7 waterfront towns worth a closer look

(CNN)Sun, sand and a large body of water. Check, check and check.

Those are the basics of any trip to the shore.
But some of the United States' protected coasts and lakeshores are cozied up near towns with their own unique appeal.
    These seven towns, located within easy reach of national seashores and lakeshores, range from quirky art hamlets to rugged fishing villages.
    A visit to these spots means you can work on your tan with sides of seafood, history and culture.

    Ocracoke, North Carolina

    There's no designated business district in Ocracoke, a barely 1,000-strong village hugging the southern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
    This lack of special zoning means restaurants, bars and shops can pop up anywhere along the shady streets that wind through the island village.
    Dajio, just off Silver Lake, features a seasonal menu starring local seafood and vegetables grown in the restaurant's garden.
    Down the road at Island Ragpicker, a map covered in pins shows where shoppers have come from to admire the store's nautical themed gifts and housewares.
    Perhaps the island's most famous attractions are the wild mustangs that can often be spotted grazing near the highway.
    Brought over from Spain in the 1500s, these ponies were destined to become work horses, but when the ships carrying the horses ran aground just offshore, it's believed the beleaguered captains sent the ponies overboard to lighten their loads.
    Today the horses run free on a protected stretch along the sound.
    Lodging: Captain's Landing Waterfront Inn, 324 Highway 12, 252-928-1999. Rooms start at $110 per night.

    Ocean Springs, Mississippi

    Art rules in Ocean Springs, an 18,000-strong city near the Mississippi areas of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
    The Walter Anderson Museum of Art's permanent collection features work by the Anderson brothers.
    The creative centerpiece, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, joins eclectic galleries and shops dotting the downtown.
    WAMA, as it's called here, celebrates the Anderson family, Ocean Springs' hometown art heroes.
    Walter Inglis Anderson was a prominent painter, brother Peter Anderson founded the city's Shearwater Pottery and James McConnell Anderson was a local ceramist and painter.
    The museum's permanent collection features a range of work by the three brothers and rotating exhibitions bring in work by other artists.
    After taking in WAMA's watercolors and carvings, smoked wings, catfish po' boys, Big Larry's baked beans and live music await at Murky Waters Blues and BBQ (1212 Government St.).
    Lodging: Front Beach Cottages, 207 Dewey Avenue, 228-215-0969. Rooms start at $109.

    New Smyrna Beach, Florida

    Located just north of Canaveral National Seashore, New Smyrna Beach was founded about 200 years after St. Augustine, so it's only fitting that many of the town's sites celebrate Florida's historic side.
    This is where you go to explore the ruins of early 19th-century sugar mills, paddle through federally protected lagoons and boat alongside the state's original inhabitants: manatees, bottlenose dolphins and alligators.
    There's even a mysterious structure in the middle of town that's believed to be the abandoned footprint of 18th-century Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull's mansion.
    For post-history tour refreshments, the New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company (112 Sams Ave.) serves up cold brews.
    The globe lights on the garden patio of the Third Wave Cafe and Wine Bar (204 Flagler Ave.) add some al-fresco romance to meals featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients.
    Lodging: Black Dolphin Inn, 916 S Riverside Drive, 855-410-4868. Rooms start at $149.

    Provincetown, Massachusetts

    Nearly 400 years after the pilgrims parked in Provincetown's harbor, the beach town has become one of the most popular destinations along Cape Cod National Seashore.
    Diversity is the main appeal here. Whether you're looking for cutting-edge cabaret, unspoiled hiking trails or deep sea whale watching adventures, Provincetown delivers.
    The town is also home to nearly 300 LGBT-owned businesses.
    Commercial Street is one of the best places to experience Provincetown's come-one-come-all vibe.
    After taking in the strip's art galleries, adult toy shops and street performers, don a bib at the classic Lobster Pot Restaurant (321 Commercial Street) for a messy feast of lobster rolls, clam chowder and codfish Rockefeller.
    Lodging: The Provincetown Hotel at Gabriel's, 102 Bradford Street, 508-487-3232. Rooms from $115.

    Chatham, Massachusetts

    At the other end of Cape Cod National Seashore sits Chatham, a small beach town where nature trumps nightlife and history prevails.
    Boat, bike and biplane operators offer guided tours of the town's sites and beaches. Chatham's beaches are not part of the national seashore, but two of the National Park Service seashore's swimming beaches are about a half-hour away.
    The 200-plus year-old Chatham Lighthouse, the Chatham Railroad Museum and the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center are among the town's intriguing historic sites.
    At the Atwood House Museum, passionate docents lead tours through eight galleries devoted to the area's local lore.
    More history can be taken in -- and purchased -- at Chatham's Maps of Antiquity. Here the pages of early atlases, astrology charts and centuries-old maps reveal the history of the seas and stars.
    Downtown's Impudent Oyster (15 Chatham Bars Ave.) may be younger than many of Chatham's other sites, but the restaurant still deserves credit for dishing up clam chowder, sea scallops and mussels for the past 40 years.
    Lodging: Chatham Bars Inn, 297 Shore Road, 800-527-4884. Rooms from $495.

    Bayfield, Wisconsin

    Set on the western coast of Lake Superior, Bayfield is the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
    Bayfield, Wisconsin, is a gateway to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
    From here you can explore the sea caves and honeycomb-like hollows of Devils and Sand Islands and dive to the wreckage of century-old shipwrecks.
    Summertime brings live music and comedy to Bayfield's Big Top Chautauqua, nicknamed the "Carnegie Hall of Tent Shows."
    The town's entire population would barely fill half the seats under the blue tents that have hosted names like Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak and Paula Poundstone.
    The locally caught seafood and beautiful lake views at Wild Rice Restaurant (84860 Old San Road) will satisfy cravings inspired by a glimpse at Lake Superior's commercial fishing history at the Bayfield Maritime Museum.
    Lodging: Old Rittenhouse Inn, 301 Rittenhouse Avenue, 715-779-5111. Rooms from $140.

    Marshall, California

    Fresh-shucked oysters and the great outdoors are what this tiny Marin County community serves up to visitors.
    What Marshall lacks in shops and museums it makes up for in shellfish.
    Tomales Bay, which courses in between the town and the seashore, is home to nearly half the state's shellfish growers.
    That bounty is laid before diners at the Marshall Store (19225 State Route 1), where oysters are served smoked, grilled and raw.
    Hog Island Oyster Farm offers a behind-the-scenes look at the community's shellfish industry.
    After a guided tour and introduction to the business and biology of the area's bivalves, visitors get a lesson in shucking -- and slurping -- a Hog Island oyster. Fresh shellfish can also be bought on site and enjoyed on the farm's bayside picnic tables.
    By day, you might see whales, seals and bald eagles along the bay. But the real magic happens on moonless nights, when the waters are turned a flickering blue thanks to thousands of bioluminescent critters.
    Lodging: Nick's Cove, 23240 Highway 1, 415-663-1033. Cottages start at $249.