Yachting’s 50 Best
For more than six months, we’ve been asking our readers to let us know which towns are their favorites. We start with the premise, of course, that to be one of the world’s great towns, you must be on the water — that’s just a no-brainer. From there, though, we have left the definition of best up to you: You’re the ones who decide whether a town with luxury marina facilities is better than one with room for two visitors to tie up at a town dock for free, whether being world-renowned as a yachting destination is better than being a hidden gem tucked into a sleepy backwater, whether a small town with a boatbuilding tradition trumps being the premier destination for superyachts. Do you like a rugged, rock-strewn shore or palm-lined coasts? A street lined with rollicking waterfront bars and seafood restaurants or one local watering hole that gets its catch of the day from its most regular customer? Is this the town you most like to sail into every summer or the one where you dropped anchor for good a long time ago? Greatness — like beauty — is in the eye of the beholder.
If you’ve been remiss in singing your favorite port’s praises, it’s not too late. You have until June 1, 2011, to have a look at the 50 finalists that readers have already written in to recommend and let us know which strikes you as the very best of the best. YACHTING will visit the winning town to present the award and get a firsthand look at why this town beat out all the others.
Browse our favorite yachting towns using our 50 Best map! Click the location for more information!
The serene and understated charm of Oxford, Maryland, has captured the attention of boaters for centuries. Once a major Chesapeake port, today it’s home to fine boatyards, flawlessly restored 18th and 19th century homes and a few waitresses who will call you “hon” after taking your order for an authentic lump-meat crab cake at one of the handful of restaurants sprinkled throughout the small village. Several fantastic dining options, from the casual atmosphere of Schooner’s Landing to the more upscale Robert Morris Inn — perched above the Tred Avon River — will ensure you won’t starve. Across the street from the inn is the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, reported to be the oldest ferry in continuous service in North America.
If Oxford’s charms become addictive, requiring a year-round fix, it’s a fine place to put down permanent roots. Future boaters can enroll in the first-class junior sailing programs, several very good private schools are in the area, and there are enough hidden coves and creeks to keep you occupied for an endless number of boating seasons.
Hampton resident Archie Allen wrote us to point out that “we have a block party every Saturday in the summer. We have a Blackbeard Festival. We have a Bays Days Festival in September to honor the Chesapeake Bay. Hampton is a stopover for snowbirds in the spring and fall. There are shops within walking distance of several marinas. Hampton does not have a boat tax.”
Clive Bartlett writes, “It just has to be Poole, on the U.K.’s south coast. It’s the second largest natural harbor in the world after Sydney, Australia; it has seven major yacht clubs, including one of the world’s oldest, the Royal Motor Yacht Club. Poole has everything for the yachtsman, including a number of great old English pubs!” Oh, why didn’t you say so, Clive? Consider Poole nominated.
“The cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland sit at the confluence of three rivers. We don’t have to worry about tides. We get 300 days [of sunshine]. We have almost unlimited places to go, and the water we boat on is almost always flat,” writes Mike Lauman.
Venture out on a boat after work on a summer evening and you’ll realize why Seattle is on this list. No humidity, cool temperatures and it stays light late. The diversified culture, happening music and arts scene, an extended boating season and lots of cool boats, all surrounded by a thriving city center, easily make Seattle one of the best yachting towns.
If you automatically think of south Florida as rows of strip malls, then you haven’t been to Stuart. The quaint downtown is fully restored and home to niche shops, galleries and fine dining. Try any of the pasta dishes at Gusto’s and you’ll be smacking your lips the entire walk back to the impeccable public town dock. And the beaches of nearby Hutchinson Island will surely steal away your entire weekend.
The historic, gentrified streets, bustling marinas, yacht clubs and lush cruising grounds of the Connecticut River valley are enough to force any New York commuter to consider that an extra hour on the train may not be too bad. Grab breakfast at Olive Oyl’s cafe, also a great spot for lunch. On a fall weekend, the old-world charm of the Griswold Inn is a must. Vegans beware: December is the game menu at the Gris.
