The 18 Best Laid-Back Beach Towns in the Northeast

These beaches are worth visiting for their beautiful shores and small-town feel.

Photo: Rare Brick

Every year, as the days get longer and the last remnants of the final snow begin to melt, the classic Northeastern beach towns—like Nantucket and the Hamptons—come alive. But the approach of summer also means the inevitable flock of beachgoers. Restaurants are impossible to get into, lines for ice cream go down the entire block, and you’re lucky if you get enough space on the beach for yourself let alone a towel and umbrella. But fear not. There’s a slew of trendy or newly renovated hotels located in these coastal enclaves and your perfect summer getaway—sans crowds—is only a few hours north on the I-95. For those looking for a more laid-back alternative, try visiting some of these hidden beach towns. For example, Shelter Island, New York—a.k.a. the Hamptons much chiller neighbor—boasts all the coastline views and style of the more popular summer hotspot, but with a quieter and, some may say, more sophisticated feel. Madison, Connecticut, meanwhile, boasts trendy boutiques and pristine views of the Long Island Sound. And then there' s Castine, Maine with its fabulous food and rich seafaring history. Said another way: these spots are where to go for the same quintessential New England charm and way less people to bump into while chowing down on a fresh lobster roll.

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Shelter Island, NY: The Basics

Shelter Island
Frank Heuer/laif/Redux

Only accessible by ferry, Shelter Island, the Hamptons’ quiet next-door neighbor, is the perfect seaside retreat. The island is nestled between the two forks of Long Island and known for its unspoiled beaches and beautiful manor houses. This summertime enclave maintains its rustic charm with a population of less than 3,000 and a third of the land preserved by the Nature Conservancy. Spend your day either lolling around on the beaches or try out sailing (a Shelter Island rite of passage) on a sloop around the Peconic Bay.

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Shelter Island, NY: Where to Stay and Eat

Shelter Island Sunset Beach
Courtesy of Sunset Beach

If you’re looking for a place where you can venture out on an early paddleboarding outing, followed by lively music and summer cocktails, then stay at the Sunset Beach Hotel. This hip boutique hotel from André Balazs’ has stylish guest rooms, all have private terraces and views of the pristine beach, as well as amenities like kayaks, bikes, and Kiehl’s bath products.

Just up the road from Sunset Beach lies the intimate and charming Shelter Island House. The elegantly styled 19th-century hotel has 11 rooms with coral printed pillows and an array of modern art, encapsulating the perfect coastal hideaway. Grab an ice cold IPA in the tavern after a long day at the beach or go for an evening swim in the outdoor pool.

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Long Beach, NY: The Basics

Man holding surfboard at Long Beach in New York, USA
TravelCollection / Alamy Stock Photo

Long Beach’s strip of rolling sand dunes and its newly rebuilt boardwalk is the perfect escape from the maddening crowds and heat of Manhattan during the summer. Once the home of mob man Michael Corleone, Long Beach has evolved into an upbeat coastal retreat but still maintains its Long Island roots (think fried clams, fresh bagels, and Italian ices). Only a 45-minute train ride from Penn Station, the barrier island is teeming with classic eateries and quirky shops. Ditch the car for a bike so you can easily go from cruising along the boardwalk to riding around the town.

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Long Beach, NY: Where To Stay and Eat

Long Beach Jordan's Lobster Bar
Jordan's Lobster Bar

Because of its close proximity to Manhattan, hotels in Long Beach come in short supply, making it the perfect day trip. However, if one day relaxing on the beach just isn’t enough, then grab some shut-eye at Allegria Hotel. Located directly on the boardwalk with modern and clean interiors, this relatively new hotel will have you rested and refreshed for another day of summer shenanigans.

Just over the Long Beach bridge lies Jordan’s Lobster Dock. This hidden gem remains a favorite for Long Island locals seeking fresh lobster rolls and crisp fried clams or classic shrimp cocktail with their dynamite cocktail sauce (warning: it has a kick). The restaurant overlooks a pier where you can watch the fisherman bring in the daily catch. If your sweet tooth is pining for an afternoon treat, grab some soft serve with sprinkles at the famous Marvels.

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Madison, CT: The Basics

Hammonasset Beach State Park Madison Connecticut USA
Stan Tess / Alamy Stock Photo

Tucked away off the I-95 between New York and Boston, you’ll find the picture-perfect beach town of Madison. Residents try to keep this costal gem hush hush, but recently word has spread about Madison’s idyllic scenery, trendy shops, and great restaurants. Just a quick drive from the Madison town center is Hammonasset State Park, with more than two miles of pristine sandy beach that overlooks Long Island Sound.

