A road trip is all about the views; and what view could be better than the constantly changing sea? Choose a coastal exploration of the USA’s most northeasterly states – and edging into southern Canada – and you get to experience a slice of North America that is defined by its relationship to water, whether through sublime seafood or opportunities to get on or in it yourself.
On an epic driving holiday down what felt like roads less travelled, taking in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, the seascape was the one constant. Whether the ocean was rising metres in the blink of an eye, tossing me about in a raft, raging at night a few feet away or perfectly still and punctuated by tiny remote islands in the distance, lapping yachts or providing impromptu swim spots, it was always there.
Here’s my pick of the can’t-miss-them top spots at each destination.
Read more on USA travel:
Portland is a working port that’s full of brownstone buildings and wharf conversions. Imagine cobblestone streets and rusty fire escapes hanging off red-brick walls, clapboard suburbs and beautiful bay views. The streets hum with the sound of tourists’ murmurs of appreciation, taking in the upscale boho boutiques and ring with the cry of “Oh I could definitely live here!”. Only two hours from Boston Logan International Airport, this is a great place for your first whiff of salty sea air.
Boothbay Harbor is an hour north of Portland and sits at the tip of one of many peninsulas that jut into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s all about water here; land is separated by inlets, coastal islands, tidal rivers and harbours and it’s a great place to kayak, sail or whale watch. It’s characterful too; a woman sells 50¢ lemonade from her house halfway along a wooden bridge across the harbour, and second-hand books are traded from a stoop on the main street. Five miles out of town is Ocean Point, where low tide reveals seaweedy rocks and pools, and there are places to swim off the wooden jetty in the glorious sunset.
Further north is Bar Harbor, a vibrant base to explore Acadia National Park and board the 3.5-hour ferry to Nova Scotia.
Bluebird Ocean has a relaxing end-of-the-world feel with rockers on the balcony, a seawater pool, an excellent restaurant and cornhole with a view.
Portsmouth has as much history as its UK namesake, but this one is smaller, prettier and more chilled. Explore the Strawbery Banke Museum, which explains the history of the area from when settlers first docked through to World War Two via the medium of preserved and renovated buildings, costumed actors and informative guides.
Wentworth by the Sea is set on a beautiful marina just outside Portsmouth. This peaceful all-American resort oozes self-assured luxury; doubles from £256.
Let’s start with the North Shore, which includes highlights like the rugged Plum Island and the Gatsby-esque 1920s Crane Estate (also home to Jack Nicholson’s “average horny little devil” in the Witches of Eastwick).
Rockport is a pretty harbour town with an artsy community thanks to its light and landscape. Emerson Inn on the cliffs is where Hannah Jumper, a fisherman’s wife, tired of her husband’s drinking and led a raid to destroy the town’s liquor, using hatchets to destroy all the barrels in town. It was one of the earliest events that led to prohibition in 1919 and Rockport stayed dry until the 1990s!
Gloucester’s maritime heritage is kept alive in the brilliant not-for-profit museum on the dock, and Hammond Castle makes for a good stop on your route out of town to Salem; its eccentric inventor-owner created a historical mashup by importing bits of Europe to the cliffs of Massachusetts.
On the south shore, Plymouth is close to Boston and an essential stop for understanding America’s historical jigsaw. In 1620, religious separatists, who wanted to worship free from the constraints of the Church of England, left Devon on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Those first settlers were only 50 strong by the time they docked but now an unfathomable 35 million people worldwide can claim a link to the Mayflower.
In Boston itself, there’s a lot to do, but sticking to a coastal theme, my top tips are to stay in the Back Bay area with its beautiful bay-windowed brownstones and its proximity to the Charles River Esplanade, a 17-mile stretch of park by the water’s edge. Make sure you visit the Boston Tea Party Ships Museum in the Seaport District; it’s the 250th anniversary of the historic event which led, in part, to American independence, so expect to get your hands dirty – cheering and jeering with the actors on board and chucking tea chests in the sea.
Emerson Inn is a historic inn in Rockport with four-poster beds, wide hallways and a sweeping staircase. Elegance you only get from centuries of practice.
End on a high in the Four Seasons in Boston. The suites are roomy and the views are incredible – especially from the bath tub...
Picture the scene. It’s evening, the fog is hanging in the cobwebs on the veranda caught in the lamplight. It’s kind of spooky. You can see two people huddled up on a bench looking out to sea and you know the ocean is just beyond them but you won’t see it until the next morning when, halfway through your breakfast, the blanket of fog will suddenly break up. The sun will shine, rocks and lighthouses will appear and a rugged headland will gradually take shape. This is Nova Scotia and there’s an unforgettable magic in its daily slow reveal.
White Point Beach encapsulates the Nova Scotian coast for me. And it really is all about the coast here; there’s not much going on in the middle. The beach is wild and rugged but swimmable and sandy and it’s a great base from which to explore the south of this Canadian province.
There is a lot to do in this area besides jumping the waves and talking about the fog. In Quinan, there’s Tim Doucette’s Deep Sky Eye Observatory. Tim holds sky theatre sessions on clear nights using huge telescopes that can see deep sky objects, as well as stuff in our solar system.
In nearby Barrington, Darren Hudson, world champion lumberjack, lays on an unmissable “axe-perience” which sees you sawing, axe throwing and log rolling. And in Pubnico, you can visit the Village Historique Acadien to learn all about the French communities that have thrived here since the 1600s.
Travelling northeast from White Point Beach follows the Lighthouse Route, which winds its way around coves and inlets via a cable ferry. The landscape is a curious mix of wild and remote yet manicured that we just don’t get in the UK, and real estate access to the water’s edge is like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
Unesco-listed Lunenberg is a double-harboured town with an interesting history. A walking tour gives you the gist of European immigrants mis-sold a dream, maritime architecture and the number of descendants who still live in the same house. A little further along, Peggy’s Cove is a beautiful spot at sunset. Scramble over the rocks for a photo op and admire the tiny harbour that would look just as much at home in Scandinavia or northern Scotland.
Crossing over to the northwest side of Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy has the biggest tides in the world. I think it would be a shame not to use them to fun effect, so go tidal bore rafting up the Shubenacadie river near Truro. The landscape and the force of the water make for crazy currents. “I’ve had people find religion in there,” says my skipper with glee as he cranks up the engine and barrels us back into the muddy washing machine again and again.
One of the best views of the Bay of Fundy can be found at Halls Harbour restaurant and lobster pound. The extraordinary speed of the tide means the beached boats you can see as you’re ordering your lobster roll will be bobbing many metres up by the time you’ve finished your meal.
White Point Beach Resort has all the old-school charm of a beach resort with a main house and bungalows dotted along the shore. Extra kudos for its role in the recent series of Race Across the World.
Oceanstone Resort is the perfect spot on the Lighthouse Route to visit Peggy’s Cove and Lunenberg on the way to NS’ capital, Halifax. Doubles from C$152.
Stay at Seek offers chic and unusual accommodation in Victoria Park outside Truro. Equipped with fire pit, BBQ, hot tub. From C$25 for a stay in a self-contained shipping container.
Driftwood By The Bay is a personal fave; this gorgeous geodome sits right on the rocky beach. At night, the high tide roars just feet from your feet. Domes sleeping four from C$315, minimum two-night stay.
Rachel flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Boston. She drove up the coast through Maine to Bar Harbor where she took The Cat ferry to Yarmouth in Nova Scotia. She returned a week later and visited coastal Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts before ending her two-week trip back in Boston.
Read more of our best USA hotel reviews