My Back Bay friend ticked off her choices for our beach outing: Brewster, Chatham, Mashpee. I countered with a radical idea: Rhode Island.
There was a time when I had lived in Boston for almost two decades but I -- and almost everyone I knew -- never drove the approximately 80 miles to reach Rhode Island's South County and the meandering ocean shoreline there. If we were going to get in a car for more than an hour's drive to the beach, it was always over the Bourne or Sagamore bridges.
Now through my husband, a longtime Ocean Stater, I've become a convert to Rhode Island's magnificent beaches. And while it took some convincing for my friend to cross state lines, now she's one, too.
The state's stretch of Atlantic coastline offers the best surfing in the Northeast, some of its warmest waters, and includes interesting oddities such as a manatee that swam up from Florida last summer. The beaches are clean, well maintained, and almost always provide that precious commodity on a steamy summer day: parking.
It's not unusual to find the same family in the same spot at the same beach for decades. Once Rhode Islanders find a beach they like -- and often it is one of the meticulously groomed state beaches -- they rarely go to an other. One social scientist says this is classic Rhode Island: Residents adopt certain places as their community, from grange halls to sandy beaches.
"Their sense of identity isn't rooted in anything artificially drawn. Other things tie them," says Kate Dunnigan, professor of history and social sciences at the Community College of Rhode Island. "We have this sort of proprietorship about things that other people don't."
Each beach, as a result, has its own quirky personality and history, and some also have hard-to-pronounce names. Thomas Edison set up a machine at Quonochontaug Beach in Charlestown around 1880 to mine iron ore. At Misquamicut Beach in Westerly, dime-sized tropical fish carried north on the Gulf Stream are routinely attracted to bright orange buoys.
State beaches are your best bet in South County. It costs out-of-staters $14 a day to park on weekends ($12 during the week) , but there are often less expensive lots if you don't mind walking a bit. A $60 state park season pass gives you unlimited access to beaches all summer. Private or town beaches charge widely varying amounts to park. While Narragansett Town Beach has great surf, it comes with an annoying and unusual $5 admission for adults in addition to paying for parking. Traffic can be tough getting to a main highway from any beach, but if you time it right, there are few snags.
Just be warned: A fierce spring northeaster pounded the beaches and some may have patches of rocky or eroded areas And those plastic bags they give you at the entrance booth? Put your garbage in them. Rhode Island is a carry-in-carry-out state.
Those in the know come early -- or after 4 p.m., when parking is free -- to get one of the coveted 120 parking spaces. From there, many walk a half-mile or more to have a piece of undisturbed ocean. Yet the peace can belie the ocean's fierceness: There is a steep drop-off and waves can pound the strongest swimmer.
"It's like you aren't even in Rhode Island -- or New England," says Steve Wright, acting chief of the state's Department of Environmental Management's Division of Parks and Recreation.
The beach will make an appearance in "27 Dresses ," a movie being filmed in the Ocean State starring "Grey's Anatomy" star Katherine Heigl.
If you somehow tire of East Beach, take a walk across the small parking lot to Ninigret Pond. Most days it will be filled with windsurfers and there is a nearby nature trail.
Ninigret Conservation Area, off East Beach Road, Charlestown. 401-322-0450. Take Interstate 95 south, to Route 4 south, to Route 1 south, to East Beach exit in Charlestown.
By 6 p.m., the pierced-belly-button crowd tends to move to the seawall at Narragansett Town Beach, where a lively young summer scene is guaranteed every night of the week. Replacing them -- Scarborough and many of the state's beaches come alive at dusk with non-sun worshipers -- are forty-, fifty-, and sixtysomethings. Picnics are laid out on blankets and night falls slowly and gently to the sound of lapping waves.
Be warned: Unhealthy bacteria from stormwater drains can pollute Scarborough's swimming water. State officials alert the public when this happens and say they are working hard to keep the beach as clean as possible.
If you are thinking about bringing your dog , resist the urge. Beach officials are stepping up enforcement -- even at night -- of the April to September dog ban on all state beaches.
870 and 970 Ocean Road, Narragansett. North: 401-789-2324. South: 401-782-1319. Take Interstate 95 south, to Route 4 south, to Route 1 south, to Route 108 south ; follow signs to Scarborough State Beach.
Children adore the nature center in the main pavilion , where rangers are on hand to take them on beach walks to learn about everything from jellyfish to the geological forces that shaped the coast. A small playground at the beach is being upgraded.
And who was Roger W. Wheeler? He established the state's lifesaving system. To honor him, the beach's name was changed from Sand Hill Cove in 1970 , the year after he died.
Fresh seafood and ice cream stores can be found nearby in Point Judith. Parking is extremely tight in the village so stay parked at Roger Wheeler and take a 10-minute walk. You'll be happier.
100 Sand Hill Cove Road, Narragansett. 401-789-3563. Take Interstate 95 south, to Route 4 south, to Route 1 south, to Route 108 south; follow signs.
Stanley and Barbara Stein have watched their children -- and hundreds of others -- grow up from their perch to the left of the lifeguard stand at the second walkway onto Misquamicut. The beach is their living room, with a little world-class body surfing.
For 42 years, the couple from Hamden, Conn., has made the one-hour trek most summer weekends and vacations to their patch of sand and community. Stanley sewed the couple's beach blanket from upholstery scraps and sits on it to listen to baseball games on a portable radio. Barbara brings the word game Boggle and plays with the grandkids.
The couple seem to know everyone within a 100- foot radius and spend lazy days chatting with other residents of their "town."
"People love it here," says their friend Bonnie Mello, the beach manager who is also known as "the mayor of Misquamicut." "I feel like I know everyone."
The beach used to have a tired feel from heavy use , but in recent years the state has invested more than $2 million to redesign the main pavilion. Today, a signature tower allows lifeguards to gain a sweeping view of the half-mile- long shore and there are state-of-the art compost toilets to protect the fragile barrier beach.
257 Atlantic Ave., Westerly. 401-596-9097. Take Interstate 95 south to exit 1 , to Route 3 to Route 78 ; follow signs.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.