Maine's Southernmost Coast
It's a land of simple pleasures and sophisticated treasures
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.
Where to stay
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.
Where to eat
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.
h3> 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.
The White Barn Inn's owners recently opened a restaurant nearby: Grissini (27 Western Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2211; dinner for two $45), a Tuscan trattoria with a chic, SoHo-style interior (exposed air-conditioning ducts, parchment table coverings). The airy, loftlike space is colorful and brightly lit, decorated with breadbaskets, vases filled with lilies, and stylish Italian posters. Wood-oven pizzas are very good, as are the handmade pastas, the simpler the better (try the gnocchi in Parmesan-and-sage sauce). There's also a flagstone patio for dining alfresco.
While not in Maine (it's just across the border in New Hampshire), Dunfey's Aboard the John Wanamaker (1 Harbor Place, Portsmouth; 603/433-3111; dinner for two $50) is such a promising idea—an old tugboat moored in Portsmouth harbor turned into a bar and restaurant—that I have to include it. Surprisingly, the food delivers. The menu changes seasonally; last summer's included tuna with ginger, wasabi, and miso, and Long Island duck in a dried-cranberry glaze. Somehow, the ship manages not to feel cramped.
The sublime setting at Arrows (Berwick Rd., Ogunquit; 207/361-1100; dinner for two $100) would be enough—a 1765 farmhouse with delightfully crooked doorways, narrow halls, and mismatched antique furnishings, not to mention a spotlighted garden just outside the window. But the service (assured, yet friendly) and the ambitious New American menu make a meal here unforgettable. I had subtly smoked partridge with a mustard-raspberry glaze, potato-and-yam gratin, and grilled leeks; also superb was the grilled tenderloin of beef in a spicy garlic and Chinese black-bean sauce, served on a pillow of light noodles and wilted lettuce. The wine list is equally impressive.
It used to be that Arrows was the only event dinner around Ogunquit; now there's 98 Provence (98 Shore Rd., Ogunquit; 207/646-9898; dinner for two $80), an elegant yet homey French restaurant in a brightly colored cottage surrounded by flower gardens. The changing, traditional menu is highlighted by roast duck breast (served with a pear, thyme, and honey-lavender sauce) and a marvelous loin of venison in Calvados-juniper sauce.
Since you asked . . . great lobster
best setting Barnacle Billy's Perkins Cove, Ogunquit; 207/646-5575. That deck—oh, that deck. You're right there, over the water. Gulls circle above; ducks paddle below. You can almost touch the sailboats as they drift by. And, of course, the lobster rolls ($9.45), still the best in town, are plump and luscious, served with Aunt Nellie's Famous Sauce.
Related: The 10 Best Lobster Shacks in Maine
best stuffed lobster Mabel's Lobster Claw 124 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2562. The lobster Savannah ($30) always sounded over the top to me, until I tried it: stuffed with shrimp and scallops, served with a Newburg sauce, it's ideal after a chilly day at sea. Mabel's small dining room is as grandmotherly as they come.
best plain-and-simple lobster Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier Chauncey Creek Rd., Kittery Point; 207/439-1030. At this engagingly casual deck on the banks of a saltwater creek, you pick out a lobster and they'll either boil it or broil it (price is per pound, based on market rates). They sell a few sides, but you're better off bringing your own salad, wine, and bread; you sit at indoor or outdoor picnic tables. Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier is a real local secret, far enough off the tourist path to make it seem like a private party.
best lobster pie Maine Diner Rte. 1, Wells; 207/646-4441. The food is delicious at this old-fashioned diner right on the highway, and locals love it. I'm not normally one for lobster pie, but this perfectly baked casserole ($14.95), with large and tender chunks of meat, has entirely converted me. The chowder is terrific, too.
