Built in 1742 for Newport’s growing fishing fleet, Bannister’s Wharf is now a thriving shopping scene.Photo Credit : courtesy of Discover Newport
1. Ogunquit, Maine
In Ogunquit, folks plan each summer day according to the tides. Halfway between high tide and low tide, when the current of the Ogunquit River flows swiftly out to the Atlantic, people congregate on the flat stretch of sand that rolls down to the riverbank. Soon the mass of beachgoers are in the river—less chilly than the ocean, but still a bracing wake-up call. They carry an assortment of flotation devices: rafts, boogie boards, and inner tubes.
I lie on my back, take my wife’s hand, and laugh like a 6-year-old as a fast current carries us around a bend. The ride ends far too quickly, and I wade through the shallow waters back to shore. When the little girl in front of me shouts, “Let’s do it again,” I echo her enthusiasm.
Though the ocean temperature averages 63 degrees in August—almost 10 degrees lower than the water temperature on Connecticut’s Long Island Sound—Ogunquit rates as our top beach town in New England.
Want to plop down your towel? How about a wide swath of sand just east of Ogunquit’s lazy river? Ogunquit Beach stretches some three and a half miles from the center of town all the way to more remote sections called Footbridge and North beaches.
No matter where you stay along the Route 1 strip in Ogunquit, it’s within easy walking distance to the beach. That’s a prerequisite for being a world-class beach town, yet you’d be surprised how few New England communities can boast that beach-town ideal: the ability to walk from your hotel to the beach, and onward to classic seafood shacks and boutiques lined with the wares of local artisans.
I like to stay on the lower portion of Shore Road, which juts out from Route 1, where I can stroll to the main beach, stores, and restaurants in the town center, with the added pleasure of being only steps away from the Marginal Way’s mile-long cliff walk.
I book a room at the The Beachmere Inn, where morning yoga on the sprawling lawn rewards me with exquisite beach views; from there, a small gate opens onto the Marginal Way’s paved path, accessible to all. As the trail climbs, glorious vistas open up onto a rugged Maine coastline, a scene that Winslow Homer would convey brilliantly a half-hour drive up the road in Prouts Neck.
I smell sweet beach plums as I walk past the twisted branches of a century-old cedar tree, dwarf pines that somehow have survived the brunt of winter gales, and benches atop the bluffs, perfect for watching cormorants and sailboats.Below, small beaches favored by young families are buttressed between jagged rocks. On one of these spits of sand, I meet Al Korman drying off after a swim. “On a hot day, there’s nothing like a jump in that water,” Korman says. “The ocean breeze is the best kind of air conditioning.”
On a drive up to Acadia National Park 17 years ago, Korman had a flat tire in Ogunquit and fell in love with the place. Retired now, he spends winters in Florida but returns to the Maine village every summer. “When I’m in Florida,” he adds, “I dream about this place.”
Eventually I reach Perkins Cove at the top of the Marginal Way (south of the town center), home to a handful of seafood restaurants, including the beloved lobster-in-the-rough joint Barnacle Billy’s. Place your order for clam chowder, lobster rolls, and steamed clams, and grab a table outside overlooking the lobster boats, as you listen for your number. The clam chowder has a thin, milky broth, chock-full of clams and potatoes. The lobster roll is served on a hot buttered bun, full of claw meat.
At night, I wander over to the Ogunquit Playhouse, one of New England’s historic summer-stock theaters, where Helen Hayes, Bette Davis, and Anthony Quinn all once graced the stage. Now this spacious building is a blessed retreat for talented Broadway actors who make the shrewd move of leaving Manhattan in the sweltering summer.
There are only two reasons I’d set foot in my car in Ogunquit. The first is to enjoy a meal at MC Perkins Cove, a delightful on-the-water restaurant owned by Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, who for many years ran another local institution: the James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurant, Arrows. At M.C. Perkins Cove, the menu is built around American bistro fare and fresh seafood. Come hungry and take your best shot at the “Grand Shellfish Tower,” a multi-layered collection of oysters, little neck clams, jumbo shrimp, mussels, and Maine lobster.
And the second reason? When it rains, I’m not at a loss. I can head 45 minutes north to Portland, to visit the latest exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art and to enjoy my requisite Belgian fries with truffle ketchup at Duckfat. That’s a rarity, however. Most of the time, you’ll find me riding the tide, laughing, as I watch the clouds roll by and let the sea wash
2. Provincetown, Massachusetts
Frankly, it was tough choosing between P-town and Ogunquit for top spot. At the tip of Cape Cod, P-town has it all: Cape Cod National Seashore beaches where, if you’re willing to walk, you can always find a strip to yourself; stunning sunsets; a vibrant gallery and restaurant scene; popular whale-watching cruises; and the most eclectic (and at times electric) people watching of all.
