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WHY GO: There is no disputing that the towns of the Southern Maine Coast – Kittery, York, and Ogunquit – are the most crowded. As you drive from the border town of Kittery (outlets) to York Beach to the popular Ogunquit on US Route 1, you’ll experience traffic jams and standstills as you crawl past questionable clam and lobster shacks and tacky tourist shops.
But some of these “touristy” spots are well worth your time. And there are other fantastic but lesser known attractions you may miss unless you know where to look. Here, the Getaway Mavens reveal the many splendored aspects of this well-trod section of Maine.
Things to Do on the Southern Maine Coast
STOP: Kittery Trading Post, Kittery
Cross into Maine on I-95, get off Exit 3, head North on Route 1, and you’re faced with one Outlet Store after another. This bunching up of off-price establishments was (and still is) Kittery’s claim to fame. It’s the reason travelers crossed from New Hampshire to this most Southern of the Southern Maine Coast towns. Not for the beach. Not for the lobster. For the outlets.
Save for one mega family-owned (since 1938) sporting goods store: Kittery Trading Post. A complete mall located inside one store, KTP sells everything related to hunting, fishing, biking, camping, water-sports, skiing and more. Even if your idea of outdoor recreation is reading a trashy book on a beach, you’ll want to pop in just to see this place.
EAT: Bob’s Clam Hut, Kittery
I’m sticking this seafood shack here because it’s right next door to the Kittery Trading Post and a fantastic first or last stop for fresh lobster, fried clams or seafood in Maine. There’s always a line, so just be patient. Cooks happily hustle to get your food to you quickly.
Millions of jars of homemade jams, mustards and other Stonewall Kitchen condiments fly off the shelves of gift and specialty stores around the world each year. See what the hoopla is about (and watch employees in the production room behind glass) at the Stonewall Kitchen Factory Store. There are a dizzying number of samples to try, an in-house café, and ancillary cooking tools to purchase as well.
PHOTO OP: Cape Neddick, aka Nubble Light, York
Follow signs to Nubble Light at the end of this Southern Maine Coast residential neighborhood. Then, get ready to jockey among the hundreds of other tourists for a coveted parking spot. You can’t get to the 1879 lighthouse itself, which sits on Nubble Island across from a rocky, fast-flowing channel. But it is certainly a splendid sight.
SWIM: York Beach, York
If bustling beaches, framed by bowling alleys and pinball arcades are your thing, then get thee to York Beach. Even though crowded, this is Maine, so the views can’t help but be picturesque.
TOUR: Museums of Old York, York Village
While York Beach is all honky-tonk, Old York Village is that dyed in the wool, quiet and staid New England town. These preserved homes, school, jail, wharf, art gallery, and burial grounds are collectively under the auspices of the Museums of Old York.
Far from stodgy, they provide an invigorating look at the origins of this south Maine coast region. Though most components of the compound are self-guided, some guided tours are offered through the summer. (Plan on at least 2-3 hours here).
Start at the lovely new (2004) Visitor’s Center. It’s got a bite-sized climate-controlled museum gallery upstairs that probes “The Best of York” in terms of art, furniture and the source of wealth for those who first settled the southern Maine coast: shipping and trade.
Access Jefferds’ Tavern through the glass doors in the Visitor’s Center. This 1754 tavern is now used for programming, including a super popular Whiskey Tasting event.
Behind the Tavern sits a little brown schoolhouse, that served as the York Corner School from 1755-1850. Children ages five to 21 studied the 3-R’s here – primarily so they could read scripture and understand the law of the land.
Burial Ground: Witch Legend Debunked
Cross through the Burial Grounds, and look for the earliest headstone – dated 1648. Though oldest is important, perhaps the most famous gravesite here is the one belonging to Mary Nasson, who died in 1774.
Somehow, a legend arose around the slab of stone covering the grave; that it was purposely put there to prevent Mary, believed to be a witch, from rising from her burial place.
York Museum docents and historians stress that these rumors were false in all respects. First of all, the Witch Trials took place a century before Nasson’s time.
Secondly, these horizontal “Wolf Stones,” were often employed in Puritan cemeteries to keep wild animals, pigs and cows from digging up dead bodies.
Finally, Mary was a well-loved figure in 18th century York. The only rare thing about the grave is her lovely visage carved into headstone – unusual for the time.
Next, take a 45-minute guided tour of the Emerson-Wilcox House. From the time it was built in 1740, the home served as tavern, East India Dry Good Store, Post Office and residence for prominent York families, including a 19th Century China Trade sea captain and his wife.
Most unusual is the curved tunnel-like hallway on the main floor, designed like an archaic wine catacomb. That’s not so surprising, considering the homeowner was exposed to a variety of world cultures and architecture.
Old Gaol (Jail)
Next door the Old Gaol (pronounced “jail” in Old English) is the most popular of the Museum’s buildings. Though the tour is self-guided, docents are on hand to answer questions.
The original two cells, with walls three feet thick,, were built to restrain those accused of crimes until traveling judges came to town to adjudicate each case – an average of 30 days. People were thrown in the slammer for swearing, taking God’s name in vain, disrespecting parents, gossiping, and other behaviors that are now commonplace.
