The term “majestic” hardly does justice to the landscape at Crane Beach, Mass. The white sand beaches stretch out for nearly seven miles along both sides of Castle Neck, while the wind-swept dunes roll down to Ipswich Bay. About an hour north of Boston, it’s been dubbed “one of the most beloved and picturesque beaches in all New England.”
In the early 1920s Crane Beach became the grand summer estate owned by Chicago industrialist Richard Telle Crane, Jr. However, the first people who lived on the land now known as The Crane Estate were first inhabited by the Agawam Native American tribe. They chose the hill because it was the highest point in the area, gave good protection and smoke was easily seen from the top by other tribes. In the early 1600s English settlers took full advantage of fresh water, waterpower, excellent fishing, and transportation.
Today, Crane Beach is part of the Crane Estate in Ipswich, a gorgeous property owned and protected by The Trustees of Reservations. All told the estate encompasses more than 2,100 acres of beachfront, dunes, maritime forest and planned landscape, managed for both recreation and conservation. USA Today tabbed Crane Beach as Massachusetts’ “great beach” of 2012.
Bequeathed by the Crane family to The Trustees of Reservations in 1949, the 1,400-acre Crane Memorial Reservation’s barrier beach stretches along Ipswich Bay and is separated from the mainland by Essex Bay and the Essex and Ipswich River estuaries. The reservation includes a variety of other habitats, including a drumlin (known as Castle Hill), shrub thickets, cranberry bogs, salt marsh, dunes, and forests.
Crane's Beach is a classic example of a barrier beach with Plum Island just to the north being an actual barrier island, a rarity in New England. A ban on watercraft and gear keeps man-made disturbances to a minimum. Most visitors are content to soak up the tranquil beauty. However, this beach is also a wildlife refuge, meaning its five-plus miles of trails may reward hikers with glimpses of rare species.
It provides an important habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife typical of northeast Massachusetts forests. Deer, fox, turkey, and a multitude of songbirds can be observed from the many trails and roads on Castle Hill. You’ll also find Castle Hill is home to several pairs of nesting great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Due to its location flanking the Atlantic Ocean, species such as turkey vultures, migratory hawks, and even an occasional bald eagle can be seen soaring above the landscape.
It is also among the world’s most important nesting sites for the piping plover, a threatened bird that was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century for its eggs and feathers. Crane Beach has been nationally recognized for its successful shorebird protection program.
As for the Crane estate, the first house built atop Castle Hill, an Italian Renaissance Revival villa was razed and replaced in 1928 with the 59-room Stuart-style mansion designed by architect David Adler. It’s still there today. The grounds were designed by the landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers, known for being the creators of Central Park in New York City. The “Grand Allee,” a half-mile manicured lawn, leads from the rear of the mansion to the Atlantic Ocean.
Furnished with period antiques, it is open to the public for house tours on Tuesday afternoons from May through October and by appointment or for seasonal concerts and events. The stunning mansion and gardens were featured in several movies including "The Witches of Eastwick", and more recently "Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past."
The oldest building on the estate, The Inn at Castle Hill, is now a spectacular bed and breakfast featuring simple yet luxurious pleasures such as snug beds, hearty meals, and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built as a farmhouse in the 1880s and completely renovated in the 1990s, The Inn at Castle Hill has 10 guest rooms.
There is plenty to do at the Crane Estate. Five-and-a-half miles of trails traverse dunes and track the beachfront on both the Ipswich Bay and Essex River Estuary sides of the Castle Neck peninsula. Closer to the Inn there are four more miles of roads and trails around the estate core, winding around ancient gardens atop Castle Hill. Mountain bikes with helmets are provided for guest use. If you’re a kayaker, there's easy water access. A boat also makes another 3.5 miles of trails at the Crane Wildlife Refuge available to you.
Walking the flats between Hog Island and the back side of Crane Beach at low tide, you’ll experience the flats thick with striped bass feeding on menhaden. When the striped bass surge forward into deeper water hop into your kayak and follow them. The shallow coves that form on Crane Beach's sand and mudflats are one of the east coast's fishing marvels. But beware of greenheads-- vicious horse flies-- that swarm Massachusetts beaches in late July to early August.
Crane Beach is a slice of the town of Ipswich. One of the oldest towns in the United States, founded in 1633, it comprises 33 square miles of rolling topography, forests, fields, farmland, marshes, dunes, and beaches. Sign up for one of the guided tours of historic Ipswich, which has more 17th century homes than any other town in America, magnificent oceanfront estates, historic restaurants, and miles of protected nature trails. These preserved houses were cherished as the homes of ordinary townsfolk who during the 20th century could not afford to modernize and make the kind of changes that might have spoiled their simple Colonial architecture.
Big-bellied clams are top of the menu at the Clam Box of Ipswich, the most iconic shack in this most iconic clam town. The clams make the short trip from the sandy mud of the estuaries and bays near Essex and Ipswich into the deep fryers of the best local clam shacks. The "Box" is a circa 1935 structure that resembles a Chinese takeout container—a squat, square base with a flared open top.
According to local lore, it wasn’t until Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman introduced a shucked clam to sizzling oil in 1916 that the fried clam was born. It’s a summer staple of New Englanders to this very day.