Follow in the footsteps of writer Peter Mandel as he chronicles the shortest shoreline of any state—taking in the beauty of iconic New England towns and scenery.
If you live in New England, like I do, you are never without a towel and tube of sunscreen in the trunk of your car. Call
us optimists—we’re ready for a beach day year-round.
But I am an active beach guy. An explorer, not a lounger. And when I set off on a stroll I’m often pulled up short. Stretches of sand end much too quickly. I find myself in rocky shallows where my flip-flops get stuck, and I end up wondering about mystery coves deep in the distance.
So I started dreaming. What if I packed up my knapsack and hiked an entire chunk of America’s shore? People walk the Appalachian Trail. I could do this! Poring over my maps, I pick New Hampshire. (It has the shortest coastline in the country.) I won’t see just a piece of where land meets water; I’ll see it all.
My plan is to trace the coast end to end—from the Massachusetts border north to Maine —sticking as close to the high-tide line as I can. It will be a leisurely two-day walk. With turns and detours, my route will end up a bit longer than the advertised 18 miles. I’ll have to trudge along the shoulder of Route 1-A for part of the trip, but with my trusty U.S. Geological Survey topo maps in hand, I’ll scope out beachfront lanes and angle back to the water as often as I can. And although I stuff a knapsack full of T-shirts and shorts, I make a rule: No camping out. I’m going to check into comfortable local inns along the way and eat in restaurants. This will be my trekker’s reward.
It’s an early summer morning, and edges of the sky rest snugly on top of a flat, green sea. I park near the border between
Salisbury, Massachusetts, and Seabrook, New Hampshire, and toast the start of my trip by downing an orange-banana smoothie
and handfuls of spicy peanuts. I’m up over dunes and an old boardwalk, taking my first steps onto the beach.
Seabrook’s wide sand is emptier than I would have guessed. With busier beaches ahead, this is the place to take in views of surf and sailboats without having to peer over a flock of beach umbrellas. It feels like a deserted island studded with sea grass and knots of sculptural driftwood. I see more seagulls than sunbathers. “Any idea when low tide is on this beach?” asks a woman dangling a child’s plastic pail and shovel. I kick myself for not packing a tide chart. “Sorry,” I say. “Wish I knew.”
I turn and ascend a smooth dune toward a bridge. “Captain Bob’s Lobster Tours!” screams a sign on the other side. Next door is “Rico’s Lobster by the Pound.” Tempting ... but I press on. Ahead lies a beach that, although in the same state, is another state of mind.
Left: Marine Memorial, Hampton Beach
It might be a mirage, but clustered in the road ahead is what looks like a crowd. I smell popcorn. There are thumps and thuds of music. “Welcome to Hampton Beach,” says the sign that’s brought smiles to generations of visitors. The strand is one of New England’s top family beaches, with castle-perfect sand, gentle surf, and a boardwalk packed with amusements from Skee-Ball to mini-golf. You’ll find few national chains here, but plenty of fried, forget-the-diet-I’m-on-vacation food. I seek out Gerri’s Famous Subs (603/929-0636), which owes its fame to a beachfront deck and a prolific menu of oversize sandwiches and snacks. I order a root beer (extra-large) and a burger, though I’m a little jealous of the guy at the next table. His dirigible of an Italian grinder is leaking ham and provolone and drops a pepper whenever he bites. Others swear by The Old Salt & Lamie’s Inn. Enjoy a classic seafood platter and/or quiet overnight amid the bustle. But, as another New Englander once said, I’ve got miles to go before I sleep.
If Hampton Beach is Coney Island, then North Hampton is Nantucket or Newport. In the Little Boar’s Head area, I stroll a landscaped
path that traces cliffs overlooking the sea. I find 19th-century mansions up here before detouring into Fuller Gardens, a
former estate now open to the public.
Sue Hagen closes her register at the gift shop to take me on a tour. “The roses are our big draw,” Sue says, “but look at these espaliers!” She gestures at twisty apple trees, one shaped like a candelabra. Sue later points out the oldest statue: “It’s by a student of Michelangelo’s.” My finger traces the signature on its plinth: Michel Angelo Fanciullo.
I stay in the Gilded Age for a few more miles until the mansions turn back into cottages and the path into a pebbly beach
with a high berm to keep storm tides at bay. I cross into Rye, where barnwood houses look extra cozy: Think tree houses that
have been spruced up with gables and decorative paint jobs and brought down from branches to dunes, and given names. “Rye
on the Rocks,” says one, a few doors from “The Catcher’s Lair.”
I pass bobbing boats anchored in Rye’s state marina. This is the place to catch whale-watching tours, which head a dozen miles out to sea to spot humpback, finback, and right whales. Others come for a ferry serving Star Island, a summer retreat more than a century old.
Left: Art exhibit, New Castle
English settlers first laid out a New Hampshire town in Odiorne Point in 1623. And Rye’s Cable Beach is close to where the
first Europe-to-America telegraph line hit shore in 1874, scrolling under the Atlantic all the way from Ireland. Folks come
now for Petey’s Summertime Seafood and Bar. The “Best of New Hampshire” winner near Odiorne Point State Park packs in crowds year-round.
I turn in for the night at a famous old hotel, the Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire’s smallest town. It still has some of the sprawling charm that lured President Theodore Roosevelt
here in 1905 when he was negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Reopened in 2003 after a renovation and expansion,
the 127-year-old hotel building, with its bright red roofs and whitewashed siding, seems freshly scrubbed, like some tropical
cruise ship washed ashore. When I tuck in for the night, sleep comes easily—I can hear the ocean, and my tired legs and feet
stretch out to the far reaches of the puffy, king-size bed.
The next morning, I step out onto a playhouse-size Main Street. New Castle isn’t only small in population; it’s actually little. Plaques display 17th- and 18th-century dates, and clapboards are narrower near ground level, in the style of the time. A sign for watercolor lessons tempts me to visit Maddi Alana’s tiny studio along Route 1-B, but I have the rest of a state to see today.
Named a 2008 Dozen Distinctive Destination by the National Trust, Portsmouth is thick with Colonial and Federal-style houses.
Downtown blocks have the air of Boston’s Beacon Hill with brick facades and painted trim, and give over ground floors to locally
owned shops like Hoyt’s Office Products on Market Street, full of typewriters. “1934 rare Royal Portable,” boasts a sign.
“Hand-rubbed to a brilliant finish!”
There’s plenty more to keep a shopper busy. N.W. Barrett Gallery displays hundreds of crafts from local artisans. Or you can find abstract place mats, glass lamps, and more at the home-design store Nahcotta. Byrne & Carlson creates treats from imported chocolate. For something more substantial, head to the Portsmouth Gas Light Co. for lobster-stuffed haddock served downstairs or brick oven-baked pizza and calzones on the rooftop deck.
Across the water, I catch sight of the end of my walk. The Piscataqua River, Seavey Island, and a foggy harbor are all that’s
left of New Hampshire. Then I notice hazy sun rays lighting up what looks like a distant beach, and I have an idea. I fish
inside my pack for my map. Let’s see. The coast of Maine: roughly 3,478 miles. Maybe next year.
Left: Fort Constitution Historic Site, New Castle
(Published July/August 2009)