Sidney, British Columbia, Canada
Our northern neighbors promoted Sidney with vigor. And for good reason. As in most of British Columbia, the only thing topping the welcoming and pleasant attitude of the locals is the off-the-charts scenery. Richard Ludwig wrote, “Without a doubt, the town of Sidney, British Columbia, Canada, is the premier yachting town in the world. If YACHTING magazine visits, you’ll be assured of a red carpet treatment.” Be careful, Richard; we’re the type of guests who will overstay our welcome.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Bill AuCoin writes, “I nominate St. Petersburg- Clearwater. Here’s why: calm water everywhere; boating and services infrastructure; history and geography and climate. Pinellas County has water suitable for every boating taste including power, cruising, sailing, offshore fishing, inshore fishing, scuba diving, water skiing, wakeboarding and PWCs.” Well, OK then, that doesn’t leave much out except the canoe. Good luck, St. Pete.
A lot of the nominations for Pacific Northwest towns seemed to be written with a reserve that made us suspect they really didn’t want to expose their secret, unspoiled gems. Yet the social nature of most yachtsmen prevailed, and folks from Anacortes, Washington, basically shouted, “Come on down!” Or over, up, whatever. You get the point. One reason Anacortes appeals to our edit panel is its boatbuilding industry, which gives it an even richer, saltier vibe. Mitch Everton writes that Anacortes “is a natural home port for the San Juan Islands. The city itself offers a host of amenities — from a wide range of boating services to an authentic old town. It’s a place that combines great scenery with a vibrant economic base.” And Shane Gibson simply states, “Absolutely hands down, Anacortes, Washington.”****
Thanks to the financial crisis, Islamorada was saved from overleveraged developers and investment banks that were about to replace salt-worn and funky with tacky and gauche. Many investors had to pull out, so some establishments, like Holiday Isle, were spared. Transient slips are plentiful at the Plantation Yacht Harbor, just north of Islamorada proper. The facility is first-class, and the staff is about as nice and accommodating as you’ll find anywhere. If you’re looking for outstanding fresh fish for dinner, be sure to stop by Uncle’s. The whole yellowtail snapper is awesome. Mangrove Mike’s is a must for breakfast. Don’t forget to take a tour of the backcountry: It offers incredible fishing and breathtaking scenery, especially at sunset.
What if you could move to a town where you’d feel like you’re on vacation all the time? And what if that town were only a 30-minute ferry ride to the bustle of downtown San Francisco? Tiburon has all the quaintness and friendliness of a small town, yet it is accessible to the big city when a dose is required. Sam’s Anchor Café is the place to chow down on fresh oysters from the deck on a summer afternoon. Pull your boat up and place an order.
About a month before we needed to finalize the count for the 50 Best Yachting Towns, our staff faced a moral crossroad of sorts. There were no votes for the popular yachting hub of Annapolis! Oh, sweet Jesus, we faced the risk of upsetting one of the most vibrant boating communities on the East Coast. We would surely be snubbed at our favorite watering holes, the Boatyard and Davis’ Pub. We considered that Annapolitans may have become a little cocky and simply assumed their town was an automatic nomination. Then the votes started to come in. This historic waterfront town now sits securely in the ranking of our top 50, and for good reason: restaurants galore, numerous marinas and boatyards, and plenty of spots to drop the hook. Spend a week, or spend a lifetime — the choice is yours.
Steve Klein wrote, “Charlevoix offers some of the best boating in the world for anyone with a watercraft, no matter the size, make or model. Downtown — only about 100 yards from the marina — is full of unique people, shops, restaurants and stores that can only be found in Charlevoix, Michigan. Hospitality is unprecedented! Check it out for yourself.” We couldn’t have said it better, Mr. Klein.
