On the grounds of this luxurious and historic lodging on Newport’s rocky western peninsula are several shoreside cottages along a private stretch of beach.
Photo Credit : Bob Packert
Like waves, every beach has its own distinct rhythm. It widens or shrinks with the tides and changes subtly with each hour, from dawn to dusk, and beyond, as you glimpse the immensity of the night sky shining on the water. Those of us who love the sea know that sleeping beside a great beach is the ultimate luxury.
Last summer we prowled the New England coast and islands searching for “sandcastles,” our name for the best beachside places to stay. We looked for reasonably priced motels, B&Bs, and campgrounds as well as luxury resorts. Years ago, our quest would have been easier. In the era of steamboats, trains, and trolleys, New England beaches were lined with seasonal lodging, from basic to grand. Most vintage venues have disappeared, many taken by fire or storms, others claimed by soaring coastal property values. A fraction, however, have survived, some to become today’s version of “grand,” while others, tucked between lines of cookie-cutter motels and pricey beachside rentals and condos, remain affordable “sandcastles” to which people return summer after summer.
What has remained unchanged through the decades is the sand, the water—and our urge to get as close to them as possible.
BEST BEACHSIDE LODGING IN MAINE
By the 1930s, “motor courts” had mushroomed along the Maine coast, among them The Dunes on the Waterfront on the tidal Ogunquit River. An open pasture in 1936 when Aaron Perkins’ grand-father began building here, the 12 acres are now landscaped lawns and flowerbeds, salted with well-spaced vintage cottages with wood-burning fireplaces and screened porches. There are now also several multiunit buildings in matching white clapboard and green shutters, and the former barn is a spacious lobby/living room with coffee, breakfast muffins, and a corner filled with books and board games for rainy days. There’s a pool and playground as well as shuffleboard, plus a dock with available rowboats. Guests are handed a tide chart at check-in, their key to the beach.
At low tide, walkers can easily cross the riverbed. At midtide there’s enough sun-warmed water for a toddler to learn to swim, as I once did. From the opposite side of the river, a boardwalk path through the dunes puts guests smack in the uncrowded middle of three-mile-long Ogunquit Beach. The sand by the water is firmly packed, good for jogging and strolling, and still there’s plenty of soft sand back by the dunes to stake out your umbrellas and supplies for the day. “This is a hidden oasis,” Ginette Belanger confided, after we’d met several times coming and going between The Dunes and the beach. “When I was a child, my family rented a house near the beach, and now this is my paradise, the place I come with my son and his children.”
In Scarborough, farther up Maine’s southern coast, I heard an uncannily similar story about a very different beach and its sandcastle. “I love this beach, the way it slopes gently to the water,” Marisa Rondina told me, adding, “If there’s a room for me at The Breakers, I come.” Marissa and I were seated on the sea wall above Higgins Beach, a half-mile long and backed by summer cottages. I’d spotted her coffee cup from our B&B, The Breakers Inn. Marissa has been coming here off and on for more than 30 years and now usually stays more than a week at a time with her husband. It’s easy to understand why.
I woke here to the thrum of waves and the slant of the early-morning sun through the blinds. I slipped into shorts, a T-shirt, and rubber Crocs, and padded down the stairs and out onto the sunporch, with its fragrant pot of freshly brewed coffee. Stepping across Bayview Avenue to the beach, I found a few surfers already skimming gracefully on sizable breakers.
Higgins Beach changes more than most in the course of a day. Surfers and dog walkers are permitted only before and after certain hours; the exposed sand itself shrinks almost to its rocky seawall at high tide and stretches out expansively at low. Because this is a residential neighborhood and parking is limited, it’s a bit of a local secret: relatively uncrowded at midday but a spectacle later in the afternoon as surfers and standup paddleboarders converge from all directions.
