“There’s no mini-golf here, that’s for sure,” says Tony Sapienza, making the inevitable comparison between rugged Cape Ann—where he owns a beachside inn—and its better-known cousin, Cape Cod. He notes that Gloucester, Mass., a tight-knit fishing community on Cape Ann just 45 minutes north of Boston, still has rusting fishing boats in its harbor. “And people like it that way,” he says.
If you’re looking for authentic New England without the throngs, Gloucester is a good place to start. The oldest fishing port in the U.S., it’s a sea-sprayed, weather-beaten place where you can still watch wader-wearing tuna fishermen pull their boats up to Cape Pond Ice’s storage shed. Getting a glimpse of that kind of realness is exactly what visitors to these parts crave.
It’s certainly what I was looking for in my quest to discover New England’s “other" capes jutting out from the coast between Boston and Portland, Maine.
I found expansive beaches with frothy seas, wonderfully old-fashioned Main Streets, historic lighthouses on stunningly scenic promontories, and some of the freshest locally sourced meals around. It just goes to show that while these other capes may be less glorified, they are no less glorious.
Cape Ann, as people here like to tell you, is a locals’ haven that just happens to welcome a fair share of tourists. On a summer day you’re likely to find many of them at Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach. “People are very into their community here,” says Geraldine Benjamin, a teacher from Sturbridge, Mass., who spends weekends and summers in Gloucester. “I love the local art and the fishing.” She watches as her daughter and granddaughter frolic on this wide stretch of fine, white sand edged by dunes and a gurgling creek leading into a frothy pocket of the Atlantic. At low tide, the ocean delivers a swirl of crystalline tide pools just made for budding marine biologists to explore.
I treasure a perfect view of the beach from my room directly across the street at the Blue Shutters Beachside Inn (1 Nautilus Rd, Gloucester, Mass., blueshuttersbeachside.com, rooms from $125), owned by Sapienza, his wife Patty, and their friends AnneMarie and Ed Comer. In the cool of the evening I cozy up with hot tea and cookies, sitting in front of a fire in the inn’s living room—a homey space with wood floors, damask sofas, embroidered pillows, and massive picture windows looking out at Good Harbor. A sign over the fireplace reminds me to Dream, a nod to the owners’ leap into their new lives as innkeepers. Like many visitors, they were drawn to Cape Ann partly by Rocky Neck, a nearby artists’ colony where you can soak up the sumptuous light that has drawn artists including Milton Avery, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer. Today, a diverse crew lives and works here, welcoming the curious into their studios. In fact, the art scene is so buzzy that when I ask local artist and gallery owner Gordon Goetemann to tell me about Rocky Neck’s heyday, he says—now! “I arrived here as an apprentice,” he recalls. “That was 1954. The season used to end when the pipes started to freeze, but now some residents are here 12 months out of the year.”
Before heading up the coast, I stop in downtown Gloucester for a fat eggplant sub, stuffed with roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella, at Virgilio’s Bakery & Deli (29 Main St., Gloucester, Mass., 978/283-5295, sub sandwich $6), and then visit the town’s most famous landmark: the Fishermen’s Memorial Statue, a 1925 bronze of a fisherman at the wheel, in honor of Gloucester natives—like those in the 1991 “perfect storm”—who’ve died at sea. The memorial, overlooking the sweeping outer harbor, makes a peaceful, poignant final stop.
Heading north from Cape Ann on Route 1A, a swath of coastal wetlands puts the ocean out of view for a while. I cruise past antiques shops, horse farms, and young boys in cutoffs jumping into narrow waterways. Arriving at Salisbury Beach is a shock after peaceful Cape Ann. It’s a pure honky-tonk beach scene, but in such a nostalgic, living-museum way that it’s worth a stop. Clutches of kids feast on cotton candy and soft-serve cones and boardwalk signs announce Happy’s Fried Dough and Corn Dogs.
New Hampshire’s 18-mile coastline is next, and it’s short but sweet. Stop at the 135-acre Odiorne Point State Park (Route 1A, Rye, N.H., nhstateparks.org), where you can hike or bike along wooded trails, explore rocky tidepools, and drop in at the Seacoast Science Center. Here, inquisitive kids can climb into fishing-boat exhibits and stand under a complete whale skeleton. Before crossing into Maine, grab a bite in Portsmouth, which is brimming with good food, like The Flatbread Company’s signature pizza—you can watch it baking in a wood-fire oven (138 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H., flatbread company.com, pizza from $8.75).
The next cape, Maine’s Cape Neddick, extends one mile from Route 1 to the coast. I arrive just before dusk, excited to settle in at Dixon’s Campground (1740 U.S. Route 1, Cape Neddick, Maine, dixonscampground.com, camper with water and electricity $40/night). It’s set in a shady thicket and is completely peaceful, with nothing but the rustle of the wind in the trees and the faint French murmurings of Quebecois guests lulling me to sleep in my tent. For those seeking a more solid roof over their heads, the Kathadin Inn, a 19th century guesthouse, is right on the beach in nearby York (11 Ocean Ave., York, Maine, thekatahdininn.com, doubles from $105).
When I step onto the wet sand at Cape Neddick’s Long Sands Beach—a putty-colored expanse in the nostalgia-laced small town of York, a 10-minute drive from my campground—it’s so shockingly icy (in midsummer!) that I don’t even dip a toe into the ocean. But it doesn’t stop hardy Mainers, who bob and swim and bodysurf as if they’re in the Caribbean. The beach’s tidepools are rich with periwinkles, and the crowded beach feels surprisingly empty thanks to what I’m told is an only-in-Maine phenomenon: folks sitting just about as far back from the water as they possibly can in anticipation of the rising tide. “We just don’t want to move,” chuckles Joe Sousa, a Boston-area native who’s been vacationing here for 40 years.
From the beach I’m drawn to a view in the distance of a rocky peninsula leading to the dramatic 1879 Cape Neddick “Nubble” Lighthouse. Though you can’t go inside—it sits perched on its own tiny, rocky island—a park created in its honor draws a steady crowd of visitors who photograph, paint, or in my case just stare at the sea spray, the Hopper-esque beacon, and its dainty keeper’s house perched precariously on a cliff.
Two very much on-the-radar towns are next, but I skirt most of their gravitational pull. In artsy Ogunquit, refuel with a panini on fresh focaccia at Bread and Roses Bakery (246 Main St., Ogunquit, Maine, breadandrosesbakery.com, panini $8) and stroll along Marginal Way, an oceanfront footpath edging the town’s coastal cliffs. Then comes Kennebunkport, of preppy, Bush-family fame. You should make a beeline to the quieter side of town, a bucolic fishing community on Cape Porpoise—home to Pier 77, with waterside tables that provide views of the working lobster boats in Cape Porpoise Harbor.
Local friends sang the praises of the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, in tony Cape Elizabeth, renowned for its classic New England split-top lobster roll. But first I savor a gem of a mile-long hike in Biddeford Pool at East Point Sanctuary (18 Ocean Ave., Biddeford, Maine, sacobaytrails.org), through stands of pine and sugar maples, ending at a rocky beach where I finally get up the nerve to wade into the exhilaratingly chilly water. Then it’s dinner at the Lobster Shack (225 Two Lights Rd., Cape Elizabeth, Maine, lobstershacktwolights.com, lobster roll market price), where I get a table on a rocky bluff flush with the Atlantic, breeze in my face. They say “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Delightful indeed.