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Your Perfect Beach

Find the spot that's right for you, whether you're a dog lover, a surfer, a teenager, an angler, a nudist, or even a family of four with a stroller.

Mayflower Beach
New England's shorelines have a spot that's right for you, whether you're a dog lover, a surfer, a teenager, an angler, a nudist, or even a family of four with a stroller. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

BEST FOR WALKING

Nauset Beach stretches 10 miles from Orleans -- where there's a snack bar near the beach entrance and plenty of parking -- to Chatham. Taking a long walk on the ocean side of the Cape is especially nice if you wake early enough to catch the sunrise.

On Maine's southern coast, the walk from below Ogunquit Beach to Wells Beach can be a vigorous 5-or-so-mile workout, part of it in soft sand. Get dropped off at Oarweed restaurant and walk along Marginal Way, a cliffside footpath in Ogunquit with dramatic views and fragrant sea roses, and head north toward the 2.5-mile-.long expanse of Ogunquit Beach. Break for a picnic (or just to rest) at Footbridge Beach, then meet your ride at Mile Road in Wells.

BEST BIRD-WATCHING

Wellfleet Bay Beach at the Welfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is accessible only via sanctuary trails. Start from the nature center in South Wellfleet, and a chorus of chirping birds will greet you: familiar ones like red-winged blackbirds and more unusual species such as rufous-sided towhees, if you're lucky. Explore the marsh trails, and you'll wind up on the beach; there's no swimming, but you won't have time for it anyway as you look for the more than 200 species the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which owns and maintains the property, has cataloged.

Portions of beaches at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newburyport are opened and closed according to the schedules of nesting birds, not the human beings who also appreciate the miles of prime oceanfront. But the beach near parking lot 1 is open all summer long, and the thickets, mud flats, and marsh areas of the refuge are excellent for spotting black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, and colorful warblers. From mid-July to early August, watch out for biting greenhead flies.

BEST SMALL BEACH

At the western end of the westernmost town in Rhode Island -- Westerly -- is a village called Watch Hill. More subdued and far less crowded than Misquamicut State Beach a mere 2 miles away, Watch Hill Beach mostly attracts regulars who have summer homes in the tony Victorian neighborhood. If you really want to get away from it all, take the coastal walk to Napatree Point, where shorebirds, even the threatened piping plover, can outnumber beachcombers. Parking at the beach is resident-only, so look for a private lot or a street spot in Watch Hill.

BEST WAVES

South Beach in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, also known as Katama Beach, has soft sand and gorgeous dunes. It's also a fantastic place for bodysurfing. Catch a frothy wave and ride it into shore -- with or without a boogie board. Beware that sometimes-fierce current can also make for a dangerous swim. Exhaust yourself with a ride, then rest up for your next trip out with a snooze. Parking is free, but you'll have competition.

BEST FOR DOGS

Early mornings and sundown will find dogs of all breeds romping at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester. There's shallow water and calm surf, ideal for a wet game of fetch. Town rules prohibit dogs between May 1 and September 15, but many owners quietly observe their own rules -- most of all the scoop mandate, which they follow year-round. Word to the wise: The early dog gets the parking space.

In the less crowded areas of Duxbury Beach in Duxbury, dogs are allowed on leashes from 8 a.m. until sunset. Stop by Town Hall -- it's on the way to the beach -- with your dog license and get a permit. You'll snag the best nonresident parking by approaching the beach through Marshfield and parking in the lot near the snack shack.

BEST SUNSETS

With its rocky jetties, fishing docks, and near-still water reflecting golden orb and pink sky, Menemsha Beach in Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard is as photogenic as it is friendly. On summer evenings, tourists and locals alike gather there to toast the setting sun with raised glasses of chardonnay and lobster claws. (Chilmark's a dry town, so BYOB. Pick up your picnic before 7 p.m. at nearby Larsen's, which sells steamed and cracked fresh lobsters for rustic al-fresco dinners.) You can also take your fishing tackle and license and catch your own dinner while you watch the sun go down.