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Madison, CT: Where to Stay and Eat

Courtesy of the Madison Beach Hotel

The Madison Beach Hotel is the place for some R & R while staying in the small seaside town. The elegant beachfront hotel has 32 guest rooms, many of which come with balconies overlooking the water and a renowned spa, perfect for a rejuvenating getaway.

Since opening in 2010, Bar Bouchee has remained one of the best restaurants in Madison. The small, intimate space is decked out with classic French bistro design, complete with tiled floors and woven Riviera chairs. The menu changes seasonally but must-have staples are served year round including their hearty cassoulet. The nearby cocktail bar Moxie exudes a lively and playful atmosphere, with funky décor and traditional American fare mixed with international flavors. Dishes range from pad thai to quirky mash ups like bacon and bourbon P.E.I mussels. Make sure to try one of their many craft cocktails, with eclectic names like “Hooch and Juice”.

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Mystic, CT: The Basics

Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut
Richard Cummins/Getty Images

The small town of Mystic, Connecticut, will always be known as the location where Julia Roberts famously tied on an apron as a waitress in Mystic Pizza. Yes, the legendary pizza joint still stands, but Mystic has also cultivated its own fame as a foodie town with great nearby beaches—ideal for a weekend getaway. Make sure to check out the array of boutiques and restaurants with that line Mystic’s main street.

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Mystic, CT: Where to Stay and Eat

Mystic, CT
Courtesy of the Oyster Club

The notable Whaler’s Inn is an easy walk from all of the downtown shops and restaurants and has a sublime view of the Mystic river. The complex has five buildings, but the most sought after rooms are in the Hoxie House where each corner room is equipped with lush leather sofas and cozy fireplaces.

With such a wide selection of restaurants, cafés, and specialty shops, it’s hard to narrow down just one or two eateries in Mystic. In Old Mistick Village, you’ll find the best artisanal grilled cheeses and cupcakes at Bleu Squid. For dinner spots, check out the Oyster Club for some of the best seafood in the area or the Captain Daniel Packer Inne, a historical relic kept intact since 1756 with dishes that match its seaside atmosphere. The menu at Oyster Club changes daily, but their freshly shucked oysters (rated some of the best in America) are never in short supply. At the Inne, try the lobster lollipops or roasted half duckling while sipping on fresh ale in the cozy pub.

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Newburyport, MA: The Basics

Newburyport MA tourists shopping
Kevin Galvin / Alamy Stock Photo

With rich nautical history dating back to the 17th century, Newburyport is the ultimate coastal town with classic colonial architecture and quaint mom and pop shops. Once the main port for ship building in the northeast, the small city is prefect for seafaring aficionados. Make sure to check out the well-known Custom Maritime Museum, where an entire gallery is dedicated to meticulously crafted model ships. A 10-minute drive down the road lies Plum Island beach, where you can search for shells along the tidal creek or camp out under an umbrella by the sand dunes.

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Newburyport, MA: Where to Stay and Eat

Rare Brick

Blue Hotel is the newest addition from Lark Hotels and slated to open early this summer with beachfront cottages.

After a sufficient amount of time frolicking on Plum Island, try the award-winning and local favorite, Brine, for dinner. This restaurant not only serves up fresh market oysters but also specializes in an array of crudo dishes and caviar. There’s nothing like slurping down fresh shellfish by the sea.

For sugar fiends, the wafting smell of freshly made chocolate and strawberry hand pies from Buttermilk Baking Company is hard to resist when visiting Newburyport. The bakery’s legendary roasted peach muffins have people from near and far lining up at their door during the summer. The menu ranges from fruit-based pastries in the spring and summer to more hearty treats like bourbon pecan pie in the fall.

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Block Island, RI: The Basics

beach and lighthouse on Block Island
Driendl Group/Getty Images

On this island, cars are scarce and bikes are plenty. A quick ferry ride from New London or Newport, this 7,000-acre inlet is the perfect antidote to the congested Nantucket. The northern part of the island remains untouched and is home to numerous wildlife species that are rarely found on the mainland. On the southern side, you’ll find the quaint town of New Shoreham, which houses most of the hotels and eateries. This island might have a tiny population (around 1,000 to be exact) but in the summer the small oasis comes alive with festivals and sailing regattas.

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Block Island, RI: Where to Stay and Eat

Hotel Manisses
Courtesy of Hotel Manisses

Hotel Manisses is the ideal boutique hotel—it’s got one of the island’s best restaurants and is incredibly close to popular Ballard Beach. The exterior of the 19th-century building is reminiscent of Victorian manor houses and this year, all 17 guestrooms underwent significant renovations with lovely details like gilded mirrors and claw foot tubs.

