Cape Cod National Seashore
Best for: campfires, oversand driving, swimming
A corridor of hard-packed sand makes off-roading in the dramatic dunes of the Outer Cape a safe and environmentally benevolent adventure. Owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles can purchase permits at the National Seashore's Race Point Ranger Station to traverse the corridor between Race Point and Head of the Meadow beaches. Campers whose vehicles have self-contained septic storage tanks can apply to park overnight at designated spots with beach access. Annual and seven-day passes are available, although erosion or nesting birds may trigger partial closures of the corridor. An 1872 shipwreck is visible from Head of the Meadow if the tide is low enough, and whales sometimes frequent the waters off Race Point.
508-487-2100, ext. 0927; nps.gov/caco/planyourvisit/cape-cod-national-seashore-oversand-beach-driving.htm
Salisbury Beach State Reservation
Best for: beach/surf wheelchairs, camping, families, fishing, kayaking, swimming
Day-trippers flock to the 3.8-mile sandy ocean beach that stretches from the mouth of the Merrimack River to the New Hampshire border. For a family vacation, some folks pitch a tent or park an RV for a week or more. Camping at Salisbury Beach is a very social experience — the 484 cozy campsites are laid out on a grid of lettered streets. Launch kayaks, canoes, or small motorboats from the riverbank boat ramps on the south end of the reservation.
Best for: beach bar/food, beach/surf wheelchairs, families, kayaking, paddleboards, sailing, swimming, windsurfing
Just west of the harbor entrance about a mile from town center, Jetties might be the top watersports beach on the island. From late June, Nantucket Community Sailing rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, windsurfers, and small sailboats. All those people plying the waters leave more space for everyone else to lie on the sand or take long walks on the beach. Swimming is easy, even for youngsters, as the waves tend to be small. Getting here is a cinch on the town's summer shuttle service (nrtawave.com). If you need a beach wheelchair, call Nantucket Public Works (508-228-7244) to reserve.
Revere Beach Reservation
Best for: beach bar/food, beach/surf, wheelchairs, families, public transportation, sand castles, swimming
The rattling cars of the MBTA Blue Line deliver fresh waves of sun worshipers to Revere Beach. Other city dwellers should be so lucky. America's first public beach delights a cross-section of Greater Boston humanity. Watching the jets take off from nearby Logan International Airport is just part of the urban ambiance. Give the nesting plovers a wide berth and keep a close eye on thieving gulls hovering to snatch your roast beef from Kelly's. July's International Sand Sculpting Festival brings bigger crowds and food vendors.
Sandy Neck Beach Park
Best for: campfires, families, horseback, riding, oversand driving, swimming, trails
Every equestrian secretly dreams of emulating soft-focus, romantic movies by ambling along the beach. But horse-friendly summer strands are hard to find. Sandy Neck permits horseback riding at the park's off-road-vehicle beach and Esperanza Riding Company (508-939-1001; esperanzaridingcompany.com) offers weekday rides on gentle Paso Fino horses. Other sections of the barrier beach are great for swimming and beachcombing, and the maritime forest and marsh are laced with trails. Tent camping is permitted in an authorized area. Inquire at the gatehouse after 5 p.m. for a beach campfire permit.
508-362-8300 (gatehouse), 508-790-6272 (office); town.barnstable.ma.us/SandyNeckPark
Long Point Wildlife Refuge
Best for: beach/surf wheelchairs, birding, kayaking, swimming, trails
This 600-plus-acre segment of the Vineyard's south coast is such a special place that it's under the stewardship of the Trustees of Reservations. A prime location to observe shorebirds, Long Point combines an extensive sandy beach with several ponds for swimming in salt and fresh water. Paddleboards and kayaks are available for rent in July and August. Two miles of trails wind through the refuge, crossing a sandplain heath and passing through an oak forest. No lifeguards on duty.
