Cool and serene, Plum Island is an 11-mile-long barrier island off the coast of Newbury, Massachusetts. Bring your flip-flops, sun hat, and binoculars. The Essex County island is a big sandbox, with beaches covering the shoreline. The brilliant sunshine will require a hat and shades because the trees are low-growing. Don’t forget your binoculars: The bird population is interesting, migratory, and diverse.
Fun fact: Plum Island got its name from the ubiquitous wild beach plum shrubs that grow on the sand dunes. Want a taste of wild beach plum jelly? Order a jar from Calef’s Country Store. Their jelly is made with pure, natural ingredients. The slightly tart, plumy taste is a tradition along the Northeastern shore. Slather it on Wonder Bread and you have a perennial white-bread-at-the-beach favorite.
Whether you visit for a day or stay for the week, Plum Island’s laid-back vibe combined with the fresh salty air will transport you to a vacation state of mind.
1. Waterfront Beach Houses
There is nothing like the feeling of jumping into the soft, white sand right from your front porch. Rentals perched on the water are easy to find here. The Arctic Cottage, offered on Vrbo, is steps away from the cool — and sometimes very cold — New England water. The cottage sleeps 10 guests in five bedrooms. The circa 1900 structure is one of the oldest on the island.
Whether you check into the Arctic Cottage or somewhere else, the quintessential New England beachfront home sports a wrap-around porch, perfect for the guest that wants to be out of the sun but join in the fun. Imagine the scent of grilling burgers and dogs or lobster and steak, then munching down while relaxing on your porch overlooking the waves gently rolling into the sand. This is beach vacation living!
2. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Nestled along the Plum Island Sound, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a nesting habitat for migratory birds. There are several beaches available for visitors, provided it isn’t nesting season for the threatened piping plovers. When they are nesting, the refuge is open but the beach may be closed to protect the chicks.
There are short hiking paths, viewing platforms, and a mostly paved access road alongside the 3,000-plus acres of salt marsh. Hellcat Boardwalk Trail offers a mile of elevated boardwalk that makes its way through dunes, wetlands, shoreline estuaries, and brackish marshes. Additional activities here include cycling, kayaking, and shellfishing.
For a nominal fee (free if you have a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass) you can enter the park and enjoy its natural beauty. The refuge is the perfect place to set up for bird-watching (more on that below). You will encounter many enthusiastic ornithologists with binoculars dangling from their necks.
3. Sandy Point State Reservation
Tucked at the end of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is Sandy Point State Reservation. Sandy Point is only accessible through the national refuge. The good news is there are no additional fees required to park here.
The beach at Sandy Point begins at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and wraps around the island, connecting with the marsh. The beach has a varied shoreline offering swimmers and sunbathers soft sand and gentle waves. A section of the beach is studded with rocky shores perfect for climbing and surf casting (saltwater fishing from shore).
Sandy Point is a hidden gem just waiting to be explored. Parking is limited, so plan on arriving early, or biking to the beach for a stress-free visit.
Newburyport birders and ornithologists can be found toting tripods topped with long-lens cameras hiking around Plum Island, particularly in the national refuge and state reservation. Every day is a good day for bird-watching.
Bird sightings are updated weekly on the Newburyport Birders webpage. Recorded sightings of piping plovers, bald eagles, glossy ibis, great blue herons, eastern bluebirds, double-crested cormorants, and so many more make the list of regular visitors.
If you are a birding enthusiast, you will find sunrise on Plum Island brings more joy than just the dawn of a beautiful day. It brings the opportunity to play hide and seek with the ever-so-shy bird population.
For the novice birder, it is exciting to see so many wonderful flying creatures in their natural habitat. It will make getting up early one morning and grabbing a coffee and muffin to go worth the effort.
5. Bob Lobster
The parking lot, constantly packed at all times of the afternoon and evening, is a ringing endorsement of Bob Lobster. Strategically located on the Plum Island Turnpike, which is essentially the only access road to the island, Bob has been serving up coastal favorites since 2001.
You will encounter locals and visitors in the long line, but don’t worry, it moves quickly. There are plenty of picnic tables where you can munch on fried clams, fried oysters, and lobster rolls — including The Fat Lobster! The ultimate in lobster rolls, the Fat Lobster is a buttered brioche roll stuffed with lobster salad and topped with full-belly fried clams and thin, crispy onion rings. It is served with a side of perfectly crispy fries. Who can eat all that? It’s a meal for two, but you certainly don’t have to share if you don’t want to!
Look for the large, weathered ice cream cone on the sign. The shack is shared by Richardson’s Ice Cream. Their root beer float will snap you back to your childhood.
6. Plum Island Beach
Plum Island Beach is a long sandy beach on the north shore of the island. The beach faces the Salisbury State Reservation across the bay. Parking can be a bit tricky, so get there early to secure a spot. Or better yet, rent a beachfront cottage for a few days. That will give you ample time to sink your flip-flops in the warm, white sand. Plum Island Beach is a beautiful place to spend the day playing in the sand, walking the beach, and just relaxing in the sunshine.
Don’t forget about the other two beaches mentioned above: Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Sandy Point State Reservation. All of Plum Island’s beaches are fun-in-the-water oases.
7. Bike Around The Island
Love to bike, but didn’t bring your ride? Riverside Cycle can hook you up. Located in Newburyport, it’s just a short three miles to Plum Island. They offer several bike options to suit your desired riding experience. Reservations are suggested since biking on Plum Island is one of the best modes of transportation.
If you brought your bike, you can park at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, which is located on Plum Island Turnpike, separate from the refuge entrance. Then take the short ride over to the refuge. There is a nominal charge for bikers to enter the park.
Biking is one of the best ways to get to know Plum Island. You can ride peacefully around the wildlife refuge and state reservation, parking is not an issue, and you will get a gentle workout since the island is essentially flat. Pack your beach gear and a picnic lunch, then enjoy a relaxing break on the beach before biking back.
8. Historic Newburyport
Newburyport is a quaint vacation town just over the bridge from Plum Island. The Market Square Historic District, where iconic brick buildings line the streets, will transport you back to Newburyport’s heyday as a vibrant shipping and shipbuilding community.
There is lots to see and do in Newburyport, including Maudslay State Park, the Custom House Maritime Museum, the historic Plum Island Lighthouse/Newburyport Harbor Light, and the scenic Clipper City Rail Trail and Harborwalk.
9. Fish For Blue
For anglers, a visit to Plum Island is an opportunity to tackle a myriad of fishing experiences. Captain’s Fishing Parties offers whale watching, private charters, and fishing tours.
Surfcasting for stripers and boating for bluefish are popular options.
Have you ever fished for blue? The battle is invigorating. To hunt bluefish, book your fishing tour between late July and September. It will be a one-of-a-kind day chasing a real sporting fish. These strong fighters will give any angler a thrill. You could bring home the catch of the day!
More On Plum Island
Plum Island is lovely. The best way to enjoy it is to rent a cottage on the beach for a week, park your car, and walk or bike. Let the laid-back vibe and true vacation relaxation wash over you. Experiencing Plum Island with a gang of family and friends will be the highlight of your summer vacation: a week of sweet beachy memories that you will want to repeat again next year. Do keep in mind that mid-July to the beginning of August is peak season for the island pest: greenhead flies, a kind of horsefly that bites, so you may want to steer clear around that time!