DRIVING THE ATLANTIC COAST
From Maine to the Florida Keys Along the Ocean
Driving the Atlantic coastline from Maine down to Key West is the dream of many road warriors for good reason. It's right up there with the Pacific Coast Highway, Route 66, and the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. Plus, it's perfect for pursuing various and varied segments or the entire drive of about 2,250 miles.
Passing through 14 states, the drive down America's Atlantic coast is steeped in saltwater, beaches, history, and travel. Though it would be tempting to use faster roads, including I-95 and other interstates, closer and quieter options like Route 1, Route 13, Route 17, and more await those willing to enjoy the slower lane along the coast.
For much of the drive, historic Route 1 is the closest main north-south road to the Atlantic Ocean. It was originally laid out in the 1920s on what was then called the Atlantic Highway and would go on to generally be paralleled-and sometimes replaced by I-95. At times, like in Virginia, Route 1 diverts inland and another road becomes the better option for staying on the coast.
Though Maine's section of Route 1 actually starts-or ends-up at the Canadian border in Fort Kent, it doesn't hit the Atlantic coastal region until about 200 miles later down in quaint Calais and beyond. From there, it's more than 2,000 miles of mostly coastal driving until the Florida Keys and Key West. Maine and Florida actually have the longest sections of Atlantic coast driving.
Route 1 first heads down Passamaquoddy Bay, with Canada across the water to the east, before heading a bit inland after Perry. This tends to be true for the entire coastal drive, with the road hugging the coastline for much of the route and then heading inland when geography, protected lands, or commercialism dictate.
Lots of typical postcard-perfect coastal Maine towns follow all the way down to Portland and beyond. Some are right on Route 1, while others are a short drive away along a country road. This area of Maine's coast is called "DownEast," with highlights like West Quoddy Lighthouse (the nation's easternmost lighthouse), Mount Desert Island's bustling Bar Harbor and activity-packed Acadia National Park, and lots of waterlogged towns like Eastport.
MidCoast Maine is next, with lots of equally alluring seaside stops like Searsport (home of the Penobscot Marine Museum), Camden, Rockport, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor, Bath (check out the Maine Maritime Museum), and many more. MidCoast is a great place to looks for lobster boats on the water-and "lobstah" on the menu.
Famed Freeport follows, with shopping at L.L. Bean the activity of choice for many. L.L. Bean also offers lots of mild to wild outdoors activities as well, taking advantage of their classic coastal Maine setting with possibilities like fishing, kayaking, canoeing, archery, biking, birdwatching, and more (including multisport offerings).
The greater Portland area offers Maine's "big city" coastal experience, with the performing arts, lots of festivals, and varied dining all on the menu. Nearby, Casco Bay features lots of on-water opportunities, while the rocky coastline south of Portland may offer up views of Portland Head Light from Fort Williams Park.
The southern coast of The Pine Tree State features about 30 miles of white sand beaches, classic Maine beach towns, authentic lobster shacks, and lots of lighthouses. The possibilities here include Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Biddeford, the Kennebunks (Kennebunk and Kennebunkport), Moody and Moody Beach, Ogunqiuit (look for the Ogunquit Museum of Art), Kittery, and York, America's oldest chartered city.
Historic Portsmouth offers a great way to start an exploration of New Hampshire's portion of the Atlantic coastline, with Coastal Byway Route 1A leading straight down the Granite State's ocean edge. Portsmouth is one of America's great port cities of the 18th and 19th centuries and still has a working waterfront and bustling downtown area that exudes coastal history.
Route 1B leads over a causeway to New Castle. The narrow drive loops around the island past early military fortifications, Fort Stark, Fort Constitution, and the classic Wentworth by the Sea resort.
Back on Route 1A, the pretty drive along the ocean leads through Rye and North Hampton toward Hampton. Highlights in this area include Odiorne State Park, other state parks, and great beaches, like Hampton Beach. Route 1A actually continues into The Bay State, which seems appropriate since the Massachusetts coastline features so many bays and other estuaries.
Route 1A first heads south to Salisbury Beach and Salisbury Beach State Reserve before heading inland to Salisbury and a return to Route 1. Next comes historic Newburyport and its excellent Custom House Maritime Museum.
Route 1A is easy to return to in Newburyport, with stops or diversions in Old Newbury, Cape Ann and Gloucester (home of the Cape Ann Museum), Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, and more-almost all the way into Boston. Of course, Beantown has lots of historic attractions on or near the water as well.
