America's best beach boardwalks

Image: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Pedestrians walk below the Sky Glider and make their way along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on April 7, 2014, in Santa Cruz, California.Eric Risberg / Today

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By Travel + Leisure

"All the couples take pictures on the Wonder Wheel. We push our heads together so the photo shows the New York City skyline behind us,” says Shani Coleman, a 20-year-old student who likes to snuggle with her boyfriend on the landmark 1920 Ferris wheel on Brooklyn’s Coney Island Boardwalk. Growing up, she spent many summer hours here with her family and still orders marshmallows dipped in bright red candy-apple coating.

Everyone loves beach boardwalks, with their mix of sea air and easy strolling. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel too far to find one: About 60 U.S. towns have boardwalks, and 25 percent of those include amusement parks that come alive in summer. Visiting one is a quintessentially American summer experience.

Slideshow: See more of America's best beach boardwalks

Consider iconic Coney Island, where the boardwalk amusement park Luna Park — which was closed for nearly 60 years — is thriving since its 2010 reopening. The rebirth came courtesy of Zamperla, a major Italian manufacturer of theme-park attractions, which spent $30 million (re)creating this three-acre playland, including its grand 1903 entrance. “It’s the beginning of a new Coney Island for the 21st century,” says Dick Zigun, a longtime resident who runs the nonprofit organization Coney Island USA.

But not all beachside promenades are neon-lit attractions. On the isolated Long Beach Boardwalk, built over cool, windswept dunes in southwestern Washington, bird-watchers flock to see adorable but endangered snowy plovers in one of the few places in the world where they still nest. Parents wander with their children on paths trod by Captain William Clark in 1805, when members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition explored here. Oregon resident Bonnie Teschner Carey has been visiting Long Beach since she was a child 60 years ago: “It’s still a quiet place, not trendy, not known,” she says, “just like when I was a child.” Only now it has a boardwalk, so even with two knee replacements she can still enjoy the beach.

Whether it’s an iconic summertime destination like Coney Island or a seaside oasis like Long Beach, such family retreats and playgrounds can inspire more than lifelong loyalty. Sacramento resident and roller coaster buff Gerry Watt says, “If there is a heaven, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is there.”

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