Heading north to Boothbay or Camden or Bar Harbor, out-of-staters drive right on through the short strip between Kittery and Kennebunk (unless they happen to stop at the outlets in Kittery). That's a shame. Maine's southernmost coast, you see, isn't like Boothbay or Camden or Bar Harbor. But therein lies its appeal. The beaches have sand—sand! Prices are fairly reasonable, even in summer. And you'll see more actual Mainers—not just squinty lobstermen, but kids with pails and shovels (I used to be one of them), teenagers on dates, farmers tending roadside stands. There may be crowds on the beaches, but they're mainly locals enjoying their own back yard.
White Barn Inn 37 Beach St., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2321, fax 207/967-1100; doubles $160-$250, including breakfast and afternoon tea. What's special about this converted 1865 farmhouse—it's a Relais & Châteaux property—is the graceful, seamless way it's been updated; the whirlpool tubs don't feel out of place beside the sleigh beds and English antiques. The amenities are closer to those of a top-end hotel: bathrobes, bedside bottled water, nightly turndown. There are bicycles (even some tandems) available for rides along the beach, a few blocks away, and a lovely flagstone swimming pool.
Captain Lord Mansion Pleasant and Green Sts., Kennebunkport; 207/967-3141, fax 207/967-3172; doubles $149-$299, two-night minimum on summer weekends. Picture yourself drinking iced tea in a hammock slung between two horse chestnut trees. Behind you sits the handsomest building in town, a pale yellow 1812 mansion with 16 guest rooms, crowned by a dramatic widow's walk. The interior is no letdown: Oriental rugs, Federal-era antiques, four-poster and sleigh beds, landscape paintings, and stately fireplaces.
Cliff House Shore Rd., Ogunquit; 207/361-1000, fax 207/361-2122; doubles $105-$140. The Cliff House will likely disappoint guests expecting something special. But that location, smack on Bald Head Cliff! The hotel has been there since 1872 but doesn't look it—it's got the feel of a modern motel resort. There are 174 rooms scattered in various buildings, and all have balconies; in some cases, however, you'll be looking at another building. Interiors are efficiently decorated and perfectly comfortable. If only someone would invade the place and reinvent it.
Edwards Harborside Inn Stage Neck Rd., York Harbor; 207/363-3037, fax 207/363-1544; doubles $50-$200. This 10-room Victorian B&B on a hill overlooks the yachts and sailboats of York Harbor; there's a private dock at the end of the sloping lawn. Guest rooms are simply furnished, with a slight nautical motif. Ask for one facing the water (with its own bath).
Stage Neck Inn 22 Stage Neck Rd., York Harbor; 800/222-3238 or 207/363-3850, fax 207/363-2221; doubles $135-$230. On a peninsula between the ocean and a tidy harbor, this modern resort is similar to the Cliff House: a bit motel-like, but quite comfortable, with plenty of facilities (tennis courts, two pools, a health club) and nice views from the balconies.
Dockside Guest Quarters Harris Island, York; 207/363-2868, fax 207/363-1977; doubles $60-$169. On a small, maple- and pine-shaded island (reachable by a causeway), this inn has a five-room white clapboard main house with a warm Victorian feel, as well as newer outlying cottages with decks. Best of all: you can borrow a rowboat, or rent a Boston Whaler from the inn.
This being New England, there are a number of formal restaurants ("formal" meaning you have to wear pants and sit up straight). This being a summer resort area, there are also more laid-back options. You make the call.
A visit to the coast wouldn't be complete without a stop at an old-style clam shack. Bob's Clam Hut (Rte. 1, Kittery; 207/439-4233; lunch for two $10), a half-outdoor picnic-table joint beside the Kittery Trading Post, opened in 1956, and hasn't changed much since. Fish-and-chips, clam rolls, and shrimp baskets are just greasy enough (but fried in cholesterol-free oil) and surprisingly fresh.
Everybody knows Flo's. Flo's Hotdogs (Rte. 1, York; no phone; lunch for two $4) is an inconspicuous roadside dive; inconspicuous, that is, except for the line stretching across the parking lot. The decades-old cult of Flo's may be purely sentimental (a hot dog is a hot dog is a hot dog), but tell that to the dedicated, and they'll run you out of town.
As a kid I adored the Goldenrod (Railroad Ave., York Beach; 207/363-2621; lunch for two $14), a beachside institution since 1896, with its soda fountain and sundaes, club sandwiches, penny candy display, and the archaic taffy machine that twists all day behind the window. The waitresses are either under 17 or over 65, and the clientele is much the same.
Everyone has been expecting the inevitable slip, but—sorry, spoilers—the 25-year-old White Barn Inn (37 Beach St., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2321; prix fixe dinner for two $116) remains the best dining room north of Boston. Rustic meets refined in the least cloying way: the floorboards creak, while the busboys barely make a sound. Rough-hewn beams and antique farm tools add a cozy touch to all the elegance. I loved the starter of roast quail served on a saffron risotto cake with port wine sauce and a pan-fried quail egg; the shelled steamed lobster in a coral-butter sauce was just this side of too rich, and utterly delicious. The smart and savvy (and half European) staff is personable, not at all stiff.