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6 beaches for budding swimmers, surfers and castle builders

NEW YORK TIMES
                                In the clear waters of Playa el Chileno off Los Cabos, Mexico, snorkelers might encounter tuna, sea turtles, puffer fish, moray eels, angelfish and butterflyfish, among many other colorful creatures.
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NEW YORK TIMES

In the clear waters of Playa el Chileno off Los Cabos, Mexico, snorkelers might encounter tuna, sea turtles, puffer fish, moray eels, angelfish and butterflyfish, among many other colorful creatures.

NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Families explore tidal pools at low tide in Carkeek Park on Puget Sound in Seattle.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Families explore tidal pools at low tide in Carkeek Park on Puget Sound in Seattle.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                Beachgoers play in the sand on Mission Beach in San Diego. The sand’s fine grains make it perfect for castle building.
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NEW YORK TIMES

Beachgoers play in the sand on Mission Beach in San Diego. The sand’s fine grains make it perfect for castle building.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Onekahakaha Beach Park in Hilo, two large, warm, sandy-bottomed ocean pools are separated from the ocean’s waves, making it an excellent place for children learning to swim.
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NEW YORK TIMES

At Onekahakaha Beach Park in Hilo, two large, warm, sandy-bottomed ocean pools are separated from the ocean’s waves, making it an excellent place for children learning to swim.

NEW YORK TIMES
                                In the clear waters of Playa el Chileno off Los Cabos, Mexico, snorkelers might encounter tuna, sea turtles, puffer fish, moray eels, angelfish and butterflyfish, among many other colorful creatures.
NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Families explore tidal pools at low tide in Carkeek Park on Puget Sound in Seattle.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                Beachgoers play in the sand on Mission Beach in San Diego. The sand’s fine grains make it perfect for castle building.
NEW YORK TIMES
                                At Onekahakaha Beach Park in Hilo, two large, warm, sandy-bottomed ocean pools are separated from the ocean’s waves, making it an excellent place for children learning to swim.

A family beach vacation is an American classic. But depending on their children’s ages and inclinations, some families may be drawn to different kinds of shorelines: those featuring clear, calm water for snorkeling and learning to swim; or, for shell collectors and young naturalists, sandy stretches carpeted with seashells or bordered by tide pools. For castle builders, fine sand is a must, while would-be surfers need tidy waves, ready to ride. Here are six great beaches in the United States and Baja California for family-favorite summer activities.

For castle builders

Mission Beach, San Diego

San Diego’s temperate climate allows for barefoot beach days year-round. For those who’d rather build with sand than lie in it, Mission Beach has another advantage: San Diego Sand Castles and the sand sculptor JT Estrela. Estrela offers lessons in the art of sand castle construction on this family-friendly Southern California beach, where the sand is perfect for castle building: The grains are fine but not too silty, clean below the tide line, free of shells and rocks, and pack hard.

In his two-to-three-hour sessions (starting at $160 for two people, $20 for each additional person), Estrela works with families to build elaborate five-foot-tall castles.

While the best sand in the San Diego area is at the offshore city of Coronado in San Diego Bay, Estrela prefers working with families at Mission Beach. Known for its boardwalk amusement park, Belmont Park; historic beachfront swimming pool, the Plunge; and excellent playgrounds, it’s particularly fun for kids. The smell of cotton candy and hot dogs hangs in the air, mingling with shrieks from the Giant Dipper, Belmont’s 1925 wooden roller coaster, squawking seagulls and salt spray. Its biggest downside is its popularity, which means parking can be a challenge.

For new swimmers

Onekahakaha Beach Park, Hilo, Hawaii

In an archipelago known for spectacular beaches, Onekahakaha Beach Park, on the rugged, volcanic coast of the Big Island, may seem a counterintuitive choice. At Onekahakaha, with its two large, sandy-bottomed ocean pools enclosed by lava rock walls and backed by palm trees and an expansive grassy lawn, the sand is mostly below the surface.

Separated from the Pacific Ocean’s notoriously powerful waves and rip currents, the seawater within the pools is warm and placid, protected and shallow, which makes it excellent for little kids learning to swim, as well as for older kids to snorkel. It’s also home to nonthreatening marine life (no sharks here), including green sea turtles.

