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Best beaches guide for New England

We guide you to the best beaches in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut for a varitety of interests: those seeking seashells, looking for top sunsets, hoping to ride a carousel, desiring fried clams, and more.

By By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
May 18, 2012
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FOR FAMILIES

Parents and children visiting Martha’s Vineyard flock to Joseph Sylvia State Beach. Waves are minimal and the beach slopes gradually into the water, so kids can play without getting in over their heads. The beach stretches about 2 miles between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and there’s parking along the road that connects the two — just try to arrive before 10 a.m. on a hot summer day to get a spot. Of all the swimming beaches on the Cape Cod National Seashore, Coast Guard Beach in Eastham (lot parking available) is the most popular with families. There’s plenty of room to spread out, even on the busiest day.

FOR A QUICK ESCAPE

The fastest getaway in town has to be the ferry to Boston Harbor’s Spectacle Island (above; 617-223-8666, bostonharborislands.org), just 15 minutes from Long Wharf. You get two sandy beaches and one of the best strands for finding sea glass (which you must leave behind). The visitor center has grub from Jasper White’s Summer Shack (through October 8) and a porch where you can stare across the water at the glass boxes of downtown.

FOR SEEING SEALS

Seals have been basking on the barrier island beaches off Chatham for at least as long as people have been there to watch them. Thousands of the pinnipeds swim in the shallows and “haul out” to bask in the sun on sand bars and (when people are far enough away) along the beach. Swimmers often spot them congregating on sand bars off Chatham Lighthouse Beach; haul-outs on the beach occur farther south where the sands continue toward Monomoy. They are wild animals, so keep your distance. There’s limited parking at Chatham Lighthouse Beach, but the entrance to the beach is only a half-mile walk from downtown Chatham.

FOR BEACH BARS

At their best, beach bars provide the soundtrack of summer with live bands revving it up after the skies have gone dark. The Wellfleet Beachcomber Bar (508-349-6055, thebeachcomber.com) sits high above Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet and is known for programming alt rock, ska, and reggae, and even has the classic sounds of surf-rock legend Dick Dale in July. Hungry before the shows? Order oyster shooters or lobster in the rough. Down in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the Pavilion Beach Bar (860-434-8405, pavilionbeachbar.com) at Sound View Beach tears it up with the likes of the heavy-metal cover band Darik and the Funbags and the acoustic groove style of Jamie’s Junk Show.

FOR CAMPING

The 480 campsites at the 521-acre Salisbury Beach State Reservation (978-462-4481, reserveamerica.com) in Salisbury are some of the most popular in Massachusetts. Newly renovated bathhouses are part of the draw, but the 3.8 miles of mostly sandy beach are the main attraction. The beach is a lot rockier (and the water a lot colder) on Penobscot Bay, but Searsport Shores Ocean Campground (207-548-6059,campocean.com) in Searsport, Maine, makes a perfect base for exploring the coast and taking day trips to Acadia National Park. The campground has a quarter mile of beach. It’s hard to beat the combination of dense woods and 1,500-foot sandy beach that wraps around the pond at Lakeside Camping on Island Pond (802-723-6649, lakesidecamping.com) in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The 200 campsites are just 17 miles from the Canadian border, and loon and moose sightings are nearly inevitable.

FOR PAINTERS

Some of the great 20th-century American painters liked to laze on the beach as much as the next guy. Occasionally they even lifted a brush. See Corn Hill Beach in Truro through the eyes of Edward Hopper. He lived nearby, so didn’t have to pay for beach parking. Marsden Hartley was partial to Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, Maine (parking lot available), but did some of his most evocative painting much farther up the Maine coast on the shores of the village of Corea.

FOR FOOD

Every beachgoer has his or her favorite snack shack, but it’s hard to beat the clams at the Clam Box on Wollaston Beach in Quincy or the lobster roll at Tony’s Clam Shop, also on Wollaston Beach. Many of Maine’s iconic lobster pounds are far from the beaches, but a notable exception is the Lobster Pound Restaurant (left) at Lincolnville Beach, next to the landing for the Islesboro Ferry. Just hunch over your food at the picnic table to guard it from the gulls.

FOR FIRES

You don’t have to sing camp songs or toast marshmallows, but a small fire on the beach can be fun and romantic. Problem is, most beaches prohibit them. Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable is a notable exception, but you have to check with the staff (508-362-8300) to see if weather conditions permit fires, which are limited to the area east of the public beach. The Cape Cod National Seashore issues a limited number of fire permits daily for the park’s six swimming beaches. Apply up to three days ahead at Salt Pond Visitor Center (508-255-3421, nps.gov/caco) for beaches in Eastham and Wellfleet, and at Province Lands Visitor Center (508-487-1256, nps.gov/caco) for beaches in Truro and Provincetown. In-person applicants get preference over people who phone.

