From shopping, beaches, and heritage homes, writer Shelley Cameron-McCarron falls for southern Maine one coastal town at a time.
I love southern Maine-beaches, bargains, and century-old seaports. In one fell swoop, in just 106 short kilometres (66 miles) from Kittery up Route 1 to Freeport, the area offers everything to rock the travel wish list. Described as the Riviera of New England, with its 48 km (30 miles) of flat, white-sand beaches, southern Maine is one welcome surprise after another. In 10 minutes, you can be immersed in serious retail detail, then flying a kite on a beach in the shadow of a famed lighthouse. Here are 10 reasons to love Maine:
It's In The Bag
When most people go to southern Maine to shop, they head to the Kittery Outlets for great prices and wide variety of stores. Buyers bliss out at more than 120 outlets from J. Crew to Gymboree. BONUS: Kittery is way more than outlet shopping heaven. Founded in 1623 (the state's oldest town), it's home to shipbuilding, a naval yard, perfect picnic spots, stunning coastal views and some of the oldest homes in Maine, making it in an architectural feast.
Brown's Ice Cream
The cones come enormous from Brown's unpretentious takeout window in York Beach. Sit on the rocks, and enjoy yours with the sun shining off your back, in the shadow of Nubble Light, one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world. Just down the road, York, America's first chartered city in 1641, has an appealing strip of beachside motels, weathered general stores, ice cream shops and sandy shores.
RESORT BY THE SEA
By any standards, Ogunquit (Naddick for Beautiful Place by the Sea) is one of the most intriguing towns around. The artsy resort village is home to one of the region's best-loved beaches, the beautiful Ogunquit Museum of American Art (the view from inside is amazing), and the stop-worthy Harbor Candy Shop. BONUS: Ogunquit Playhouse has been bringing Broadway and star-studded casts to the beach since 1933.
Driving through pretty Wells, a seacoast town incorporated in 1653 and named for the cathedral city of Wells, in Somerset, England, pull into the packed 90-seat Maine Diner, which has since 1983 served more than five million customers. The eatery, where locals sit at the counter, beside glass trays holding cookies as big as Buicks, and tables hum with conversation, is a culinary landmark on the lower Maine coast. Brothers Myles and Dick Henry have for 27 years been serving up home-baked beans, lobster pie, clam-o-rama and, every Thursday, New England boiled dinners.
Stroll the Old Port
With brick and cobblestones under foot, Portland's Old Port is meant for strolling, for feeling tangy sea air on your lips, hearing the cry of gulls, and falling under its charm. This is a city of cafés and coffee shops, a burgeoning culinary scene, and an arts district home to the excellent Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine (just try to keep your little ones from sliding down the fire truck pole). Catch the "mail boat" at Casco Bay ferries on Commercial Street and sit back on the upper deck as it unloads at several small islands. Next to the ferry is Flatbread Company, an organic pizzeria where workers use long wooden handles to push pies into a wood-fired earthen oven. Beside it, Three Sons Lobster & Fish cheekily bills itself as the best tail around and offers cooked takeout lobsters on the premises.
Did I Mention Shopping?
Twenty minutes northeast of Portland is Freeport, the second of Maine's inimitable shopping meccas. Leon Leonwood Bean started an empire here when he designed a waterproof hunting shoe in 1912. Today L.L. Bean is still going strong, as are the upscale and outlet shops occupying historic former homes and businesses. South Freeport is a nice side trip to admire the enclosed harbour and enjoy takeout lobster and clam on the water. Don't miss: Stonewall Kitchen pancake mix ($6.50). The stuff is seriously good.
You're Gonna Love It
Old Orchard Beach, 15 minutes south of Portland, is a full on, unapologetic tourist trap. And why not? Ferris wheel on the beach, a romantic 1898 pier, t-shirt shops, dozens of 50s-style motels, hot dogs, cotton candy, Pier fries, and the pièce de resistance, the seven-mile long sandy shoreline. Beautiful!
Insider hot spots
Stonewall Kitchen (the flagship store is in York) has a great store full of nifty products, kitchen supplies, home furnishings and a café.
Wonderful Lobster Shacks
Chauncey Creek Lobster Pound, Warren's Lobster House, The Lobster Barn, Cape Neddick Lobster Pound, The Clam Shack … try to choose a favourite.
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, just off Route 9 between Wells and Kennebunk, was established in 1966 in co-operation with the State of Maine to protect valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds.