New England

Best Coastal Towns in New England for Every Traveler

Depending on your passion—be it art, adventure, seafood, or simply catching some rays—there’s a locale on the New England coast that caters to your interest.

By Steve Jermanok

May 30 2017

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A bird’s-eye view of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
RAYMOND FORBES LLC/STOCKSY

Photo Credit : Raymond Forbes/LLC Stocksy
A bird’s-eye view of Provincetown, Massachusetts. RAYMOND FORBES LLC/STOCKSY
A bird’s-eye view of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Raymond Forbes/LLC Stocksy

Best New England Coastal Town For Nature Lovers

Provincetown, MA Jutting into the Atlantic at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown boasts a mix of rolling dunes, forest, and ocean waters that attracts not only serenity seekers but also a bevy of birds and ocean life. Begin your day with a whale-watching cruise to find humpbacks and minkes nibbling at the nutrient-rich Stellwagen Bank. In the afternoon, try the 8-mile-long Province Lands Bike Trail, which dips in and out of sand dunes, weaving through scrub-pine forests and along beaches. Be sure to stop (and lock up your bike) to stroll through Beech Forest, where birders can find a treasure trove of warblers and other songbirds. Tired from the day’s activities? Let the waves lull you to sleep in one of the six guest rooms and suites at the Red Inn.

Best New England Coastal Town For Adventurers

Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay.
Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay.
Photo Credit : iStock.com/PictureLake

Bar Harbor, ME Bar Harbor is the gateway to New England’s foremost natural playground, Acadia National Park. Get yourself acclimated by starting with a gentle climb up Acadia Mountain to savor the view of Norumbega Mountain’s precipitous cliffs sliding into Somes Sound, creating the only fjord on the eastern seaboard. Kids will enjoy the hikes up North Bubble and South Bubble, peaks that stand less than 1,000 feet (especially when you reward them with freshly baked popovers at nearby Jordan Pond House afterward). The more intepid will want to opt for the Precipice and Beehive trails, where iron rungs lead you up steep cliff walls. Yet Acadia is not all about climbing. Bike the shores of Eagle Lake via a carriage path (one of the gravel roads that crisscross the eastern half of the island) that extends for six miles under towering firs and over century-old stone bridges. Venture on half-day sea kayaking jaunts in the Atlantic, during which you can keep an eye out for harbor seals and search for sea glass on deserted Frenchman Bay islands. At day’s end, stay at the West Street Hoteloverlooking the ocean waters, and rest your weary muscles in the rooftop pool.

Best New England Coastal Town For Bikers

Edgartown, MA One of the real joys of going to the Vineyard is leaving your car behind and using a bike to get around on the trails, which branch off in every direction like spokes on a wheel. If you can tear yourself away from the sublime white sand of South Beach, pedal four miles on a well-paved bike path to the Vineyard’s oldest settlement, Edgartown, and meander past whaling captains’ homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Then bring your bike on the two-minute ferry ride over to Chappaquiddick and remote Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, a long stretch of coast that’s home to endangered piping plovers, ospreys, and the occasional bald eagle.

Bike rentals are available in all the major towns; if you get tired easily, note that local buses are equipped to carry bikes, so you might want to pedal one way and take public transportation back. The Winnetu Oceanside Resort, a longtime family favorite, features upscale lodging within an easy stroll of South Beach. As parents of three, hoteliers Gwenn and Mark Snider know a thing or two about keeping kids happy.

Best New England Coastal Town For Walkers

Ogunquit’s Marginal Way is one of the premier coastal walking pathways in New England.
Ogunquit’s Marginal Way is one of the premier coastal walking pathways in New England.
Photo Credit : GrandviewGraphics/Istock

Ogunquit, ME Ogunquit gets its name from Algonquin for “beautiful place by the sea,” which is how native people described this flat, sandy 3½-mile stretch along the southern Maine coast. Walk the beach to your heart’s content, inhaling therapeutic breaths of salty air. This will whet your appetite for the Marginal Way, a paved footpath that leads from the main beach up the rugged cliffs to the shops and seafood restaurants in Perkins Cove. You’ll pass cedar trees and stunted pines along the way, and if you look out to sea you’ll spot sailboats, yachts, and lobster fishermen bobbing in the water. Dive into the fresh catch at local institution Barnacle Billy’s, a favorite of George and Barbara Bush, who reside part-time in nearby Kennebunkport. Stay at the Beachmere Inn and you’ll be on the Cliff Walk, within a short stroll of the beach or Barnacle Billy’s.

Best New England Coastal Town For Art Historians

Artists and art fans have long made Rockland a summer destination.
Artists and art fans have long made Rockland a summer destination.
Photo Credit : Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo

Rockland, ME Enter the galleries of the acclaimed Farnsworth Art Museum and see how artists like Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, and Winslow Homer portrayed the rugged Maine coastline. Across the street, a 19th-century Methodist church has been transformed into the museum’s Wyeth Center, where works by three generations of Wyeths are on display. In the nearby town of Cushing you can visit the farmhouse that Andrew Wyeth depicted in the background of Christina’s World. Owned by the Farnsworth for the past two decades, the structure became a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Rockland’s cherry on top for art lovers is the new building designed by renowned architect Toshiko Mori that houses the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which has showcased cutting-edge work by the likes of Alex Katz, Leah Gaultier, and Kevin Cyr. Stay at 250 Main, which made its debut in May 2016, and you’ll find the latest issue of Art New England on the coffee tables in the lobby.

Best New England Coastal Town For Beach Loungers

A gorgeous beach and a lively downtown help define Madison.
A gorgeous beach and a lively downtown help define Madison.
Photo Credit : Stan Tess/Alamy Stock Photo

Madison, CT Even on a hot weekend day in summer, the 2-mile-long stretch of beach at Hammonasset Beach State Park never feels too crowded. Park your car near the east bathhouse and walk a short way on the soft white sand toward Meigs Point. Bordered by grassy dunes and wildflowers, this is the perfect welcome mat to the blue-green waters of Long Island Sound. After you finish your beach read, drive five minutes to the charming village of Madison. Coffee shops, restaurants, and boutique stores entice the beachgoer, but you’d be wise to find your next vacation tome at one of the finest bookstores in New England, R.J. Julia Independent Booksellers. Spend the night at Madison Beach Hotel, and do it all over again the next day.

Best New England Coastal Town For Scenery Buffs

Old Harbor, Block Island, RI Take the hourlong ferry ride from Galilee and you’ll disembark onto a pork chop–shaped island where weathered houses perch on hillsides, bordered by old stone walls and blue-green ponds. Old Harbor is the only town on the island. As its name implies, Water Street is a waterfront thoroughfare lined with white clapboard Victorian buildings, which are home to gabled hotels, terraced restaurants, and a few shops and ice cream parlors. Located within walking distance of the ferry is the nine-room 1661 Inn, offering unbeatable sunset views from its hillside vantage. The best way to explore the island is a 13-mile bicycle jaunt. Almost immediately after leaving town you’ll reach Southeast Lighthouse, which stands on the highest ground of any lighthouse in New England. Stroll around the structure, then head over to the Mohegan Bluffs parking lot. One trail leads to the majestic bluffs; another leads down to a beach where you can walk below the massive sheets of rock.

Best New England Coastal Town For Seafood Lovers

The North Shore’s Great Marsh, the largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England.
The North Shore’s Great Marsh, the largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England.
Photo Credit : Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy

Essex, MA The Essex River Basin is known for having the sweetest clams in New England, and if you drive into Essex after a day at the beach, you’ll no doubt find a line out the door at seafood specialist Woodman’s. Join the queue and you’ll soon smell the fryer; it’s here that the first fried clam said to have been invented over a century ago. Order your clams fried or steamed, or opt for boiled lobster, lobster rolls, shrimp, or other seafood delicacies, along with corn on the cob and mounds of onion rings. Then find a picnic table at which to devour it all (you’ll need far more napkins than you might expect). Other restaurant choices in town include the classicJ.T. Farnham’s, a cozy seafood shack with views of the Essex River, and C.K. Pearl, where you can start with, say, littlenecks on the half shell before digging into spicy lobster carbonara. For elegant overnight accommodations, a 10-minute drive from Woodman’s takes you to the Inn at Castle Hill, located on the grounds of the historic Crane Estate, next door to Crane Beach.