Take a hike
Known as the highest peak on the Atlantic coast between Florida and York, Mount Agamenticus (673 feet) isn't exactly soaring, but it's a fine place to watch for migrating hawks. (You may find yourself spinning around trying to decide between the vistas of the sea and the White Mountains.) The summit can be reached in an easy hike; follow Mount Agamenticus Road from Route 1 between York and Ogunquit.
Not long enough to be a true hike, but more dramatic than a stroll, Ogunquit's Marginal Way is a 1 1/2-mile oceanfront trail that's especially exciting after—or during—a storm. The path runs from the village center to Perkins Cove, between the rugged, rocky bluffs and the manicured lawns of resident blue bloods. If you're lucky, you'll grab one of the benches looking out on the marvelous seascape. Older children will love scrambling across the boulders to the water; the tide pools here are filled with life.
Off Route 9 between Wells and Kennebunkport, nearly 5,000 acres of white pine forest and salt marsh in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (207/646-9226; open sunrise to sunset) are easily explored by a mile-long nature trail. Bird-watchers have spotted green-backed herons, snowy egrets, Cooper's hawks, ring-necked pheasants, and many endangered species.
Finally, the patrician façades and immaculate lanes of Kennebunkport make for a terrific outing. Tourist-heavy Dock Square has the expected candy "shoppes" and stores selling ceramic figurines and maritime art. But the buildings themselves speak of long-ago days: the 200-year-old rum warehouse (now the Kennebunk Book Port), the slightly run-down sailors' inns near the river. Beyond the crowds, Maine Street is lined with Federal-era mansions and white-fenced lawns; there's a lovely old library and several stately churches as well. South along the river, down Ocean Avenue, rusty-hulled lobster boats rub up against gleaming yachts. (Well, they don't actually rub, but . . . ) Best of all are weekday mornings, just after dawn, when the mists and salty air are yet undisturbed by tourists, and the fishermen are hauling in their catch.
Or rent a bike: At Cape-Able Bike (83 Arundel Rd., Kennebunkport; 207/967-4382), owner Peter Sargent will suggest any number of routes. His favorite?"The ride to Cape Porpoise, off Route Nine in Kennebunkport. It has a preserved lighthouse, and on the pier you can get every kind of Maine food imaginable."
It's not always enough to eat at a place with a view: when the countryside is this beautiful, you want to be smack in the middle of it. So pick up something and go.
The freshest fruit and vegetables—and often, home-baked blueberry pies—can be found at Spiller Farms (1123 Branch Rd., Wells; 207/985-2575), Pine Tree Gardens (411 Post Rd., Wells; 207/646-7545), and Buffum's Hill Farm (Rte. 1, Wells; no phone). Buffum's farm stand, just south of the Dexter shoe outlet, has been around since 1931; a 10-year-old was tending the place when I stopped in for plums, grapes, and sweet corn. York Corner Gardens, on Route 1 in York, had some terrific ripe tomatoes.
For smoked-salmon pâté, imported cheeses, and Oregon and California wines, try Perkins & Perkins (246 Rte. 1, Ogunquit; 207/646-0288), a mile north of the village center. While you're there, grab some curried chutney and smoked tomato pesto. Also in Ogunquit, Bread & Roses (28A Main St.; 207/646-4227) bakes scones, pastries, fruit tarts, and luscious breads daily, and also sells fresh fruit and pasta salads.
In Kennebunk, check out the Chase Hill Bakery (9 Chase Hill Rd.; 207/967-2283), in a clapboard house. In business for 15 years, it's one of the few actual bakeries left in these parts, with delicious Danishes, croissants, soups, and chicken pot pies. "I bought the shop last June," says owner Pat Foley, "knowing nothing about baking. You should see me cooking now!"
Where to park your picnic
In York Beach, wedged between Short Sands and Long Sands beaches, Cape Neddick juts into a swirling Atlantic. Its rocky headlands are a fine, sun-drenched place to sit back and relax. Find a bench, or scramble over stones to the edge of the surf, and gaze at Nubble Lighthouse, which rests on its own island 50 yards offshore. (Look for the pulley and cable stretching across the channel; they were used by the lighthouse keeper to collect supplies from shore. Like all Maine lighthouses, the Nubble is now automated.)