The best way to explore the Massachusetts coastline south of Boston is to hug the rugged coastline whenever possible. This generally means staying on Route 3A initially, and then taking Route 6A and Route 6 on the north side of Cape Cod and returning down the famed peninsula on Route 28 before rejoining Route 6 for the rest of the state's coastline.
Route 3A heads along Massachusetts Bay toward Cape Cod, passing various coastal stops and easy diversions like Rochester ("Gateway to Cape Cod"), Hingham, Cohassett, Plymouth, and more. Cape Cod features classic coastal driving along Cape Cod Bay on one side and Nantucket Sound on the other, all the way out to Provincetown and back. Route 6 and then Route 138 leads into Rhode Island along the coast.
Though there aren't many miles of coastal driving in The Ocean State, Rhode Island makes up for it with classic waterlogged stops like Newport. Highlights of this seafaring town include many mansions (and tours), the Museum of Yachting, wonderfully scenic walking along the 3.5-mile (appropriately named) Cliff Walk, shopping along cobblestone streets and on quaint wharves, and a creative culinary scene (try the chowder!)
Route 138 leads out of town on the Newport Bridge, where it's easy to join 1A along a coastline dotted with Rhode Island state parks. Many possible highlights before the state line in Connecticut might include Fort Wetherill State Park and the Beavertail Lighthouse, pristine Scarborough State Beach and the Point Judith Lighthouse at R.W. Wheeler State Beach, and more, including further fun driving along Route 1, 1A, and diversions directly to the coast.
The Constitution State features lots of large cities along the coastline as well as busy I-95. There are quieter stretches along the likes of Route 1 and 1A, as well as even smaller roads that lead out to the coast from the interstate and 1 and 1A.
Possible stops along with way include: Mystic and Old Mystic (think Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium); historic New London on the Thames River and New Haven on New Haven Harbor (both with many museums and more); Milford and its Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center; bustling Bridgeport; Stamford; and lots of public beaches and protected areas.
The Empire State is next, with various coastal drive possibilities starting at the state line near Rye and stretching down to the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, out onto Long Island, and more.
Of course, traffic can make driving some of New York's waterfront stressful. It's definitely better out on Long Island, with drives along Long Island Sound out to Southold and Orient Point or along the southern coastline on the Atlantic Ocean to Montauk and more. Quiet beaches, quaint coastal villages, and fresh seafood all await those willing to get off the beaten path a bit.
A great way to start an exploration of The Garden State's coastline is just across from Manhattan in Liberty City's Liberty State Park, which provides views of and ferries to the Statue of Liberty. Then, it's on to the Jersey Shore along the Garden State Parkway, where it's relatively easy to get off at an exit and get even closer to the ocean anywhere from Sandy Hook to Cape May.
Several roads out on the barrier islands offer great ways to get out on the ocean. Driving on Route 9 also allows easier access to the coast than does the Garden State Parkway, which features a limited number of exits.
From Bruce Springsteen's Asbury Park and quieter beach towns like Ocean Grove and Spring Lake in the north to outlying islands, small beach towns, protected areas, and Barnegat Lighthouse ("Old Barney"), there's lots to see before heading to the fun hustle and bustle of Atlantic City. Once there, Atlantic City has much more than casinos.
Atlantic City features varied gambling opportunities, lots of shopping, a thriving restaurant scene, and the classic Boardwalk. Boardwalk "collectors" will also want to check out other New Jersey boardwalks in Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights, and Ocean City, among many from north to south.
Heading south, still along the Atlantic, look for the Lucy the Elephant statue in Margate, with lots more fun kitsch to follow in classic Jersey Shore beach towns like Ocean City and Wildwood and just-inland options like Ocean View and Swainton before reaching Victorian Cape May. Known for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (RVs welcome), Cape May proper features a quaint downtown, beaches, and the Cape May Lighthouse.
Reached by the aforementioned ferry from Cape May, historic Lewes is well worth a stop before continuing south along the Atlantic. Along with the Zwannendael Museum, nearby Cape Henlopen State Park provides a natural reason to linger.
Bustling Rehoboth Beach is also worth a stop, thanks to a busy beach and the renowned beer and food offerings at Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats downtown. Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione is well-known for brewing unique craft beers and has quite a loyal following. Those who fall in love with his beers will also want to head to his brewery in Milton, about 15 miles inland.