Eventually, more cells, a courtroom (with an ingenious dividing wall that could be pulled down from the ceiling), and jailer’s quarters were added on. Viscerally experience all of these while contemplating punishment for things we do every day in our modern world.
An actual 17th Century English “Ducking Stool” – the precursor of “waterboarding” – is most compelling. In this case, however, it was meant to embarrass rather than harm. For the most part women, accused of being gossips or scolds, were strapped in and completely submerged in water repeatedly until promising never to offend again.
John Hancock Wharf
Finally, walk or drive about a mile down Lindsay Road, once the main street in Old York, as it links York Village to the busy-then-bucolic-now York River.
The Museums of York also include two properties on this waterway: the John Hancock Wharf building (partially owned by, but never visited by our Declaration of Independence’s first signer), and the G.A. Marshall’s Old Line Store – now a well-regarded art gallery (open Tues-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5). It behooves visitors to drive down there, if only for the eye-catching landscape.
Old York Museum Reception Center open Tues-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5. Check website for other building hours and guided tours. $12 adults, $8 kids.
VISIT: Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Ogunquit
A 15-minute drive from York Village, this is the coolest art museum between Boston and Portland – a mid-century modern gem overlooking the sea and filled with important work fashioned during the genre’s heyday between WWI and WWII.
From the late 1800’s into mid-1900’s, city dwellers longed to be close to nature, if only via landscape paintings they’d hang in their parlors. Manhattan socialite, Edith Halpert, maintained close ties to the Ogunquit Art Colony.
She opened her New York City gallery in 1926 to display the work of these artists. Catering to wealthy New Yorkers eager for a taste of the “newly discovered” Southern Maine Coast, Halpert inadvertently drove a fledgling tourism industry.
Henry Strater, son of a wealthy Kentucky snuff-maker, was one of the wannabe artists enticed to Ogunquit as a young man. In 1919, he arrived in this little fishing village to learn to paint.
By then, Ogunquit was already an established Art Colony, thanks to Charles Woodbury (1898), the muted-color master who coached his students to “paint in verbs rather than nouns,” and Hamilton Easter Field (1902), who endeared himself to the local fisherman, drank with them, and forged a symbiotic relationship with the working community.
The first NYC Armory Show in 1913 had also already debuted the works of Matisse, Cézanne, Duchamp and other Cubists to much controversy. Most reviews mocked Europe’s new Modern Art Movement.
That didn’t stop Strater, who spent time in Europe to pursue his art instruction. While there he drove a WWI ambulance, met Ernest Hemingway, hung out in Paris with him and other members of the “Lost Generation” (T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Co.).
In 1925, Strater returned to settle in Ogunquit – a full fledged artist. He founded this 5-gallery museum in 1953 to house the Modernist art created here.
The OMAA embodies the best of work from both the Woodbury and Easter Field Schools of Art. Many modernist pieces, including two that Strater painted of Hemingway, hang in the bright red Strater Gallery. Open daily May – October 10-5, $10, kids under 12 free. Come for “Totally Tuesday” special event every Tuesdays from May through October at 6pm.
STROLL: Marginal Way, Ogunquit
This 1.3-mile paved oceanfront path is Newport’s Cliff Walk without the mansions – and a bit curvier than its Rhode Island counterpart. Beautifully landscaped, with private homes on one side and waves of the frothy Atlantic smashing onto deep rust-red boulders on the other, it’s a popular leg-stretcher. And an Instagram favorite on the Southern Maine Coast.
SHOP: Perkins Cove, Ogunquit
There are plenty of shops in this pretty Cove-side collection of weather-beaten structures. Wander at will.
SHOP: Abacus, Ogunquit
One of 5 Abacus stores in Maine, poking around its museum-like galleries is a perennially favorite rainy day activity.
TOUR: Ogunquit Playhouse
Bette Davis, Myrna Loy and Douglas Fairbanks all performed at this still-operating theater. Take a 90 minute Behind the Scenes Tour to learn about the Playhouse’s history. Offered May-Oct. Fri, Sun, Mon’s (check website for times), $10.
CONCERT: Jonathan’s of Ogunquit
In addition to being a very good farm-to-table restaurant (see below), Jonathan’s features celebrity concerts and comedy performances a few days a week in season.
Where to Eat in Ogunquit
Produce and lamb comes from Jonathan’s farm, which lets you in on how fresh the food is here. My Eggplant Napoleon was an excellent medley of lightly fried eggplant, spinach and goat cheese blanketed gently with marinara sauce (wow!). A quick poll of those dining around me – mostly repeat patrons – indicated that both “surf” and “turf” dishes served here are “terrific.”
EAT: Locals Love
Ogunquit boasts over 60 eateries, and it seems every visitor has his or her favorite, including Five-Oh Shore Road and the Lobster Shack.
Where to Stay On the Southern Maine Coast
InStyle Magazine called the re-imagined Cliff House on the Southern Maine Coast in Cape Neddick ME one of the best spots in the world to get engaged. And when you drive past lovely shore homes, pull into the long drive, and at last enter this Oceanside resort that conjures up images of Jane Eyre on the moors, you’ll understand why.