BEST FOR FAMILIES

Plenty of lifeguards, mellow waves, a snack bar, and a parking lot that's not too far from the beach are all important when you're lugging toys, umbrellas, towels, extra hats, chairs, sunscreen -- oh, and kids. That's really what makes Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester special; the critical mass of under-14-year-olds who turn out on nice days to play. The beach is popular, and nonresident parking limited, so be sure to arrive before 10 a.m. to stake out a good spot in the lot or on the sand.

BEST FOR RAIL TRAVELERS

Take the scenic Rockport commuter rail line -- it runs along the coast for much of the hourlong trip from Boston's North Station to the end of the line -- and then hoof the few short blocks to Front Beach in Rockport, which has shallow water that's ideal for kids, but no parking whatsoever. In town, visit art galleries and gift shops, and pick up some just-caught lobsters for dinner.

Avoid the $22 parking fee -- and being turned away from a full lot after noon -- at Ipswich's popular Crane Beach by taking the Newburyport commuter rail line to Ipswich Station and catching the Ipswich-Essex Explorer shuttle bus, which runs on weekends and holidays in the summer between 10:20 a.m. and 5 p.m. Once you're there, enjoy lunch from the best snack shack on the North Shore.

A day at Revere Beach in Revere means close quarters with buff bodies, coolers full of cold ones, and boom boxes blaring pop and rock. But it doesn't have to mean sitting in traffic on Route 16. Hop the T's Blue Line to Revere Beach Station, cross the street, and enjoy the scene.

BEST FOR FLORA AND FAUNA

The water on the bay side of Cape Cod is warmer than the ocean side and has less surf, making it a favorite destination for the under-7 set. Paine's Creek Beach in Brewster is one of those gems that seems to have been built for the pail-and-shovel crowd, who lounge in the tidal pools or scramble to find fiddler and horseshoe crabs. Plan to be there at high tide, or you may have to walk a mile out to sea from the parking lot to find any water.

The 20-minute ferry ride from Lincolnview, Maine, to nearby Islesboro is always packed with bikers in the summer, eager to ride the Island's roads. First head south, past the Dark Harbor "summer cottage" estates and to Pendleton Point. Then venture north to the island's so-called Narrows. At low tide, rest and watch the harbor seals lounging on the ledges there, recuperating from their own exertions.

BEST KAYAKING

Old Garden Beach in Rockport is a hidden scrap of sand that allows the perfect entry for a kayak, especially for beginners. There's a ramp and clear water, and if you go at low tide and hug the rocky shoreline, you might see a carpet of starfish below. Paddle out less than a mile to the Massachusetts Audubon Society-owned Straitsmouth Island, where great black-backed gulls roost, and then, back at the beach, cool off with a swim. Parking is for residents only, though, so look for spots on the street. More experienced paddlers should head for Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine, on the shores of Sheepscot Bay. At Mile Beach, the sand gives way to a boulder-strewn coastline where the Atlantic pounds the rocks, spewing foam high into the air. You'll likely be joined by seals and the ubiquitous lobstermen, zipping from buoy to buoy to pull up their catch. Lot parking is available.

BEST AT NIGHT

The water temperature at Sand Beach, Acadia National Park's popular swimming area, rarely exceeds 55 degrees, so don't even think about skinny-dipping in those Maine waters. Far better to stroll at night -- and bundled up -- when the shimmering bioluminescence from microscopic creatures in the bay can sometimes illuminate the adjacent rocky bluffs. Pick up Ocean Path behind the beach restrooms for the 4-mile walk to Otter Point and back. Take it slowly in the dark. Lot parking is available, plenty of it after hours.

BEST FOR ELBOW ROOM

You won't feel the press of crowds at East Beach in Charlestown, Rhode Island, a finger of isolated sand inside the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge with a view of Block Island Sound. The parking-lot limit helps keep crowds away, but is often reached by 9 a.m., so arrive early. Then walk about half a mile from the lot to get to the most secluded areas, and just spread out.

