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Fall Boating Destinations

New England boaters treasure the autumn months. The air is usually clear and dry, the weather a fantastic combination of warm days and cool nights, and the crowds disappear, leaving waterways and marinas less crowded than during the busy summer months. It’s the perfect time to get out and explore some new and exciting destinations.

Here are four harbors you ought to visit, especially in the upcoming autumn boating season.

Hull, Massachusetts

Hull, Mass. Located at the end of a five-mile-long, sandy peninsula (which includes the famous Nantasket Beach), the little town of Hull sits at the southern edge of Boston Harbor, and is a great place from which to explore the many small islands, inlets and fishing spots of Massachusetts Bay.

Armed with a good chart, boaters can safely explore the inner regions of Hull Bay: World’s End, the Weir River, as well as Hingham Bay and the Weymouth Rivers. Hull is also within easy striking distance of other day trip destinations, such as Cohasset, Hingham, Scituate, Marblehead, Salem and even Provincetown. And Stellwagen Bank, famous for its whales and fishing, is roughly 20 miles east. And of course, there’s the Boston Harbor Islands National Park—an incredible resource for boaters. Many of the islands in and around the harbor are open to the public, and you can even camp on Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells and, in 2013, Peddocks Island.

Visiting mariners can tie up at a guest slips at one of Hull’s full-service marinas. The two most popular are Sunset Bay Marina (Tel 781-925-2828, VHF Channel 07) and Steamboat Wharf Marina (Tel 781-925-0044, VHF Channel 07). Sunset Bay offers some 170 slips and moorings, services including showers and restrooms, washers and dryers and fish cleaning stations, and is just a short walk to Nantasket Beach. Steamboat Wharf has limited guest dockage, but is within walking distance of the beach, many restaurants, a laundromat, grocery store and public restrooms.

Great seafood is on almost every menu up and down the beach in Hull. Some good places to visit include Local 02045 ((781) 773-1253), which also has a popular bar; Jake’s ((781) 925-1024), noted for its lobster roll; Paragon Grill and Surf ((781) 925-4500), which does a nice Sunday brunch; and Marvels Lunchbox ((781) 925-4614), with great fish sandwiches and fruit-infused cornbread.

Newburyport, Massachusetts

Located at the mouth of the mighty Merrimack River, historic Newburyport is a great place to wander ashore, admiring the Colonial and Gilded Age buildings and the many fine shops and cafes along the cobblestoned streets.

Most New England boaters know that the entrance to Newburyport’s protected harbor goes through The Bar, where the Merrimack River enters Massachusetts Bay: conditions are always tricky here, so pay attention. Inside the Bar, the boat traffic is always heavy. Smaller boats can also explore the winding rivers and creeks of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on the western edge of Plum Island, an area filled with birds and other wildlife.

Boating visitors to Newburyport can’t go wrong by calling Newburyport Marinas, which offers a choice of four separate full-service marine facilities in the town. There is the Newburyport Harbor Marina, with 70 slips and a fully stocked marine store; 65 slips at Hilton’s Marina, a short walk from town; 160 slips at the Windward Yacht Yard, with slips on both sides of the Route 1 bridge; and 225 slips in the Newburyport Boat Basin. Call (978) 465-9110 or on VHF Channel 74 to find just the right stopover spot for your needs.

The marina concierge can also help arrange daytime excursions, such as whale-watching trips out into Massachusetts Bay, kayaking on Plum Island or yoga and massage, and make recommendations for shopping or dining expeditions into town.

Speaking of dining, don’t miss the fine seafood and waterfront views at Michael’s Harborside (978-462-7785), one of the better seafood places on the Massachusetts coast, especially if you’re in need of a full lobster dinner or some of the local fried clams. The Purple Onion (978-465-9600), a downtown cafe, offers soups, salads and wraps made before your eyes.

The Brine Oysters, Crudo + Chops (978-358-8479) is a hip, elegant place downtown with fresh oysters and all kinds of other delights from carpaccio to sushimi to daily dock specials. Some of the best views of the harbor, along with delicious seafood and American fare, can be found at VASA Waterfront Kitchen & Bar (978-358-1700), located on Rings Island on the New Hampshire side of the Merrimack.

Rockport, Massachusetts

During the busy summer season, most boaters avoid Rockport’s waterfront: it’s always crazy busy with limited dock space for visiting boaters. But once past Labor Day, spaces open up and all the attractions of this historic little town on the edge of Cape Ann await your visit.

