Confession: This story was supposed to be about America's best boardwalks. But a few steps into the research, we realized we love them all: big, small, run-down, flashy — and especially those fighting their way back after Hurricane Sandy (yay, Coney Island!). In the end, we're taking you to five you might not have visited yet. They're each dreamy in their own way, and they're all lined with great eats.
The real fun at the amusement-packed Kemah Boardwalk (about 20 miles from Houston on the Gulf Coast) doesn't happen along the water — it happens on the water. The Boardwalk Beast is a motorboat that zips 140 people around Galveston Bay at 40 miles per hour. (There are also dinner cruises aboard the FantaSea, if you're looking for something slower paced.) A key stop for seafood: the appropriately named Aquarium (No. 11 Kemah Boardwalk; aquariumrestaurants.com). You'll find a floor-to-ceiling 50,000-gallon tank of tropical fish in the dining room. kemahboardwalk.com
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
Everything about the pier at Old Orchard Beach looks like a movie set: weather-worn pylons, salt-seasoned shingles, old-school seafood shacks.
The short pier, built in 1980 to resemble the original 19th-century one, has just six bars and restaurants; locals swear by the classic Maine lobster roll at Hurricane Raw Bar (oobpier.com/hurricanes.html). There's also plenty to see nearby, including a Ferris wheel and a fireworks show every Thursday night in the summer. oobpier.com
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Myrtle Beach visitors waited decades for a new boardwalk to replace the one that Hurricane Hazel destroyed in 1954, and they finally got it in 2010. The 1.2-mile wooden walkway passes through sand dunes and beneath palmetto trees as it winds along the beach, and you can get a sweeping view of it all from a glass gondola on the massive SkyWheel.
Ocean City, N.J.
The boardwalk in Ocean City is what the Jersey Shore was before reality television made it infamous: a seaside paradise filled with everyone's favorite summer treats.
Once you've had a slice or two from Manco & Manco Pizza (mancospizza.com), you can move on to sweets. Ocean City locals love fighting over who does saltwater taffy best: Shriver's (9th St. and Boardwalk; shrivers.com) or Fralinger's (11th St. and Boardwalk; jamescandy.com).
Frozen custard also has its roots here: Kohr Bros. (five locations; kohrbros.com) is operated by descendants of the Kohr family, who some claim invented the treat.
And caramel corn at Johnson's Popcorn (multiple locations; johnsonspopcorn.com) is still hand-mixed in front of boardwalk crowds, as it has been since 1940.
Santa Cruz, Calif.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the 106-year-old granddaddy of West Coast boardwalks: Its first roller coaster, called a "scenic railway," was built in 1908. Today, it is home to the only major oceanside amusement park on the Pacific seaboard, with 35 rides, including a wooden Giant Dipper that dates back to 1924. If you go, try the battered and fried artichokes at Surf City Grill (400 Beach St.; surfcitygrill.com) — the garlic in the batter comes from nearby garlic mecca: Gilroy, CA — and a seasonal microbrew from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing; last year's was called Boardwalk Blonde. beachboardwalk.com
(Photographs by Christopher Shane; Keller + Keller; Christopher Testani)