From York Beach, the best route to Ogunquit is a meandering drive along Shore Road, which winds past cliffs and woods and some of the area's most exclusive real estate. Though you're not officially permitted to stop along the road, there is a parking lot at Ogunquit Beach. Pull in and have a seaside lunch.
On the headlands of Gerrish Island in Kittery Point is a large, tranquil park, known as Fort Foster, that only locals seem to know about. Rocky beaches and a long, rickety pier look out on two lighthouses in Portsmouth Harbor; a nature trail and tide pools provide distractions for the kids. Near the remnants of the fort itself (built in the early 1900's) is a flowery hillock with a dozen picnic tables. Admission is $2 per person and $2.50 per vehicle.
A few miles inland, in the town of South Berwick, the pastoral grounds of Hamilton House (40 Vaughan's Lane; 207/384-5269) are perfect for a Déjeuner sur l'Herbe-style gathering. This stately 1785 mansion overlooks the Salmon Fall River and several serene acres of woods and gardens. You can't lie around naked, though.
An ocean should be cold; it's the natural way of things. People who complain about the chilly Atlantic just don't understand: It's an ocean. It's cold. And it's good for you.
Kids will love the two halves of York Beach, Long Sands and Short Sands. The former is a broad, mile-long expanse of soft sand that's filled with families every sunny summer weekend. Decent waves swell on the northern end; rafts and mini-surfboards can be rented on the beach. Short Sands is more commercial, though its cove-sheltered beach is still pleasant. Here's where you'll find the town of York Beach proper, with its arcades and taffy shops and a few gleefully tacky nightclubs.
Grown-ups appreciate Ogunquit Beach, a three-mile stretch of gentle dunes and beach grass that wouldn't look out of place on Cape Cod. The southern end, reached by a bridge from Ogunquit, holds a few motels and snack bars and can be crowded; head north instead and you might have a dune to yourself. Go far enough north and the name changes to Footbridge Beach and then Moody Beach, a popular spot for (rather desperate) surfers.
Drakes Island, a small community across a causeway from Wells, is fronted by its own beach, which is somewhere between York's and Ogunquit's in character. The surf and the winds are stronger here, and parts of the island feel nicely removed from the traffic and crowds of the mainland.
Gooch's Beach, a few miles north in Kennebunk, isn't very wide, but the grand Newport-style mansions that line Beach Avenue are a lovely backdrop. There's a parking lot beside Mother's Beach, just down the road. Watch out for Kennebunkport teens in shiny new Land Rovers, learning to drive.
New Hampshire nightlife
Nightlife in southern Maine tends to mean either a nautical-themed pub or a dance club catering to under-21's. For a lively evening out you'll probably prefer to head across the border to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just 10 minutes from York. The many bars and restaurants of this red-brick-and-gas-lamps town draw couples and crowds from up and down the shore.
Prescott Park Between Marcy St. and the waterfront; summer Arts Festival hot line 603/436-2848. The lawn comes alive each summer night: musicals and plays take place on an open-air stage, and occasionally a swing band will pack a tent full of dancers.
Music Hall 28 Chestnut St.; 603/436-2400. Joshua Redman, Spalding Gray, Ani DiFranco, Twyla Tharp's dance company—if a national act comes to the area, it will perform at this historic theater. Off nights, the hall screens a selection of art-house films.
Portsmouth Brewery 56 Market St.; 603/431-1115. This spacious two-level bar and restaurant draws college students and older locals with its great homemade beer.
Poco Diablo 37 Bow St.; 603/431-5967. The food has gone downhill, but the main attraction is the wharf-side deck bar, overlooking the tugboats. Join the rest of town for margaritas at sunset. The similar deck at the Ferry Landing (10 Ceres St.; 603/431-5510) next door sits over the water and can be less crowded, especially after dinnertime.