FOR CAROUSEL RIDES

If your kids never ride a carousel, they will never understand what it means to go for the brass ring. The Flying Horse Carousel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, is one of the oldest (built between 1867 and 1876) still operating, and the outside circle of horses swings out on secure chains. Riders must be younger than 12, and preferably under 100 pounds and less than 5 feet tall. Anyone can climb aboard the restored 1911 carousel at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven, Connecticut. With 72 animals on its 60-foot-diameter platform, it is one of the largest classic carousels still operating. The carousel at Easton’s Beach in Newport, Rhode Island, only dates from the 1940s, but it still gives a good spin.

FOR OFF-ROAD TOURS

The most untamed part of Nantucket is Great Point, the northern tip of the island that contains the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The Trustees of Reservations (978-921-1944,thetrustees.org) leads daily over-sand vehicle tours to the refuge May through October. The trips culminate with a visit to Great Point Light, where you might spot cavorting porpoises and seals or whales feeding close to shore. One of the great retro experiences of summer is exploring the dunes of the Outer Cape and Race Point with Art’s Dune Tours (508-487-1950, artsdunetours.com) in Provincetown. For romance, take the two-hour sunset tour.

FOR NATURE PROGRAMS

Kids can visit with turtles, snakes, amphibians, crabs, and fish at the Meigs Point Nature Center (203-245-8743, hammonasset.org) at Hammonasset Beach in Madison, Connecticut. There’s also a touch tank filled with mollusks, starfish, and other creatures. Wide-ranging educational programs are led by rangers at the Cape Cod National Seashore. One of the favorites for adults is the Province Lands Dunes and Bogs Walk on Saturday afternoons from the Province Lands Visitor Center (508-487-1256, nps.gov/caco).

FOR BIRD-WATCHING

Some of the best bird-watching in New England is in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge at the beaches of South Monomoy. Water birds, shorebirds, and owls are resident here, and well over 100 species use it as a stopover in spring and fall migrations. Birders should make a day trip aboard the Rip Ryder from Chatham (508-237-0420, monomoyislandferry.com). A little easier to reach (take the bus from the North Quincy stop on the Red Line), tiny Nickerson Beach in Quincy is a great spot to see terns, egrets, and oystercatchers and the occasional small hawk. Sachuest Town Beach (aka Second Beach) in Middletown, Rhode Island, has a birding trail that winds through the dunes and keeps naturalists and nesters safely separated.

FOR WHEELED ACCESSIBILITY

Beach wheelchairs have large balloon tires that roll well in sand, and the chairs themselves don’t rust, so they can be wheeled right into the water. The South Boston shore is perfect for wheelchair users, thanks to the paved pedestrian way that stretches from Castle Island to the John F. Kennedy Library, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation has made the beach accessible, too. Call ahead at Carson Beach (617-727-5290) to reserve a free loaner beach wheelchair. Several Connecticut state parks, including Rocky Neck State Park in the East Lyme village of Niantic, have a few beach wheelchairs that can be checked out for free, no reservation needed. North Beach in Burlington, Vermont, has two beach wheelchairs for access to Lake Champlain, available from the lifeguard station, which opens June 16.

FOR DIVING AND SNORKELING

Scuba divers looking for a good beach dive often head to Ocean Avenue near Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, east of the Bush compound. There’s an unassuming cobble beach with about a dozen parking spaces that makes a good launch point to explore the wreck of the British steamer Wandby. It cracked up on the rocks in 1921, and part of the hull and a steam boiler rise about 20 feet off the ocean floor. Be sure to set a dive flag before going down. Snorkelers enjoy Wells Beach, also in Maine, for the crabs, starfish, and other sea life. Non-snorkeling pals can just enjoy the beach.

FOR FISHING

The best anglers lie about where they caught their trophy fish, but many people land large striped bass from Black Rock Beach on Block Island, Rhode Island. You have to earn it, though, by driving down deeply rutted Snake Hole Road to a bluff-top parking lot, then hiking a narrow trail to the beach. Slightly more accessible, the Nauset break on Nauset Beach in Orleans is one of the more exciting places to surf-cast for stripers and bluefish. It’s a little over a 1-mile hike from the parking lot at Priscilla Landing in Orleans to the south side of Nauset Inlet.

FOR SURFING

Arguably the most powerful break on Cape Cod, Marconi Beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore fills with surfers on warm summer weekends — especially when offshore storms stir up the swells. Locals also favor Wellfleet’s Whitecrest Beach, which is nearby. Nantucket surfers tend to congregate at Madaket Beach, which has the advantage of being well off the mainland. A calm day has swells of about 3 feet, and sustained waves up to 16 feet are not uncommon. The main break is left from the offshore sandbar.

