of the boats, everyone will have a fishing pole. As they’re fishing, they have someone on board who tells them about what they’re catching.”

Visitors learn about fish and many other animals at Ripley’s Aquarium, which is the most visited attraction in South Carolina, according to Haines. The aquarium is part of the Broadway at the Beach complex, a 500-acre outdoor shopping and entertainment complex with restaurants, miniature golf and a 3-D IMAX theater.

Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach is one of the most popular attractions in South Carolina. Courtesy Myrtle Beach Area CVB

One of the newest attractions in Myrtle Beach is Freestyle Music Park, which took over the bankrupt Hard Rock Park and re-tooled it to be profitable and family friendly.

“It’s now vibrant, with hot pinks and green colors,” Haines said. “They put in four new rides, and anything that might have been offensive is no longer there.”

Destin, Fla.

It’s the brilliant, powdery beaches, along with a family-friendly atmosphere, that draw many faithful visitors to Destin and Florida’s Emerald Coast year after year.

“The sand here is pure white,” said Tisha Maraj, sales and marketing manager at the Emerald Coast Conference Center. “It’s the quartz crystal that has come down from the Appalachian mountains. When the sun shines through the water onto the crystal sand, it shines a brilliant green color.”

Destin, Fla., is known for its sparkling emerald waters. Courtesy Emerald Coast CVB

With scenery like that, many groups want to spend as much time on the water as possible. In addition to standards like jet ski rentals and parasailing, dolphin cruises and deep-sea-fishing charters are easily available. There are also cruises on catamarans and a high-speed boat called the Sea Blaster, which jets across the surface of the water spraying passengers in the process.

Visitors can have some up-close encounters with dolphins and other wildlife at the Gulfarium.

“It’s an independently built and owned dolphin show right on the gulf,” Maraj said. “You can see the dolphin show, pet stingrays and visit a nature area.”

For other activities, groups can visit attractions like Big Kahuna’s water park or the Indian Temple Mound Museum in nearby Fort Walton Beach.

San Diego

Year-round pleasant temperatures and a large supply of sunshine have made San Diego a favorite vacation spot on the West Coast for generations. Today is no exception, and with 70 miles of beaches, the area provides options to meet the needs of youth and adult groups.

“Students often stay in the Mission Valley Hotel Circle area, where they have easy access to the beaches and attractions but a more moderate price range,” said Benjamin Eastman, travel trade development manager for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The great thing about Mission Beach is that it has a really great boardwalk. There’s a long stretch of sand with a pier at the end and beach volleyball courts.”

San Diego’s Wave House uses machines to produce perpetual waves. Courtesy San Diego CVB

In addition to the beach itself, youth groups staying in the Mission Beach area will enjoy Belmont Park, an amusement area with a classic wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, indoor black-light miniature golf and an arcade. Also in the area is the Wave House, an outdoor restaurant and activity center.

“It has a Flowrider for students to use,” Eastman said. “It’s similar to surfing — I’ve heard it talked about as a cross between surfing and snowboarding. But they also have a really large wave-making machine that actually creates a curling wave, so it’s a lot of fun for kids who want to try surfing.”

Adult groups should plan to spend some time on Coronado Island. This beautiful spot is consistently ranked among the top beaches in the country and is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado.

Ocean City, Md.

A beautiful sandy shore, a cadre of resorts and a three-mile-long boardwalk make Ocean City, Md., a quintessential beach town, with all the trappings of a coastal getaway destination. But it’s not all bikinis and beachcombers — a number of significant outdoor festivals, as well as companion islands, give groups many interesting things to see and do in Ocean City.

During the first weekend in May, the entire city turns out for Springfest, a four-day festival full of food, crafts, entertainment and sunshine.

“They set up big-top tents at the inlet shopping area,” said Norma Dobrowolski, group tour and travel coordinator for the Ocean City Department of Tourism. “There’s constant music and hundreds of arts and crafts vendors. It’s totally free, so it’s good added value. They only charged admission is for the headline nighttime entertainment.”

Several islands around Ocean City afford opportunities for interesting natural and cultural exploration. Assateague Island National Seashore, a National Park Service property a short drive from the city, is famous for its wild ponies.

“The ponies just run wild there,” Dobrowolski said. “Folklore has it that they’re from Spanish galleons that may have shipwrecked there. You can drive over to the island, and motorcoaches go there all the time. It’s about 15 minutes from Ocean City.”

About a 30 minute drive south of Ocean City is the new Delmarva Discovery Center, which has exhibits detailing the cultural and natural heritage of the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia region.

Lake Powell, Ariz.

Just because you’re hundreds of miles from an ocean doesn’t mean that great beaches are far away, too. At Lake Powell, which spans the Arizona-Utah boarder, travelers will find amazingly scenic spots and freshwater, red-sand beaches.

“Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the country,” said Dwayne Cassidy, tourism coordinator at the Page Lake Powell Tourism Bureau in Arizona. “It has over 2,000 miles of coastline. In that are 96 major canyons and hundreds of unnamed smaller canyons.”

One of the most popular beaches on Lake Powell is Lone Rock Beach, which is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This beach is accessible to a developed area but is also open for groups to camp.

Lake Powell is home to some 300 species of birds, as well as animals such as beavers, otters, bighorn mountain sheep, bobcats and mountain lions. Fishing is also a popular activity, whether from the shore or on boat excursions.

One must for a visit in the area is a boat tour, which takes groups beyond the beaches to some of the most spectacular scenic areas on the lake. Highlights include Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest freestanding arch, and the magnificent Antelope Canyon.

“Antelope Canyon is very narrow and deep, carved by water and wind,” Cassidy said. “When the light is shining on the sandstone, the colors are just amazing. They’re bright yellows, deep purples, oranges, reds and everything in between.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.