Built in 1900 as a family home, The Breakers opened as an inn in 1932 and has been owned since 1956 by the Laughton family. It’s the kind of place that regulars book in January. Our first crack at it came only after Labor Day, when we lucked into corner room #1 with its picture window framing the beach and the Atlantic. The B&B’s 15 guestrooms (with private baths) vary widely in size and shape, but all boast water views and cost roughly the same. (Regulars feel as though they’ve won the lottery if they score one of the tower rooms, #2 or #10.) The actual room is incidental to the hospitable feel of this place, though, thanks to its shared spaces, including a comfortable living room and wraparound dining room/sunporch. Rodney Laughton orchestrates made-to-order breakfasts here, and the inn also offers a picnic lunch during the high season.
In Cape Elizabeth, just around a bend in the rocky coast from Higgins Beach, Inn by the Sea is our most luxurious Maine sandcastle. This low-slung, shingled resort with ocean views is set above spreading lawns. A 200-yard boardwalk leads past a salt pond to a gently curving mile of soft sand. Early one June morning, this wooden path was edged with wildflowers and cattails, shaded by trees full of chirping birds. Piping plovers darted out from the edge of the dunes, leading tiny chicks. Gulls congregated by the marsh, terns swooped up and down along the shore, and a raft of eider ducks bobbed along on the swells just beyond the gentle waves. The entire beach is part of Crescent Beach State Park, but daytrippers gather by the bathhouse some way down the sand; because it’s protected by off-shore Richmond Island, it appeals primarily to families with small children.
At Inn by the Sea rooms range from “traditional” doubles with gas fireplaces to family-size family-geared units to two-bedroom cottages with full kitchens; most have balconies or patios with water views. Amenities include a pool, a full spa, and the popular Sea Glass restaurant. Dogs and children are enthusiastically welcomed.
Of course, not all sandcastles need walls. Hermit Island is a 255-acre, sand-fringed neck of land not far from Popham Beach (south of Bath). A campground on its southern end offers 270 sites, well spaced and secluded, with more than 50 of them facing directly onto sandy stretches along the shore. Beyond the camping area are acres of private beach and hiking trails through woods and meadows.
There’s no electrical power or running water, but drinking water, hot showers, and flush toilets are conveniently located. Rates begin at $37 per night. Only tents, small to medium-size pop-ups, and small pickup campers are permitted. Visitors and pets aren’t allowed. Guests register at the Kelp Shed, also a gathering place with a fireplace, a pool table, and video games, as well as coffee, snacks, and rainy-day games.
Hermit Island was purchased in 1948 by Sumner Sewall, a former Maine governor. It’s maintained by Sumner’s son Nick, who worries about the rising tide of taxes that threaten this place—a summer paradise for generations of beach-loving families who return year after year to sleep enveloped by sea breezes in one of -Maine’s most iconic places, where summer memories are made and endure.
BEST BEACHSIDE LODGING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
No-frills beach access has long been the draw for families at Seaside Village Resort on North Hampton State Beach. Billing itself as “New Hampshire’s only resort directly on the sand,” this low-key complex consists of several mismatched buildings ranging from basic 1930s motel units through a family-size apartment and cottage (formerly a teahouse) to a row of shingled 1980s “townhouses.” While “resort” may be a misnomer, the venue’s 20 units and welcoming check-in area are tasteful, clean, and literally steps from a glorious stretch of sand. Now wedged among multimillion-dollar beach homes, Seaside Village is a throwback to a quieter, more relaxed time.
By contrast, nearby Hampton Beach—by far the most famous one and a half miles of sand along New Hampshire’s 18-mile coastline—draws action-loving beachcombers with frequent free concerts on the Seashell Stage, big-name performers at the Casino Ballroom, and mega events such as the annual June sand-sculpting contest and August Children’s Week. Arcades and fried dough evoke this resort town’s era as a trolley destination (see p. 140 in this issue for more Hampton history), and Hampton Beach State Park is rated one of the cleanest in the country.
