Start with solitude.
Your trip to Newburyport and Plum Island begins early in the day on the beach.
Take Plum Island Turnpike to the island an hour or two after sunrise and you can probably get a space in the small parking lot straight ahead at the end of the road, which belongs to the town of Newbury. Except for fishermen and dog walkers, the island’s beautiful beach will be largely deserted from the Merrimack River in the north to Ipswich Bay in the south.
But if you can’t get to Plum Island quite that early, you may well find the parking lots full and a lot of people on the beach. In that case, detour half a mile down the island to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge ($5 per car, Sunset Drive, 978-465-5753, www.fws.gov, no pets even in your vehicle). Drive past the first parking lot to one of the smaller lots. I like number three. Then lock up and follow the boardwalk across the dunes to the beach.
The refuge includes everything from salt marsh, to brambly woods, to the continuation of that beautiful ocean beach. You’ll revel in what you see. Miles of beautiful beige sand, largely devoid of human beings. Swim, sunbathe, or just walk and walk and walk. Collect a few shells. Get your head right. Listen to the birds.
Oh yeah, the birds. Bird lovers love Plum Island; bring your binoculars or scope and check out both resident and migratory birds in the salt pannes along the road or the observation trails and towers accessible from lot four. Birders will also want to stop by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center (1 Plum Island Turnpike, 978-462-9998, www.massaudubon.org).
But speaking of birds, many if not all of the Parker River refuge’s beaches are closed from early spring to the beginning of August to protect nesting piping plovers. Come then and you have to go to the Newbury lot, the Newburyport town lot at the north end of the island, or Sandy Point State Reservation at the south end. Still worth it.
Another important note: The greenhead fly, a biting horsefly, turns Plum Island into a killing field for two to four weeks beginning in early July. We. Are. Not. Kidding. Normal insect repellents do not work. Call the refuge before you go to see if they’re biting.
When you’ve had enough beach time, start back across the marsh on Plum Island Turnpike. But stop along the way for lunch al fresco, either at one of the outside picnic tables next to a tidal creek at Bob Lobster (49 Plum Island Turnpike, 978-465-7100, boblobster.com) or at the Metzy’s Taqueria taco truck (978-992-1451, www.metzys.com), usually stationed at Plum Island Airport on the mainland side of the marsh.
Back in Newburyport, park in one of the inexpensive municipal lots close to Market Square and spend a couple of hours wandering the main drag and side streets. There are numerous art galleries and specialty shops along State, Pleasant, and Water streets offering everything from T-shirts to jewelry to books. It’s a short walk to the Tannery Marketplace (75 Water St., 978-465-7047, tannerymarketplace.com), home to more shops.
The more historically minded will want to check out the Custom House Maritime Museum ($7 adults, 25 Water St., 978-462-8681, www.customhousemaritimemuseum.org) close to the square. The imposing 1835 stone building was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, and houses a lively collection of displays and artifacts from Newburyport’s history of shipbuilding, trade, and privateering.
After walking around town, you’re probably ready to give your feet a rest. Why not take them on a cruise? A fishing or whale-watching trip is a great idea, but hard to make part of an easy day trip. Instead try a one-hour cruise on the Yankee Clipper ($19 adults, 603-682-2293, www.harbortours.com) to learn about the ecology of the river and marsh and the history of the harbor. Or you can take a three-hour sail on the Ninth Wave catamaran ($34-$39 adults, 866-984-9283, www.9thwave.net, reservations strongly recommended) and see the coastline from the ocean. Both organizations offer several tours on most days, including a sunset cruise. Their schedules are on their websites.
Both boats leave from Newburyport’s waterfront boardwalk, where a sunset stroll is a mandatory part of any visit.
Newburyport is a big restaurant town, and every eatery has its partisans. We’ll guess you want seafood you can walk to, so we’ll suggest two places. Michael’s Harborside (1 Tournament Wharf, 978-462-7785, www.michaelsharborside.com) is a local institution on the waterfront, specializing in traditional fried or grilled fish and shellfish as well as burgers and the like. Bonus: terrific harbor views, especially from the upstairs bar deck. And the new Brine (25 State St., 978-358-8479, brineoyster.com), on State Street just outside Market Square, offers high-end and adventurous seafood, with specialties including oysters and crudo. Make a reservation at either place.
Dessert? We always get ours at Gram’s Homemade Ice Cream (40 State St., 978 465-8515, or find them on Facebook), almost across the street from Brine. They have tons of flavors, along with mix-ins and specialty cones. We recommend the fresh local peach or strawberry ice cream in season, or the Merrimack Mud anytime. And don’t worry, the line moves fast.