Charleston, South Carolina
Four million people a year can’t be wrong. That’s the annual number of visitors to this wonderful Southern charmer. Historic mansions line the harbor, low-hanging oaks are peppered throughout the city, the sound of clanking horseshoes on cobblestone streets echoes through the fragrant air, and all blend together to force you to slow down and enjoy. Beyond the atmosphere and warm locals, Charleston is quickly becoming a yachtsman’s town, with events such as the Charleston Bermuda Race.
Beaufort, North Carolina
Beaufort loves its water: It is home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research lab. Stroll its tree-lined streets or enjoy fine dining with a view across Taylor’s Creek to Carrot Island, where you may see wild ponies on the beach. Explore Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, kayak down Taylor’s Creek, and visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
“Don’t forget Portland!” admonished one of the many entries for this cool city by the sea. Another reminded us that “Portland, Maine, is a great boating location for boats of all sizes. With over 200 islands in Casco Bay, it’s a great place to boat whether you’re looking for a short day trip, or an overnight excursion.”
Key West, Florida
Creating a list of the 50 Best Yachting Towns without including Key West would be akin to Julia Child failing to include her beef bourguignon recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Our editor-at-large, Jay Coyle, on one of his many visits, wrote, “Its ‘Old Town’ is not a theme park-style model of the past; it is a living, breathing town — a refreshingly laid-back novelty in today’s busy world.” Then he completely went off the grid for three days. Ah, the allure of Key West. Fishing, sailing, people watching, great food — it’s the entire package.
Bocas Del Toro, Panama
A nature lover’s paradise and one of Panama’s most popular tourist spots, Bocas’ 5,000 residents are still way outnumbered by the surrounding wildlife. Enjoy the town’s laid-back vibe and easy access to the region’s nine major islands, 52 keys and roughly 200 tiny islands. There are two marinas for those who want to explore this archipelago’s treasures. And reader Dan Cranney reminded us that “this island archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama is one of the few hurricane-free places in the Caribbean.”
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
This Down East harbor town bills itself as “the boating center of New England” and is as pretty as a postcard — in fact, some swear it was the model for Cabot Cove, an utterly idyllic town (except for that absurdly high homicide rate!) that was the setting for the television who-done-it Murder, She Wrote. Head out on a Friendship sloop or a schooner, watch the lobster boat races, or visit nearby Monhegan Island. There are more than a half-dozen marinas within walking distance of Boothbay Harbor.
Cape May, New Jersey
Best known for its fantastic Victorian architecture, Cape May has more to offer than gingerbread trim and turrets. Located at the intersection of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May has beautiful beaches, fantastic bird-watching and angling action for striped bass, black drum, sea bass, flounder, blues and tuna. Mark Allen also pointed out in his nomination that Cape May is “easily accessed from the Atlantic via the Cape May Inlet, or the Delaware Bay via the Cape May Canal, [and] Cape May’s man-made harbor (100 years old in 2011) offers an ideal stopover almost exactly halfway between Newport and Annapolis.”
It’s hard not to love Edgartown. The pretty streets were once home to whaling captains, and despite annual summer crowds, there’s an old-fashioned elegance to the place. As reader Brien O’Brien put it in his nomination, “Magnificent anchorages surrounded by brilliant God-made sandy beaches and man-made captains’ houses. In short, with the exception of Somes Sound [see Northeast and Southwest Harbor, Maine] and the Fox Island thoroughfare, Edgartown is the best sailing grounds (and town) on the Eastern Seaboard.”
Greenport, New York
Greenport is on Long Island’s north fork and, as such, in the shadow of its fancier Hampton neighbors on the south fork. But residents like it that way. A salty and unpretentious town, Greenport’s old whaling history accounts for its pretty architecture, but its vibrant fishing community keeps it real. In addition to the hugely popular dock-and-dine scene at Claudio’s Clam Bar, there are a couple of great small restaurants here, an antique carousel on the waterfront, an art deco movie theater, a seaport museum and plenty of marinas.
