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Two communities flank the spot where the Merrimack River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. To the north is Salisbury, a nostalgic, family-friendly beach town. To the south sits Plum Island, a breathtaking barrier beach that embodies the natural beauty of the North Shore. 

Photograph by Marie Christiane/shutterstock

Together, they create a prime spot for summer visitors who want an accessible day trip or weekend destination, but have no interest in joining the crowds thronging to Cape Cod.

“The natural beauty of the area is something people appreciate, and there’s plenty to do,” says Nate Allard, interim president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce. “In this concentrated area, you’ve got all that.”

Salisbury first gained prominence as a beach resort town in the 1860s. The waterfront stretch boasted carousels and roller coasters, cottages and hotels, and concert venues where names like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra performed. The town’s fame as a summer destination began to fade in the 1960s, but echoes of it remain in the charming Salisbury of today. 

Everyone asked about Salisbury almost immediately mentions Joe’s Playland, an old-fashioned arcade that has been around since the town’s heyday. Featuring both classic and modern games, it appeals as much today as it always has. 

“It’s a generational thing—you went there with your grandparents and now you take your kids,” says Rachel Abdulla-Sayer, a lifelong Salisbury resident whose family owns Joe’s Playland. “It has a lot of nostalgia for people.”

The beach also stands out, even in a region known for sand and swimming. Salisbury Beach runs along nearly the entire eastern edge of town, offering miles of easy access. In the central stretch, a newly built boardwalk offers the chance to stroll and check out the shops and restaurants that line the street. 

Illustration by Haley Nickola

At the southern end, where the Merrimack River joins the ocean, the Salisbury Beach State Reservation offers plentiful public parking and campsites for those who want to extend their stay beyond just a day. 

When you get hungry, there are options ranging from food stand fried dough near the beach to high-end Italian cuisine. Grab some chowder and a cocktail at The Deck and watch the boats cruise the river, enjoy a heaping plate of pasta at Capri Seaside Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria, head to Seaglass for endless ocean views, or pick up some lobster tacos at Groundswell Café. 

“Salisbury is a great combination of being able to get fresh air and beach time while you can also participate in these fun activities,” says Allard.

Across the river, Plum Island is defined by its natural beauty. 

Photograph by Christine Manning/shutterstock

“It’s just gorgeous beaches and trails and birdwatching and beachcombing,” says longtime resident Susan Grillo. “It’s a beautiful place to spend the day.”

The Plum Island Turnpike connects the island—which includes parts of Newbury, Newburyport, and Ipswich—to the mainland. As you approach along the turnpike, keep an eye out on the right for the somewhat eerie, currently empty “Pink House.” According to local lore, the famous house ended up in the marsh when a man trying to spite his ex-wife by building her an isolated home with saltwater plumbing.

Turn right at the end of the road to enter the 4,700-acre Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which covers the majority of the island. Though the refuge is known for its exceptional birdwatching, you don’t need to know the difference between ospreys and ibises to enjoy the area. The beautiful beach provides breathtaking views, and trails wend through marshland, maritime forest, sandy dunes, and even cranberry bogs. Two observation towers offer panoramic views along the coast. The refuge’s popular Hellcat Marsh Loop Trail was recently renovated and is now fully wheelchair accessible. 

To truly explore the length of the island, consider bringing a bike along to avoid the possibility of summer traffic and parking challenges, suggests Tyler Thompson, general manager of the Blue Inn, a waterfront hotel adjacent to the refuge (which offers free bikes to guests). 

Parker River is home to an abundance of wildlife. Photograph by Mikhail Bogdanov/shutterstock

Though nature is the heart of a visit to Plum Island, several restaurants offer a chance to relax and refuel. Bob Lobster has an outdoor, beach-shack vibe and a unique variety of lobster rolls (wasabi lobster, anyone?), the Plum Island Grille serves up Mediterranean-influenced fare with breathtaking sunset views, and the Plum Island Beachcoma is a local favorite watering hole. 

Between the beaches, the natural beauty, and the welcoming atmosphere, the region might have you wondering if you really want to leave. Grillo certainly doesn’t. 

“Every time I think about selling my house, I just can’t do it,” she says. “It’s just a beautiful place.”