Normally New England is a byword for a certain reserved propriety, but now that summer has well and truly begun, there’s nothing stopping you from embracing the freewheeling, sand-in-your-toes side of coastal Northeastern culture. And not just for the colonial appeal, either, although nearly every cove and hamlet lays claim to one or two Revolution-era landmarks. Simply put, the atmosphere — a potent brew of gulls, beachgrass, hammocks, saltwater taffy, shell-hunting, and fiery sunsets — is a time-tested cure for the chronic workaholic. It works so you don’t have to.
Some surprise, then, that the region hasn’t entirely succumbed to traffic snarls and hyperdevelopment. Count yourself lucky and don’t question it overmuch: by hook, crook, sailboat, or boat shoe, best go for an exploratory jaunt while the season’s high. From Providence, Rhode Island to Portland, Maine, here’s the crash course you never knew you needed.
The poster child for under-the-radar cred, Providence is having something of a moment at the… moment. It certainly doesn’t hurt that your dollar will go a bit further here than in nearby megacities. And thanks to coordinated efforts between School of Design alumni and various Downcity entities, you’re liable to trip over any number of public beautification projects or community-building shindigs. The Dean Hotel makes for a capital HQ on Fountain Street, complete with a resident coffee bar (Bolt Coffee Company), Hofbräuhaus (Faust), mixology lounge (the Magdalenae Room), and even private karaoke rooms.
Be grateful this place is so walkable, as a little poking around yields great dividends. We won’t spoil them all, but a few clues won’t hurt: H.P. Lovecraft’s buried somewhere amid the macabre grandeur of Swan Point Cemetery (visit during the day). Get your civil engineering (and pronunciation) kick while crossing a few of the gorgeous bridges over the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers on foot. Great eats await all along Broadway, central artery of the Federal Hill neighborhood. And if you don’t mind trekking a bit farther south, NYLO Providence/Warwick plays up the expected nautical themes against a less-expected arty-warehouse backdrop. Fortuitously, many rooms offer that coveted view over the Pawtuxet River through wrought-iron muntin windows.
Then you have Newport, your archetypical enclave of the yacht-and-mansion crowd on historic Aquidneck Island, a grand old dame of a town and ground zero for some of the most storied performances in the history of American popular music. This balance is reflected in a pair of our favorites just off Thames Street, Newport’s beachfront backbone. First there’s Vanderbilt Grace, which pretty much gives itself away with the name. For the uninitiated, it’s your textbook Gilded Age fix: a classical brick façade, dormer windows, and a Georgian doorway grace the exterior, while the timeless interior features full fireplaces, wainscot paneling, oil paintings, and a billiards room.
Forty 1º North offers a seabreeze-freshened alternative, more haute-boardwalk than stiff-collared splendor. It’s best at sunset, when the harbor view reaches its romantic zenith — take your sweet time at the raw bar. And order a rum cocktail while you’re at it, as this was the world’s rum capital in the 18th century, which seems worth a reverent toast. Might as well turn it into a bar crawl after, given the preponderance of watering holes within walking distance. Don’t leave without taking a mansion tour, mostly situated along Bellevue Avenue; with names like The Breakers and Kingscote and Rosecliff, how could you resist?
Not exactly accessible, true — take your pick, plane or ferry — but on this crowded coast, that’s a blessing in disguise. In fact, despite its Oval Office pedigree, the island actually retains quite a bit of its original bucolic appeal — there’s still plenty of pastured acreage, farmer’s markets, and unassuming-yet-spectacular seafood shacks. Seriously, now: do not pass up an opportunity to munch on fried clams at the Bite or overflowing lobster rolls at Grace Church. Work off that weight with a brisk hike along the shoreline, keeping an eye out for the odd lighthouse or watering hole. We recommend Oak Bluffs for the latter — the locals favor the modest bar scene here, and you might even catch some live music.
With a name like Hob Knob, you might expect our favorite Vineyard hotel to be a den of glad-handing; not so (look at you, Martha, full of surprises). More like the ideal down-island spot to let your guard down, what with the full-service spa and kingly linens. Blow off all the steam you need, then grab one of their beach cruisers and get cruisin’ at your own speed.