Best for: beach bar/food, beach/surf wheelchairs, entertainment, families, fireworks, sand castles, swimming
Coastal Living readers may have voted Hampton Beach's boardwalk as the best in the country, but the beach community really deserves a statuette from Variety for the nightly entertainment from early June through Labor Day. Musical styles from doo-wop to disco get a turn on the stage. Thursday nights twang with country music. On Wednesday nights, the entertainment segues into a 9:30 p.m. fireworks show. Oh yeah, by day there's great sunbathing, good swimming when the waves are low, and surfing when they're high. Summer season kicks into high gear in mid-June with the Master Sand Sculpting Classic.
Jenness State Beach
Best for: beach yoga, families, swimming
If the steady beat of waves on the shore doesn't already make you feel one with the universe, show up on Mondays starting June 6 for Seacoast Outdoor Yoga sessions (603-817-4829; thepilatesroomnh.com). Compact Jenness may not get the shoutouts of broader Wallis Sands or Hampton Beaches, but the gentle slope makes it a good spot for swimmers who don't want to get too deep too fast. Long tides guarantee vast stretches of wet, packed sand at low tide for Frisbee throwing, beach jogging, and even occasional tide pooling.
Rocky Neck State Park
Best for: birding, camping, fishing, swimming, trails
If lolling on the long white sands of Rocky Neck or swimming in the crystal clear waters doesn't suffice for a day at the beach, pack some long pants and bug spray to explore the marsh trails and observe ospreys, cranes, and herons snatching fish and crabs amid the cattails. Cast your line off the jetty for blackfish, flounder, mackerel, and stripers. As an alternative, show your kids how to jig for crabs in allowed areas. Bring a net if you plan on taking them home to cook for dinner. The campground's 160 sites offer choice of wooded or open settings.
Best for: families, sunset, swimming
Located literally a one-minute walk across Water Street from the Old Lighthouse Museum, duBois Beach is a perfect spot for kids to enjoy gentle waves lapping on a sandy shore. The relatively shallow waters are good for small-fry swimming, while the big kids like jumping from the floating dock anchored offshore. Crabbing is allowed on the jetties but fishing along the compact sandy beach is banned. Picnic in the shady gazebo and look due west over the water to take in the sunset.
Sandy Point Beach & Bird Sanctuary
Best for: birding, fishing, trails
A 1.7-mile recreation path ties together West Haven's sandy beaches on Long Island Sound. On the eastern end, the sand spit known as Sandy Point is one of the prize locations on the Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail. Save the swimming for nearby Bradley Point and Morse parks and take the binoculars to Sandy Point to watch the shorebirds. A colony of sharp-tailed sparrows nests in the adjacent tidal marsh. The entire sanctuary is also a major stopover for spring and fall migrants. Surfcasters like the point at night during striper season.
Hammonasset Beach State Park
Best for: beach/surf wheelchairs, birding, camping, families, fishing, kayaking, nature center, swimming
The centerpiece of the state's largest shoreline park is the 2-mile stretch of soft sand lapped by gentle waves. But this popular spot has it all. A boat launch for canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards makes it easy to explore the back marshes behind Meigs Point, where the Meigs Point Nature Center runs programs. Daytime fishing is limited to the two jetties, but surfcasters often line the shore for night fishing during striper and bluefish runs. Campground has 550 grassy sites.
Best for: beach/surf wheelchairs, families, nature center, swimming, surfing
Some kids are timid about swimming in the ocean because the water is full of strange creatures. If your offspring tend to be worrywarts, start your day at Easton's Beach by visiting the Save the Bay Exploration Center & Aquarium (401-324-6020; savebay.org/aquarium). The center displays more than 40 species, including crabs, lobsters, seahorses, skates, and dogfish from local waters. Touch tanks diminish the creep factor. For those who aren't timid swimmers, the western end of the beach by the Cliff Walk is a designated surf zone.
Scarborough State Beaches
Best for: families, swimming, trails
A historic fun-at-the-seashore beach, Scarborough is bigger and better than ever. A boardwalk knits together Scarborough North and South. Use the coin-op binoculars at a small observation tower in the middle to watch boat traffic in the channel offshore. Kids can look for starfish, snails, and anemones in the tide pools that form among the rocks at the north end of the beach. Also on the north end, Black Point trail leads from the atmospheric ruins of what some say was an old carriage house up along the rocky coastline.
