Five Easy Northeast Beach Towns For Last Minute Travel
While booking a summer rental—in advance—is usually the best way to get your beach fix on, last minute weekend trips to the beach are a reality for most and can provide exactly the kind of whimsical lift your soul needs—if you pick the right town. Here are our top picks for fun yet serene coastal destinations, all in the Northeast:
Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Newport may get the majority of summer visitors to Rhode Island but for quiet charm, Watch Hill has the famous town beat. First colonized by the Niantic Indians, Watch Hill was a tactical lookout point for Americans during the Revolutionary War. Victorian homes line the streets of the small hamlet. Hurricanes and fires destroyed many of the original structures during the last century but the town was rebuilt. Strolling along Bay Street, you get a sense of what life was like a century ago. Preservationists have kept the town’s integrity intact. Shops use old signage and embrace a calmer sense of time and place. Don’t be surprised if locals decide to chat.
Visitors come to the sleepy town to see the historic Watch Hill lighthouse, first built in 1745; The Flying Horse Carousel, the oldest of its kind in the United States, and the ruins of Fort Mansfield, a former artillery post. During the summer, Watch Hill arranges many family-friendly activities, from classic car “cruise” nights to concerts on the village green.
Where to Stay: Watch Hill has a few lodging options, but the best remains the recently renovated (2010) Ocean House, a Preferred Boutique property. Built in 1868, the Victorian mansion was a favorite summer retreat for the well heeled until it was torn down in 2005, rebuilt and opened again in 2010. Preservationists were up in arms but the architects lovingly reconstructed the building, albeit at a smaller scale (but with a hefty $140 million price tag). Guests can choose from 49 rooms (159 existed in the original structure) furnished in a British colonial style with colorful New England flourishes, all with dramatic views of the ocean. iPads are available for use and guests have access to other modern amenities, including flat panel TVs with multimedia connectivity.
Where to Eat: Don’t expect a plethora of high-end dining options. This is, after all, a sleepy town much of the year. But that doesn’t mean you have to munch on burgers and fries during your entire stay. Olympia Tea Room is the town’s most popular eatery. Much of this has to do with its fabulous seafood and steak, all locally produced and from sustainable farms, but I think the spectacular sunsets, viewable from the patio, are a major selling point, too. Seaside Grill at the Watch Hill Inn is another choice seafood restaurant in town. And of course, if you are fine with staying in one spot, dining at the Ocean House is always a great option.
Where to Play: Visitors can swim in the open atlantic (Watch Hill lies just far enough east that you have open Atlantic water—not Long Island Sound)) and frolic on the dune-y beaches (Watch Hill Beach, Main Beach and Misquamicut Beach) which are some of the most pristine beaches on the east coast. Go for a sunset stroll and grab a drink along the way at Paddy’s Beach. Or grab a fishing pole and head to Block Island Sound. Surfers journey to Westerly or Narragansett. A number of good public and private golf courses exist in the area. The rates can’t be beat at Winnapaug Golf and Country Club, a public course in nearby Westerly.
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Sure, mainlanders flock in droves to the island in July and August but “The Grey Lady offers a fairly authentic New England experience and a chance to avoid those crowds for the entirety of your stay. And with direct flights to ACK out of JFK and Logan (on Jetblue and other major airlines), North Easterners can access the island with ease. Most tourists remain downtown due to the plethora of dining and shopping options as well as its proximity to the harbor. Rent a bike and glide down the island’s 50 miles of well-paved bike path. You’ll spy “The Serengeti,” a 1,000-acre nature preserve full of scrub oak in the Middle Moors, as well as the marshy Pout Ponds, and Altar Rock, the fourth highest elevation on the island. Codfish Park near ‘Sconset Beach began its history in the 1800s as a home to deck hands on furlough from whaling ships. The small bungalows and one-bedroom shacks haven’t changed and offer a peaceful respite from the center of town. If you have a four-wheel drive and a season pass, enjoy a BBQ on Great Point as you watch seals at play. The $150 pass preserves the dunes.
Where to Stay: For great harbor views, check into the 90-year-old, 53-room White Elephant Hotel. Smiling staff members greet you by name. Rooms have comfortable living areas and balconies. Photographs of vintage trawlers and sailing vessels line the wall. Beds are enveloped in cream-colored organic linens lovingly hand-embroidered with white elephants. For a more luxurious stay, the hotel runs the White Elephant Hotel Residences. Each of the one-, two- and three-bedroom residences has white-oak floors, large modern kitchens and dining areas and expansive bathrooms.
