Yes, I know- Summer 2015 is unfortunately coming to an end. In just a couple more weeks there will be an undeniable chill in the air, the leaves will begin their gradual change from green to orange, red, and yellow- and the pumpkin spice latte will be making it’s triumphant return to coffee shops around the country. Autumn is almost here- and right behind it is sure to be another gruesome Winter- especially for those of us here in New England who typically get buried under feet of snow each and every year.
If you’re like me, you’re trying to savor these final Summer days as much as possible- and that can range from throwing one last backyard BBQ and bonfire with your friends, to heading out for one final weekend at the beach to say goodbye to the season before it’s gone at one of the many popular spots along the coast. If that’s the case- then picking the perfect location might prove to be a little difficult. For that reason, I’ve broken down the pros and cons of two of my longtime favorite beaches: Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, and Old Orchard Beach in Maine.
I’ve been working on this comparison post little by little over the past couple of months, unsure of when to actually publish it, but now seems a good time as any- not just for those who are looking to have a memorable Labor Day weekend- but for those who want to get an early start on planning their 2016 Summer season, too!
First, let’s take a look at the contenders:
Hampton Beach (and my decade-old high tops)
Hampton Beach (New Hampshire)
Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, Hampton Beach was always the go-to Summer destination for my friends and I from the time we were little kids until the time we were old enough to drive ourselves. Just over an hour North of Boston, and about twenty minutes away from scenic Portsmouth, New Hampshire- Hampton Beach is one of the more populated beach destinations during the hotter months- and plays host to multiple restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, arcades, motels and shops that stretch across it’s boardwalk and side streets. While many establishments close in the off-season, certain areas at Hampton Beach stay open year-round- making it ideal for those who want a more quiet and less crowded beach getaway- and who don’t mind colder temperatures.
The Pier, Old Orchard Beach
A little further North from Hampton Beach lies Old Orchard Beach (OOB) in Maine. While considerably less populated than Hampton Beach- OOB offers a more “classic” beach experience- including an old wooden pier that stretches out over the ocean and numerous beach-side surf and souvenir shops mixed in among motels and seafood shacks. My very first trip to OOB was with my best friend in high school when we were both 16. We spent nearly a week there (with minimal supervision) and the place made a lasting impression. So much, in fact- that I’ve been going back regularly- not minding the nearly 2 hour long drive it takes to get there in the least.
I’ve broken down each of these beaches, the good and the bad, into a few different categories. Each one was carefully considered based on my personal experiences at each location, what I’ve seen, and what I’ve liked and haven’t liked. I tried to be as thorough as possible when comparing the two- and I hope it’s helpful!
I love the ocean in general (it’s my place of zen and inner peace) so having to make a decision as to which beach offers a more pleasant and unobstructed visual of it proved to be a bit difficult. Hampton Beach, with it’s winding roads along the coast past beautiful mansions and gardens, is perfect for those looking for a peaceful drive with breathtaking views- while Old Orchard Beach gives retro-fanatics an eyeful of classic and weathered shops, shacks, and motel-fronts for as far as the eye can see- like something right out of a postcard.
Beach cleanliness comes into account, as well. While cleanup crews work ’round the clock and to the best of their abilities to keep the sand and sidewalks in spotless conditions- sometimes Hampton Beach can feel a little gross. In all the times I’ve been to OOB- I’ve never once hesitated to put my bare toes in the sand, but on more than one occasion while visiting Hampton- I’ve spotted trash (specifically lots of Dunkin’ Donuts cups. Ugh.) strewn across the beach and eventually being picked at by seagulls before anyone bothers to pick it up.
Winner: Old Orchard Beach. As a big fan of Ocean Beach in San Diego, and it’s overall laid-back atmosphere- OOB is the closest thing to it I’ve found thus far here on the East Coast. I love the pier, I love the seaside shops and restaurants, I love the lights from the amusement park and arcades (especially at sunset)-and I really love how clean everything is. OOB may not have the beautiful scenic drive leading to Portsmouth that Hampton Beach offers, but it’s wonderful for long, relaxing walks and for taking photographs.