Sandy Bay, just outside Rockport Harbor, is protected from the northeast by a semi-submerged 1.2-mile long breakwater located just north of Straitsmouth Island and west of Pigeon Cove. When approaching the Rockport area, you must pass either to the north or south of this breakwater. The entrance channel is 26 yards wide, with a depth of 8 to 10 feet, so there’s plenty of depth for most vessels.

There is a nice anchorage to the northwest of Bearskin Neck off of Front Beach (no fees). One caveat – if the wind is blowing strong from the east or northeast, the anchorage can be uncomfortable or even dangerous. Those approaching from the east and south should exercise caution, especially in fog or when navigating the narrow cut between Avery Ledge and Straitsmouth Island.

To help find a slip or mooring space, contact the Rockport Harbormasters on VHF Channel 9 or call them at (978) 546-9589.

Once you’ve got the boat tied up, Rockport is a town made for exploring, A working lobsterman’s port and a longtime artists colony, the atmosphere in this little village is eclectic, tolerant and slightly wacky. But it’s also a mecca for tourists, and lots of shops and galleries await. The main tourist drag in town in Bearskin Neck, which extends out into Sandy Bay.

You will not go hungry in Rockport, especially if you love seafood. Top of the list (and it’s mostly a tie for first) goes to Roy Moore Lobster Company (978-546-6696) on Bearskin Neck. In addition to the crustaceans, you’ll find stuffed clams, clam chowder and fresh fish. Nate’s at Front Beach (978-546-0055) just back from the harbor is another jackpot for seafood lovers, in a casual, family oriented dining room. Brackett’s Oceanview (978-546-2797) overlooks the main harbor and offers wonderful lobster casserole and baked scrod dishes. For those times when you’ve had enough seafood, try the many variations of hot dogs at Top Dog (978-546-0006) which also sells some killer fried clams. And for dessert, leave room for a visit to Helmut’s Strudel (978-546-2824), which has the best pastries this side of Vienna.

Onset Bay, Massachusetts

Onset is a destination waiting to be discovered by more boaters. Just off the western entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, Onset offers easy access to dozens of harbors in Buzzard’s Bay and Cape Cod Bay, along with secluded islands, beaches and great fishing spots. The town of Onset features some lovely old Victorian homes, dating to those times when trains once brought tourists to the area, long before the Cape Cod Canal opened up that peninsula to visitors.
Access to Onset’s well-protected harbor is gained via a winding channel off the Cape Cod Canal’s west entrance, just north of Widows Cove and Hog Neck at daymarker QG “21.” Remember to account for the swift current in the Canal as you make your turn into the channel. There is a designated federal anchorage with five to 15 feet of water between Wickets and Onset islands, but there are plenty of moorings and slips available as well.

Stonebridge Marina, just a short walk from the village center, on Broad Cove, is primarily for power boats 35 feet and under, although it also maintains four deep-water moorings. You can rent a boat here, too. The marina is home to the Stonebridge Bar and Grill, which specializes in seafood, grilled steaks and Italian dishes. Guests are also welcome to use one of the marina’s complementary gas grills.

A bit farther south and east, Onset Bay Marina is a full-service, year-round facility that can accommodate vessels up to 120 feet, with slips, moorings and valet rack storage. Transient slips, moorings and urgent service is also available, along with gas and diesel, WiFi, ice, cable, and a picnic facility with gas grills. Lastly, guest slips and moorings are sometimes available at the Point Independence Yacht Club, tucked in between the 2 marinas. The club offers reciprocal privileges to members of other yacht clubs.

If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, there are several Victorian-era inns and bed-and-breakfasts from which to choose. These include the cozy Inn at Onset Bay (508-295-1126), which offers yoga classes, and the Oak Crest and Anchor Inn (508-295-8763), once used as the set location for the TV movie “The Kennedys of Massachusetts.”

Dining options are plentiful, too. Directly on the water is Stash’s Onset Beach (508-291-7200), which serves New England “clam shack” fare with outdoor and indoor seating overlooking the beach and the Town Pier.

Just across the street, the hip, happening Quahog Republic (508-295-9300) is a haven for lovers of lobster rolls, fish-and-chips, raw oysters and, of course, stuffed quahogs. If you hanker for delicious thin-crust pizza, along with subs, pasta, steamed clams or fried onion rings, Marc Anthony’s (508-295-5956) popular pizzeria is also a few steps from the wharf.