NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It takes only one season of suffocating through subway stench or sweltering from the lack of shade to figure out some cities do summer far better than others.
surveys, anywhere from 14% to 41% of Americans are staying at home this summer.
The $3.68 average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. -- an improvement over the $4 per gallon Americans were paying in May but a 35% hike from what they paid
at the same time last year
-- and $10 to $30 peak travel surcharges that FareCompare says are a staple of summer flights led 15% of HomeAway respondents and 5% of TripAdvisor travelers to admit they're dropping summer vacation plans this year because of increased costs.
Still, of TripAdvisor travelers, 40% say they'll be spending their summer by the ocean, another 16% will be hanging out by a lake and 50% will get their guidebooks and go through the nation's cities. HomeAway found that the average summer traveler will spend more than $3,200 on a summer vacation this year, but will do so in hazy and humid spots such as Provincetown, Mass., Ocean City, Md., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Miami and Gulf Shores, Ala. Those sites share space in the Top 10 with other literal hot spots including Bethany Beach, Del., Destin, Fla., New York City and Las Vegas.
It's a lot easier if your hometown has, or is at least close to, some of these amenities. It's also a lot cheaper.
With all this in mind,
found seven towns that not only do summer right but give the locals a little hometown help during the hotter months:
The Wildwoods, N.J.
The Wildwoods were doing summer right before some of their visitors' grandparents were doing summer at all.
Dotted with hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other buildings built in the Doo-Wop/Googie architecture style of the late 1940s through early 1960s, the Wildwoods are considered a historic district by New Jersey and a family legacy among New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Quebecois Canadian families who have been vacationing here for generations. Only part of the appeal comes courtesy of the old Tiki, Chinatown and Vegas-style buildings and sprawling boardwalk filled with food, games, rides and a people mover that embeds a "Watch the tram car, please" warning into vacationers' heads long after they leave.
Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest's free beaches are the most welcome surprise for tourists more accustomed to the badge fees and jam-packed beaches of the Wildwoods' northern neighbors. The Wildwoods' beaches tend to be far more broad than those of Jersey Shore spots farther up the parkway, giving families a lot more room to spread out and locals a better chance of finding a spot than their besieged northern neighbors.
The region's calendar is packed with free concerts, fireworks, boat parades, kite festivals, block parties, beach soccer and lacrosse tournaments and other free activities with a beachfront view, but a handful of community centers and community pools give the locals a place to cool off without diving into the crush of tourists.
The area hasn't always had the greatest of reputations, as crowds of college-age suburbanites once gave it the
belligerent party feel of Seaside Heights and made it really easy to sacrifice dozens of hotels for a condo construction project in the mid-2000s. To Wildwood's credit, it's since dedicated its efforts to preserving the Doo-Wop institutions of its past while taking family-friendly steps toward its future.
When it starts with free lakeshore beaches and builds from there, it's hard to argue against Chicago as a great summer town.
The Midwest heat waves can get oppressive, the crowds and lineups for bigger festivals such as Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival can get large and off-putting and the scent of the CTA trains can get a little ripe around this time of year, but Chicago makes up for it with 26 miles of free beaches along Lake Michigan that are open through Sept. 5.
Not all of its festivals are designed to drive the locals out of town, either. Free events including Taste of Chicago in late June, the Fiesta del Sol fest in its art-heavy Pilsen neighborhood at the end of July, the Chicago Air and Water Show over the lake in August and the summer-capping Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park and Millennium Park in September are sandwiched around various neighborhood street festivals throughout the summer and only complement the city's already thriving bars, restaurants, theater and other nightlife.
Locals who don't feel like lugging gear to the lake or leveraging a second mortgage for membership in the East Bank Club or other private facilities have a surprisingly long list of local public pools to pick from. The Chase Park Pool in Ravenswood Park, the Holstien Park pool in Bucktown and the Hamlin Park pool in Roscoe Village are all above and beyond what's usually expected of free public facilities and often a lot less jammed than their lake-adjacent beach counterparts.
The most many vacationers see of Falmouth is the inside of the Steamship Authority terminal just before they set off for Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard. It's not that there's no reason for them to stay, but Falmouth seems just fine with letting them go.
With 10 beaches stretching a dozen miles, Falmouth easily has the most public beaches on Cape Cod. If you're not a local, however, access will cost you plenty. Parking at Falmouth's most popular beach, Old Silver, is $20 for the day and $40 if visitors rolled the family RV into the lot. Parking at Surf Drive Beach and Menahunt Beach cost $15 and $10 per day, respectively, and the freshwater beach on Grew's Pond is a freebie, but the public's out of luck if it wants to find its way onto any of the other beaches without a sticker.
That's where it starts to get costly. A one-week sticker starts at $60 and crawls to $90 if a renter is staying for the month. That's still a better rate than hotel guests get when they're charged $10 per day. If some out-of-towner wants to come and go as they please all season, it's $200 for the privilege.
All this ends up working out pretty well for the locals, who watch the tourists file in for the Woods Hole Film Festival and the Falmouth Road Race and laugh while their price for a beach sticker holds steady at $30 a year whether they're a lifer or timeshare owner. It also helps maintain the 11.5-mile Shining Sea Bikeway that stretches along former rail bed and runs along the coast from the Steamship Authority terminal in Woods Hole through beaches, cranberry bogs and bird sanctuaries up to North Falmouth.