Nobody wants to go to a beach to relax and soak up the sun when they can’t even move without tripping over someone else- and all that traffic just to get there? Ew. While both Hampton Beach and Old Orchard Beach can get crowded (especially during popular Summer holidays like the Fourth of July), OOB is considerably less crowded than Hampton Beach at any given time. Hampton Beach’s pedestrian and automobile traffic can get so heavy that circling the boardwalk just to find a parking spot can take anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes (sometimes longer.)
If you’re lucky enough to find parking in Hampton and you’re braving the beach-side attractions on foot- be sure to stay close to your party as it’s very easy to get separated in the throngs of people, with pedestrians often spilling out into the roadways due to lack of sidewalk space.
Winner: Old Orchard Beach. While the arcade areas and the pier can sometimes get a little packed from time to time- it’s nothing like Hampton Beach’s daily overcrowding. Parking is usually easy to find (and is relatively cheap and easy, unlike Hampton Beach’s standard $20+ parking fees where you’ll be packed into a motel lot like sardines)– and you can move about freely with your friends without risking being separated from them and having to send a series of texts to try and find them.
I love fried dough, clam strips, and soft-serve ice cream as much as the next person- but I can usually only eat them for an afternoon, maximum. If I’m going to be spending a weekend at the beach, I’d like some meal options that I’m not going to regret by the time I’m heading home. OOB has plenty of seaside shacks that serve up lots of fried foods and sweet treats- and sure, a couple of decent beach-side restaurants and bars scattered here and there, too- but Hampton has a ton of great places to eat an actual meal (and the fried goods, too!) along the boardwalk and a couple of miles inland, too- like the Old Salt restaurant or the Beach Plum.
If you’re feeling a little adventurous- you can make that twenty minute drive North to Portsmouth, too- where you’ll find even more dine-in and take-out options.
Winner: Hampton Beach. I can’t recall ever having a bad meal here- be it a more healthy and filling dinner, to a quick mid-afternoon snack. The wait time might be a little long depending on where you go and how crowded it is at the time- but you won’t go hungry in Hampton. There’s simply too many options to prevent that from happening.
I don’t do a lot of shopping when I go to the beach, unless it’s the end-of-the-season sale time and I’m stocking up on discounted clothing, jewelry, or bath & beauty products. What could I possibly need to purchase, right? I usually already have my essentials and my bikini packed with me. Even still, I know many people like to shop while they’re on vacation- be it for themselves or others. Like most beaches, OOB has it’s fair share of novelty t-shirt and souvenir shops/stands- which is just fine when you’re looking for quick and cheap gifts in a pinch- but if you want something more thoughtful and maybe a bit more unique- Hampton Beach has you covered.
Amid Hampton’s own sea of cheesy and often unfunny t-shirt, caricature and airbrushing stands- there’s a few hidden gems along the boardwalk like the Deja Vu boutique and The Cow’s Ass (it’s a leather goods store. Just try to look beyond the name.) There is also a shop, Rock Palace, that used to cater to fans of classic rock, 80’s hair metal and the early 90’s grunge movement with t-shirts, collectibles, posters, etc. It’s since been taken over by Insane Clown Posse merchandise- but if you’re feeling daring- you might still be able to find some good stuff in there!
Winner: Hampton Beach. Every Fall during Hampton’s annual Seafood Festival, nearly every store puts their entire inventory on sale in order to make room for the following Summer season’s products. I like to go up and browse because you can find incredible deals on a variety of different things for a fraction of the price. It’s a great time to pick up those things that may have caught your eye in July or August- but without having to pay an arm and a leg for them.
Like the ‘SCENERY’ category- picking a winner for lodging proved to be difficult. Both Hampton Beach and Old Orchard Beach have a wide selection of oceanfront motels and beach-side bungalows that are fairly priced and tended to (meaning the rooms and the grounds aren’t gross.) To make my decision, I factored in the aforementioned crowd control. While Hampton has beautiful rooms for rent that overlook the beach and the boardwalk- getting to and from the motels can be problematic with the pedestrian traffic, and the peaceful sounds of the ocean can often be drowned out by rowdy crowds and screaming kids during and after events in the area.
