The North Shore  abounds in gorgeous beachfront. One of the very best in New England is Crane Beach (Argilla Rd., Ipswich, 978/356-4354, www.thetrustees.org ), a four-mile stretch of white sands and crashing white surf. The only time it isn’t idyllic is the brief period of greenhead fly season (usually late July or early August—call ahead to check).
The half-mile Good Harbor Beach (Thatcher Rd./Rte. 127A, Gloucester) offers a range of terrain, including sandy barrier beach, salt marsh, and rocky headland for tidepooling.
The more secluded Singing Beach (Masconomo St., Manchester) is named for an interesting phenomenon wherein under certain conditions the sand seems to sing—or more accurately, squeak—when you walk on it.
The wilderness jewel of the North Shore  is Plum Island, a barrier island extending for 11 miles along the entrance of Newburyport Harbor. The bulk of the island is taken up by Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (6 Plum Island Tpke., 978/465-5753, www.fws.gov ), a stopover for migratory birds on the Atlantic Flyway. A two-mile trail wends its way through sand dunes and swamps, providing excellent opportunities for bird sightings. It’s also possible to surf-fish from the beach.
The five-mile Marblehead Rail Trail offers beautiful vantages of the ocean and oceanfront mansions, with a two-mile spur into Salem .
Rent bikes from Marblehead Cycle (25 Bessom St., 781/631-1570, www.marbleheadcycle.com ).
Sea-kayak tours of the tidal estuaries in and around the Essex River are offered by Essex River Basin Adventures (1 Main St., Essex, 978/768-3722, www.erba.com ), which boasts sightings of osprey, heron, and egrets.
Cape Ann  is ideally suited for access to the humpbacks and finbacks that patrol Stellwagen Bank. The oldest company in the business, Cape Ann Whale Watch (415 Main St., Gloucester, 800/877-5110, www.seethewhales.com ), boasts the speeds of its flagship Hurricane, which jets out to the fishing grounds at 30 knots.