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).
Related: The 10 Best Lobster Shacks in Maine
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.
Standout Places to Stay
Beach House Inn (211 Beach Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-3850; beachhseinn.com; doubles from $250, including breakfast and afternoon tea), in a fantastic setting across the street from Kennebunk Beach, is the most stylish of K’port’s seaside inns. Its 34 rooms, done in shades of ivory and decorated with black-and-white photographs, are also among the area’s more expensive, suited for families willing to pay a premium for hotel-grade comfort and service. And that’s what the Beach House unfailingly delivers—no surprise, considering it’s run by the owners of the White Barn Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property just up the road.
Yachtsman Lodge & Marina (57 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2511; yachtsmanlodge.com; doubles from $299) is another swish property from the White Barn team—this one a tastefully converted motel set smack on the Kennebunk River, which also functions as the town marina. (George Bush Sr. keeps his cigarette boat moored right outside.) Light-flooded rooms have bead-board paneling, cathedral ceilings, and semiprivate patios, where you can sit and watch the yachts—and the occasional ex-president—motor by.
A full-blown resort, Stage Neck Inn (8 Stage Neck Rd., York Harbor; 800/222-3238 or 207/363-3850; stageneck.com; doubles from $275) is packed with two pools, tennis courts, a spa, and two restaurants. There’s also a small beach, and the modern, slightly anodyne rooms—all of which have balconies or patios—offer lovely views.
A more intimate choice, the Dockside Guest Quarters (Harris Island, York; 207/363-2868; docksidegq.com; doubles from $198) occupies a seven-acre, maple-and-pine-shaded island reachable by a causeway from York proper. The white clapboard main house has five guest rooms plus a wraparound porch and a croquet lawn; there are also six apartments with decks right on the water. Plan on heading out to sea—the inn will lend you a rowboat or rent you a Boston whaler.
The Lobster Awards
It’s pronounced lawb-stuh, and it is, of course, the big red reason you’re here. Learning to "shuck a bug" is a mandatory rite of passage for New England children. Hone your skills—steady with that nutcracker!—at these spots. And be sure to sample Maine’s other specialty, the lobster roll.
Best Plain-and-Simple Lobster
Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier (16 Chauncey Creek Rd., Kittery Point; 207/439-1030; lobsters for four $52) is far enough off the tourist path to feel like a cookout in someone’s photogenic backyard. Pick your catch from the bubbling tank and the staff will deliver it to your picnic table. B.Y.O. mosquito repellent.
Best Lobster with a View
Hold out for a seat on the harborside deck at Barnacle Billy’s (50–70 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit; 207/646-5575; barnbilly.com; lobsters for four $80)—and almost touch the boats drifting by. Boiled lobsters are the thing to get, but if the shell game proves too taxing, try the luscious lobster rolls and chowder.
Best Upmarket Lobster
A short walk from Billy’s, MC Perkins Cove (111 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit; 207/646-6263; mcperkinscove.com; dinner for four $120) is a high-end seafood shack. Still, it’s casual enough for kids, who will love the crab cakes, pork dumplings (one of several winning Asian dishes here), and thick-wedge fries.
Best Lobster Roll
At the Clam Shack (2 Western Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2560; lobster rolls for four $56) lobster meat is hand-shredded (a knife causes oxidation) and finished simply with butter or mayo, then tucked into a plush hamburger roll. Hamburger roll?Yep: Traditionalists insist on a hot-dog bun, but the Clam Shack succeeds by being oddball.
Anything Else to Eat?
The finest doughnuts in the state—maybe even the whole country—can be found at an unassuming joint called Congdon’s (1090 Post Rd., Wells; 207/646-4219). Take your pick of either the fluffy raised variety or the dense cakelike ones, and then move on to the sticky buns and whoopee pies. But get there early: Congdon’s opens at 6 a.m. and occasionally sells out by noon.
Wild Willy’s Burgers (765 Rte. 1, York; 207/363-9924; burgers for four $24) is only six years old, but it’s already a legend and has spawned three satellite locations. At the original, a kitschy, Western-themed hut beside the highway, hand-shaped patties are perfectly grilled and served with a staggering choice of toppings (try the Wicked Good, with Swiss, cheddar, and sautéed onions and mushrooms), along with fries made from never- frozen Maine potatoes.
What’s a hamburger without a hot dog?For that, you go down the road to Flo’s (Rte. 1, York; hot dogs for four $20), a shack that would be inconspicuous but for the line, which often stretches across the parking lot.
At the Maine Diner (2265 Rte. 1, Wells; 207/646-4441; mainediner.com dinner for four $50), the charmingly retro interior says "diner," but the food is a cut above. Don’t miss the seafood chowder or the lobster pie (think: chicken-pot pie, but pink).
Grissini (27 Western Ave., Kennebunk; 207/967-2211; restaurant grissini.com; dinner for four $75) is a trattoria, run by the proprietors of the Yachtsman and Beach House Inn hotels. Un-Maine-like as it is, the room is engagingly informal—there’s also a flagstone patio for outdoor dining—and the wood-oven pizzas and handmade pastas are first-rate.
In need of something sweet?Of course you are. Head out to Cape Neddick for a black-raspberry cone at Brown’s Ice Cream (Nubble Rd., Cape Neddick; 207/363-1277), an old-fashioned stand that’s just a short walk from the Nubble Lighthouse.