Best New England Coastal Town For Families

Brewster, MA The bayside waters of Cape Cod are warmer and have less surf than their oceanside counterpart, thus making them a favorite for families. Paine’s Creek in Brewster is one of those small gems that are popular with the pail-and-shovel crowd. Add in the all-ages-friendly Cape Cod Rail Trail, a paved bike trail that snakes through town; casual favorite Cobie’s Clam Shack; and arguably the finest family resort on the Cape, Ocean Edge, and you have all the makings of an ideal summer break. New this year at Ocean Edge is a spa—so while counselors in the day camp are entertaining the little ones, Mom and Dad can slip away for a much-needed couples massage.

Best New England Coastal Town For Honeymooners

Country lanes and paths snake through and around the island of Nantucket.
Country lanes and paths snake through and around the island of Nantucket.
Photo Credit : Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy

Nantucket, MA Flanked by Nantucket Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in a less congested section of Nantucket, exclusive resort the Wauwinet combines historical charm with the natural seascape of Melville’s favorite island. Open the French doors to your balcony, breathe in the salty air, and admire the landscaped gardens. After a few bottles of bubbly, you might think you spotted Moby Dick swimming alongside the boats in the harbor. If you’re feeling active, the resort has windsurfing rigs, Sunfishes, mountain bikes, and tennis facilities, including two clay courts, all available to guests. You also can go four-wheeling on the beach to the remote Great Point Lighthouse, or grab a bike and pedal six miles on the Polpis bike path to the village of ’Sconset, where rose-trellised cottages with names like “The Snuggery” and “Very Snug” line the narrow streets. Nearby ’Sconset Beach, on the eastern end of the island, seems like the right place to indulge in a bit of seaside romance, à la Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.

Best New England Coastal Town For the Luxury Crowd

Big homes and big views welcome Newport visitors.
Big homes and big views welcome Newport visitors.
Photo Credit : Onne Van der Wal/courtesy of Discover Newport

Newport, RI How can you not be seduced by the affluence when you stroll Newport’s Cliff Walk and see the sloping, manicured lawns and opulent summer “cottages” built by the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Astors at the turn of 20th century? Another cup of tea at the red and gold lacquered pagoda at the Marble House? Why, most certainly, Jeeves! Yes, that’s a fantasy—but the reality is you can still sail Narragansett Bay aboard genuine America’s Cup yachts with America’s Cup Charters, purchase striking 18-karat gold jewelry at Alloy Gallery, and order a dozen oysters on the half shell paired with a good sancerre at the Mooring on Sayer’s Wharf. If you were wise, you already booked a room at the Chanler at Cliff Walk, the only property on the famed pathway. The 20-room luxury hotel also boasts an acclaimed restaurant, Spiced Pear, a favorite foodie outpost in town.

Best New England Coastal Town For the Budget-Minded

Honky-tonk flair gives Hampton Beach a feel all its own.
Honky-tonk flair gives Hampton Beach a feel all its own.
Photo Credit : EasyBuy4u/Istock

Hampton Beach, NH Just a stone’s throw from the Massachusetts border, Hampton Beach has been playing host to Boston-area families for more than a century. On a hot summer day, arrive early to stake out your own bit of sand among the throngs. Much of the action in this honky-tonk town centers around the live music venue, the Casino Ballroom, which already has the B-52s, Everclear, and Barenaked Ladies on the calendar this month. For an oceanfront community, lodging costs here are reasonable. Rooms with water views at the centrally located Ashworth by the Seastart at $149 a night in June. Or stay next door to the Casino Ballroom in a standard room at the Boardwalk Inn for $105–$125 a night.

Best New England Coastal Town For Car-free Travelers

Federalist architecture in downtown Salem.
Federalist architecture in downtown Salem.
Photo Credit : Raymond Forbes LLC/Stocksy

Salem, MA Best known as the site of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s, this seaside city flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as its merchant vessels circled the globe in ships like the three-masted Friendship. A replica of this ship, which disappeared during the War of 1812, is on display at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Captains built homes on the waterfront, including the so-called House of the Seven Gablesthat Nathaniel Hawthorne made famous in his 1851 novel of the same name. Nearby, the renowned Peabody Essex Museum stores many of the treasures and artifacts those ships brought back from afar. All these sites are within easy walking distance of each other, so there’s no need to bring the car. The best way to get to Salem is via the ferry from Boston’s Long Wharf: Grab a seat, breathe in the ocean air, ogle the seaside estates of Marblehead as you motor by, and 45 minutes later you arrive in Salem, stress-free. Spending the night? Lark Hotels recently opened the Merchant, an 11-room boutique hotel located in the former 18th-century home of shipping merchant Joshua Ward.