Selecting the best beach towns in New England wasn’t easy. For the past 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.