Whether you’re looking for waves to ride, long stretches of sand, or lots of family activities, one of these picks is sure to be the ideal getaway for you.
By Steve Jermanok
Jul 01 2012
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Yankee and may have been updated for this special collection.
Whether you’re looking for waves to ride, long stretches of sand, or lots of family activities, one of our picks for the 25 best beach towns in New England is sure to be the ideal getaway for you.
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 was to enjoy a meal at Arrows (now closed), the James Beard Foundation Award–winning restaurant two miles from the town center. As you overlook the establishment’s expansive vegetable and flower gardens, it’s easy to understand how Arrows became one of the first restaurants of the farm-to-fork movement more than two decades ago.
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 over me.
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 for spectacular ocean views.
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.
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 created by herself and her peers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in nearby Harwich (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.
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.
South of Ogunquit, York Beach shares many of the same attributes as our best-beach-town winner. There’s a lovely beach, Short Sands, right in the center of town, on which to leave your footprints, or venture out to Long Sands, true to its name. Both beaches feature nearby metered parking and enough ice-cream eateries, fudge shops, and chowder-in-the-rough joints to satisfy beachside cravings. Don’t miss:The Central and South American butterflies at York’s Wild Kingdom.
One of the larger communities on Cape Cod, Falmouth has both its busy and its picturesque sides. If you’re looking for affordable lodging, restaurants that grill fresh seafood perfectly, a fun town center to stroll, a vast assortment of beaches, the Shining Sea Bikeway trail down to Wood’s Hole, and easy accessibility on Route 28 south off the Bourne Bridge, follow the Bostonians who have a second home in Falmouth. Don’t miss:The pearly-white sands of Old Silver Beach in North Falmouth, on the shore of Buzzards Bay.
If we were judging beach towns solely on variety and quality of beaches, Wellfleet would earn top honors. Its mix of Cape Cod National Seashore beachfront, freshwater ponds, and bayshore and harborside walks is unparalleled. It’s all worth the drive from the small town center. Don’t miss:A first-run flick at the circa-1957 Wellfleet Drive-In.
Amid those whimsical gingerbread houses are the family-friendly environs of Oak Bluffs, packed with T-shirt shops, restaurants of every stripe, and one of the oldest carousels still in operation. If you feel like a dip, grab a bike and head 3 miles to Joseph Sylvia State Beach, halfway to Edgartown. There, you’ll find the famous bridge where the movie Jaws was filmed, now popular with kids who make the plunge to the deep water below. Don’t miss:Carved in 1876, the mighty steeds of the Flying Horses Carousel have manes and tails of real hair, yet the real joy for children is the chance to lean over and snag a brass ring.
In the off-season, the waves at Narragansett’s Town Beach provide local surfers with enough action until their next trip to Rincon. In the summer, the beach is a bit milder, attracting families who can walk easily from the lodging and restaurants in town. Don’t miss:Point Judith calamari and native littleneck clams on the outdoor deck of Coast Guard House.
With a five-mile drive to the beach on Plum Island (most of which lies within neighboring Newbury’s boundaries), Newburyport isn’t normally considered a beach town. Yet it’s hard to resist the intriguing collection of bookstores, boutiques, and top-notch restaurants in town after a day at the ocean. Don’t miss:Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift carries binoculars so that you can see those piping plovers and other Atlantic Flyway birds at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.
Spend the morning on Nauset Beach’s exquisite length of dune-studded coastline along Cape Cod National Seashore, the afternoon biking in the shade of the Cape Cod Rail Trail north past the ponds of Eastham, and the early evening watching a Cape Cod Baseball League game, with many players who’ll soon find their way to the Major Leagues. Long-time lovers of Cape towns are accustomed to summer traffic. Don’t miss:An affordable night’s stay at the Ship’s Knees Inn in East Orleans, the nearest lodging to Nauset Beach.
If all you want is one of Cape Ann’s beloved sandy strands, Crane Beach, and arguably the best clam shack in New England, the Clam Box, then you don’t have to go father than Ipswich. The rolling country byways outside the town center also offer great road biking past orchards and along creeks. Don’t miss:Pick-your-own berries and apples at Russell Orchards.
From the heart of Madison it’s a four-mile drive to one of Connecticut’s favorite sandboxes, Hammonasset Beach State Park. That’s not a deterrent, however, for the countless beachgoers who visit this delightful three-block village of coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants after a day of lounging. Don’t miss:The country’s top authors may be found reading from their
latest works at RJ Julia Independent Booksellers.