BEST CRESCENT BEACH

Most beaches in the northeastern part of Massachusetts are long stretches of sand and rock that run on and on, seemingly to the horizon. Less common are the crescent-shaped beaches that lend privacy to a lazy day, and among those treasures, Singing Beach in Manchester by-the-Sea stands out. This apron of sand feels both roomy and tucked away. Its parking lot is primarily for residents, so you're better off taking the Rockport Line and walking from the station. New this year: a $5 beach admission per person.

BEST OLD-TIME GOOD TIME

Tattoos, teeny bikinis, sunburns, blue hair, and miles of gorgeous open beach are all part of the mix at Hampton Beach in Hampton, New Hampshire. Activities organized by the town range from fireworks to a beauty pageant to dances on the beach to an American Idol-style contest. And the boardwalk offers enough ice cream parlors and fried-dough joints to break anyone's resolve. That hour many visitors spend looking for metered or lot parking is just part of the fun.

BEST FOR WHEELS

Westport's Horseneck Beach State Reservation is a barrier beach with large dunes. Winding through, a 2 1/2-mile paved path provides easy access for wheelchairs and strollers. Piping plovers -- a threatened species of small, sand-colored bird -- set up shop in the dunes beside the path until September. Cover even more ground in the parking lot, which has enough room for 2,800 cars.

BEST CAMPING

Southport is an island that dangles into the Atlantic southwest of Boothbay Harbor on the Maine coast. There, Gray Homestead Oceanfront Camping sits on a rocky outcropping, right on the water. Swim at the private sandy beach, rent a kayak for exploring, or just hang around your campsite with a view (RV sites 17A, B, and C are the best; no tent sites are more than two minutes by foot from the water) and watch the windjammers sail by. There's fishing on site, but you could also leave that to owners Stephen and Suzanne Gray; he catches fresh lobster (market price) daily for guests. The place is so nice, some guests choose to stick around all summer. Ask for seasonal-stay rates.

BEST FOOD

Situated at the northern end of Lynn Beach in Swampscott, casual Red Rock Bistro & Bar has one of the North Shore's best views of the Boston skyline. Start a Sunday at the beach with a brunch of lobster and potato frittata drizzled with tarragon mascarpone or sweet potato and chorizo hash. If after a day in the sun you feel like sticking around to watch the moon rise, try the lobster pizza from the late bar menu, served until midnight. Owners of The Red Inn in Provincetown claim that their beach is where the Pilgrims landed. Worth a pilgrimage today are the rib lamb chops rubbed with fresh herbs and grilled lobster in citrus butter. Postcard-perfect, the quiet inn has a sweeping view, and at high tide, the sea licks the deck's bottom steps. There's ample parking for guests, but dinner reservations should be made at least two weeks in advance.

BEST FOR CAR TRAVELERS

The weekend price of $30 a car ($15 on weekdays) is steep, but the white sands of Compo Beach in Westport, Connecticut, make it by far the best slice of paradise that's such an easy, short hop off of Interstate 95. The long, sweeping beach has its fair share of seashells, and kids love the wooden play structures. If backed-up Vacationland traffic on Interstate 95 is getting you stressed, you'll find the antidote in York, Maine, just off the highway. Despite the many charms of the gabled houses that have stood along its shoreline for more than a century, or the lure of taffy shops and arcades right in town, the highlight of Long Sands Beach remains that lengthy, sloping, shallow beach - and the fact that it's easy to reach.

BEST LIVE MUSIC

On a bluff above Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, the cedar-shingled Wellfleet Beachcomber bar shakes with live rock, reggae, ska, or rockabilly nearly every night of the week. Most bands start at 10 o'clock, which gives you plenty of time to gear up -- and to climb up -- after a draining day in the sun. There's no competition for parking at night, since the bar has its own lot. The patio at the Atlantic Beach Club looks over Easton's Beach, which marks the beginning of the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island. Enjoy live bands and a lively scene on weekend afternoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day, whether you're relaxing at the outdoor bar or playing volleyball in the sand.

