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It is difficult to identify the best beaches without specifying for whom: fearless surfers or timid toddlers, party types or incurable recluses? At the bayside and sound beaches, for instance, the water tends to be much more placid than it is on the ocean and thus better for little ones who plan only to splash and muck about.

  • Sandy Neck Beach: This relatively unpopulated, 6-mile barrier beach, extending from the eastern edge of Sandwich to sheltered Barnstable Harbor, features pretty little dunes seldom seen on the bayside. Hike in far enough (but avoid the nests of Piping Plovers), and you're sure to find a secluded spot. Adventurous types can even camp overnight, with permission (tel. 508/362-8300).
  • Old Silver Beach: This is by far the most popular beach on the Upper Cape, which is why it was the first to raise its prices to $20 a day for day-trippers. On sunny summer days, cars start lining up to get into the parking lot by 9am. Why? It is the closest really good beach to the bridges. It has the widest sandy area and softest sand of the Upper Cape beaches. It is on Buzzards Bay, so it is not too cold. And because there are no large sand bars nearby, you can get into deep water and swim fairly close to shore, instead of having to wade way out.
  • Nauset Beach: Located along the outer "elbow" of the Cape, this barrier beach descends all the way from East Orleans to a point opposite Chatham -- about 9 miles in all, each mile increasingly deserted. The entry point, however, is a body squeeze: It's here that the young crowd convenes to strut their stuff. Administered by the town of Orleans but still considered part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, Nauset Beach has paid parking, restrooms, and a snack bar.
  • Cahoon Hollow Beach: Spectacular Cahoon Hollow Beach on the rough, frigid Atlantic Ocean is your reward at the end of a winding trek down a 75-foot dune.
  • Race Point Beach: Unlike many of the beaches closer to Provincetown, which are tacitly reserved for gays or lesbians, Race Point -- another Cape Cod National Seashore beach, at the northernmost tip of the Cape -- is strictly nondenominational. Even whales are welcome -- they can often be spotted with the bare eye, surging toward Stellwagen Bank. The Province Lands Visitor Center at Race Point (tel. 508/487-1256) has particularly good views.
  • Jetties Beach: Among the region's beaches, Nantucket's have, as a rule, the best amenities. Most have restrooms, showers, lifeguards, and food. For families and active types, Jetties Beach (just a half mile from the center of town) can't be beat. Offering boat and windsurfing rentals, tennis courts, volleyball nets, a playground, and great fishing (off the namesake jetties), it's also scenic (those jetties again) with calm, warm water.
  • Aquinnah Beach: These landmark bluffs on the western extremity of Martha's Vineyard (call the Chamber of Commerce at tel. 508/693-0085 for directions) are threatened with erosion, so it's no longer politically correct to engage in multicolored mud baths, as hippies once did. Still, it's an incredibly scenic place to swim. Come early to beat the crowds.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.