The only mariner who doesn’t have a soft spot for Mystic is the one who’s never been there. This old shipbuilding town in northeast Connecticut simply reeks of saltiness. As reader Bailey Pryor told us in his eloquent nominating letter, “There we were, minding our own business, when we suddenly noticed a 170-ton topsail schooner, under full sail, navigating up the Mystic River. No engine, no escort ship. Just 154 feet of glorious tall ship moving at 8 knots up a shallow, narrow, highly populated river.” But you don’t need to rely on serendipity for a “Mystic moment” — just visit the Mystic Seaport Museum, which is its institutional embodiment.
New York, New York
Manhattan is an island, after all, and the water surrounding it teems with activities for the nautically inclined. Take a ride on the Circle Line or the Staten Island Ferry, visit Governor’s Island, explore the South Street Seaport, stroll City Island, or go kayaking through 160 square miles of rivers, creeks, bays, inlets and ocean in the five boroughs.
Ocracoke, North Carolina
This small island town isn’t easy to get to but Ocracoke is well worth the trip. Twenty-five miles off the North Carolina coast, and surrounded by the reefs that earned the Outer Banks the sobriquet “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Ocracoke is where Blackbeard is said to have met his maker. Only a small community winters here, but the population swells each summer as folks come in search of a simpler way of life. Most get around on bikes, and the beaches are world famous.
Oriental, North Carolina
Oriental bills itself as the sailing capitol of North Carolina — in fact, a 2008 statistic listed 875 residents and more than 1,200 sailboats! — but trawlers, skiffs, sport-fishing boats and kayaks will feel equally at home. Situated just below where the Neuse River joins Pamlico Sound, Oriental offers a network of creeks and easy access to the Outer Banks, and it’s just a short hop across the sound to the Adams Creek Cut, which leads to Beaufort.
Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor, Maine
These two towns are located on the southern end of Mount Desert Island, just across from each other at the entrance of Somes Sound, near the gorgeous, 35,000- acre Acadia National Park. They front deepwater harbors and are full of summer fun. In Northeast Harbor, there are the lovely Asticou Gardens, a strawberry festival, a seafood festival, a farmer’s market, live music on Main Street every Thursday evening, ice cream socials … More than 400 members belong to the Northeast Harbor Fleet, and nearly every day of their calendar in July and August offers a club event or regatta — except Tuesdays, which is apparently the sailing Sabbath. Southwest Harbor is home to a gaggle of great boatbuilders, including the Hinckley Co., Wilbur Yachts, Ellis Boat Co. and Ralph W. Stanley. Islesford Dock Restaurant on Little Cranberry Island is a favorite local outing for residents of both towns.
Puerto Williams, Chile
“The Southernmost Town in the World,” Puerto Williams faces across the Beagle Channel and has the snowcapped Dientes de Navarino mountains at its back. The highlight for any mariner is the famous Micalvi Yacht Club. John Parker wrote, “The bar specializes in the local concoction called a pisco sour, which is best drunk while sitting, especially as the deck of the Micalvi and therefore the bar lists to port about eight degrees. In the bar there are guest books dating back to the 1970s, signed by many of the great sailors of the Southern Ocean.”
Sag Harbor, New York
In 1789 this small port reportedly had more tons of square-rigged vessels engaged in commerce than New York City, which may be why it still tugs at the heartstrings of yachtsmen. It is certainly the sailing capital of the region, though anglers also love the proximity of Gardiner’s Bay, Long Island Sound and Montauk Point. Wonderful shops, plenty of fine dining options and a vibrant artistic community make Sag Harbor special. But old institutions like the Variety Store, still known locally as “the five and dime,” and Schiavoni’s IGA market have not yet been replaced by Williams Sonoma and Citarella’s, which also keeps it real and unique.
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Nature has graced Vancouver with an incredible setting — the North Shore Mountains dominate the cityscape, and on a clear day you can see snowcapped Mount Baker in the state of Washington to the southeast, Vancouver Island across the Strait of Georgia to the west and southwest, and Bowen Island to the northwest. Vancouver prides itself on its livability. It is home to Stanley Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America. Logging is still its top industry, followed by tourism, and the city is justly proud of its low carbon footprint.
