A Guide to Visiting Hampton Beach
Everything you need to know about staying at Hampton Beach
"The Strip" at Hampton Beach. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Hampton Beach is honky-tonk heaven. That's right. We admit it. Skee-ball, salt water taffy, henna tattoos, bawdy T-shirts, raucous music, skimpy clothes – the beach is awash in guilty pleasures and we love them all. It's our Hampton Beach and we wouldn't trade it for all the Côtes d'Azur or Waikikis in the world.
That's not to say there aren't other attractions. Hampton Beach is a sandy strand of sun-kissed heaven perfectly suited for affordable family fun. And the $14.5 million makeover of the Seashell Stage, bath houses, information center and other amenities that took place a few years ago makes it that much more attractive. It's also a place where you can get a great meal, sleep in fantastic hotels with ocean views and indulge in a romantic getaway.
"In the last four or five years the beach has become more family oriented," says Ed Paar, chief of park patrol at the beach for 43 years.
The Seashell Stage. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
On a sunny day at the height of the summer, the sand disappears under a fantasia of colorful beach blankets and umbrellas. Frisbees and kites fill the air. The fragrance of salt water and suntan oil wafts on the sea breeze. Teenagers in tank tops, shorts and flip-flops patrol the waterfront on either side of the new Seashell Stage complex, practicing mating rituals as old as the sea.
And the new stage complex is something to see. The large wood-beamed, gray-and-white building calls to mind a Cape Cod-style cottage with a tower that holds echoes of the lifeguard stations that once dotted the coast. The new stage has a shellacked wooden floor and a cathedral, vaulted ceiling and seating for 750.
The beach has more community events than most cities and towns, beginning in June with the Sand Sculpting Competition. The Miss Hampton Beach Pageant is in July, there is a talent show in August and the summer wraps up with the Seafood Festival in September. There are also concerts of family-friendly entertainment nearly every night and fireworks Wednesday nights.
Amazing sculptures made of sand. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
But if you cross Ocean Boulevard there is entertainment of a different stripe, a strip of hotels and motels interspersed with tacky T-shirt shops, pizza palaces, fried dough stands and penny arcades. And visitors love it all.
"There's a push and pull going on as to whether it wants to be a family beach or a party beach," says Paul Sullivan, a retired teacher and police officer, who has spent summers at the beach for more than 50 years.
That push and pull is as strong as the tide. The strip is a neon-lighted land of superlatives: Sal's has the "Biggest slice of pizza on the beach" and the karaoke bar at Stacey Jane's is "world famous."
Hampton Beach has no boardwalk per se, but the ultra-wide sidewalk creates an asphalt boardwalk experience for visitors to strut their stuff. Hot rods thunder down Ocean Boulevard with stereos booming, pedestrians hoot and holler, the smell of pizza blends with fried dough, cotton candy and cologne. What's not to like?
Get into the carny spirit and have your partner's name emblazoned on your arm at Jim's Henna Body Art. Maybe drop by some of the open air T-shirt shops like Mad Maggie's Beachwear or T-shirt City where you can buy a Hampton Beach sweatshirt or something a little more, shall we say, spicy?: "My parents said I could be anything, so I became an A__hole."
The Rock Palace, which bills itself as "The only 'real' rock 'n roll store on the beach," caters to Jugalos – fans of the band Insane Clown Posse – with cigarette lighters, posters and other memorabilia.
You'll find the country's only seasonal McDonald's and time stands still at Rage's Rexall Drug (and convenience) Store, which carries wine and beer as well as beach towels and souvenirs. And don't miss the cool retro Coppertone clock out front – an Ocean Boulevard icon.
Belly up to the ice chest at Sweet Hannah's Ice Cream, Candy and Souvenirs for a pizza hat to keep the sun off and a waffle cone: vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered waffle cone pieces and caramel swirled throughout.
