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Kick Off Your Shoes in these Coastal Communities

Though the beach is the obvious attraction during a coastal vacation, the community that grows up around it is half the fun. These top destinations share breathtaking coastlines in common, but offer vastly different group experiences both on and off the water.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Charming Cape Cod, a Massachusetts peninsula that comprises 15 towns and 560 miles of shoreline, has 115 distinct beaches where visitors can sample the pleasures of the Atlantic Ocean. The vast shoreline is dotted with dunes and lighthouses, symbols for this Northern escape.

Nauset Lighthouse in Eastham and Race Point Lighthouse in Provincetown give rewarding 360-degree views at the tops of their spiraling staircases. Both were built in the 1800s and harbor tales of sunken ships and daring rescues.

Though seals hang out near several shorelines, groups have a couple of options for whale-watching. Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch in Provincetown and Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises in Barnstable offer four-hour cruises.

“Sometimes, the whales will follow alongside the boats, which offers a really close view of those majestic animals,” said Patti Lloyd of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “You can see as many as 30 during one trip.”

Family-run Art’s Dune Tours has a fleet of Suburban SUVs fitted to take on the sand. In addition to a basic tour, specialty tours include chances to fish, sail, kayak or paint a watercolor with a local artist.

Provincetown, at the far tip of the peninsula, is the most popular stop for shopping and entertainment. The bohemian seaport, where the Pilgrims first landed in the New World, boasts quirky art galleries, street performers and big-name nightclub acts.

Halfway between the tip and elbow of Cape Cod is the fishing village of Wellfleet, famous for its plentiful oyster beds. It’s possible to dig for your own along the shore, but locals leave dinner up to the professional oyster farmers in the area.

Farther south is Sandwich, the Cape’s oldest town, where groups can watch glassblowing demonstrations and tour some of New England’s most beautiful homes.

Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City is a slice of Maryland between the Atlantic Ocean and the Isle of Wight Bay. The sun rises over miles of beaches and sets bayside. The resort town features a three-mile-long wooden boardwalk lined with restaurants and shops with theme-park attractions at the southern end.

“Because we are surrounded by the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, being on the water is what we’re all about,” said Jessica Waters, communications manager for the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The waters teem with kayaks, paddleboards and tour boats, some of which journey to Assateague Island, a nationally protected park where wild horses and ponies roam free.

“Most of our groups are awed by the wild ponies, but you’ll often see deer, rare types of birds and other wildlife, too,” Waters said, adding that groups can also reach the popular island by a five-mile bus ride from Ocean City.

Each day, several boats leave the shore and head for deep-sea caverns that are home to tuna, mahi-mahi and huge billfish. Groups can charter a boat and drop their lines to compete for the biggest catch.

Activities off the water include 21 championship golf courses, some right along the sea. Meanwhile, nongolfers can peruse several boutiques that have emerged as an alternative afternoon option.

Another off-water draw is the Casino at Ocean Downs, which hosts harness racing during the summer and houses a small slot machine facility throughout the year. Recently, however, the attraction getting the most attention is the world’s first go-kart roller coaster at Jolly Roger Amusement Park. At least 40 cars at a time can race down the five-story looping wooden course named the Cyclone.

After a full day of play, groups like to pick one of several spots to enjoy the blue crab bounty of Chesapeake Bay, where fishing out the crabmeat is half the fun.