Where to Eat: Avoid popular eateries on Main Street. Locals flock to Le Languedoc on Broad Street for innovative brunch dishes. Seagrille is a favorite for its award-winning clam chowder and vinegary cole slaw. For dinner, head to The Boarding House for well-seasoned chicken and steak. For a slightly more upscale meal, head to Cru, one of the newer establishments on the island offering casually elegant cuisine in a visually stunning waterfront setting on Nantucket harbor. Menu favorites include the crispy Calamari with Pickled Sweet & Hot Peppers & Harissa Aioli, fresh Nantucket Lobster Roll, Steamed Cape Cod Mussels, Soft Shell Crab Sliders and a wonderful Fried Chicken Sandwich. Beachcombers flock to The Galley to sink their feet into the sand as they dine al fresco. (See Noshing On Nantucket for more ideas).
Where to Play: A number of the island’s beaches are fairly empty, even in the height of summer. Surfers will enjoy Cisco Beach and Nobadeer Beach on the south shore. Waves normally rise to five feet but rip currents are strong. Rent a jeep and drive to ‘Sconset Beach. Don’t forget your fishing poles. Striped bass and bluefish abound. Hire a captain to take you on a whale-watching trip. Although the island was once the whaling capital of the world and was instrumental in nearly making the mammals extinct in the 1800s, the graceful creatures can still be spotted off shore.
Sailboats are a common sight in the harbor and many sailors make Nantucket their home during the summer. While the annual Figawi Race—from Hyannis to Nantucket and back to Hyannis—during Memorial Day Weekend has already come and gone, August is the height of the sailing season in Nantucket Sound and options—from small one and two-man sailboats to larger catamarans—are a plenty.
Golfers are not neglected. The island has a number of picturesque golf courses from the public Mayacomet Golf Course to the private Sankaty Head Golf Club (guests of The White Elephant can play here). Enjoy the Sankaty Lighthouse as the backdrop to your shots.
New Castle, New Hampshire
When one thinks of New Hampshire as a vacation destination, images of downhill skiers and parkland come to mind. Most people are unaware the state even has a coastline. While not as long and winding as other destinations in the northeast, New Hampshire’s Seacoast area offers18 miles of shoreline that can’t be beat for solitude and pounding surf.
New Castle, near historic Portsmouth, is the only town in the state entirely on an island. Established in 1679 during the reign of William and Mary, only 1,200 residents currently live in the town year round, making it an ideal destination for those wanting to avoid tourist hoards. Many of the homes date back 200 years, preserving the unique history and topography of the destination.
American history buffs will delight in the town’s unique history. Fort Constitution supplied the powder and guns used at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Fort William and Mary was the site of one of the first acts of the American Revolution. Eco-conscious travelers will applaud the town’s commitment to buying locally grown products, unplugging electric appliances and turning off lights when not in use and using environmentally conscious cleaning supplies.
Where to Stay: The 161-room Wentworth By The Sea Hotel & Spa, a member of Historic Hotels of America, is the only lodging in town. The stately Victorian hotel, built in 1874, was site of the Treaty of Portsmouth, the signing of which led to the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The encircling veranda affords guests eye-popping views of the Atlantic. Furnishings are ornate; cherry wood tables and headboards contrast with traditionally printed chairs in the spacious rooms. The large spa and pool beckon those who really want a relaxing vacation.
Where to Eat: New Castle has few dining establishments of note. Nearby Portsmouth is a small town with a large culinary reputation. Local haunt Jumping Jay’s Café serves delicious little neck clams and Nova Scotia oysters. The Green Monkey showcases artfully prepared and innovative fish and meat dishes. Try the lemongrass steamed mussels.
Where to Play: New Hampshire’s entire 18-mile coastline, from Portsmouth to New Castle to Rye, is a surfer’s paradise, with10-foot waves pounding into the rocky shore. Try Jenness Beach or Hampton Beach. Kayakers enjoy navigating the rapids of the Piscataqua River (the second fastest navigable river in the nation) and the calmer seas around New Castle harbor. Hikers have myriad trails to choose from and have often spotted white-tailed deer, red fox and the red-tailed hawk. Like other spots in New England, New Castle offers world-class deep-sea fishing with cod, haddock, sand sharks and giant blue fin tuna awaiting anglers.
New Hampshire is the first state in the nation to incorporate a border-to-border “greenway,” a.k.a. a bike path on the highway, which runs from Maine, along the 18-mile coast, to Massachusetts.
Village of Greenport, Long Island
The Hamptons get most of the weekend warriors during the summer months in Long Island but other beach towns do exist (Long Beach on the Atlantic coast is a personal favorite). If you’re driving to the end of the island, why not take a detour and head to the North Fork instead? You’ll avoid the pretentious poseurs and loudmouths that can make the Hamptons unbearable in the summer.
