5 U.S. Beaches You Can Get to Without a Car

Beaches with a car - Chicago's Oak Street Beach
Flickr, Tom Gill

Summer may be winding down, but there are still a few weekends left to spend at the beach. Rather than sit in traffic or rent an expensive car, you can ride public transportation to many beaches in the U.S. Seasonal routes are especially likely to be popular, so go early and pack light.

Boston – CapeFLYER train to Cape Cod
Reintroduced this summer, the CapeFLYER train goes every weekend from Boston out to Hyannis, connecting to ferries for Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and buses up and down Cape Cod. Fares are from $18 from South Station, with a few bucks’ savings if you buy round trip. You can bring a bike, get concessions onboard and get free Wi-Fi. The train will run through Columbus Day, October 14.

Chicago – El train to Oak Street Beach
Not everyone thinks of this city smack in the midwest as a beach town, but thanks to Lake Michigan, there are more beaches around Chicago than Bermuda. There are many to choose from, but Oak Street Beach is the most central with the most spectacular skyline view. It’s a few blocks from the El train at Clark and Division, though a bus up Lake Shore Drive will get you there closer. Beaches are free and open until Labor Day, but you can enjoy the water views year round. CTA fares are $2.25, with deductions for transit cards.Los Angeles – Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica
While it’s a major car city, there are ways to get to Santa Monica and Venice Beach from downtown Los Angeles without wheels. The Big Blue Bus serves all of Santa Monica and connects to Venice Beach as well. Fares are just $1, with day passes available. LA Metro has rapid buses to Venice Beach, with fares from $1.50. A new light rail line will connect Santa Monica to downtown LA, getting you on the beach even faster.

New York – A train to Far Rockaway
New Yorkers are lucky to have lots of options for sand and swimming, from Brooklyn‘s Brighton Beach to Long Island‘s Jones Beach, and Rockaway Beach in Queens has long been an urban favorite. While it suffered a lot from last year’s superstorm Sandy, it’s back in a big way, with many boardwalk concessions reopened and a new boutique hotel. A $2.50 subway fare gets you there on the A train, and there’s also a weekend-only ferry from downtown Manhattan if you’d like a more scenic (and spendy, at $20 one way) ride.

Washington, D.C. – DC2NY bus to Delaware beaches
While a bit much for a day trip, budget bus company DC2NY offers seasonal shuttles to Delaware‘s Rehoboth (one of Dr. Beach‘s favorites in the country) and Dewey beaches from Washington, as well as Wilmington and New York. The trip takes about 2½ hours, leaving Friday night and weekend mornings through Labor Day. Fares are $39 each way, but you do get Wi-Fi, a power outlet and a bottle of water.

What are your favorite beaches to visit without a car?

Let’s Bring Capitalism To America’s Beaches

cape cod beachAmerica is a paradise for consumers. We can satisfy just about any consumer desire that strikes our fancy, even if it’s 3 a.m. on a holiday weekend. The one big exception to this rule is on our beaches, where most of the time we’re forced to lug coolers, chairs, umbrellas, beach toys and anything else we’ll need. There are some exceptions to this rule, but at many beaches around the country municipal restrictions prohibit entrepreneurs from renting chairs and umbrellas on the beach or selling food or drinks.

This point was driven home for us on a recent visit to the Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS) in Massachusetts. The CCNS is a glorious 40-mile stretch of sand that encompasses six beaches. We were there in late August – peak season – and had to park about a mile away from the entrance to Marconi Beach. I pulled up to drop off our gear – we had no chairs or umbrellas – so it wasn’t that much effort to carry our cooler and my children’s beach toys.

But other people, particularly seniors, who were schlepping all kinds of stuff looked like they were ready to pass out from the exertion of hauling their gear in the heat. There are no chairs or umbrellas for rent at this beach and I didn’t see any food or drink for sale. The result of this dynamic is that 90 percent of beachgoers cluster right at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the parking lot.