The sand is backed by a seawall and busy Ocean Boulevard, so technically no lodging is right on the beach, but Ashworth by the Sea comes close, sited at a major crosswalk and beach entrance. Dating from 1912, this iconic 106-room hotel features a ballroom, a popular restaurant, a breakfast café, and a lounge, and boasts it own multigenerational following. “It’s all about the beach,” staffer Eileen Menard told us. “Guests park [a luxury here], drop their stuff, and head out in bathing suits. They don’t get back in their cars until they leave.”
BEST BEACHSIDE LODGING IN MASSACHUSETTS
Resort towns on Boston’s North and South shores, once studded with beachside seasonal lodging places, have long since morphed into suburbs. Cape Cod, by contrast, was a quiet back-water until the decades after World War II, when long strips of sand along Nantucket Sound were carved into private fiefdoms, prompting creation of the National Seashore in 1961 to preserve the 40-mile Outer Beach.
Today Cape Cod offers by far New England’s largest number of beachside places to stay. We checked every town on the Cape for beachside lodging with a genuinely welcoming feel and access to sand. The following is a sampling of places that fill the bill.
The vintage 1914 Chatham Bars Inn has changed gracefully with the times and is the Cape’s sole surviving (now year-round) grand beachside resort. Facilities include a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, a secluded spa with its own pool far from the family-geared pool, a boathouse, and a fleet of sailing, fishing, and tour vessels—plus four restaurants, 40 guestrooms, and imposing public spaces in the inn itself. Another 150 guestrooms and suites are divided among 35 scattered “cottages,” including 17 separated only by beach plums from a stretch of sand along Chatham Harbor.
On the midsummer night when we checked in, the inn’s Beach House Grill was featuring a midweek buffet-style lobsterbake. We settled into a sandside table, our plates heaped with seafood and fixings, and feasted on the view. Fishing boats were moored offshore, and boys were playing sand soccer while girls competed on the sidelines with hula hoops. We watched the neon sunset until it totally faded.
At breakfast, the picture windows in the inn’s dining room framed the water view, and the tables were draped in linen. Outside on the less-formal terrace, tables were filled with families, the kids outfitted for morning programs such as standup paddleboarding. Down on the beach, fishing boats were heading out from neighboring Chatham Fish Pier, as a dozen or so seals eerily serenaded the sun from an offshore sandbar. We caught the Bar Tender, a 1930s-style launch, across the narrow harbor to North Beach, an endless barrier beach backed only by dunes. We sunned, swam, strolled, and sunned some more.
Just down Shore Road from the Chatham Bars, The Hawthorne, a handsome seasonal motel that has been owned by the same family since the 1960s, offers sweeping water views and a path to its own private beach. The comfortable rooms and suites include several with cooking facilities. Across town on Nantucket Sound, the Chatham Tides is another beachfront motel still in the same family who built it in the ’60s; there are efficiency units with patios on the beach, and more units are stepped up a hill, with large “townhouses” overlooking the water.
“You could never build this close to the beach today,” Margaret Hagberg told us at the Beach House at Bass River, explaining that her husband built this shingled, 26-unit two-story motel in 1976 on family-owned property. It faces a private stretch of beach flanked on both sides by sand stretching a total of two miles. “We attract people who like to walk,” she added. With its patios and balconies, this is the kind of place where you never really leave the expansive view. Each room is different: uncluttered, but fitted with air conditioning, a fridge, and books; some are furnished with antiques. There’s coffee and homemade granola in the common room.
“We want our guests to have that warm, relaxed feeling,” Helen Kossifos told us at By the Sea Guests in Dennis-port. This airy, three-story, beachside house was built originally as an annex to the vast but vanished Belmont Hotel and has been run by Helen’s family for more than 50 years. A classic guesthouse with one bath to a floor, it’s since been renovated and now offers a dozen comfortable rooms and several condo-style units. Life here centers on the glassed-in sunporch, where guests gather for breakfast and plan their days—which frequently entail moving no farther than the few steps down the front porch to the hotel’s private piece of beach.
