This is one of those choices that involve compromise; some options are better for certain areas or architectural styles and there is no one answer for all houses. Windows have to withstand the elements, allow light and air inside and keep moisture out. It's a lot to ask of one product and because of this, we choose reliability over appearance and recommend vinyl windows.
Vinyl Most windows we install in new home construction and remodels are vinyl. These are low maintenance, reliable and affordable. Because vinyl is not as strong as other products, the frames must be made thicker, so there is less glass area. Vinyl cannot be painted, and due to thermal expansion, comes in only a few colors (all light). We still consider this the best product to install if you compare cost versus value. Update 2021 we are now seeing companies make darker colored vinyl windows - these are "painted " windows and are not recommended in this area. WARNING: do not buy any painted vinyl windows, your safe choices for vinyl are white or beige (where the color is part of the manufacturing process -NOT painted on)
Wood Wood is not recommended for this area. It will warp, rot and paint will peel. We do see wood windows at the coast and they almost always need maintenance. If you want wood, prepare to hire a painter every few years (or sooner, if near the beach).
Aluminum Clad Wood These are solid wood frame and wood interior with an exterior aluminum cladding. There are different wood interior choices (pine, fir) which can be stained. We have installed aluminum clad windows away from the beach and they perform well after 10 years. But, next to the ocean, we are seeing problems; either the salt air or wind blown sand is striping away the factory applied paint finish. Until this problem is resolved, we can't recommend using this product. Architects (and others of limited experience) are still designing houses (near the beach) with these windows. This product is just so wrong for this area; don't buy these windows -or you will be sorry.
Fiberglass This window type is gaining popularity due to its' durability and appearance. These can be all fiberglass (inside and out) or a combination of exterior fiberglass and interior wood. The wood can be stained or painted to match existing wood trims, giving the house a more traditional appearance. Because the frame is fiberglass, it has less thermal expansion than vinyl and can be made in darker colors. The cost is significantly higher than wood or vinyl and comparable to aluminum clad.