The drive down US 1 along Delaware Seashore State Park is one of those memorable undeveloped stretches along the Atlantic Ocean that will linger long in the minds of lucky drivers and passengers. Bethany Beach, South Bethany, and Fenwick Island State Park and the town of Fenwick all provide a fond farewell to The First State.
Route 1 becomes Route 528 in The Old Line State. After relatively quiet stretches of driving, Ocean City attacks the senses from every direction with friendly beach kitsch. Those who want to escape modern Ocean City need look no further than downtown's historic Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum, which is situated in an original life saving station.
It's also easy to escape busy Ocean City by simply heading out to Assateague Island, with Assateague State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore to its south. To get to Virginia, coastal drivers will need to head down Route 113 to Route 13 through many small "Delmarva" towns (Delmarva is short for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia).
The Virginia portion of the Eastern Shore is bisected by Route 13, but it's easy to divert to the coastline for out-and-back Old Dominion adventures. The first such diversion comes quickly, with a left-hand turn on Route 175 leading to Chincoteague.
Famed for wild horses and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the Chincoteague area features yet another protected area that makes the drive down the Atlantic coast so special. Plus, local blue crabs, oysters, and other fresh seafood mean drivers don't hit the road hungry.
Back on Route 13, historic Onancock on the Chesapeake Bay is just to the east of the road, where regular ferry service leads out to Tangier Island in the middle of the bay. Further south, small towns are found on both sides of the highway, including quaint Quinby out on the Atlantic coast and the perfectly named town of Oyster.
The Eastern Shore ends abruptly at the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which was an engineering wonder when it opened in 1964 and is still a stunning drive today. Back on mainland Virginia, coastal drivers have the option of exploring various Hampton Roads-area attractions in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and more-or continuing south into North Carolina by joining Route 17.
The Tar Heel State's portion of the Atlantic coastline is as varied as it gets, thanks to barrier islands, waterfront towns and cities, fresh seafood, and lots of activities options. Route 17 serves as the main artery along the coast, with other roads leading directly to the oceanfront.
Made up of four islands stretching 125-plus miles along the northeast coastline of North Carolina, the Outer Banks feature some of the most remote tracts of undeveloped beaches anywhere in the country-but they're still easily accessible through a network of highways, bridges, and ferries. Outer Banks activities can include sunbathing, nature excursions, kiteboarding, hang gliding, fishing, golf, scuba diving, and much more. There's also the Wright Brothers National Memorial marking the brothers' manned 1903 flight; Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; the popular North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (one of four along the state's coastline) near charming Manteo; and The Lost Colony, a drama performed outdoors since 1937.
Known as North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks, the Crystal Coast features 85 miles of gleaming beaches stretching from Cape Lookout. Highlights of a visit include the quiet Cape Lookout National Seashore (with its famed ferry, lighthouse, and 56 miles of protected beaches); the wild horses of Shackleford Banks; Fort Macon State Park; the North Carolina Maritime Museum; and the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
The gems of the Crystal Coast are Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Harkers Island, Morehead City, and quaint Beaufort. Fishing and other watersports are popular, as is enjoying fresh catches at local restaurants.
The Cape Fear riverfront town of Wilmington and diverse beach destinations of Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach provide a perfect coastal catch. It starts with historic downtown Wilmington, where there's the USS North Carolina battleship, vintage and boutique shopping, and varied dining. Out on the nearby beaches, Wrightsville is known for surfing, stand up paddle boarding, and nature tours, while Carolina Beach features a classic boardwalk and a huge fishing fleet. Kure Beach has a new oceanfront park, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, and the Fort Fisher Historic Site.
Route 17 heads southwest out of Wilmington, with smaller roads leading out to several beach communities. These include Oak Island, Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Sunset Beach, which is near Calabash, home of world-famous fried seafood restaurants.
From the bustling Myrtle Beach area in the north and down through historic Charleston to Hilton Head Island in the south, the meandering coastline of South Carolina beckons with a wide variety of alluring options for visitors. Route 17 also connects the coastal dots of the pretty state, making it easy to explore many of the state's waterlogged treasures.
The Myrtle Beach area features an array of pursuits for those looking to go with the flow-or get a bit off the beaten track. Famed Ocean Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach is the "Birthplace of the Shag." Myrtle Beach proper is just south of shag central, with the 196-foot SkyWheel, the renovated Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade, Wonderworks Science Center, and always-evolving shows at Myrtle Beach's famed theaters.