BEST WINDSURFING

All a skilled windsurfer needs is a prevailing wind and steady diet of waves to catch some air. On Nantucket Sound, wind speeds exceeding a brisk 20 knots are the norm, and the shallow water helps boarders mount waves quickly. Kalmus Park Beach, in Hyannis, is a board-sailing destination in spring, summer, and fall. If that lot's already full or the crowds get to you, try nearby West Dennis Beach, accessible from a public lot, or Forest Beach at the end of Forest Beach Road in Chatham, a few miles up the Cape and also with limited public parking.

BEST LIGHTHOUSE

The only company you'll likely have while strolling on Nantucket's Great Point beach are the birds. In Wauwinet's Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, owned by the Trustees of Reservations, there are no parking lots, and some areas aren't safe for swimming. But the rolling dunes on the narrow strip are home to marsh hawks, ospreys, and the playful American oystercatcher. (That orange carrot sticking out of his mouth is actually his beak.) Get an off-road-vehicle permit at the gatehouse or just walk the 5 miles out to the lighthouse, a solar-powered replica of the 1818 stone tower that was destroyed in 1984.

BEST SURF-CASTING

Striped bass, found all along the New England coast, have voracious appetites, grow to more than 50 pounds, and fight like champions. And in Rhode Island, the rips on the north end of Block Island hold remarkable numbers of stripers. Throw out your line at Sandy Point, the island's northern tip, in early June. That's three to four weeks later than on the mainland shores, because of colder water temperatures. Anglers can find bait at Twin Maples on Beach Avenue.

BEST SURFING

In bad weather, waves at Rhode Island's Narragansett Town Beach -- which is shaped like a shallow U -- can reach 10 feet, drawing crowds of surfers between July and September. Then again, on a nice summer day, the water can resemble a duck pond (and it can be hard to find parking right on the beach after 10 a.m., too). Call the surf hot line at the Watershed Surf Shop in nearby Wakefield (401-789-1954) to find out what kind of day it is before you head out with your gear.

BEST FOR SAILING LESSONS

With relatively little surf, decent wind, and numerous island anchorages, Long Island Sound is a great place to learn how to sail. Take a 10-hour introductory course (for $360) at the Sound Sailing Center next to Calf Pasture Beach in East Norwalk, Connecticut. You'll sail to Sheffield Island to see its historic lighthouse or over to Chimon Island, where there's a national wildlife refuge.

BEST FOR BIKING

Mountain biking at the beach might sound like a contradiction, but at Bluff Point State Park in Groton, Connecticut, there's a dirt road along the Poquonnock River that leads straight to the sound. There, you'll find picturesque Bluff Point Beach, which juts out to rugged Bushy Point. Numerous tracks spread out from the main trail like spokes on a wheel; choose one and ramble along the shores or go inland to see remnants of the John Winthrop house dating from the early 1700s. Even better, head up to the bluffs and look south across Long Island Sound to Fishers Island in New York, east to Watch Hill in Rhode Island, or west to New London in Connecticut. Head for the dunes -- at the tip of Cape Cod. In Provincetown, the Province Lands Bike Trail is a 5-mile loop with free parking at the visitor center and at Beech Forest. Do the extra mile to Herring Cove Beach and the half-mile fork through the dunes to Race Point Beach. Take a breather at tranquil Bennett Pond or stop at the high point near the visitor center to gaze at the Atlantic.

BEST NUDE BATHING

New England is skimpy when it comes to clothing-optional beaches, but among the few, the unofficially nude area of Moshup Beach in Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard is tops, with warmer water than other island beaches. And it's small enough that it doesn't draw crowds. Just be sure to cover up as you walk to and from the nudity-friendly areas near the cliffs marbled with clay; the other side of the beach attracts fully clothed families. There is parking for nonresidents, but it's limited, whether you're naked or not.

Writer Janice O'Leary lives in Boston. Writer Stephen Jermanok lives in Newton. E-mail comments about this year's beach issue to magazine@globe.com.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: New England Gems
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Beach Budget Bingo
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Beach Gear
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Beach Creatures
SURF, SAND, SUN
Pop-up INTERACTIVE: Guide to the beaches
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: New England Gems
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Beach Gear
Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Beach Budget Bingo
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Beach Creatures
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