Right at the bottom of the stairs the beach was absolutely jam packed with people so close that their towels practically touched. I know that some like to people watch and be where the action is, but I was happy to keep walking for about ten minutes to reach a spot where we had the place all to ourselves. The video that accompanies this post illustrates the crazy dynamic of this beach – it’s enormous but 90 percent of it is empty because people don’t want to haul their gear very far.

beach cafe with pretty girlThe weird dynamic at this and many other American beaches is in stark contrast to the way beaches are set up in many other parts of the world. We spent several weeks in the Greek islands earlier this year, and there, all of the most popular beaches have either chairs and umbrellas for rent at a reasonable price or cafes and tavernas with the same – right on the beach.

I’m usually the last person to argue for public spaces to be given over to commercialization. In fact, I get really sick of how we’re constantly bombarded with advertising and sales pitches here, even when we’re going to the bathroom in some cases. But I have to admit: I love having the option of renting a lounge chair and umbrella at a beach. And if there is reasonably priced food and drink available – even better.

If you’re visiting a beach close to your home, bringing your own gear is less of a pain, but when you visit a beach on vacation, bringing your own chairs, umbrellas and cooler isn’t very practical.

In late May, we were at a beach bar near Lecce, in Italy, where the lounge chairs and thatched roof shelters were free if you ordered a meal. In Italy, you can always eat well and I had a linguini with clam sauce dish that was out of this world for 7€, right from the comfort of my beach chair. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, but couldn’t help but wish we had the same sort of beach café culture here in the U.S.

That said, I do like my peace and quiet at the beach, so I am not enamored of countries that allow roving vendors to aggressively hawk their wares on the beach. And beach bars that play music so loud that you can’t hear the waves are a plague. No, I don’t want to turn our beaches into shopping malls or discos, I just want to have the option of not hauling chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. With our economy still a mess, municipalities around the country should be thinking about how to create opportunities for entrepreneurs that want to fill this void.

The Southern Road: The Next Bend In The Road

In Alabama, they say that Huntsville has the intellect; Birmingham has the money; Montgomery has the power; and Mobile has the bay.

Soon enough, Mobile also will have airplanes, which will be built at a factory that Airbus plans to open in 2016. And from there, the same folks that brought you the southern auto industry hope they can develop a southern aviation corridor.

And while it’s still going to be a leap to get from here to there, the South is where the Wright Brothers flew their first flight (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), where countless thousands of Air Force pilots have been trained, and where there’s already a small but growing aviation industry, in places like Columbus and Batesville, Mississippi.

But let’s get back to Mobile. I drove down on an August Saturday from Birmingham, a four-hour drive that’s legendary in Alabama for its tedium. (Actually, if you break it up with a visit to Peach Park, and you stop for green boiled peanuts and to see Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace in Georgiana, it isn’t that bad.)

Compared with the rest of the Deep South, Mobile is a city apart. For one thing, it’s on breathtaking Mobile Bay, which is shaped like an inverted U, with Mobile sitting at the top of the upside U.In appearance, and atmosphere, Mobile is much more like New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities than it is like other places in the South. It has the same shotgun homes as New Orleans and the same kind of tall buildings in its downtown. Like New Orleans, Mobile is an important port, and it’s also more Roman Catholic than Bible Belt.

But Mobile shares something with the auto towns across the South: determination. Airbus’ announcement this spring that it would build the A320 in Mobile was the culmination of more than a decade of work to attract an airplane factory. “We’ve had a long time to get ready,” says Bill Sisson, the executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, who joined a big cadre of local, state and national officials to attract the Airbus plant.

Originally, Mobile thought it was going to be home to tanker planes, built for the U.S. Air Force, a contract that Airbus won and subsequently lost to Boeing. Then, when all hope was gone, Airbus came through with a project that will be built not far from downtown, at Brookley Field. (My friend George Talbot, political editor of the Mobile Press-Register, is the authority on all things Airbus. You can read his archive here.)

Brookley opened as a commercial airfield in 1929, attracting notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In 1938, the Army Air Corps bought the property and established a base that remained open until 1969, when it was the largest closure at the time in military history.

Brookley became a private and cargo aviation complex (commercial traffic is handled by Mobile Regional Airport, a few miles away). There are 4 million square feet of industrial space, and 70 companies at the aeroplex, with nearly 4,000 people working there. But Airbus, needless to say, will be its biggest prize.