Though the water is only about waist-deep on an adult, there are lifeguards, adding to Onekahakaha’s reputation for safety. And without a wide swath of sand between the pools and the shoreline path, the water is accessible for strollers and wheelchairs. There’s also a swing set, picnic tables and proximity to the lush Hilo area.

For tide pool explorers

Carkeek Park, Seattle

Naomi Tomky — a lifelong Seattleite, author of “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook” and mother of two daughters, 6 and 8 — recommends Carkeek Park in Seattle for an immersive experience in Puget Sound marine life. At low tide, Tomky said, the narrow beach “just goes out for ages,” exposing tide pools filled with starfish, sea snails, anemones and “many, many crabs, from the size of your fingernail to the size of your hand.”

Unlike tide-pooling elsewhere on the West Coast, where the powerful Pacific Ocean requires caution because of dangerous sneaker waves, Puget Sound is rich with life but calm enough for Tomky to let her daughters explore on their own.

Just 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, Carkeek is part of the Seattle Aquarium’s Beach Naturalist Program, which sends naturalists to various shorelines around the area.

For would-be surfers

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Wrightsville Beach is considered by many surf historians to be the home of East Coast surfing and one of the first places outside Polynesia and the Pacific Rim for the sport to catch on.

It also has some of the best beginner’s breaks in the United States, said Sean Griffin, 37, a surfing instructor and the father of a 5-year-old, who started riding the local break when he was 8.

He points out that Wrightsville is the only surfing beach in the state that has clear, blue water. Being able to see one’s hands and feet and the sandy bottom “makes anyone feel more comfortable in the ocean,” he said.

At Surf With Sean, Griffin offers private 90-minute lessons ($95 to $120) to surfers as young as 3 and into their 80s, as well as surf camps for kids ($425 per week).

For shell hunters

Tigertail Beach, Marco Island, Florida

Sanibel Island, a barrier island just off Fort Myers, Fla., is one of the most famous shelling destinations on the planet. That popularity comes with a downside: It’s often picked over by enthusiasts who hit the shoreline at dawn. The island is also still recovering from 2022’s Hurricane Ian.

As an alternative, shelling guide Evan Kuperman (aka Captain Evan) recommends the publicly accessible Tigertail Beach ($8 parking fee) on Marco Island, about an hour south, for exceptional shelling.

Marco Island is more built up than Sanibel, but Tigertail, at the island’s north end, is a county-owned park with a lagoon and a position facing the Gulf of Mexico that lends itself to accumulating seashells, including rare and striking ones, like the spiny ornamented lace murex and reddish brown banded tulip.

Kuperman, a Florida master naturalist, operates Sand Dollar Shelling Tours ($125 per adult, $90 per child) that take guests by boat to places like the Ten Thousand Islands, a mangrove mud flat habitat and National Wildlife Refuge.

For young snorkelers

Playa el Chileno, Los Cabos, Mexico

About halfway between bustling Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, Playa el Chileno is no longer an undeveloped local secret. Now backed by the sprawling Auberge resort Chileno Bay Resort & Residences, the beach remains public and comparatively tranquil. Awarded the Blue Flag certification for meeting stringent environmental standards, Chileno is exceptionally well maintained.

While catamaran snorkeling tours come and go from Chileno Bay, it’s also possible to reach the reef from the shore, which makes it good for inexperienced snorkelers who might find it intimidating to leap into deep water without easing their way in. High Tide Sea Expeditions offers snorkeling excursions via kayak that start at nearby Playa Santa Maria, hug the coast and arrive at Chileno by water. For younger kids and anyone who prefers more time in the water, there’s a guided two-hour tour that visits both beaches by car ($95 to $130 per person, including equipment).

Among the roughly 50 species of fish that snorkelers might encounter along Chileno’s rocky outcroppings and coral reef, there are large tuna, sea turtles, puffer fish, Panamic green moray eels, Cortez angelfish and blacknosed butterflyfish — among many other colorful creatures.

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