Only 18 miles in length, New Hampshire's coastline is short - but that doesn't mean it's lacking attractions or appeal. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find more littoral variety and things to do in such a compressed stretch elsewhere.
Getting the seaside action off to a lively start is Hampton Beach, a blue-collar family resort seemingly frozen in the 1960s and affectionately known as the "Yankee Riviera." Continuing north are the charming residential towns of Rye, where gracious seaside homes overlook small beaches, salt marshes and a picturesque harbor, and Colonial New Castle, a hillock island at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. And just up the river is Portsmouth, one of New England's most attractive small cities.
Together they make for an entertaining three-course treat (to be enjoyed in any order you prefer). Just don't wait too long: this far north, the season is as short as it is sweet.
GO FOR A SWIM
First the good news: Hampton Beach, New Hampshire's largest sandbox, was ranked among the three cleanest beaches in the United States by the Natural Resources Defense Council last year. Now the chilling counterpoint: summertime water temperatures generally peak in the mid-60s. While access to sprawling Hampton Beach is free, consider paying $15 to enjoy the smaller but significantly less crowded state beaches at Hampton State Park and Wallis Sands. You can also head to Jenness or North Hampton beaches (metered parking), which have lifeguards and facilities.
TAKE A DRIVE
Mile for mile, it's hard to beat scenic Route 1A, one of New England's asphalt gems. There's nothing like taking a leisurely drive along its entirety, taking in the sea as it rolls over the rocks. While much of this road is marked "no parking," there are still several places where you can pull over to enjoy the view.
LET THE KIDS RUN WILD
Befitting the whole town's time-warp nature, Hampton Beach's Funarama arcade is a blast from the past, complete with skee ball, light beam shooting galleries and iron claw machines (603-926-2381). By night, it positively hums, while the Casino Ballroom upstairs literally rocks with a parade of retread musical headliners such as Eddie Money, Tears for Fears and George Thorogood (casinoballroom.com).
SMELL THE ROSES
Off Route 1A in North Hampton on the grounds of former Massachusetts governor Alvan T. Fuller's summer estate, Fuller Gardens is a 90-year-old treasure featuring over 1,700 rose bushes. Also on the grounds are a Japanese garden and a tropical and desert conservatory ($7 adults, $3 younger than 12; 603-964-5414, fullergardens.org).
HAVE A LOBSTER ROLL
"NH Magazine" readers voted the Beach Plum's lobster roll ($16.95) as the state's best. The upmarket beach shack is just opposite North Hampton State Beach. More to the kids' liking, perhaps, will be the 78 flavors of ice cream (603-964-7451).
GET BACK TO NATURE
The 135-acre Odiorne Point State Park is home to the Seacoast Science Center, a kid-oriented interactive learning center featuring a tide pool touch tank ($2-$5 admission, seacoastscience center.org). Afterward, stroll the sea rose-laden grounds and rocky beach, where you can get a view of the Isles of Shoals ($4 park admission).
GET OUT ON THE WATER
No trip to the coast is complete without spending some time on the water. For most, that means a cruise down the Piscataqua River. Portsmouth Harbor Cruises operates a 2 1/2-hour trip to the Isles of Shoals ($21) as well as 60- to 90-minute harbor and sunset cruises (from $16, portsmouth harbor.com). The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company leads similar trips, including music-themed cruises ($11-$39, islesofshoals.com).
Those willing to paddle themselves around Little Harbor should head to Portsmouth Kayak Adventures for an organized tour (from $48) or rent a vessel for a self-guided sunset paddle ($35, ports mouthkayak.com).
ADMIRE THE ARCHITECTURE
The tiny island of New Castle (population: 1,000) is remarkably rich in well-maintained 18th and 19th century homes, all still in private hands. You're welcome to walk the streets - the view out over the mouth of the Piscataqua River includes two lighthouses, and is worth a detour to Fort Constitution to view it at its best (free admission, 105 Sullivan Lane).
REWIND THE CLOCK
More than 40 early American buildings, replete with period furnishings and costumed interpreters adorn the 10-acre grounds of Strawbery Banke, a living history museum in Portsmouth. Think of it as the Colonial Williamsburg of New England, except that Strawbery Banke doesn't confine itself to Portsmouth's Colonial glory, but extends through the immigrant surge of the early 1900s and into the austere years of the Great Depression and World War II ($15 adults, $10 ages 5-17, strawberybanke.org).
DINE OVER THE WATER
While there are plenty of restaurants up and down New Hampshire's coast offering water views, nowhere is the water as close or as intriguing as it is along Bow and Ceres streets in Portsmouth's 19th century warehouse district. At least three establishments offer casual deck dining, where patrons can watch the ebb and flow of traffic along the Piscataqua River (that's Kittery, Maine, on the other side) and enjoy the afternoon sun or sunset. Options include: burgers and sandwiches at The Old Ferry Landing (603-431-5510), the more upscale Oar House (603-436-4025) and the particularly rough and ready Harpoon Willy's (603-433-4441).