Tourist bureau statistics show that Maine’s southern coast—stretching from the state line at Kittery to Portland—is the primary destination of most leisure travelers to the state. That’s no surprise, given the number of day-trippers from the Boston metropolitan area who come up here in summer to enjoy its long, sandy beaches. Thanks to quirks of geography, nearly all of Maine’s sandy shores occur along this stretch of coastline. In season, it takes some doing to find privacy or remoteness here, despite a sense of history in the coastal villages (some of them, anyway). Still, it’s not hard to find a relaxing spot, whether you prefer dunes, the lulling sound of breaking waves, or a carnival-like atmosphere in a beach town.
Waves depend on the weather; during a good Northeast blow, they pound the shores, rise above the roads, and threaten beach houses built decades ago. During balmy midsummer days, though, the ocean can be gentle as a farm pond, its barely audible waves lapping timidly at the shore as the tide creeps in, inch by inch, covering tidal pools full of crabs, barnacles, and sea snails.
One thing all the beaches here share in common: They’re washed by the chilled waters of the Gulf of Maine, which makes for, er, invigorating swimming. Though the beach season is generally brief and intense, running only from July 4th to Labor Day, the tourism season increasingly stretches into the stunningly colorful month of October, with most restaurants and hotels these days staying open to accommodate carloads of “leaf peepers.”
The towns that border these beaches—Kittery, the Yorks, Ogunquit, and the Kennebunks—include some of the oldest English settlements in the New World and some bastions of New England Old Money. That patrician historicity makes for a funky cocktail when you mix it with the trappings of middle-class roadside tourism that spring up in the mid-20th century. These are the charming sort of towns where you can stroll a shady lane lined with 19th-century mansions, then turn the corner to find a low-slung hot dog stand with a line around the block.