South Kingstown Town Beach
Best for: beach bar/food, swimming, surfing
Swimming and sunbathing fill the daylight hours at this tidy Block Island Sound municipal beach, though surfing is also an option when the swells pick up. If waves get too big for the youngest kids, they can retreat to the playground or toss Frisbees on the long green lawns above the sand. Some beachgoers bring charcoal so they can cook burgers on the town grills. But it's perhaps more fun to head to the Ocean Mist at the east end of the quarter-mile strand. The classic beach bar serves all three meals and cranks up the music at night.
Popham Beach State Park
Best for: birding, fishing, shell collecting, surfing, swimming, trails
Storms and currents frequently reshape the sandy Popham Beach, which is bordered at its ends by the Kennebec and Morse Rivers. Fox and Wood Islands protect the beach from the brunt of the weather. Site of a 1607 English settlement, the spot is rich with birdlife and has a swirl of nutrients that attracts schools of fish. Hike the trails — or just walk the beach, picking up shells as you go. Swimmers should stick to lifeguard areas, as riptides are common. At low tide, the beach is exposed all the way to Fox Island; if you walk over, watch your time to keep from getting stranded.
Fort Foster Park
Best for: kayaking, scuba, swimming, trails, windsurfing
The nubby little peninsula of Fort Foster Park sticks out into the mouth of the Piscataqua River at Kittery Point. Most of its pocket beaches are lined with smoothed pebbles and river cobbles. The rockiest of the group is aptly called Rocky Beach, though it's so popular with divers that it's also known as Scuba Beach. Windsurfer's Beach — another strand named for its primary use — is the best area to launch kayaks and — you guessed it — windsurfers. Swimmers have their own beach of dark sand with some protruding boulders at the pier. 207-439-2182 (gatehouse); fortfoster.weebly.com
Scarborough Beach State Park
Best for: beach bar/food, families, kayaking, surfing, swimming, windsurfing
Ten-foot tides on this sandy shelf south of Portland ensure that the low-tide flats absorb plenty of rays. When the tide comes in, water temperatures can rise into the upper-60s in July and August — some of the warmest swimming in Maine. For the wetsuit crowd, a section of the beach is designated for surfing. Canoeists, kayakers, surfers, and windsurfers must purchase permits at the control station. Rip currents do arise during summer, so it's best to stick to areas deemed safe by the lifeguards, on duty mid-June to Labor Day.
Roque Bluffs State Park
Best for: birding, fishing, kayaking, swimming, trails
Fresh or salt? Warm or cold? Located far Down East on Englishman Bay south of Jonesboro, Roque Bluffs has sand and pebble beaches on the cold ocean and on the warmer, shallow Simpson Pond. The park rents kayaks to paddle around the pond, where anglers like to fish for brown trout. Birders prize Roque Bluffs for the resident bald eagles and frequent visits by exotic ducks. Six miles of trails crisscross the upland part of the park, while the eastern end of the ocean beach has a bedrock outcrop deeply scratched by the last receding glacier. Visible from the beach, the 1822 tower of Libby Island Light marks the entrance to Machias Bay.
Best for: beach bar/food, beach/surf wheelchairs, families, fishing, surfing, swimming
A 1.5-mile strand backed by dunes and seagrass, Wells Beach may be one of the most delightful recreational beaches in Southern Maine. Families tend to set up on the sands near the parking lot at the end of Mile Road. Surfers, though, will want to tote their boards farther north on the beach. Up to a dozen good beach breaks between the middle of the beach and the jetty mean there's a private peak for every surfer — whether the big swells are rolling or not. Striper fishing is best from the jetty, so fishing lines don't interfere with wave riding. Rent boards and wetsuits at Wheels N Waves (207-646-5774, wheelsnwaves.com), located less than a mile off the beach.