Who needs California or Florida? New England offers its own summer delights NEW ENGLAND PRIMER

June 14, 1992|By Patricia Mandell | Patricia Mandell,Contributing Writer

ew England is not California and definitely not Florida. But a summer vacation there offers a chance to enjoy New England's scenic coast and countryside, which need offer no apologies to any other region. You might seek out a cool spot on the Maine coast or a Cape Cod beach. If countryside and mountains please you more, head for the greenery of New Hampshire or Vermont.

In my travels around New England, I find I tend to return to a few favorite spots again and again:

Chatham, Mass.

I've got a soft spot for Chatham, even though some people think the town looks like a backdrop for a Ralph Lauren ad. And, as a popular Cape Cod resort, it does get crowded. But Chatham holds on to an appealing small-town character replete with small-town traditions. Take the Friday night summer brass band concerts held in Kate Gould Park. Or the church strawberry festival that follows Chatham's memorable Fourth of July parade.

Main Street is thickly lined with cute shops and art galleries, with a few restaurants mixed in. Besides jewelry, books and clothing, a stroll here turns up lots of vacation-time goodies: homemade cookies and ice cream, handmade chocolates at the Chatham Candy Manor. Diners flock to Christian's and the casual Chatham Squire.

For the very finest dining in town, head for the Chatham Bars Inn, which offers a prix fixe four-course dinner featuring an American and Continental menu. One of the last grand old resorts left on the Cape, Chatham Bars was built in 1914 as a hunting lodge. The inn has superb ocean views, a private beach, tennis courts and golf course.

Another aspect of Chatham that I like is how much diversity it offers for a small town. There are a half-dozen worthwhile historic sights, among them the Old Atwood House, a house museum with some unusual exhibits of Chatham's seafaring history, and the Old Grist Mill, a wind-powered mill built in 1797. Yet another is the Railroad Museum.

Chatham, jutting into the Atlantic on the Cape's "elbow," also offers some of the most smashing views on the entire Cape. To get an eyeful, drive south along Shore Road, past the Fish Pier, where you can watch the fishing fleet unload the catch each afternoon. At Chatham Light and Coast Guard Station, a lookout spot faces the dramatic 1987 breach in Chatham's barrier island. Eventually, the road leads to Morris Island. From here you can see North and South Monomoy Island and its wild, wind-swept terrain.

Chatham has several nice swimming beaches. The most popular is mile-long Harding's Beach, and there's a children's beach at Oyster Pond Beach. My favorite is a small and unspoiled one called Red River Beach.

Falmouth, Mass.

Chatham's Upper Cape neighbor, Falmouth, draws its share of crowds, too. Many come for the miles and miles of magnificent beaches. Long fingers of land reach into the sea from Falmouth's eight villages, and each one ends in an ocean-side beach, some with rolling surf, some shallow or with kiddie pools.

But Falmouth has resisted schlock, and remains an attractive community. Surrounding its well-tended village green are two churches, a handsome bank and the 19th century homes of Yankee sea captains and merchants. Several of these are now bed-and-breakfast inns with all the trimmings: antique furniture, four-poster beds and gourmet breakfasts.

Since I now travel with a 19-month-old daughter, I am persona non grata at most B&Bs. My family finds a warm welcome at ShoreWay Acres Inn, a large, family-style resort on Shore Street. Innkeeper Dorie Dineen Ketterer, who has her own small children to contend with, is most accommodating with highchairs and cribs and the like. A distinct plus here is that Surf Drive Beach, one of the larger beaches, is within walking distance.

Falmouth is the closest point to Martha's Vineyard. Woods Hole, where the ferry landing is, is actually a village of Falmouth and not a separate town, though few people realize this. If you'd like to make a day trip to the Vineyard, staying in Falmouth lets you skip long lines of traffic. Hop a shuttle bus from downtown to the ferry, or ride your bike on the Shining Sea Bikeway.

Falmouth Harbor, a large harbor at the end of Scranton Avenue, is the scene of much activity. Charter boats for sunset cruises and deep-sea fishing berth here, and there are open-air band concerts on Thursday nights. One of the Cape's finest restaurants is here, too: the Regatta of Falmouth by the Sea, set right on the water for gorgeous ocean views from its large dining room windows.

Portsmouth, N.H.

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