Heading north to Boothbay or Camden or Bar Harbor, out-of-staters often drive right on through the southernmost part of Maine, eager to get farther "down east." That’s a shame. The swath of coast between the New Hampshire border and Kennebunkport is quite unlike Boothbay or Camden or Bar Harbor—but therein lies its appeal. The southern shore is Maine’s beachside boardwalk, its most
kid-friendly playground. Here the beaches have sand—sand! Prices are reasonable, even in summer. And nothing beats the state’s south end for sheer variety of landscapes and attractions. This is the Maine of decades-old honky-tonk arcades and wildlife sanctuaries; of seaside snack bars and pine-shrouded picnic spots; of mini-golf castles and Civil War forts; of farmers tending roadside stands and kids clutching plastic pails and shovels (I used to be one myself).
It’s residents that one encounters far more often than tourists: waiting in line for a lobster roll and some chowder or wading through the tide at Ogunquit Beach. There’s an enduring regionalism to this corner of New England, not to mention an endearing local twang that has largely disappeared elsewhere. That gas station attendant who sounds straight out of an old Bert and I radio skit is not putting you on. Like southern Maine itself, he’s the genuine article.
Lay of the Land
The south coast is traced by two highways, Interstate 95 inland and U.S. Route 1 closer to the shore. Only 20 minutes separate the Kittery and Kennebunk exits on I-95, but be warned: on crowded-in-summer Route 1 the drive can take up to two hours. Who’s in a rush?
Just beyond the New Hampshire/Maine border, in Kittery, Route 1 explodes into a two-mile gauntlet of designer-brand discount outlets—heaven or hell, depending on your family’s perspective. But that’s not all that Kittery is about—out on quiet Kittery Point you’ll find the fabulous Chauncey Creek lobster shack as well as Fort Foster, a nearly secret state park.
York, a few miles north, is actually composed of four distinct communities: folksy and historic York Village; affluent and clubby York Harbor; the residential enclave of Cape Neddick, where the glorious Nubble Lighthouse rises from a rocky isle; and York Beach, whose two long stretches of sand are backed by fried-dough shops, arcade parlors, and dozens of family-run motels.
Several notches higher on the quaintness scale, Ogunquit has a decent dining scene (several years ago, its citizens bravely enacted a townwide ban on franchise restaurants) and the loveliest beach on the coast. The Ogunquit Playhouse, one of the longest-running repertory theaters in the country, stages Annie Get Your Gun, Crazy for You, and the like all summer. From the center of town, you can follow the Marginal Way, a 1 1/2-mile oceanfront walking path, past the lawns of resident blue-bloods to tiny Perkins Cove, where, at the thrilling press of a button, a wooden pedestrian drawbridge descends over the port.
Next up the coast, Wells is three-faced. There’s a commercial strip along Route 1; seven miles of often uncrowded beachfront; and a pair of not-to-be-missed nature reserves, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm.
Finally, Kennebunk and its showier sibling, Kennebunkport, are the southern coast’s toniest summer resorts, filled with magnificent old captain’s mansions (those rooftop lookouts are widow’s walks) and no shortage of Jaguars and Escalades. The beaches here are as stunning as the follies that rise beyond them, but thanks to the marina and the clang of ships’ bells, the K’bunks still have a workaday, sea-dog charm.