Froozies Juice Bar & Café, which first started as a small fruit stand on the porch of a hotel, has exploded as a favorite spot among locals for a refreshing smoothie or classic Manhattan grub. The breakfasts include traditional New York boiled bagels or fresh egg sandwiches made from locally sourced ingredients. For lunch, the homemade hummus and falafel are the go-to choice. With a priceless view of the vast Atlantic, Eli’s restaurant is the place for upscale dining and delicious New England cocktails. The Dark and Stormy should always be the drink of choice—pair it with prosciutto-wrapped haddock or brined chicken topped with apple-jicama slaw.

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Brewster, MA: The Basics

Crosby Landing Beach, Brewster
Kenneth Wiedemann/Getty Images

For a laid-back alternative to Chatham or Provincetown, but with the same quintessential Cape Cod charm, Brewster is the town to visit. With less hotels and bed-and-breakfasts than its coastal neighbors, Brewster boasts serene beaches, dynamite seafood, and epic whale watching.

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Brewster, MA: Where to Stay and Eat

Brewster's Ocean Edge Resort
Courtesy of Ocean Edge Resort

The big kahuna of hotels in Brewster is the lovely Ocean Edge Resort. The historic Victorian mansion lies on a bluff overlooking the scenic Cape Cod Bay. Amenities and activities are aplenty at Ocean Edge with over 400 acres of land and a beautifully manicured golf course as well as pools, tennis courts, and walking trails to get lost in. Guests can either stay at rooms in the mansion or opt for a villa.

Situated in a Cape Cod-style cottage, The Brewster Fish House’s menu has a refined take on classic seafood dishes. Dinner entrees include unique pairings like lobster with a kumquat crust topped with clementines or scallops served on a bed of thyme polenta. Get there early because the fish house does not take reservations.

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Ogunquit, ME: The Basics

Perkins Cove, Ogunquit, Maine, USA.
pierre rochon / Alamy Stock Photo

Translated as the “beautiful place by the sea”, this beachside haven is known for its picturesque barrier peninsula and historical significance as both an artist’s colony and fishing village. Closer to the rest of the east coast than other popular Maine destinations like Kennebunkport or Portland, Ogunquit’s bustling town is great for a weekend getaway. Not only does the creative enclave have a plethora of galleries and boutiques, but it’s also the home of the established Ogunquit Playhouse, with its highly esteemed theater productions.

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Ogunquit, ME: Where to Stay and Eat

Cliff House in Ogunquit
Courtesy of Cliff House

This year, Ogunquit’s top hotel, Cliff House, has undergone a complete transformation with extensive renovations and additions including new dining areas and enhanced amenities for guests. Some of the new amenities include a coffee shop that provides locally brewed blends and Nubb’s Lobster Shack, which serves classic Maine fare like lobster rolls. True to its name, the hotel is located on a rugged Bald head cliff with spectacular views. Cliff House is projected to reopen its doors this July.

In Ogunquit, head to Perkins Cove’s Lobster Shack for the best lobster rolls around. Lobsters are brought in by the local fisherman and served fresh with a side of piping hot fries or chips. If you’re not clawing down the doors for a roll, then slurp on their famous New England chowder.

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Castine, ME: The Basics

Yacht sailing off coast of Castine, Maine
Mira / Alamy Stock Photo

Pristine sandy beaches might be scarce in this small waterfront village, but Castine makes up for it with its plentiful water activities and rich seafaring history. Kayaking and sailing are ideal because of Penobscot Bay’s calm waters and small islands, making it the perfect area for exploring. There are also three historical military forts here, including the famous Fort Knox, plus the scenic Castine Lighthouse.

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Castine, ME: Where to Stay and Eat

Tim Henderson

Once a residential home, The Manor Inn’s rooms vary in size but all evoke classical colonial style with fireplaces and four-post beds. A unique amenity that the inn offers is yoga classes that focus on the traditional Iyengar practice.

Castine has quickly become a smorgasbord of eateries and pubs. For a sweet fix, try the local favorite, MarKel’s Bakehouse, where you can indulge in freshly made fruit pies or cupcakes. For those chilly Maine nights, sip on hearty ale at The Baron Pub and Wine Bar—an eclectic pub whose walls are adorned with portraits of celebrities that range from Ghandi to Queen Victoria. The room is also decorated with various travel souvenirs, making you feel like you’re in a café in Kashmir instead of coastal Maine. If casual dining is calling, the dockside take-out joint, Dudley’s Refresher, will tide over your craving for fish tacos or poutine.

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