A rocky cold-water beach can talk. It roars at you to stay away. Its winds insist it will be difficult to walk. Its spray says keep to your car. But, still, you want the scouring freshness of it. You zip up your jacket, and you step onto sand.
At least that’s what I do. As a Rhode Islander I want to be on beaches even when the weather is gray. (Maybe especially on those days.) But I am an active beach guy. An explorer, not a lounger. And when I strike off for a stroll I’m always pulled up short. Stretches of accessible sand run out much too quickly. I find myself in rocky shallows where my flip-flops get stuck and end up dreaming about mystery beaches deep in the distance that I can barely see.
This is why, when friends are packing up for hiking hills or trails, I decide that I am going to explore a coast. Poring over my maps, I pick New Hampshire. With just 18 miles of Atlantic beachfront, it has the shortest shoreline of any state. By tackling it all, I’ll see the overall shape of where its land meets water, instead of just a piece. And from what I know already, I’ll get to pass through an intriguing mix of clifftop landscapes, historic clapboard villages and classic boardwalks dotted with arcades and wafting the scent of hot dogs and salt-water taffy.
My plan is to trace the coast of New Hampshire end to end — from the Massachusetts border north to Maine — sticking as close to the high-tide line as I can. I’ll have to trudge along the shoulder of Route 1-A for part of the trip, but with my U.S. Geological Survey 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, shorts, and snacks, I make a few rules: No camping out. And no freeze-dried carry-along meals. The distance is short enough that you could do it in a day or two if you wanted to. But I’m going to go slowly. Sandy feet or no sandy feet, I’ll check into local inns along the way and eat in restaurants and snack bars. This will be my trekker’s reward.
I don’t know if the hike as a whole has ever been done and what crab shells or washed-up buoys I will trip over along the way. But in an ornery New England way, I do not care.
• Seabrook Beach, a Sahara dune, and lobster tours
It is August, and though it’s early morning, the day is still and hot. Edges of the sky fit snugly along the top of a flat, green sea. I park near the border between Salisbury, Mass., and Seabrook, N.H., and toast the start of my trip by downing an orange-banana smoothie and a package of spicy peanuts. I’m up over dunes and a rickety boardwalk and taking my first hot footsteps onto the beach.
Seabrook’s wide sand is emptier than I would have guessed, like a desert island studded with seagrass and knots of sculptural driftwood that I have to detour around. When I do pass clumps of tourists on towels I get stares. I look like a park ranger with my khaki shorts and cap, and thanks to my backpack and camera it’s clear I’m not here for a dip.
“Any idea when low tide is on this beach?” says a woman dangling a child’s plastic pail and shovel. I am angry at myself that I hadn’t thought of packing a tide chart. “Sorry,” I say. “Wish I knew.”
It is such easy walking that even a sandy incline up to a bridge seems as smooth as a Sahara dune. I kick off my sneakers and go barefoot for a while just to get the feel of it. “Captain Bob’s Lobster Tours!” screams a shack on the other side. Right next to Bob’s — for those who want to taste, not tour — is “Rico’s Lobster by the Pound.”
I am already thirsty. The spicy peanuts were a mistake. I rummage in my pack and feel only folded objects. With my no-camping rules, I’ve gone too far. I’ve forgotten to pack water. I cross the sun-baked bridge and look ahead for any sign of a store.
• Famous subs and a parade down Ocean Boulevard
Suddenly I’m in a different summer. 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,” says the sign, “to Hampton Beach.”
I want to get past this jam-packed strip as quickly as I can, but it isn’t easy since I haven’t had lunch. I’m drawn to the window at Gerri’s Famous Subs on Ocean Boulevard and get a root beer (extra large) plus a popsicle stick to keep track of my order. I pick a “Boardwalk Burger,” which comes perfectly grilled and up to its heavy load of ketchup and onions and cheese.
While I work on the beef, I watch a parade file past. It’s led by sun-blocked beachgoers with bellies. Just behind march teenagers speckled with tattoos and toting massive surfboards. Suddenly the teens break ranks and charge the beach. Although the surf is mild today, they’re up to their waists in seconds, and under — paddling out beyond the lines of breakers.
I think of taking a swim. But I’ve got half a burger to finish, and a coastline to explore. I check out the one other customer at Gerri’s: a guy at the next table. His dirigible of an Italian grinder is leaking ham and provolone and drops a pepper whenever he bites. After a second root beer, I waddle on.
• Little Boar’s Head, elegant roses, ancient statues
If Hampton Beach is Coney Island, then North Hampton is Nantucket or Newport. At Little Boar’s Head I find myself on a sort of Sunday stroll along a landscaped path that traces cliffs overlooking the sea. This area has long been a posh summer resort and shows off a lineup of imposing estates in a range of architectural styles.
There’s a stretch where the walkway is landscaped with both flower beds and benches and the effect is much like Newport, R.I.’s Cliff Walk: To one side you have ocean vistas, and to the other, views of summer mansions and their sloping lawns. Along with 19th century facades, I run into a scouring wind that scoops up sand and whips it into an eye-stinging summer storm.