Camden’s small main street is perched on a hill above a harbor studded with lobster boats, Down East yachts, sailboats and other vessels. There’s a great gourmet grocer, several wonderful bookstores, an exceptionally good library and a slew of good eateries — in short, everything you need. If the summer crowds get to you, Camden makes a great base for exploring: Take a hike up to Mount Battie’s summit for a stunning view over Penobscot Bay, or catch a ferry from Lincolnville or Rockland to Islesboro, Vinalhaven, North Haven or Matinicus.
Halifax, N.S., Canada
Anchored by history and propelled into the 21st century by its vibrant citizens, Halifax welcomes visitors with open arms. The harbor is one of the safest in North America. Tie up at Bishop’s Landing, which is close to everything — the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse feels like old Ireland; the Historic Properties section preserves the city’s 19th century character; the tour of Alexander Keith’s Brewery is delightful theater, and the beer is tasty. BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND Bristol has been a mainstay of America’s maritime scene since 1878, when John Brown Herreshoff and his younger brother Nathanael started Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. and began building what would prove to be some of the fastest racing yachts on the water. Bristol continues to offer a bustling summer season for residents and tourists.
Clayton, New York
David Dodge wrote in to nominate Clayton, home of the Antique Boat Museum, and said, “The yachting/cruising possibilities to and from Clayton are endless. Within a few hours you could be in Lake Ontario with access to the New York State Canal System (Lake Champlain, Finger Lakes, Hudson River) at Oswego, New York. Or, on the Canadian side, to Kingston, Ontario, where the scenic Rideau Canal could take you to Ottawa.”
San Francisco, California
The next America’s Cup will be brought to you live from San Francisco and that’s probably all we need to say about why the City by the Bay is one of the 50 Best towns. Plenty of wind and current make the Bay Area delightfully challenging for mariners. Home of the prestigious St. Francis Yacht Club, the oldest yacht club west of the Mississippi, as well as dozens of other clubs and marinas, San Francisco loves its water, which, thanks to topography, remains the focal point of nearly every view from its vertical streets.
Gloucester is best known as a fishing town, with a wonderful working waterfront, but it also has shipbuilding roots that date to 1713. If you’re in town and are looking for local color, head to the Crow’s Nest Bar.
Kingston, New York
Kingston, located on the Hudson River, was once a historically important shipping hub. Today, it has an active arts community and a better restaurant scene than most towns its size, thanks to graduates of the nearby Culinary Institute of America. Rob Kinnin also pointed out that “Kingston gets a very nice complement of yachts here as a stopover going to/ from New York City to the canal system.”
Carol Kent nominated Marblehead and noted a couple of things she likes about it. “Few marinas make this a good-looking and safe harbor for the working fisherman and lobsterman on the mainland; a causeway connects the land to ‘the Neck,’ home of summer people [and] now year-round folks.” It’s an easy commute to Boston for the boater still anchored to a desk.
Monterey is located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — 276 miles of federally protected coastline that provides great wildlife watching. Schedule your trip during one of the city’s two main music festivals: the Monterey Jazz Festival or the Monterey Pop Festival, whose inaugural show in 1967 drew the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Newport Beach, California
Newport Beach, California, has one of the largest recreational boating harbors on the West Coast. Joseph Tatchell noted in his nominating letter: “Newport Beach, California, is an elegant city with much to see around the harbor, from the mansions on the bayfront, to the seals on the docks.” The city hosts a Christmas Boat Parade that dates back to 1908, and the annual Newport to Ensenada Race is now in its 64th year.
Punta Gorda, Florida
Punta Gorda took a beating from Hurricane Charley in 2004 but has rebounded, thanks to a dedicated and passionate boating community. There are plenty of facilities for mariners, including a 2.4- mile harbor walk that leads to Fisherman’s Village — a complex that houses 30 shops, five restaurants and a topnotch marina. More than that, though, Punta Gorda has esprit de corps! The folks who live here love it.