Old Orchard Beach offers motels that are a short walk to and from the beach- but are also still far away enough from the actual pier and adjacent amusement park where any much needed rest and in-room relaxation won’t be disturbed. Best of all? Parking is so much easier at these locations.
Winner: Old Orchard Beach. I love to walk, so taking a brisk stroll a few blocks to get to where the action is doesn’t bother me at all when I know that I’ll be able to sleep soundly and easily in nice room conditions when I get back- and not have to worry about anything happening to my car in the motel parking lot.
The amusement park at Old Orchard Beach
When I was a little kid, one of the biggest draws to Hampton Beach was it’s indoor amusement park. It didn’t boast a roller coaster or a ferris wheel like Old Orchard Beach does- but there was a merry-go-round, bumper cars, and plenty of smaller, safer rides to keep a kid amused and entertained for hours. Hampton has since done away with that section of the boardwalk, replacing it with a casino for adults only- but the beach still hosts a couple of arcades and an updated playground right on the sand. Every Friday night throughout the Summer- Hampton also has it’s own fireworks display, which is great to watch for all ages if you can secure yourself a spot along the beach- and each Summer visitors are invited to view the annual sand sculpture contest winners- which are pretty incredible most of the time.
If you’re looking to bring your child to the water, let them play some pinball, and use whatever prize tickets they win to trade in for penny candy or a stuffed bear- then they’d probably enjoy Hampton Beach the way I did when I was a kid- but if you plan on spending any time longer than an afternoon or an evening in the area- OOB might be better for you and your family. Old Orchard Beach has an amusement park (with an old wooden roller coaster that I LOVE) and it’s own large arcade- which is perfect when you or your kids need a break from the sand and the sun for a while. Everything is within walking distance from places to eat and motels, too- which is also tremendously convenient.
Winner: Old Orchard Beach. My love of bumper cars aside, and looking at this from the perspective of someone who does not have kids of her own but has watched plenty of parents struggle with fussy toddlers while at Hampton- OOB is a lot more kid-friendly than Hampton Beach is these days. There’s more for kids of all ages to do, and it’s less crowded- which means parents aren’t losing their minds trying to keep track of their little ones as they weave in-between arcade games and carnival rides.
On the flip-side, Hampton Beach is a much better weekend option for the 21+ crowd. Old Orchard Beach has some nice little bars and pubs, including two on the actual pier itself- but Hampton also has the added bonus of the Casino Ballroom, a music venue where some pretty good artists (and some not-so-good ones, let’s be real) have performed throughout the years. With raunchy t-shirts clearly on display along the boardwalk, a popular smoke shop right in the middle of everything, multiple bars, the small casino and the Casino Ballroom easily accessible from nearly every direction- Hampton Beach is definitely the more adult-friendly option for beach-goers.
Winner: Hampton Beach, by a landslide. While I love Old Orchard Beach’s amusement park and overall relaxed look/feel, I go to Hampton when I want to have a few drinks and sprawl out in the sand with my friends and not have to worry about negatively influencing any small children within the vicinity.
Me hamming it up in OOB, 2014.
It was definitely close, but my love of Old Orchard Beach surpassed that of Hampton Beach by just a little bit. OOB is infinitely more laid-back, less-crowded, less expensive, and much cleaner than Hampton Beach presently is- which makes it my favorite destination when I’m just looking to get away and relax for a few days, but Hampton has more to offer foodies and adults looking to have a fun-filled weekend of boozing and shopping- so it really comes down to what exactly it is you’re looking for and for how long you plan to stay.
If you’re from New England and you frequent either one of these beaches- I’d love to hear your opinion. Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other two beaches in the area you think I should compare in a future post? Feel free to leave a comment or contact me!
Have a great Labor Day weekend, everyone!