WESTPORT, MASSACHUSETTS — Route 88 looks, for quite a while, like it’s heading nowhere, surrounded as it is by trees that obscure your view of anything nearby. Then you cross the bridge above the marsh, and if you glance over to your right, you’ll see Westport Pointe, the historic and captivating village that offers one of the most historically rich parts of Southeastern Massachusetts.
The marsh empties into the Atlantic Ocean, which is the backdrop for one of this region’s great treasures. A short way past the bridge, the first signs are visible for Horseneck Beach State Reservation, the popular beach that draws thousands here during the summer months, when the strong waves and cool ocean water provide a refuge from the heat.
In Massachusetts, where fall arrives by September, Horseneck Beach is a seasonal recreational area, open from May 28 until Sept. 5 — Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend. Operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, is remains well preserved, and the state recently built a new Visitors Center near the parking lot. It has public restrooms, booths where people can change into their bathing suit, and with a long dock that leads directly to the shore.
Then it’s a short walk to the ocean, where the waves of the Atlantic roll right up to your feet.
Old timers will point out the sea or clam shells found so abundantly on the sandy shore, and tell tales of when they were children and would run into those waters, put their foot down to locate a sea clam, and then reach down and pick it up. Find enough of them, and it was dinner for the night.
The beach may be beautiful, but it can be hazardous as well. “These Dunes Aren’t Made for Walking,” a posted sign warns.
“Heading for the beach, be kind to the dune plants,” the sign cautions, and closer to the beach itself, another sign warns “Keep Off the Sand Dunes,” which are covered by eel grass, used to prevent erosion.
If the warnings appear mainly for conservation reasons, there are also risks, including the fact that the dunes are a habitat for deer ticks, which can carry lime disease.
Another sign warns about the risks of swimming in rough waters.
“If you get caught in a rip current, don’t fight the current,” the notice cautions. “Swim out of the current, then to shore. If you can’t escape, float or tread water.”
The beach is cool by early October, with strong, gusty winds that made it feel even colder. But it’s still a popular spot for people who enjoy walking along the ocean, or bringing their dogs for a jog.
Horseneck Beach leads a short distance away to East Beach, which is lined with cottages across the street from the ocean, several on stilts raised well above the ground in the event of flooding — including flooding from hurricanes, the most recent being Hurricane Irene. Although it became a tropical storm by the time it reached Southeastern Massachusetts, Irene did flood out East Beach for a while.
East Beach has a causeway that leads to Gooseberry Island — no homes are here, although during World War I, the island housed a gun encampment in the event that a German warship sailed by. The end of the causeway, at the start of Gooseberry Island, is a popular spot for fishermen and for motorists who want to park and watch the sun set over the ocean.
This is definitely fishing territory; the Westport Fishermen’s Association has a Maritime building on East Beach that is home to the Horseneck Life Saving Point. But it also remains a popular tourist spot; one majestic home facing the ocean has a prominent sign out front that reads, “Summer Rentals.”
But there are also signs of the destruction that previous hurricanes have caused here, including devastating hurricanes in 1938, 1954 and 1991. There are empty foundations where homes used to be. Once a storm has destroyed the home, the owners are no longer allowed to rebuild here, considering their high vulnerability to future destruction.
Heading in the opposite direction of the causeway, East Beach leads to Westport Town Beach, which offers a view of Cuttyhunk Island across the bay. There are signs here as well of how dangerous it can be to seek paradise at a cottage on the ocean. A road on Westport Town Beach got washed out and destroyed. It simply ends, and bears off to the right to a bumpy but passable dirt road, before reconnecting to the paved road again.
Heading back down Route 88, a left turn will take motorists down to the Westport Pointe Historic District, where homes built in the 1770s remain standing today.
“Westport — the Right to Fish Community,” reads a sign posted in front of the Atlantic, and close by is the historic Paquachuck Inn, built in 1827 and still operating as a bed and breakfast today. Anyone interested in reservations can call 508-636-4398.
But even that inn isn’t as old as some of the nearby homes, many constructed in the 1700s. It’s a part of Massachusetts that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. There are few if any hints of the modern world here — minus, perhaps, the pedestrain walking down the street jabbering into a cell phone or sending a text on their Ipad.
To learn more about Horseneck Beach, call 508-866-2580.
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