A number of cute towns dot the shoreline of Long Island Sound but my favorite is Greenport on the east end of the Fork, near Orient and Gardiners Bay. Once a major whaling port, Greenport is now a sailing mecca, with sailboats lining the slips of the town’s five marinas from May to September. Although the town is a bit more developed than the others on this list, it’s sleepier than more touristy spots in the northeast. Many of the homes have retained their vintage charm although you do see newer construction.
Myriad wineries dot the landscape of the North Fork and Greenport is a great base at which to explore the vineyards. It’s also easy to take a day trip to the area from ports nearby. The Long Island Railroad stops in town and two ferries, one from Connecticut and the other from Shelter Island, run regularly during the summer months.
Where to Stay: Bed and Breakfasts are ubiquitous in the region. The Morning Glory is my pick for the best B&B in the North Fork. The 19th-century home is understated but elegant, avoiding the kitschy colorful afghans and knickknacks found in more traditional manses. Best of all, owners Klaus and Renate Wilhelm are emphatically green, utilizing organic produce and natural cleaning supplies and providing guests with filtered water in glass bottles as a way to preserve the environment.
Where to Eat: The North Fork Table & Inn, run by two former Manhattanites, draws hungry locavores. Noah’s Restaurant earns raves for its raw bar, the only one of its kind in the North Fork. Scrimshaws highlights seafood with an Asian twist. You may only get a nibble during a wine tasting at a North Fork winery but a trip to Bedell Cellars, The Old Field Vineyards and Shinn Estate Vineyards shouldn’t be missed.
Where to Play: A number of good beaches surround Greenport. Norman E. Klipp Park is the closest to town but if you have a boat or car, take a trip to Orient Beach State Park. There you can take solo nature hikes, ride your bike or play catch with your son. Fishing is a popular pastime in the area and visitors can hire fishing boat captains to take them out on Orient Harbor. Sailing is another popular activity and if you’ve never tried it, the Sail Long Island sailing school at Brewer Yacht Yard teaches novices. Landlubbers should visit the East End lighthouses and The Greenport Jail and Police Museum, built in 1917. The Tall Ship Linx, a relic from the War of 1812, docks at Mitchell Marina on May 14. Tours are available until May 19.
Cape May, New Jersey
Lying at the southern tip of Cape May Peninsula in Cape May County, New Jersey, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May is one of the country’s oldest vacation resort destinations. The entire city of Cape May is designated the Cape May Historic District, a National Historic Landmark due to its concentration of Victorian buildings. With a rich history, award-winning beaches, designation as a top birdwatching location, and many examples of Victorian architecture, Cape May is a seaside resort drawing visitors from around the world and has been recognized as one of America’s top beach towns.
Where to stay: Considered to be the foremost luxury destination in Cape May, The Virginia has an elegance about it that only buildings with real history can truly emanate. Restored from an 1879 landmark, the hotel has an almost Southern Plantation charm. Though the foundation is more old world, the decor tell a seaside story: colors are bright and paintings depict seashells, coral and starfish. Accommodations include 24 guestrooms and five cottages, all equipped with Belgian sheets, Italian duvets and Bulgari bath products.
A lovely setting for those seeking an intimate getaway, the resort has its own private beach where guests are afforded complimentary chairs and towels. The Virginia even offers packages that utilize fellow Cape Resort Group hotel Congress Hall’s Sea Spa. After spending the day in the sun, a tired body will relish in the feel of a Southern Comfort treatment: a swedish massage that combines heated towels with cool, refreshing aloe. All therapies are performed in cabana-style treatment rooms, so you won’t even like you ever left the beach.
Where to eat: Like the Ocean House, there is no need to leave the hotel to eat well. The Virginia’s “The Ebbitt Room” is a recently renovated, farm-to-table sensation that garners its dishes’ ingredients from nearby Beach Plum Farm. Start out your meal on the front porch – the perfect spot to kick up your heels and knock back a drink. The eatery is known for its classic drink selection of nods to the past; Nothing tastes better than a fruity Hemingway daiquiri with a side of salty sea air. For food, order up little neck clams or oysters on the half shell from the raw bar, the latter served with a succulent pink peppercorn and Champagne mignonette. If you aren’t a seafood fan, classics such as rib eye, filet and roasted chicken with caramelized sweet potatoes are guaranteed to more than suffice.
Where to play: Adjacent to Higbee Beach is Sunset Beach in Lower Township. Sunset Beach, as you might guess offers great sunsets every night and is a favorite spot for families and people who simply want to park free and park very close to the beach.