By Kristy Alpert
More than just places to bum out on the sand and sprawl seaside, beach destinations are a great choice for church group travel, with something to offer everyone in the bunch.
Some travelers may enjoy simply soaking in some vitamin D, but most U.S. beaches provide much more than sand and sunshine. They can include anything from watercraft rentals to hiking excursions, and some even offer historic views of famous beachfront scenery from classic movies.
Whether you are heading to the coast or exploring the Great Lakes up north, these beaches are sure to appeal to everyone in your group with their unusual attractions and group-pleasing activities.
[ Florida Keys, Florida ]
The Florida Keys have small-town charm along with eager residents who are ready to interact with groups looking to soak in the local flavor. And whether it’s riding bicycles to and from the beach, spending the afternoon snorkeling the backcountry or watching an egret hunt its prey, a variety of leisurely activities are available to visitors.
While this region of Florida is teeming with coastlines, locals know that the best land-accessible beaches in the Florida Keys and Key West are inside the state parks.
“These recreational areas provide beachgoers with easy, shallow access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and shady picnic areas,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of sales for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “There is also public beach access located along the Overseas Highway throughout the Keys, and several of our larger resorts have private beaches for their guests’ enjoyment as well as a myriad of beaches, sand bars and low-tide sandy-bottom areas located offshore in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Groups can take advantage of tons of water sports — from sailboats to snorkeling around the only living contiguous coral barrier reef in North America — book charter fishing trips or dive to new depths while exploring ancient shipwrecks. Those who prefer to stay dry can visit local art galleries, relax on the soft sand beaches or explore the region’s rich and diverse history with customized culinary, music and museum tours.
[ Cannon Beach, Oregon ]
Cannon Beach has long drawn visitors from all corners of the country to its nearly four miles of scenic sandy public beach and dramatic offshore rock formations. But it isn’t just visitors that are drawn to this stunning coastal city; Hollywood has been smitten by this town’s charm and beauty for many years as well.
With credits including “The Goonies,” “Point Break” and more, Cannon Beach — specifically the famous Haystack Rock that towers 235 feet above the shoreline — has become the star of the West Coast.
More than just a town that’s “pretty on the big screen,” Cannon Beach offers multiple activities and adventures for groups.
“Weeklong conferences in the summer for families and adults are carefully planned to provide a balance of quality Bible teaching with plenty of recreational opportunities for all ages,” said Sharon Visser, interim executive director for the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Cannon Beach offers access to some of the Northwest’s most scenic views and a wide array of wildlife. Groups can take advantage of the miles of hiking trails through the coastal rain forest, wildflower meadows and uninterrupted beach. Adventurous individuals can rent three-wheelers for the beach, surf or dig for razor clams. There are also charter fishing and crabbing excursions, and those who want to stay on land can shop the boutiques downtown, stroll through the art galleries or take horseback rides along the coast.
[ Ocean City, Maryland ]
Not to be confused with the O.C. of the West Coast, this mid-Atlantic coastal town is the real deal and has 10 miles of pristine beach to prove it.
“Ocean City has long been honored for its family-friendly reputation, clean beaches and ease as a drive-to destination,” said Norma Dobrowolski, destination sales and marketing manager for the Ocean City Department of Tourism. “We are close to East Coast metropolitan areas and close enough to the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas to make a great value-added trip within a tour.”
But this seaside city is much more than a stop along the way; it’s a destination all its own with an exciting three-mile boardwalk boasting arcades and rides, nightly activities and tons to do outside during the day — on land and water.
Groups can rent charter fishing excursions, nature cruises, Jet Ski and parasailing adventures, and kayaking tours through the waterways, or take day trips to Assateague Island to see where the famous wild ponies run free.
“No trip to Ocean City is complete without a trip to seek out the ponies in their nature habitat,” said Dobrowolski. She also recommends that groups check out the Delmarva Discovery Center, a museum that focuses on the rural culture and lifestyle that has developed along Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
[ Galveston Island, Texas ]
Located on the Gulf of Mexico just 50 miles from Houston, Texas, Galveston Island is a historic beach town with a personality as big as its expansive stretch of coastline.
The island is best known as a vacation destination, offering 32 miles of beaches, a variety of family and group attractions, Texas’ premier cruise port and a large, well-preserved concentration of Victorian architecture.
There’s no shortage of activities for adventurous groups, from the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Water Park to the brand-new Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier. For groups looking to take in the history of the island, Moody Gardens and the 1892 Bishop’s Palace give perspective on past lifestyles on Texas’ Gulf Coast.
“For an island of this size to have this much to offer is a real advantage,” said Leah Cast, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Gulf of Mexico provides all the beach and outdoor activities anyone could want, but Galveston is so much more than a beach. It’s filled with adventure and history, which makes it an exciting place to tour and experience.”
[ Saugatuck, Michigan ]
Although Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan, stretches only for a modest two miles, it wields a reputation as one of the last remaining undeveloped stretches of beaches in the Midwest. It was also recently designated as one of the most endangered places in the world by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its rare flora and fauna.
Set beneath towering sand dunes that resemble the White Cliffs of Dover and bordered by the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan, the beach has consistently been ranked one of the finest public beaches in the United States by various publications.
“Saugatuck is beautifully situated on water,” said Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglass Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The little town is very quaint, and it has stayed the same but has improved over the years. People come back because it’s still the way it used to be when they came as kids and it’s a walking town; you can walk to almost anything since it’s a very safe area.”
Groups can lounge at the beach, play on the water with everything from pontoon boats to Sea-Doos or ride the Star of Saugatuck, an authentic stern-wheeler paddleboat that takes guests on a guided historic tour of the harbor and river areas. Other options include taking a thrilling ride down the dunes on an 18-passenger dune schooner, enjoying a culinary tour of the city, catching a family-appropriate show at the Red Barn theater, playing like children at the Express Yourself Art Barn and exploring the countryside around Crane Orchard.