For shelter, I detour into Fuller Gardens, a former estate that’s now open to the public. Sue Hagen closes her register at the gift shop to take me on a tour. “The turn-of-the-century rose plantings are our big draw,” Sue says, “but look at these espaliers!” She’s pointing at two twisty apple trees. One is shaped like a candelabra. And one is a menorah, complete with bark and leaves.
Inside the gardens we are walking from era to era, not beach to beach. “Our oldest statue,” Sue presents. “It’s by a student of Michelangelo’s.” My finger traces the signature on its plinth: MICHEL ANGELO FANCIULLO.
• Mansions and beach shacks, old Odiorne’s Point
After turning in for a night at Lamie’s Inn in Hampton, I’m rested and ready to get back on my sandy trail. More estates loom up, more manicured gardens. I stay in the Gilded Age for a few more miles until the mansions turn into cottages and the path into a pebbly beach with a high berm to keep storm tides at bay.
Time for a dip. Up until now, I’ve done some wading to cool down but this is my first time riding waves and ducking underwater. For New England oceanfront, it’s warm — I’m guessing 70s in the shallows — and clear enough for me to see two silvery fish on a mysterious mission, flipping sideways and flashing away.
Getting out is easy since it’s nearly noon and I’m being blow-dried by a gusty breeze. I cross into Rye where barnwood houses look like just the place for a nap. They’re extra cozy: think treehouses that have been spruced up with gables and brought down from branches to dunes. Even the tiniest of these have clever names. “Rye on the Rocks” says one. “The Catcher’s Lair” is a few doors down.
I reach Odiorne’s Point, where English settlers first laid out a New Hampshire town, 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. At Cable Beach I ask some locals if they are proud of the historic link. “Never heard of it,” replies a woman in a white, floppy hat. “Did it connect to Cape Cod?”
• Siding scrubbed by the sea, New Castle clapboards
For my second inn night I pick a famous old hotel, the Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle. It still has some of the sprawling charm that drew President Theodore Roosevelt here in 1905 when he was negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Reopened a few years ago after a renovation and expansion, the 137-year-old hotel building with its bright red roofs and whitewashed siding seems freshly scrubbed by the sea, like some tropical cruise ship that has washed ashore.
The next morning, I step out onto a playhouse-sized Main Street. New Castle sure looks the part of New Hampshire’s smallest town. Plaques display 17th and 18th century dates and clapboards are narrower near ground-level in the style of the time. Besides being the state’s tiniest town, it’s the only one located entirely on islands. You used to have to take a boat to get to New Castle. This is probably one reason that it has such an unspoiled, preserved-in-amber feeling.
I head over to the town’s U.S. Coast Guard Station to check out the Fort Constitution Historic Site (603-436-1552). Mulling over a plaque, I discover that the fort was used during the War of 1812 and that several Civil War units were trained here. Its precursor, Fort William and Mary, played a key role in 1774, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, when Paul Revere rode all the way from Boston with a message that troops were coming to take it over.
To check out the town’s miniature lanes and Colonial-era plaque houses, I make a small loop. From Main Street, I wander down Walbach Street towards the water, make a left on Piscataqua Street, and then another left on Cranfield. A sign for watercolor lessons draws me into Maddi Alana’s tiny studio along Route 1-B. “I’ll go get paints and brushes now,” she offers. I wish I had time but I’m running out. Portsmouth is calling.
• Portsmouth’s “rare royal,” Strawbery Banke, and beyond
A much bigger town, but as thick with Colonial and Federal-style houses, Portsmouth has been named one of the country’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by The National Trust. Formerly one of New England’s busiest ports, it now thrives on tides of regional visitors, especially in summer. Many come to check out the city’s Strawbery Banke Museum (454 Court St., 603-433-1100), a collection of restored homes from Colonial times which, through exhibits, working artisans, and interpreters, brings some of the town’s history and traditions to life.
Portsmouth is one of those rare small cities with a downtown that bustles, not just from nine to five, but well into the evening. Downtown blocks have a Beacon Hill air with brick facades and painted trim, and give over ground floors to locally-owned shops like Hoyt’s Office Products on Market Street with its window full of buffed-up typewriters for sale. “1934 RARE ROYAL PORTABLE,” boasts a hand-lettered sign. “HAND-RUBBED TO A BRILLIANT FINISH!”
I am tempted, but when I pull out my billfold I realize I am weary enough to be dreaming on foot. Not enough for a Royal, or even a Smith Corona that’s on sale. Across the water, I can just catch sight of the end of my walk. The Piscataqua River, Seavey Island with its Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and a foggy harbor are all that stands between me and Maine.
Looking over at Kittery, I see a ray of hazy sun lighting up what looks like a beach. Or maybe it’s a gravel road, or path. I have a sudden thought. I fish inside my pack and unfold my map. Let’s see. The total length of the coast of Maine: roughly 3,478 miles. Sounds like a project. Sounds like a plan.
But for another hiker, not me. I like cozy coastlines, I’ve decided. And I’ve already made up my mind.
I’m doing Delaware next year.
Peter Mandel writes books for children including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House). He lives in Providence, R.I.