Newport, Rhode Island
Everybody knows about the America’s Cup history, world class regattas and the clam chowder at the Black Pearl. But insider’s know there’s a lot more to Newport. Only here can you sail aboard a classic America’s Cup 12-meter, watch the bay action from Castle Hill and hang with the best crews in the world at Café Zelda. As Bob Nickerson so concisely put it “Newport, Rhode Island. Without a doubt.”
North Sound, Virgin Gorda, BVI
OK, we know that a body of water really doesn’t qualify as a town. Yet we had enough folks writing in that we decided to show some flexibility and include the North Sound of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. Steady trade winds create wonderful opportunities for kitesurfing, windsurfing and dinghy sailing. The completely renovated Bitter End Yacht Club offers slips and numerous moorings in front of its boater-friendly resort. Just to the north is Saba Rock, which includes a restaurant, marina and hotel run by an incredibly attentive staff. Around the corner from the Bitter End Yacht Club is the Biras Creek Resort, an upscale resort and restaurant perfectly camouflaged into its lush 140-acre surroundings. Moorings are available for transients, but the dock is reserved for guests only. The resort’s management does an admirable job of balancing the need to maintain the privacy of its guests — the honeymooners from Mayfair set — with access for visiting yachtsmen. Dinner is always superb, as is the view from the terrace over the Caribbean. Reservations and proper dress are required. If your spouse is on the verge of leaving you after a few weeks of cruising, a night at Biras Creek will be the perfect elixir. If not, it probably wasn’t meant to be anyway.
The Bitter End Yacht Club? Saba Rock? Biras Creek? Deciding among these places could be a whole new contest.
San Diego, California
San Diego hosted the 1988, ’92 and ’95 America’s Cup, so its salty bonafides are covered. It also has the third largest naval fleet in the world. In fact, the U.S. Navy is the city’s largest employer. A major port and shipbuilding center, San Diego is also a great jumping off point for yachts cruising south to Baja and Latin America. And if you’re into watersports, the surf and breezes here are world famous.
South Haven, Michigan
International shipping during the 1940s and ’50s put South Haven on the map as a port of call, and vacationers began to flock to the town looking to escape hot Chicago summers. Home to the Michigan Maritime Museum, where the replica tall ship Friends of Good Will lives, South Haven has plenty of marinas, many along the sheltered banks of the Black River.
This deepwater port is home to the famous Columbia River Bar pilots as well as the tugs who escort the world’s cargo upriver. Astoria still has the look of an old-fashioned river town and is loaded with quirky charm, funky stores, good places to eat and seriously salty characters.
Located on a barrier island, with the Gulf of Mexico to the east and south and Galveston Bay to the north, it serves as Houston’s playground and a popular beach vacation spot. The bustling Old Strand section blends history, local color and Texas hospitality.
Horta, the main city on the island of Faial in the Azores islands, has been linked with watermen and the sea since the 18th century. It was whalers who began painting their vessels’ names on the town’s sea wall, a tradition embraced by Joshua Slocum when he arrived in Horta on his circumnavigation, and by the countless private yachts that visit this city every year. Horta is a popular destination, especially for yachts heading from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, and has been one of the stops for the World Cruising Club’s ARC Europe since 1987. The 300-slip Horta Marina welcomes salt-stained yachtsmen from around the globe with fuel, a 20-ton travel lift, a ship’s store, a service center and customs clearance. If you make berth in Horta, be sure to visit the legendary Peter Café Sport.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The canals and offshoots of the New River are lined with boats of all types, from gleaming superyachts to long-forgotten, rusting sailboats. If your boat needs work, Fort Lauderdale offers one-stop shopping — from electronics installation to a complete refit. It’s certainly one reason this magazine’s southern office has been in Fort Lauderdale for more than 30 years. The beaches are superb, good restaurants abound, and it’s a culturally vibrant city. Is it the “Yachting Capital of the World?” Well, you be the judge.