This ocean-drenched Maine town, with its collection of arcades, amusement rides, and snow-cone shops, carries a bit of Coney Island vibe, which may not be for everyone. But for folks who want to saunter over to a seven-mile stretch of beach from their budget-conscious lodging, it’s hard to top. Don’t miss: A cheesy slice at Rocco’s Pizza.
Who’d have thought that Little Compton, best known for its historic village common and centuries-old cemetery, would have a gem of a beach just down the road? Backed by a marsh and salt pond, crescent-shaped Goosewing Beach is managed by The Nature Conservancy as a shorebird preserve and is just as popular with walkers as sunbathers. (Parking is nearby at South Shore Beach.) Don’t miss:Quahog chowder, jonnycakes, and lobster rolls at The Commons Lunch after your day of breathing in the salty air.
With a thriving town center and historic sites galore, including Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II, this community has all the makings of a premier beach town, though you’ll do a little driving to get to the beach part. A few miles southeast toward the village of Manomet lie the soft white sands of White Horse Beach; head out there early, as public parking is limited and you might have to grab a spot on a side street. Plymouth Long Beach is closer to town, but a bit rocky. Don’t miss:The great symbol of freedom, Plymouth Rock, now housed in a colonnaded building down by the waterfront.
Few towns transform in summer like hyperactive Hampton Beach. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a day (or an evening) when something special isn’t planned: concerts at Hampton Beach State Park’s beautifully re-designed Seashell Stage complex (part of the park’s newly completed $14.5 million redevelopment), movies on the beach, fireworks, beach-volleyball tournaments, even beach soccer (who knew?). With all that action come a lot of people and traffic along the road that carries them to the sand. Once you find a parking spot, you’ll quickly find a place to plant your towel on this long stretch of beach and sparkling sea. Across the street is everything you always wanted in a beach town when you were 10: soft-serve ice cream, fudge, snow cones, pizza. Don’t miss:The fun annual Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition, with world-class builders.
The Bay State’s favorite seaside “let’s go meet and hang out” getaway is Hull’s three-mile stretch of Nantasket Beach. Swim to your heart’s delight; then walk across the road to the strip of waterfront restaurants, arcades, historic Paragon Carousel, B&Bs, and beach resorts. At the tip of Route 228, Hull is tucked away on a spit of South Shore land jutting into Massachusetts Bay. Don’t miss:Fried clams and cedar-plank roasted salmon at Jake’s Seafood, in operation since 1949.
Brewster’s bayside beaches, including Paine’s Creek, have far less surf and are warmer than the Cape’s Atlantic-side beaches, thus attracting younger families. Add the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which slices through town, top-tier resorts such as Ocean Edge, and restaurant fare including the acclaimed Chillingsworth’s French cuisine, and it’s earned a spot on this list. Don’t miss:Fried seafood at Cobie’s Clam Shack, dishing out the onion rings since 1948.
Selecting the best beach towns in New England wasn’t easy. For more than two decades, I’ve made my living writing primarily about New England, publishing my first book, Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England, in 1996 and a second book, New England Seacoast Adventures, in 2002. So I’ve made my way up and down the New England shoreline countless times. In May 2011, I revisited the entire coastline again for this article.
We created 14 categories to evaluate New England’s beach towns, ranking each on a scale of 1 to 10. First was sheer beauty, or the “Picturesque Quality.” Chatham, with its Rockwellesque village green, Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, and Edgartown’s slew of ship captains’ homes all earned high marks in this category. Next up was whether the town had a thriving core or “Town Center.” My favorite beach in New England is Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, which has many amenities along Route 6, but few around the village green.
A quintessential beach town must also have the requisite ice-cream stands and clam shacks, like Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit. Then there’s the “Rainy Day” factor; islands fared less well here because there’s not a whole lot to do when the weather is inclement, but their remoteness boded well for scores in the “Solitude” category. While the “Kid-Friendly” category refers to a bustling locale like Old Orchard, with its bevy of video arcades and rides, “Natural Life” pertains to the availability of nature walks, a nature center, and opportunities to view sealife, such as Provincetown’s whalewatching cruises. Also, we received average summer water temperatures from the National Oceanographic Data Center and could distinguish clearly the difference between a swim in Newport (averages 71° in August) and one in southern Maine (63°).
“Public Access” simply means how available the beaches are to visitors; many towns, especially on Cape Cod, require resident stickers in order to access parts of their cherished shorelines. But to me, the most vital category is “Accessibility.” Islands, for instance, by their nature aren’t easy to get to. More important, how accessible is the beach from the town center? Few New England beaches are actually within walking distance to the town center, but Ogunquit, York Beach, and a few others fared well in this category. Finally, traffic congestion, available parking, a wide range of lodging options from affordable to luxury, and a decent selection of shops all figured into the final score, as well. —S.J.
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.