Many travelers are so hell-bent on getting to Cape Cod that they often miss the slices of coastal heaven along the way. Case-in-point: Onset, Mass.
Having lived in New England my whole life, I am one of those guilty people that, until recently, missed out on this vastly underrated neighborhood in Wareham. Last week, we did not want to deal with the traffic going over the Cape Cod bridge and were in kind of a “been-there-done-that-mode” for other New England coastal destinations — as well as knowing a long trip to our first choice of going to southern Maine would not be compatible with our budget, at this time. That’s just the effect this terrible economy has on so many families. Many people we know are staying away from spending so much on gas money and $100-plus on dining out, ice cream, incidentals, etc., for such a day trip.
I researched Onset, and figured our family of four could enjoy a day there for around $60. The drive down Route 495 would be
easy, too, mostly highway and about 50 minutes from our home.
For the first-time traveler coming from the north, approaching Onset made us think twice about whether the trip would be worthwhile. While Wareham is generally an impressive community with an ideal coastal location near Cape Cod, the town does have some downtrodden areas close to Onset. Some of those areas look pretty scary.
All that is forgotten when entering the village. Out of nowhere comes this little jewel of a village with etched sidewalks, period street lighting and colorful shops and restaurants with signs and banners competing against each other. A village supermarket and hardware store add a community feel to the sleepy downtown, thus keeping locals and visitors grounded in knowing that Onset isn’t just some fabricated, consultant-driven, heavily-marketed vacation town.
Driving about a 100 more yards, we felt an increased feeling of relaxation — the kind of care-free, light and breezy sense experienced when vacationing on Cape Cod. The open landscaped, hilly green spaces with benches and a gazebo give way to the “white castle” of Onset — Onset Beach. What a beautiful sight, like a big summer playground for kids of all ages!
The quarter-mile beach with a bay location features soft sand, no waves and relatively warm water. Some might prefer a coastal beach with real ocean waves, but Onset Beach has its advantages, too. It’s almost like swimming a big lake, albeit with salt water. Kayak and canoe aficianados will also find Onset Beach ideal for their preferred recreational water activities. The beach is exceptionally clean and welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes.
Boats in the harbor, a pier, and people across the street dining waterfront at Quahog Republic and enjoying ice cream at Guido’s round out this panoramic scene that looks the poster child for the front page of a summer travel magazine beach town feature story.
The beach parking lot was full, so we drove across the street to the Union St. parking lot, paying only only $6.50 for several hours of Onset fun. Naturally, we began our day trip with the beach.
Onset Beach’s vibe is low-key and very family-oriented with few show-offs and weekend party people. Plus, even on this busy summer weekend, everyone on the beach was able to find a spot with plenty of elbow room.
In the village, the pace is equally leisurely although Marc Anthony’s Pizza (190 Onset Ave.) — apparently a local legend — gets the heavy traffic that you’d expect at a vacation town restaurant. People love their pizza and fried clams, and Marc Anthony’s, we are told, delivers quite well on both fronts. Update: we tried Marc Anthony’s for some pizza and lobster rolls, and it was absolutely fantastic! The pizza ranks right up there with the best of the North End of Boston Italian restaurants and pizzeria and the lobster rolls as substantial and tasty as many New England seafood shacks known for this local food favorite.
Affordable dining at the beachfront Stash’s (182 Onset Ave.) kept our budget in line with some delicious lobster mac and cheese, a fried seafood platter and drinks coming in at $43 – the combo was enough to amply feed and hydrate a family of four. Stash’s menu is quite impressive with sandwiches, salads, New England clam chowder, seafood platters, pizza, Greek and Italian food, and Gifford’s ice cream ( a delicious Maine-based product). We’ll be back, the diverse offerings and the spectacular beach views have that effect!
After dinner, we walked back to the village to Nana’s Ice Cream and Candy (196 Onset Ave.) for some flavorful, amply-served Richardson’s ice cream coming in at about $10 (yes, that’s right, $10 for three small and one kiddie-sized!) and fruit slices for the ride home. Nana’s is fabulous and just what the summer vacation doctor ordered — the ice cream shop has a nice old-fashioned parlor feel and the separate candy and gift shop features some nice local souvenirs, t-shirts, homemade fudge, and some old-fashioned candies you never thought you’d see again. Turkish taffy, anyone?
When leaving Onset, I kept thinking “When can we get back here?” It turns out other family members were thinking the same thing! For around $60, the Onset experience was priceless and with just as many fun things to do as more expensive New England vacation destinations. Onset, however, shares none of the bloated self-importance, windbag personalities of some other vacation towns that rest on their laurels and sell their souls for rampant commercial development and a priority to become more gentrified. Translated: that often means higher vacation costs for you.
Onset has very little pretense and perhaps too few gift and specialty shops, but that’s OK. Swimming, seafood,
ice cream and places to stroll in a quaint village more than suffice for us working-class people not asking for too much in a vacation town. Plus, don’t those beach towns with too many shops, boutiques and galleries get a little overwhelming and sometimes obnoxious? For some of us, just a few of these places will satisfy and not impede the innate quest for sun and surf.
Onset can also be much more of an extended vacation experience, too, as about a five minute walk from the beach going south will bring you to a row of historic inns across from the harbor. I checked the prices for the charming-looking Inn on Onset Bay at 181 Onset Ave., and the rates are well-aligned with budget travel — especially for waterfront lodging which can often come at an outrageous cost. Something to think about for future trips here!
Trying to be as fair and balanced as possible, Onset is, admittedly, by no means perfect as from some perspectives you see a bit of that ramshackled look. For the most part, however, this is a quaint, appealing, lively little place that is comfortable as an old shoe — and that shoe breaks in pretty quickly.
This shoe also has plenty of soul (sorry for the bad pun). For those that like these type of unassuming vacation towns coming in at a lower cost, we say consider Onset at the onset on your New England seaside community trip planning!