If you want to actually be in the harbor, toast the sunset at the deck bar of Dunfey's Aboard the John Wanamaker (1 Harbor Place; 603/433-3111).
What's up in portland
Portland may seem small-town, but it's a city to Mainers. If you search, you'll find it has what every city has—only smaller.
- Walk around the Old Port neighborhood, the jumble of cobbled lanes and century-old buildings that forms Portland's historical and commercial heart.
- Peruse the Portland Museum of Art, which keeps improving a collection that includes works by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Marsden Hartley, and Mary Cassatt.
- Have dinner at Fore Street (288 Fore St.; 207/775-2717; dinner for two $50), a copper-pans-and-exposed-beams hot spot serving some of the city's freshest fish.
- Grab a hand-pulled ale at Gritty McDuff's, an Old Port institution best savored on a weekend night or a blustery afternoon: everyone stops in for a beer (or seven) at some point.
- Sit in on a minor-league baseball game. Portlanders love their Sea Dogs (207/879-9500).
- Ride the Casco Bay Lines ferry (207/774-7871) around the islands of Casco Bay. Disembark at one of the islands—Cliff, Great Chebeague, Peaks, Long—for a walk; another ferry is bound to come by (but pick up a schedule just in case).
Portsmouth by day
Portsmouth is just as attractive before sundown. Be sure to walk through the famed Strawbery Banke Museum (Marcy St.; 603/433-1100; admission $12) to see some of the city's architectural charms. The museum's intriguing wooden boatbuilding demonstrations take place at the Sheafe Warehouse, right across the street in Prescott Park. Toward the town center, Café Brioche (14 Market Square; 603/430-9225; lunch for two $10) is a terrific open-air hangout with a view onto lovely Market Square. Stop in for an old-fashioned ice cream at Annabelle's (49 Ceres St.; 603/431-1988), step out on the wharf, and inhale the salty air. Except for the green-haired teenagers beside you, it's the 19th century all over again.
By David Knowles
Kenneth Young knows that fishermen tend to be a superstitious lot. He and his wife, Jeanne, have heard it all: "The best place to fish is off the bow," or "Having women aboard a boat is bad luck for catching lobster." They listen with patient, neutral smiles to the locals' endless debates over which kind of bait (clams, shrimp, or squid) works best. The Youngs' own success is attributable to something less flighty—ample experience.
For more than 50 years, Kenneth has trolled the waters off Ogunquit—first as a commercial lobsterman, and now as the captain of the Ugly Anne, a 44-foot lobster boat. It's a long story, but the boat's eponym is Kenneth's former and "very beautiful" wife (in the words of his current wife). Seven days a week from April through November, the Ugly Anne—which holds 35 people—sets out from Perkins Cove filled with vacationing families hoping to reel in dinner.
Using local mansions as landmarks, Kenneth navigates to tried-and-true spots 10 miles offshore. If nothing's biting, he heads 15 miles farther out to Jefferies Ledge, where schools of dolphins and breeding humpback whales are a common sight. A few years back he chanced upon a whale giving birth. (Bring a camera; maybe you'll be able to sell the footage to National Geographic.) The normal catch ranges from cod to haddock to cusk, the last of which can weigh more than 40 pounds. A six-foot-long blue shark stands as the largest fish reeled in to date.
Two experienced deckhands are there to help every step of the way. They'll bait your hook; they'll advise you on how to keep the big one from getting away; they'll even fillet said fish when you land it. If that's not enough, the Sir Francis Drake restaurant (52 Old Post Rd., Wells; 207/646-1800; dinner for two $25) will cook up your prize for you.
Ugly Anne Deep Sea Fishing Perkins Cove, Ogunquit; 207/646-7202. Four-hour trips $30 per person, eight-hour trips $45, including all bait and equipment; no credit cards. Bring your own food and drink for the full-day trip, and pack a sweater. It gets nippy out on the water.