Ishmael’s digs, indeed — no matter how much swank this North-Atlantic crescent accumulates, you can be fairly confident it won’t ever lose its dogged whalers’ heritage. Everything from the cobbled streets in town to the still-untamed beaches on the western shore speaks to that resilient Nantucket spirit — generations of hardy folk used to drawing their sustenance from the capricious waves. For that authentic harborside feel, look no further than the White Elephant; in all respects, it’s the quintessential Nantucket Hotel. They’ll even pick you up from the ferry dock.
Of course, we’ve come some way since the scurvy-ridden days of yore. Snag your cable-knits and/or Nantucket Reds (you’ll know them when you see them) on Union or Water Street to fit right in with the modern island crowd, then begin to explore in earnest. Bold souls will enjoy the vintage artifacts and tales of bracing heroism on display at the Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum followed by a hush-hush trip down the Bluff Walk, an unmarked trail off Front Street with commanding ocean views. For ultimate privacy, opt for the Wauwinet, a bastion of antique New England probity near the island’s secluded northeastern tip. Steep yourself in the vistas as you decompress — they’ve hardly changed for centuries.
Back to the mainland you go, and not an instant too soon — it doesn’t get more classic than a summery ramble on the Cape. And you know, sometimes the old-fashioned people’s favorite ends up being the winner. Grab a soft-serve with sprinkles (around here they’re “jimmies”), stake your claim on an uncrowded stretch of sand, flip through a few paperbacks… you get the picture. Soak in that beach-town vibe at Sea Crest Beach Hotel, a revamped Sixties fixture on the peninsula’s shoulder, to be somewhat free with the geo-anatomy metaphor. They’ve thankfully preserved much of its weathered-pastel charm, with a few tasteful nods to contemporary design sensibilities thrown in for good measure.
Further in sits the “elbow” classic Wequassett Resort and Golf Club, an upscale clutch of cottages around an 18th-century colonial house. Not that the Cape’s views ever leave anything wanting, but this is where they reach peak postcard, if you follow — catch them right from the balcony, or take in the bayscape over dinner and drinks at one of three on-site restaurants. And yes, you should ask about guest access to Cape Cod National Golf Club right across the street; they’re happy to arrange it.
Onward! For the record, you don’t have to be a Bush to take full advantage of this historical shipwrights’ community. Chances are you’ll be mighty peckish on the way up, though, for which we prescribe lobster rolls and clam chowder at Perkins Cove Lobster Shack in Ogunquit. Sufficiently stuffed, you’ll want to put into port at Captain Fairfield Inn, a heartwarming bed-and-breakfast in a refurbished Federal mansion. Proprietors Jed and Alana offer a wide range of rooms, from full-on captain’s quarters to sleek-chic modernism. Wherever you roam, make your way eventually to Dock Square, a complex of galleries, boutiques, and craft shops east of Kennebunk River.
On your way out of town, head to Cape Porpoise for some unparalleled mussels at Pier 77/Ramp Bar & Grill. They do them three ways, and we recommend making a feast of all three. Rendezvous at the deceptively recent Hidden Pond, 14 woodsy cottages with well-appointed, design-forward interiors. More summer camp than beach vacation in atmosphere (though the beach is just minutes away), this hotel offers a remarkably complete experience: an on-site spa, fitness center, organic farm, and bike fleet ensure that you won’t lack for much during your stay.
Not Portlandia but the other Portland, that is, and the northerly terminus of our coastal survey, this locavore’s paradise plays host to an equally vibrant arts scene. Ample evidence adorns the walls of Pomegranate Inn, a welcome addition to the regal, Victorian edifices in the West End neighborhood. Its eight bedrooms shimmer and glow with assertive patterns and a fascinating assortment of colorful canvases. Go on, no one will judge you for staring. If you can tear yourself away, they outdo themselves on the culinary front as well, setting a new breakfast standard with the likes of caprese baked eggs, Mexican hot chocolate scones, and portobello stuffed with quahog clam cake and chorizo.
More food incoming: Eventide Oyster Company works similar magic in the raw-bar genre, honoring the city’s pristine seafood legacy with all manner of shellfish sorcery. Cap it all off with a day trip to Peaks Island, Maine’s version of Coney Island, subject to ongoing, frustrated efforts to declare autonomy from Portland proper. There’s a daily ferry from Maine State Pier, and you’ll want to look up Brad’s shop for cheap bike rental. The rest is up to you: lighthouses, wildlife, WWII-era Battery Steele… the island is an open book.