Let’s Hear it for Farmstands!
This is the land of the blueberry, after all—and we mean the tiny, tangy wild variety. Maine leads the world in production and cultivation of wild blueberries; peak season is July and August. Arriving in June?You’re just in time for the strawberries!
At Spiller Farm (85 Spiller Farm Lane, Wells; 207/985-2575), you can pick your own blueberries and strawberries—and raspberries too.
On the other hand, if outstanding tomatoes are what you’re after, York Corner Gardens (381 Rte. 1, York; 207/363-5900) is the place.
And Buffum Hill Farm (Rte. 1, Wells) has been selling plums, grapes, and its own sweet corn since 1931. When I dropped by last summer, a 10-year-old was tending the store.
Calling All Train and Car Freaks
Founded in 1939, the Seashore Trolley Museum (195 Log Cabin Rd., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2712; trolleymuseum.org) has the largest collection of electric-railway vehicles in the country—more than 250— and you can actually ride (and even drive) a few of them. With 1½ miles of working track winding across 350 acres, the STM is essentially a life-size model-train set.
At the Wells Auto Museum (Rte. 1, Wells; 207/646-9064), you can’t drive the 1904 Stanley Steamer, ’49 Dodge convertible, or exotic motorcycles, but you can play more than 30 antique nickelodeon machines.
Where to Lose the Crowds
Out past the Kittery headlands, on Gerrish Island, Fort Foster (Pocahontas Rd., Kittery Point; 207/439-3800) is an 88-acre town park—with a naval bunker as its centerpiece—that only townspeople seem to know about. Along the rocky shore you’ll find lively tide pools; there are also hillside picnic tables and barbecue grills, and kids can clamber around the remnants of the fort itself.
Continue exploring at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Rte. 9, Wells; 207/646-9226; rachel carson.fws.gov), an epic expanse of salt marsh and pine forest. Follow the mile-long walk and be on the lookout for snowy egrets, Cooper’s hawks, and ring-necked pheasants.
As if one preserve weren’t enough for a single town, the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm (342 Laudholm Farm Rd., Wells; 207/646-1555; wellsreserve.org) has an even more extensive network of trails, snaking through seven miles of woodlands, meadows, and wetlands. At its week day camp, junior researchers investigate the marsh from a floating lab.
The Place Your Kids Will Love Best
At York’s Short Sands Beach, the surf is secondary to the thrills beyond the parking lot: a riotous village filled with fake-tattoo parlors, a candlepin bowling lane, and seashell emporiums. (For better or worse, the gleefully tacky nightclubs, where I once tested my fake ID, are now closed)
If you have time or tolerance for only a couple of stops, begin at the Goldenrod (2 Railroad Ave., York Beach; 207/363-2621; lunch for four $25), which has been charming not just children since 1896. Why?Because there’s a (now antique) taffy machine, hypnotically twisting and churning in the front window; a marble soda fountain; and an A-to-Z collection of penny candy. For your finale, head straight to the old-time Fun-O-Rama arcade (7 Beach St., Short Sands Beach), on a rickety boardwalk beside the shore. You’ll find an encylopedic array of video games, Skee-Ball ramps, and fortune-teller machines that have been absorbing the soggy dollar bills of area kids for decades.
What’s more life-affirming than running headlong down a sun-drenched shore and flinging yourself into deliriously bone-numbing surf?Here’s where to do it.
Long Sands, York Beach
A broad, open sweep that fills up with families and frisbee-tossing teens. There’s parking just beyond the sand, lifeguards, even a public bathhouse with changing rooms.
A 3 1/2 mile expanse of dunes and beach grass that’s the prettiest stretch of sand on the entire Maine coast. Its southern end, reached from downtown Ogunquit via a bridge, is often crowded; walk north for a dune to yourself. The warm, sand-rimmed Ogunquit River, which runs alongside the beach, is ideal for the water-wing set.
Where locals try their Laird Hamilton maneuvers in some moderately impressive waves. To the south is tranquil Crescent Beach, with tide pools that are tops for starfish-spotting. Bring binoculars to watch the seals basking just offshore on Bucklin Rock.
Gooch’s Beach, Kennebunk
Celebrated for its pillowy sand, gentle surf, and backdrop of Newport-style mansions. Though finding a lovely beach in the Kennebunks is easy, finding a parking place is not. Borrow your hotel’s parking pass, buy one from the town hall, or, instead of driving, hop on one of the trolleys (see intowntrolley.com) that run along the coast.
Reel in cod, haddock, and the occasional pollock, which the staff can teach you to fillet. Perkins Cove, Ogunquit; 207/646-7202; uglyanne.com; half-day voyages $45 per person, including equipment.
Finestkind Scenic Cruises
Aboard a working lobster boat, watch the crew set traps, haul them in, and extract their catches. Perkins Cove, Ogunquit; 207/646-5227; finestkindcruises.com; 50-minute trip $12 per adult, $7 per child.
Captain Gary narrates as this 87-foot vessel motors out to where fin whales, hump-backs, and minkes feed. 4 Western Ave., Kennebunk; 800/767-2628; firstchancewhalewatch.com; four-hour excursions $40 per adult, $25 per child.
This luxurious 55-foot gaff-rigged schooner makes daily runs from Cape Arundel to Cape Porpoise. Arundel Wharf, Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-8809; home.gwi.net/~lazyjack; two-hour sail $40 per person.