New Hampshire’s seacoast is famously short, just eighteen miles, and of its few towns, Rye is home to the largest amount of coastline. While it might not have the fanfare of Hampton or the bustle of downtown Portsmouth, Rye (sandwiched right between the two on Route 1A) offers the stunning ocean views, beautiful beaches, delicious seafood, and easy access to nature that many look for when planning a peaceful seaside escape.
Let’s start our visit with a sunrise, shall we?
My family rents a cottage in Rye each summer, and this is the morning view from the side door. It’s hard to think of doing anything else with the sand and ocean just steps away, but Rye has a lot to offer, so let’s get out and explore!
More than half of Rye’s 35.5 square miles are wetlands or marshes, and you’ll see plenty of them during your visit. You may even see folks set up with an easel, capturing the beauty of the sea and wetlands on canvas.
A short distance from the ocean, Rye has a charming little town square where the library, town hall, Congregational church, and historical society are located, but we’re going to stick to the seacoast. A drive along Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A) up the coast offers views of (on the right) the ocean and (on the left) the homes of those lucky enough to live with views of it out their front windows.
Looking to swim, work on your tan, or hunt for shells? There are two public beaches in Rye about 3 miles apart from one another. Jenness State Beach has a sandy beach, bathhouse, and metered parking for nearly 70 cars, plus the added benefit of Summer Sessions Surf Shop and the Jenness Beach Seaside Grill across the street should the need arise for gear or a quick bite.
If you opt to head further to Rye’s second beach, note that there are a few spots along Ocean Boulevard where you can pull over onto the side of the road and hike up one of the wooden ramps to a rocky walking path that travels along the coast. You can also carefully step down the rocks on the other side to get to the sand and ocean, but the rocks are bulky and sometimes sharp, so bring your shoes!
Less than ten minutes drive north from Jenness, Wallis Sands State Beach is another sandy beach with a bathhouse equipped with hot and cold showers, plus a parking lot with room for 500 cars (at $15 per day, per carload). On a clear day, the Isles of Shoals are visible in the distance, and a snack bar is nearby for food and drinks.
Hungry? There are several dining options in Rye, from classic fried seafood and lobster rolls to ice cream and burgers. My family always makes a few visits to the Rye Harbor Lobster Pound (located in the snug row of “shacks” at Rye Harbor between the two beaches on Route 1A) for takeout lobster and steamers, but they also have a small seating area in front that’s perfect for a lobster roll lunch. Choose a hot or cold roll, then enjoy!
I’ve only had the hot lobster roll at the Rye Harbor Lobster Pound, which comes in a grilled, buttered top-split hot dog roll with large chunks of fresh lobster bathed in a buttery sherry sauce. It’s so good I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to bring myself to order a cold roll, but I’m willing to bet that those are equally tasty. Each lobster roll comes with a bag of chips, and owners Nate and Sylvia couldn’t be nicer, so do yourself a favor and stop in!
For more of a sit-down affair there are two main seafood restaurants on Route 1A worth mentioning — Ray’s Seafood and Petey’s Summertime Seafood. My family frequents both, but on this most recent visit we ended up at Ray’s.
It’s especially nice to be at either restaurant when the sun is setting and you’ve got an outdoor table with an ocean view. Everyone was more than satisfied with their fried seafood, french fries, and onion rings. Again, what’s not to love here? Other than the calories…
If you’re in the mood for a burger, 603 Burgers (“Live Free and Eat Fries”) is a fun, roadside-style option. At the window, each customer is handed an order form to fill out, with signature selections or a “build-it-yourself” option to choose from, along with sides like hand-cut fries and onion rings. Burger are made from fresh 100% Angus beef and there are hot dogs, turkey burgers, and veggie burgers to suit every diet. (Ed. Note: 603 Burgers has closed as of spring 2016)
And since no visit to the beach is complete without an ice cream cone, there’s the The Beach Hut serving Gifford’s ice cream right next to 603 Burgers. It has a bit of a kitsch/tiki vibe plus an extensive list of traditional and creative flavors, and my kiddie cone of Peanut Butter/Caramel/Cookie Dough (holy sugar!) was generous indeed.
Tanned, full, and ready for fun? Beyond the beaches themselves, there are lots of options for keeping busy. Back at Rye Harbor, you can board a boat for a deep sea fishing excursion, whale watch, scenic boat cruise, or ferry to nearby Star Island, the “big island” of the Isles of Shoals.
You can also head a few miles north of Rye Harbor to the fantastic 330-acre Odiorne Point State Park, named after the Odiorne family that first settled the area in the 1600’s. The land was privately owned and home to a number of grand summer homes and resorts until 1942, when the government purchased the property to build Fort Dearborn to protect the Portsmouth Harbor and the Naval Shipyard nearby during World War II and the 1950’s. In 1961, the land was sold back to the state for $91,000.
The park is a gem, with rocky coasts, flowering bushes, remnants of WWII fortifications and bunkers, a kid-friendly Science Center, and plenty of perfect spots to enjoy a picnic lunch (picnic tables included) or explore the many tide pools.
Of course, during our visit, the main view was the thick blanket of fog that had rolled in overnight.
But, as you can see, the fog didn’t deter a group of young explorers from heading out onto the rocks (no sand here!) to peer into the tide pools. The circle structures in the foreground are remnants of the Fort Dearborn days — not a fire pit.
Popular with children and families, the year-round Seacoast Science Center was built in 1992. Inside, find touch tanks, interpretive exhibits, and the largest public display of marine mammal skeletons in northern New England, including a 32-foot humpback whale skeleton.
There’s a lot to see, do, and eat in Rye, but after being out and about, the only thing I really wanted to do was re-apply the sunscreen and put my toes in the water. Yes, the Atlantic is frigid, even in August, but we hearty New Englanders can take it, and probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
Have you been to Rye, New Hampshire? Where is your favorite spot on the Granite State seacoast?
This post was first published in 2014 and is frequently updated.