But eating choices aren't limited to food-stand funk. Great seafood and great food with ocean-view seating are also part of Hampton Beach chic. The Breakers Restaurant in the 100-year-old Ashworth by the Sea serves a knockout lobster bisque and arguably the best wedge salad in New Hampshire. The Purple Urchin, upstairs at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom overlooking the Seashell Stage, serves a "Seventeen Mile Cioppino" and a yummy Asian noodle salad. All the food tastes better when you can eat it and people-watch on Ocean Boulevard.
Fancy a little music? Fitz and the Tantrums and the Beach Boys are among the upcoming acts at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, which opened in 1899 and has seen the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Ramones. Local teens in the know congregate in the parking lot behind the venue to hear the shows when they're low on cash.
But Hampton Beach wasn't always this hopping. It was a sleepy backwater in 1897, when the first trolley arrived. Soon vacationers and daytrippers from Lawrence, Lowell, Manchester and Nashua made it a working-class retreat for visitors whose idea of entertainment might not be as lofty as some of the summer visitors to other waterfront towns. And it has been a haven for hard-working people on two-week vacations for decades.
Native New Englander Bitsy Cohn, a 54-year-old educator now living in Fort Collins, Colo., summered at Hampton Beach since she was a child, just as her mom did back in the day. And now, even though she lives thousands of miles away, she comes back nearly every year, bringing her own daughters.
"I lived and worked at Hampton for two summers – 1972 and '73 – and worked at McCoys and then Buzzle's Candy Store and, when I was at UNH, at McDonald's. I started the day it opened. We served 100,000 people the first week. You could stay at the rooming houses for $5 a night and your parents let you because all of their Lowell friends owned the houses. We loved the fireworks and it was cool to play games in the Casino and very cool to hang out and scope out boys at the railing out front. I think of those first summers living there as some of the best years of my life. I love everything – the ocean, the sand and the kitsch."
The cheap and other thrills are in every direction you look at Hampton Beach but you better come and get it while you still can. Some see the recent upgrades to the Seashell Stage and other improvements as the toehold of gentrification. The strips at Revere and Nantasket beaches have disappeared, shouldered out of the way by waterfront condos. Can Hampton Beach be far behind?
All You Need to Know
There is lodging for everyone's budget at Hampton Beach, starting with rental cottages that can range from $700 to $3,500 a week with the average being $1,400 a week in high season, according to Bob Preston, whose family has been in the property business at the beach for generations. There are also bed and breakfasts like the elegant Oceanside Inn for $200-$225 a night. And, of course, there are motels. For a bargain, you can stay within walking distance of the beach but not right on Ocean Boulevard in side-street establishments like the 1944-built Royal Crest Motor Inn with rates ranging from around $110 to $160 a night and the Blue Jay Motel on Ashworth Ave. from $120-$150 nightly and $750-$950 for the week. And if the ocean is where you want to be there is the Hampton House, which runs from about $200 to $250 per night in high season. And for luxury and history there is the Ashworth by the Sea, newly renovated and celebrating its centennial this year, with accommodations ranging from $199 through $399 a night.
Farr's Famous Beach Shack is renowned for its chicken wings, Sal's Pizza boasts the "Biggest Slice on the Beach" and Big Steve's Italian Sausages have their fans too, but you don't have to succumb to the first neon sign that winks at you. The beach also has some dining options for foodies who like to be waited on during their vacation. Ashworth by the Sea has three restaurants including the newly renovated Breakers Restaurant and Bar with a fine dining menu, oversized windows that are made for people and ocean watching and an upscale bar. Also on Ocean Boulevard, next to the Hampton Beach Casino, is the Boardwalk Café with a less formal atmosphere serving excellent seafood. Also great for ocean-view eating is the Purple Urchin – on the other side of the Casino. Check out the Atlantic Avenue Bangers, a selection of local shellfish with Mornay sauce served on mashed sweet potatoes. The Sea Ketch Restaurant and Outdoor Decks is a multi-level ocean-view eatery that's been a Hampton Beach mainstay for 41 years.