How do you vacation in the middle of Vacationland? Easy: Stay put and let them come to you.
The city's cobblestone-laden Old Port district gets slammed by stumbling tourists looking to pay way more than they should for lobster as long as they get to eat it with a waterfront view and bypassing local beers such as Geary's, Shipyard, Allagash and Gritty McDuff's for something with a lime sticking out of the bottleneck. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for Portland residents, as their visitors usually stay within a confined space and leave them to the summer spoils.
As visitors flood the ferries to Peak, Chebeague and other islands in Casco Bay and jostle for views of the harbor, the locals get to enjoy free, tucked-away beaches such as pebble-riddled East End Beach and its views of the bay or mile-long Willard Beach with its views of Spring Point Lighthouse and Fort Preble. It's OK to dive in from time to time, but beachgoers easily sent sprinting for their blankets when the water's below 70 degrees should keep Portland's North Atlantic location in mind and perhaps consider one of its three community pools instead.
Tempted to head down the coast for warmer waters, views of the Portland Headlight or skee-ball and soft serve at Old Orchard Beach? Forget it. Much of New England and a healthy part of the New York metro area call surrounding Southern Maine home for the summer, making the city a welcome, if reluctant, refuge.
Farmers markets and various festivals make the season a bit more bearable for those feeling besieged. The boat building festival and local Italian festival are mainstays, but the August music festivals that drag members of the city's thriving indie rock and hip-hop scenes out of the clubs and into the open are the best reason not to skip town until September. The Portland Art and Music Festival and the Picnic Music+Arts Festival shut down streets and pack parks for the last two weekends in August and showcase the musicians, artists and locals that help give Maine a little bit of weird in what's often a straightforward, sleepy state.
Gulf Shores, Ala.
Gulf Shores and Alabama beaches in general had quite a scare during last year's BP oil spill, but recovered nicely after cleanup went more smoothly than expected and even landed in HomeAway's Top 5 summer rental destinations of 2011.
How do you celebrate this if you're a Gulf Shores resident? By avoiding the crowds and tourists near the main beach pavilion and enjoying the beach for free at one of the smaller, lesser-known access points. This is easily what Gulf Shores does better than any other shore point in America: funneling the throngs into one location while everyone else gets to spread out near access points at 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 13th streets. If you want to almost entirely avoid the beach crowd, the little shallows at Lagoon Pass offer a lovely respite.
Those tourists shouldn't be judged too harshly, though, as they help make Gulf Shores' free summer concerts and fireworks possible. They and their visits to Confederate Fort Morgan and the amusements along the wharf also make it pretty lucrative should residents ever want to leave during the high season by putting even modest vacation homes in demand.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.
If you had to live though a Minnesota winter to get to a warm spell, you'd do summer pretty well, too.
tops out in the mid-80s around this time of year, but the recent Midwest heat wave drove high temperatures into the high 90s and lows into the 80s. This is enough to send weak-willed tourists sprinting for the air-conditioned comfort and commerce of the Mall of America, but Minnesotans know better.
There are more than 900 lakes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and gorgeous, free swimming spots such as those in Quarry Park and at the beaches of Cedar Lake are too plentiful to pass up. The Twin Cities are all too aware of this, and one of their biggest summer festivals -- this month's Aquatennial -- celebrates all of the area's wonderful water with milk carton boat races, canoeing and sandcastle building on Lake Calhoun, water ski shows on the Mississippi River and the crowning of the Queen of the Lakes. Parades, concerts, street fairs and other typical festival fare follow, but the Aquatennial is primarily a celebration of the city's water and couldn't be better timed.
That's not even the biggest event the Twin Cities host during the season. The Minnesota State Fair sets up shop in August and brings nearly 1.8 million people through the gates to gawk at butter sculptures, gobble cheese curd and take in grandstand acts such as Def Leppard, Steely Dan, Toby Keith and Weezer.
The average temperature hovers around 66 degrees, the mountains and rivers are only a skip away and the city's festivals never seem to stop. It's chilly, but it's also a cool way to spend the summer.
Portland's end of the Columbia River comes alive with windsurfing, kite surfing, kayaks and other waterborne activity throughout the summer while the Williamette River is lined with parks, water sports centers, amphitheaters and other recreational attractions that stretch all the way to Lake Oswego. Mount Hood National Forest, the Columbia River Gorge and the Olallie Scenic Area near Mount Jefferson in the Cascades are all within striking distance and provide plenty of federally funded fun, but this all requires leaving the city.
Around this time of year, that's not only unnecessary but borderline unwise. Starting with the Portland Rose Festival in June and its dragon boat races, parades and rides along the waterfront, continuing through July's Oregon Brewer's Festival and Portland International Beerfest and ending with MusicfestNW in September, Portland gives its summer citizens a lot more reason to stick around than just another bike lap around the 40-Mile Loop. More than a dozen public pools are scattered throughout the city, while nearby Government Island State Park is still open for swimming but require a boat for access.
You can always head 20 minutes out of town for a dip at Sandy River or go an hour out of your way for a dive into Trillium Lake near Mount Hood, but at this time of year there's far too much to leave behind.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.