A ferry ride away on Martha’s Vineyard, Winnetu Oceanside Resort is about as good as it gets for families. The 11-acre property includes two heated pools and a spa and fitness center, as well as huge outdooor chess pieces to move around. Organized activities, ranging from a toddler program and antique-firetruck rides to yoga on the lawn and kayak tours, are included in the accommodations, which range from studios to fully equipped homes, all furnished with an eye toward easy access to magnificent three-mile-long South Beach.
On Nantucket, The Wauwinet, nestled between two beaches, represents the ultimate in low-key luxury amenities and access. Dating to the 1870s as a destination for shore dining and from the 1880s as a modest inn, it was renovated decades ago by the Karp family, who maintain the 32 rooms and four cottages, plus the new three-bedroom shingled Anchorage House, as an elite resort. It’s open only from mid-May to mid-October; amenities include a spa and fine dining.
BEST BEACHSIDE LODGING IN RHODE ISLAND
Despite its small size, the Ocean State boasts 400 miles of shoreline, including three dozen beaches and several of New England’s most luxurious sandcastles. The Ocean House, set high above the beach in Watch Hill, replicates the grand hotel opened here in 1868; it’s been rebuilt from scratch with fewer rooms and added amenities. Its sister property, the Weekapaug Inn in Westerly, has been renovated down to its 1930s studs and reopened as another luxurious, year-round beach resort. In Newport, the Castle Hill Inn, built in 1874 atop an oceanside bluff as a private summer home for Harvard biologist Alexander Agassiz, is now another elite retreat and includes several cottages on its private beach.
Block Island, 12 miles off Point Judith, retains an unusual number of Victorian-era hotels, but most are set high on hills or bluffs to catch the breeze. The exception is The Surf Hotel, a rambling, tower-topped 1870s classic with steep gables and a long verandah, sited on the edge of Old Harbor, handy to the village and ferry, and at the beginning of three-mile-long Crescent Beach. It’s been owned by the Cyr family for almost 60 years; its 34 rooms and public spaces, including a restaurant with terrace dining, were recently renovated. Baths remain shared (there are basins in the rooms), and so rates remain unusually affordable.
Top ratings for creature comforts combined with beach access, however, go to the neighboring Avonlea, Jewel of the Sea. This truly beachside B&B offers great charm, plus air conditioning, a generous buffet breakfast, afternoon cookies, and wine with hors d’oeuvres. Nine nicely decorated rooms offer private baths (some with jetted tubs); there’s also an expansive wraparound porch from which guests step onto sand.
BEST BEACHSIDE LODGING IN CONNECTICUT
The Connecticut shoreline isn’t known for its public sand; there are just four saltwater state beaches. By far the long-est and most appealing is Hammon-asset in Madison, a town that also draws well-heeled summer residents to several town and private beaches. Visitors have access to the sands at West Wharf thanks to the Madison Beach Hotel, replacing its modest predecessor, adding the requisite spa and ballroom to fill beds year-round. It’s still just 32 rooms, each with a private piece of the balcony, which stretches the length of the upper floors; pet-friendly rooms have ground-level patios.
Hurricane Arthur was due to strike on the July afternoon we arrived. Down in the hotel’s Wharf Restaurant, the porch tables were filled with patrons watching the surf. After dinner we retreated to our balcony as the rain came, the darkness defining the coast with its lights, lengthening it almost beyond the horizon, with a dim glow emanating all the way from Long Island. The beam from Faulkner Light, a few miles offshore, regularly swept the water. People with umbrellas and rain jackets drifted down to the pier and out onto the sand.
This beach isn’t big, but it has character, curving to a rocky point with tidepools, abutting the stone jetty at West Wharf. In the morning we were roused by the insistent cry of a gull; we had turned off the air conditioning in preference to the breeze through the room’s wide-slatted floor-to-ceiling shutters. Already, early risers were out, ignored by a heron poking in the seaweed and rabbits scurrying around in the beach grass.
Again I was reminded of what constitutes true luxury for a beachlover: putting your feet up, weatherproofed from sun or rain, yet still right there, with a view of sand and surf and the option to walk down and plunge in.