You don't need a meteorologist to know which way the wind blows and you don't need a map to navigate the beach, after all it's a straight line of sand, surf and fun, but knowledge of local landmarks is helpful. The center of the action is the new bath houses, seashell stage and visitors information center centrally located on Ocean Boulevard. Across the street is the Hampton Beach strip with the restaurants, fast food outlets, hotels, motels and souvenir stands stretched out for a half a mile. Behind the strip, parallel to Ocean Boulevard, is Ashworth Avenue, the "Back Strip" of delightfully small and sometimes weathered motels, hotels and bars like Wally's Pub, a favorite biker bar with live music and karaoke. Opened in 1996, it's "Still a Classic," according to the sign. Head north and you'll hit the aptly named North Beach, a favorite of surfers and the location of condos and cottages where many of the long-term renters or owners stay.
In addition to taking a plunge in the frigid North Atlantic, there are several other requirements for the full Hampton Beach experience.
Play skee-ball at the Funorama Arcade, which was built on the ground floor of the Casino Ballroom in 1905 and hasn't changed much in the intervening years. Video games have been added to the pinball machines and other pastimes that can be played to accrue tickets redeemable for a trinket, plush toy or other prize.
Skee-ball at Funorama Arcade. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Drop by for a high-carb guilty pleasure at Blink's (you gotta love the spelling) Fry Doe. Blink's has two stands under the garish orange signs along the strip and offer a variety of toppings including tomato sauce, cheese, jimmies and garlic as well as the traditional cinnamon and sugar.
What would a trip to the beach be without salt water taffy? The salt water taffy at Mrs. Mitchell's Gifts features iconic Hampton Beach images on the red, blue and white box, including Boar's Head and the Lady of the Sea statue. And you don't have to wait for Talk Like a Pirate Day to get up close and personal with the sword-wielding giant buccaneer that overlooks the fun at Buc's Lagoon Mini Golf – another must-do on your Hampton Beach vakay.
Attend a concert at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. Past summer headliners have included spliff-songster Snoop Dog, local hero ska band the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Eagles' guitarist Joe Walsh.
Yes, it really is spelled that way. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
Catch a free show at the concert on the new Seashell Stage. Click here for a complete schedule. Last, but far from least, say hi to lifeguard Jimmy Donahue. At 68, he has been keeping Hampton Beach safe for swimmers for the past 53 years. Donahue, a retired teacher who started as a guard at the beach when he was 16 and trained generations of other lifeguards during his career, is such an institution the beach's new lifeguard station is named The James W. Donahue Jr. Lifeguard Station. The station is situated in the new Seashell Stage Building on 170 Ocean Boulevard.
Not sure what to do next on your Hampton Beach visit? Drop in to to see Stella Davis, who has been telling fortunes on 117 Ocean Boulevard for the past 41 years. While the "original" Stella is on hand for much of the summer, her psychic granddaughters help out in the family seer business. (And for the record, they are all called Stella no matter what their given name). "The gift runs in the family," says Davis, who insists she gave her first reading at the age of 7. "My grandfather read the stars and my grandmother was a psychic." Her media for divination? You name it – tarot cards, crystal balls, palms, auras – Stella does it all. To get a reading, you can stop by her shop on the beach, open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the summer, or call her cell phone (yes, psychics use cell phones) at (781) 520-9545. Prices start at $10.
GOINGS-ON (updated for 2016)
Hampton Beach Catamaran Regatta
June 18-19, 2016
16th Annual Sand Sculpting Competition
June 15-18, 2016. Awards Saturday night, June 18, 8 p.m. at the Seashell Stage.
Miss Hampton Beach Pageant
July 31, 2016, 2 p.m.-5 p.m.
August 15-19, 2016, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Hampton Beach Talent Competition
August 26-28, 2016
September 9-11, 2016
There are 17 scheduled fireworks displays happening May 29 through September 10 at 9:30 p.m. Fireworks are held weekly every Wednesday during the summer, on the beach at the top of B and C Streets, beside the Atlantic Ocean. Click here for the complete schedule.
Monday Night at the Movies. Family movies starting at dusk July 11, 18, Aug 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29, 2016 at tge Seashell Stage.