You have to make a concerted effort to reach the new and vastly improved hotel, just a 10-minute drive from York Beach or Ogunquit. Once you get here, however, you may not want to venture out to those crowded locales.
Walk through the blue front door into a sunny lobby. Although the dark reclaimed wood floor is as old as the hills, the whole blasted place feels as fresh as the breezes that blow over the moody Atlantic Ocean– right outside a soaring wall of windows.
The Cliff House has been in existence since Captain Theodore and Elsie Weare built a lodge atop these rocks in 1866. Back then, you could stay a whole week for a mere $6.
The hotel remained in the Weare family until 2015, when it was purchased by Rockbridge as a Destination Hotel. It was then basically gutted and rebuilt for today’s luxury traveler.
First Impressions of Cliff House
There are few resorts on earth with the kind of unspoiled beauty you’ll find at the Cliff House. Generally, a wild location like this with unparalleled views would be crammed with commercial development. But that’s not the case on Cape Neddick, a few miles and worlds away from Maine’s most populated tourist towns.
Yes, there are several private homes wedged into neighboring cliffs. But other than that, it’s pretty remote.
The Cliff House is luxurious, but not flamboyantly so. TrueXCullins designed the interior in modern Scandinavian style, with a nod to the property’s nautical lineage. Boat-deck wood floors hark back to the days of sailing ships. Ships knots are arrayed behind the reception desk. And, of course, a bank of two-story windows overlooks the endless Atlantic and those bald cliffs that give this hotel its name.
Rooms at Cliff House
Guest rooms are ship shape in nautical navy, ecru and white. The bedding is so incredibly soft, voluminous, and snuggly, this place could be a waterside shack and the sheets/duvet/mattress combo would render it a 5 star hotel.
The King Deluxe room features a linen-clad couch, round ottoman, large flat screen TV and plenty of storage space. Two khaki-colored canvas captain’s chairs and yachting cocktail table sit beneath an enlarged nautical chart. The lines are simple and clean – as opposed to the temperamental Atlantic a swan’s-dive from the balcony.
A blue and white plaid plushy micro-fiber robe hangs in the small, but pretty bathroom, with flattering and ample light for makeup application. (Just sayin’ – it’s the small things that excite this traveler). Linen repeats in the textural tile glass rain shower, large enough for two.
Tiller: If available, ask for a window seat facing a rectangular cove where the Atlantic runs up against the rocks. It’s a show better than anything on TV or your electronic device, so please leave those in your room. From here, you can enjoy excellent food, a glass of wine, and, if lucky, leaping whales or gallivanting seals right outside.
Yes, these creatures have been known to show up. Keep a watchful eye while dining on the likes of Cider-Glazed Brussels Sprouts, Peppers and Potatoes, and larger plates like Day Boat Scallops with Pork Belly.
Breakfast, often with fogged-in view of the jagged, angular rocks outside, is a la cart. Offerings include Zucchini Bread French Toast, Cracked Oats with Maine Maple Syrup and Continental Breakfast breads.
Nubb’s Lobster Shack: Near the indoor pool, this very casual eatery, highlighting Maine’s most notable dish, includes an arcade space with foosball, darts and shuffleboard.
The Spa at Cliff House
This is a full-service spa with 9 treatment rooms, a “movement room” offering yoga classes, and other “Holistic Wellness Experiences” that focus on mind, body, and soul rather than exterior beauty.
During high season, you must book a treatment to use the dry and wet saunas. But all guests are invited to use both the indoor and outdoor pools and fitness center. “Escape and Wonder” body treatments – Water, Stone, Sun, or Sea, $200 for 80 minutes. Massage from $80 for 25 minutes to $200 for 80 minutes.
Amenities at Cliff House
Gallery at Bald Head Cliff – in the underground connector between the main building and indoor pool building, showcasing some of the best local artwork, for sale.
Fitness Center with machines overlooking Ocean.
Indoor and Outdoor pools
Cliff House is open year round. Rooms from $209 low season to $750 high season per night, plus resort fee $22 per day per person.
STAY: Meadowmere Resort
Though there are oodles to choose from, lodging in Ogunquit tends to be family-oriented, with basic motel room décor, for the simple reason that the ocean is right outside – and that means lots of sand.
Meadowmere, though not right on the waterfront, is a step up from basic, with updated bedding, new granite bathroom counters, both an indoor and outdoor pool, free movie nights, free wi-fi, and other amenities.
The property encompasses several buildings in a colorfully landscaped 4-acre wedge of land fronting Route 1.
A five-minute walk to the entrance of Marginal Way or into town, Meadowmere is a favorite for families or couples seeking a lower-key getaway.
Though there are several rooms in the “luxury” category with fireplaces and four-poster beds, most (including the ones overlooking the outdoor pool) are not posh. But they do cover all the upscale bases: flat screen TVs, soft new bedding, and updated large well-lit bathrooms. Room rates start at $80 in low season midweek for small room to $490 large room weekend in high season, include use of facilities, wi fi, and Continental Breakfast.