(When rain threatens to put a definite damper on your outdoor activities, check out P-town’s shops, too.) Devotees are passionate about Provincetown; an inspired place to visit off-season, its narrow streets can barely hold the cars in midsummer.
Don’t miss: Province Lands Bike Trail, a paved up-and-down route through beech forest and atop the dunes offers spectacular ocean views.
3. Nantucket, Massachusetts
This is an incomparable beach town. The restaurants are surprisingly sophisticated for a beach destination, the mix of shops intriguing, and bike paths branch off in every direction to a variety of beaches. Just remember that it takes some organization to get here (but it’s worth it). The ferry trip is lovely, and you have options—high-speed or not, six ferries a day—but you can’t just show up at the Hyannis terminal and hop on.
As for lodging, some of the most spectacular island inns in America call Nantucket home, but they come with prices to match, so plan ahead.
Don’t miss: The impressive collection of scrimshaw at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, housed in a former spermaceti candle factory, recalling the gritty days when Nantucket whalers roamed the world.
4. NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
Home to historic mansions, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and Touro Synagogue (oldest existing synagogue in America), Newport has more than enough diversions for those who want to step away from the shoreline.
Add strolling atop the rugged shoreline along the cliff walk and sailing on Narragansett Bay, and you’ve got a world-class summer getaway. One quirk: the area’s best beach, Second Beach on Sachuest Bay, is actually in neighboring Middletown.
Don’t miss:Alloy Gallery, now on Bellevue Avenue, owned by a Rhode Island School of Design–trained jewelry artist who displays contemporary wares that she and her peers created.
5. Old Harbor, Block Island, Rhode Island
Veer left (south) in New Shoreham’s Old Harbor after the hour-long ferry ride from Galilee, and you soon reach the red-brick Southeast Lighthouse and dramatic Mohegan Bluffs, where sea-gouged cliffs drop precariously to the water 200 feet below.
Head to the right (north), across from a small strip of stores, restaurants, and inns, and you arrive at the glorious three-mile-long Crescent Beach, packed with daytrippers in the summer months. Old Harbor is as simple as that—and that’s the reason why people make the trip year after year. Don’t miss: Rent a bike and take a 13-mile loop around the island, stopping at the many lemonade stands—or hike the Greenway walking trails.
6. Edgartown, Massachusetts
Amble along the sidewalks of this Martha’s Vineyard town, laced with whaling captains’ homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. Then take your bikes on the two-minute ferry ride over to Chappaquiddick and remote Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, a long coastal stretch that you can call home for the rest of the day. If you feel like getting even closer to the sea, the Trustees of Reservations offers guided kayaking tours on Cape Poge and Wasque Reservation waterways.
Don’t miss: A cone at Mad Martha’s and the requisite stroll over to the docks.
7. Kennebunkport, Maine
Most people associate Kennebunkport with the shopping at Dock Square. That’s a shame, because the true joy of visiting Kennebunkport is driving on backcountry roads to find the lobster traps stocked high on Cape Porpoise, the small strip of sand at Goose Rocks Beach, and the many favorite local eateries in between (like Nunan’s Lobster Hut and The Ramp). Don’t miss: One of the best meals in New England, the four-course prix fixe menu at The White Barn Inn, west across the river in neighboring Kennebunk Beach.
8. Rockport, Massachusetts
Neighboring Gloucester boasts two of the finest beaches on Cape Ann, Good Harbor and Wingaersheek, but you’ll want to spend most of your evening hours in Rockport. Bearskin Neck, with its collection of boutiques, ice-cream shops, and restaurants, juts out into Sandy Bay, ending at a rock jetty. Front Beach, a two-minute walk from Bearskin Neck, will suffice for sand-castle building and a swim.
Don’t miss: The new Shalin Liu Performance Center, a classical-music venue whose floor-to-ceiling stage window overlooks the Atlantic.
9. Chatham, Massachusetts
You’ll find a quintessential village green here, replete with gazebo and bands playing concerts in summer, surrounded by a good selection of restaurants and shops. Note that parking at some of Chatham’s fine beaches is limited, so go early.
Don’t miss: Lodging at Wequassett Resort (worth the splurge), where a motorboat shuttle will escort you to a deserted beach (part of Cape Cod National Seashore) that was once connected to the mainland.
10. Watch Hill, Rhode Island
This classic summer retreat offers a town beach, a ride on one of the oldest carousels in the country, long coastline walks, and a nice array of shops and restaurants. An added bonus is that Watch Hill isn’t directly off I-95, so you have to earn this slice of beachfront territory.
Don’t miss: Drinks on the glorious wraparound verandah of Ocean House, where you can watch the croquet pro give lessons on the manicured lawn.
Author of more than 1500 travel articles and 9 books, Steve Jermanok is a regular contributor to Yankee. He co-owns a boutique travel agency in Newton, Massachusetts, called ActiveTravels.com.