FOR SAND CASTLE COMPETITIONS

Sand castles have a way of vanishing with the high tide, their very impermanence giving them an air of poignancy. Competitors work above the tide line, though, at the Master Sand Sculpting Competition, June 21 to 23, at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire (hamptonbeach.org/sandcastle-competition.cfm). Their fanciful creations will be illuminated for night viewing through July 8. As part of the Independence Day activities at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the Ocean Park Association is holding a family sand sculpture contest on the beach on the afternoon of July 3. Each team must have a child. Why just build castles in the air?

FOR BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Even if you don’t want to commit to an organized beach volleyball league, there are good options for pickup matches, which are more in the anarchic spirit of the game, anyway. On weekends, try Dead Horse Beach at Salem Willows in Salem, which also boasts the E.W. Hobbs popcorn and ice cream stand. Out on Martha’s Vineyard, ad hoc volleyball vies for beach terrain with surfers, body boarders, and picnicking families at South Beach in Edgartown. Park along the road or pedal out on the bike path from town.

FOR CAR-FREE TRAVEL

Throw all your gear in a beach bag and head for the T. It doesn’t get any easier than taking the Blue Line to Revere Beach, created in 1896 as America’s first public beach. Walk straight down Beach Street to the sand and surf. The Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line offers some additional options. Head to Manchester-by-the-Sea and walk to the squeaky sands of Singing Beach, or go to Ipswich to pick up the Ipswich Essex Explorer bus (ipswichessexexplorer.com), which will deposit you at Crane Beach (the $5 round-trip fare includes the beach fee). The bus runs weekends and holidays from June 16 to September 3.

FOR KAYAKING

Sheltered waters make it easy to paddle about a mile out from Calf Pasture Beach in East Norwalk, Connecticut, to visit the historic lighthouse on Sheffield Island or the bird sanctuary on Chimmon Island. Rent kayaks from Norwalk Sailing School (203-852-1857, norwalksailingschool.org

) at the beach. On Cape Cod, you can avoid ocean currents altogether as you sneak up on Nauset Beach in Orleans through the shallows of Nauset Marsh. Rent a kayak from Goose Hummock Outdoor Center (508-255-2620,

) and launch from its dock. On the way, you’ll see plenty of plovers and oystercatchers — and probably some human clam diggers.

FOR KITE-BOARDING

For optimal kite-boarding, you need a beach where the prevailing winds are blowing onshore, side-shore, or some point between the two, according to the staff at the kiting supplier and school Air Support Kiteboarding (866-548-3263, kitecod.com) in West Dennis. In the summer, that means the Nantucket Sound beaches of Cape Cod. One good bet is West Dennis Beach, which has an area designated by the town for kite-boarding.

FOR WALKING

If distance in the sand is all you’re after, there’s nothing in New England that competes with the Atlantic-facing Great Beach of Cape Cod National Seashore. But for more interesting scenery, the walk along Moshup’s Beach beneath the Aquinnah Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard is stunning, especially when low tide and sunset are in accord. Low tide lets you get closer to the multicolored clays of the cliffs, which glow in the rays of the setting sun. In Maine, Bar Harbor’s Bar Island Sandbar isn’t a typical beach. It connects the town and Bar Island at low tide, and the receding waters reveal rusted anchor chains, twisted driftwood, and other oddities lodged in the sand. Just time your walk to be on the Bar Harbor side as the water rises.

FOR CLAM DIGGING

The sweetest clams are the ones you dig yourself. The muddy edges of Ferry Beach in Scarborough, Maine, are full of quahog and soft-shell clams, and the town clerk (207-730-4020) issues up to 10 one-day nonresident licenses per day ($10). Harwich, Massachusetts, seeds its shellfish flats with small clams that grow into big ones, and the flats of Pleasant Bay are one of the easier places to harvest them. The Harwich harbor master (508-430-7532) charges $20 for a one-day nonresident permit. Limewood Beach in Branford, Connecticut, is washed with the plankton-rich waters of Long Island Sound. A $10 one-day permit from the town clerk (203-315-0678) lets you dig for quahogs and soft-shell clams and collect mussels and oysters; parking is limited.

FOR COLLECTING SEASHELLS

Seashell collecting isn’t the innocent activity it used to be. Some areas forbid all removal of shells, while others are cool with personal collecting of uninhabited shells. One collector-friendly strand known for its variety of shells (more than 90 species recorded, according to the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance) is Kalmus Beach in Hyannis. The sandy beaches of Rhode Island’s south coast are notoriously poor for shell collecting, except for the Napatree Point Conservation Area in Westerly, which is almost covered in various Astartes. Napatree Point is reached from a free parking lot on Bay Street in Watch Hill.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon write about food, travel, and art from Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

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