NEWS

Getaway: Get your tan on at these drive-to beaches

Felicity Long

Sunscreen, check. Revealing/camouflaging (pick one) bathing suit, check. Beach toys for the kids, check. Trashy novel for you, check.

With summer at our doorstep, it's time to hit the beach. All these options are within reasonable driving distance of Boston. Book a hotel and make a weekend of it.

Cape Cod

Trying to single out one great beach on the Cape is like trying to decide between fried clams, pizza and ice cream: they're all good. Locals have their favorites and will argue their merits for hours, but you can't go wrong on the 40-plus-mile-long Cape Cod National Seashore, extending roughly from Chatham to Provincetown. The area is packed with sand dunes, biking trails and, of course, plenty of swimming beaches along the way. If you have little kids in tow, consider spending the day at Skaket Beach in Orleans, which has gentle waves, shallow water and some of the best sunsets around.

Martha's Vineyard

Choose your beach by your energy level. State Beach (known as Bend in the Road Beach to locals) is calm and gentle, making it a great choice for young families. Older kids and adults who want a more high adrenaline experience head to the Pease's Point end of South Beach for wave action and kite flying. For a change of pace, make your way to Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head), where you will not only find some of the island's nicest beaches, but also shops run by the Wampanoag Tribe where you can pick up a souvenir or two.

Nantucket

Got kids? Take them to Children's Beach, where the waves are gentle and the services include a playground and picnic tables. Special summer fun includes tie-dying T-shirts and Friday night movies, as well as evening Children's Concerts in July and August. You can also hop on a town shuttle to Jetties Beach, which offers a playground and changing rooms, but be sure to time your visit to coincide with the blowout annual Sandcastle and Sculpture Day in mid-August.

Kennebunk Beach, Maine

When it comes to rating beaches, Maine doesn't always get the respect it deserves. Sure, some of the coastline is rocky, but there are plenty of inviting, sandy beaches along the south coast, some of which also offer picturesque towns full of little shops and hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants. Kennebunk Beach is technically three beaches and attracts surfers and hardy swimmers, but also offers plenty of room for those who just want to snooze in the sun.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine

OK, it's a little honky-tonk, but who doesn't love this beach/boardwalk combo for a throwback to the simpler days of childhood? Brave the Drop Zone or the Galaxy Roller Coaster at the beachfront Palace Playland, where you can also catch the view from the giant Ferris wheel, or relive your childhood on the carousel. Then wander along the pier, where dozens of fish and snack shacks vie for your attention. Did we also mention there is a beach? Sunbathe, enjoy a dip and settle in for a weekly fireworks display in season.

Connecticut shore

The Constitution State's largest, the two-mile Hammonasset Beach State Park along Long Island Sound, offers sun and sand as well as a boardwalk and places to picnic and camp. You can rent a bicycle, fish or check out the exhibits at the nature center. Or spend the day at Ocean Beach Park in New London, where facilities include a water slide, food outlets, mini-golf and a swimming pool.

Block Island, R.I.

With more than a dozen beaches to choose from, this popular island just 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island draws repeat visitors and newbies alike. The island is small enough that you can get around by rental moped or bicycle or even on foot from the ferry dock. Crescent Beach is the easiest to walk to and, at two-plus miles, offers some of the nicest beachcombing around.

Cape May, N.J.

New Yorkers know the charms of the Jersey shore, but for many New Englanders, Cape May is a pleasant surprise. The architecture is Victorian and there is so much to do here, from parasailing and whale watching to ghost tours and wine tastings, you may forget to go to the beach at all. Boating is very popular, and exploring the cute little shops and restaurants is half the fun.

Rehoboth Beach, Del.

This Delaware beach area draws visitors in droves, thanks to its lively atmosphere and inviting beach. Walk off lunch on the boardwalk or stake out a spot on the sand, knowing you are within easy walking distance from stores and eateries. Water sports fanatics can try Dewey Beach nearby, where windsurfing and jet skiing are among the popular activities. Or hop on a free loaner bike to explore Cape Henlopen State Park, where there's a beach and interactive Nature Center.

Road Trip Tips

Remember when family travel was synonymous with road trips? Fast forward to today's kids, and you will find that many of them have already been to the Caribbean or Florida before they hit middle school. Will high fuel surcharges, flight cancellations and fewer frills on air travel drive us back into the days of "Are we there yet?" car trips? If so, a little planning can make the difference between a fun outing and torture on wheels.

* Consider renting a car for the trip. Rental companies run specials all the time, and if you factor in wear and tear on your own car, it might be worth it. Be sure to fill up the car yourself before returning it, though, or the company will charge you a higher per gallon rate.

* Pack a picnic. Highway fast food options are limited, and if you're driving with a car full, they can be expensive. Resist the temptation to eat while you're driving, though. Rest areas often have picnic tables where you can get fresh air and stretch your legs.

* Make sure your beach is pet friendly. In season, some beaches have rules about letting dogs on the beach except after hours. Check first, and if you do bring Spot, bring plenty of water for the car ride.

* Bring sunscreen. Beach area convenience stores are on to you, so expect the prices to spike up the closer you are to the beach. Check out the new broad-spectrum sunscreens for the best protection, and try spray-ons especially if you have wiggly kids.

If you go

For information on Cape Cod, contact the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center in Hyannis or visit www.capecodchamber.org. Island hop via the Steamship Authority or Hy-Line ferry to Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket from Woods Hole or Hyannis. Visit www.steamshipauthority.com or www.hy-linecruises.com.

Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach are within two hours of Boston (Kennebunk is the closer one). Check out www.visitmaine.com for more.

Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Conn., is just off I-95 about a half-hour from Hartford, so within 2 1/2 hours of Boston. For more on travel to Connecticut, visit www.ct.gov.

Block Island a dozen miles off the coast of Rhode Island is an easy ferry hop from Narragansett or Newport, both about 1 1/2 hours from Boston. For more details, check out www.visitrhodeisland.com.

Cape May is just over 300 miles from Boston, so plan to spend at least a couple of days. For lodging options, visit www.state.nj.us/travel.

Rehoboth Beach is our farthest beach option at just over 325 miles, but we think it's worth the trip. Find Delaware travel advice at www.visitdelaware.com. Save time by taking the Cape May-Lewes Ferry at www.cmlf.com from New Jersey.

(Read more travel features and the Get Away with Fran blog at www.wickedlocal.com/getaway.)