The short drive from Route 17 east to Murrells Inlet is well worth the diversion. Known as the "Seafood Capital of South Carolina," Murrells Inlet has long been the spot to head for fresh seafood and great views.
Two more must-stops come a bit further south: historic and sandy Huntington Beach State Park and pretty Brookgreen Gardens. Litchfield and Pawleys Island come next, with the classic Hammock Shops Village being the first stop for most.
Once back on the mainland and Route 17, it's a quiet ten-mile drive through the woods to the charming waterfront town of Georgetown. When heading further south, this part of Route 17 is where visitors will start seeing sweetgrass basket makers at work in rustic little stands along the road. The highway's official name along this stretch is actually "Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway."
It's a short drive over the sparkling Arthur Ravenal Bridge, which opened in 2005 and replaced the fabled 1929 and 1966 versions. At about 2 ½ miles, it's the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. Route 17 runs right through the Charleston peninsula, where there's likely more world-class history, culture, shopping, and dining per square mile than any other city in the nation. Highlights here have to include: historic homes (several open to the public); carriage tours; the Gibbes Museum of Art; shopping along King Street; truly world-class dining; several nearby plantations; and Folly Beach that all provide a sense of the Lowcountry and Atlantic Ocean lifestyle.
Back out on Route 17 and beyond, Beaufort is next. Highlights of this bucolic town might include the Federal-style John Mark Verdier House Museum; the Beaufort Arsenal Museum; lots of private historic homes simply found by wandering the pretty streets; and nearby Port Royal and Parris Island (of Marines fame).
Historic Bluffton is also well worth a stop on the way to Hilton Head Island. The Heyward House Historic Center is the place to go for insider info on the town, including fresh seafood right off the docks from the Bluffton Oyster Company-established in 1899 and featuring fresh May River oysters in-season.
Hilton Head Island is the final coastal Palmetto State destination. Utilizing forward-thinking development techniques and offering environmentally-oriented attractions and activities long before "green" development and travel were trendy, Hilton Head Island is popular with coastal travelers for good reason. Possibilities here include the excellent Coastal Discovery Museum, horseback riding, climbing the red-and-white Harbor Town Lighthouse, kayaking, one of many varied "dolphin" boat tours, and exploring peaceful Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge (located just before the bridge onto the island).
Though it's short, The Peach State's portion of the Atlantic coastline is as sweet as a Georgia peach come summer. It starts with riverfront Savannah, featuring lots of pretty squares, the Cotton Exchange and other historic buildings and museums, walkable River Street, and nearby Tybee Island.
Route 17 out of Savannah and down the coast is a much better choice than I-95. Lots of protected islands are to the east, including Ossabow Island, Sapelo Island, and Cumberland Island. In between, St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, and more are all popular diversions before reaching the Florida State Line.
The Sunshine State features virtually uninterrupted coastal driving with Route 1 and Routes 1A and A1A providing direct access to the Atlantic Ocean and, as with most of the route from Maine, much more enjoyable driving than out on the interstate.
Some Florida drivers may choose to stay to the east of downtown Jacksonville by heading out to historic Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, taking Route A1A and other smaller roads down to Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and beyond to the south. Route A1A generally hugs the coast down to historic St. Augustine's downtown area and beaches, past classic Marineland of Florida and many beach towns down to Daytona Beach. Daytona's kitschy commercialism and auto racing heritage are still prevalent, plus the beach is one of several in Florida where driving on the strand's packed sand is allowed in spots.
Next, Route 1 and smaller coastal roads lead out to the Canaveral National Seashore, Kennedy Space Center, and more, with Route A1A then leading to smaller beach towns and several protected beach areas. Larger cities along Route 1 and A1A then dominate the coastline, with Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, and Miami among many options for urban saltwater pursuits.
Those interested in a different coastal experience from anything along the east coast can head to Everglades National Park on Route 9336. The drive out to Flamingo on Florida Bay is truly unforgettable. Otherwise, Route 1 leads to the still-classic Florida Keys and the end of the coastal drive from Maine.
The Florida Keys are a singular destination unlike anywhere else in the word, offering one of many iconic United States drives. Watersports, seafood, history, and more await Florida Keys explorers at various stops, including Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and more. And, of course, Key West is truly at the end-or beginning-of Atlantic coast driving at Mile Zero.