We rode up a tiny elevator and then climbed up to the control tower to survey the scene. The view is breathtaking. The runways and green fields spread out below us, the bay to our right, downtown on the horizon, and the ocean in the distance behind us. It was too hazy to see very far, but I was assured that when the skies are clear the view stretches for miles.

In front of us was the site where the Airbus factory will be built. It will be using the runways at Brookley to test its planes, which it will be able to deliver to customers such as Jet Blue and Delta without having to ferry them across the Atlantic. It’s likely that passengers will be flying on these American-built Airbus jets by the end of the decade.

Already, Mobile is seeing an influx of Airbus personnel, French and German, who have come over for meetings and to take a look around the South. They’re a subject of curiosity for restaurant staff like Justine, our server at Felix’s Fish Camp, who told us she’d noticed some Airbus business cards being passed around by some of her customers.

“It’s going to bring a lot of business,” she said. “I think that’s awesome. I’ve been waiting tables for a long time. Wherever the money is at, I guess.” She was excited to hear she could already submit her job application at AirbusAmerica.com.

Airbus already has an engineering center not far from Brookley, which opened back when it looked like Mobile would be getting the tanker plant. Many of the newcomers are drawn to the quaint towns around Mobile, such as Fairhope, which sits on the other side of Mobile Bay.

I spent an evening and the following day exploring Fairhope, and it gave me the same sense of peace and contentment I feel when I’m on Cape Cod.

Along with its charming downtown, decorated with flowers that change year around, Fairhope, population 15,000, has a quarter-mile long fishing pier where families gather to catch fish and crab, and watch the stunning sunsets.

Marvin Johnson, a retired school principal from Mobile, invited me to fish with him and his family. I hauled in a fish too small to keep, while I basked in the vivid colors of the sky, watched pelicans fly across the horizon, and looked at the motorboats humming quietly past.

Soon, that sky will also feature gleaming Airbus jets. Perhaps Justine will be building them rather than waiting tables. And if it’s anything like the impact of the automobile industry on the rest of the South, Mobile will find itself in a new league. Says Sisson: “The world will be looking at Mobile, instead of Mobile looking out at the world.”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

The Brookley Aeroplex: http://www.brookleyaeroplex.com/index.php

Fairhope: http://beautifulfairhope.com/

Video: Great White Shark Drafts Sea Kayaker

There have been a number of great white sightings in Cape Cod of late, but first-time sea kayaker Walter Szulc, Jr. got a closer look than most while paddling at Nauset Beach on Saturday. He safely made it to shore, and the beach was closed. On Sunday, three great whites were spotted in the region, the largest reaching up to 18 feet in length. [UPDATE: Scientists are now disputing the species following Szulc, which may have been a harmless basking shark, but have confirmed the presence of great whites in the region].

Scientists say the sharks are drawn to the area because of the growing seal population, and are monitoring beaches via aircraft. Researchers are tagging the sharks to aid with further study, as they’re on the endangered species list. The following YouTube clip shows a close encounter of the worst kind.


Megabus branches out to Cape Cod

If you’re still planning a summer escape and want to save some gas money, here’s some good news: Megabus will now send some of its blue, double-decker buses to Cape Cod. Known for offering fares as low as $1 and having free Wi-Fi onboard, Megabus will now make two daily round trips from New York to the Ocean Street Docks in Hyannis, Massachusetts (with a stop in Providence along the way). From the docks, travelers can hit a nearby beach, find sailing and fishing charters, or connect to island ferries for trips to places such as Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard.

Fares are still up for grabs as low as $5 in July, but the cheap seats probably won’t last long. Travelers who don’t live in New York can connect to the hub from locations all along the East Coast and in some Midwestern and Southern states – just be prepared for a potentially long road trip (the route from New York to Providence alone takes over five hours).

If taking to the skies is a better option, JetBlue also began seasonal service between New York and Martha’s Vineyard last week. The airline will send up to five weekly roundtrip flights on the route throughout the summer, with roundtrip fares being offered for as low as $147.

[Photo by Laura Padgett / Flickr]