The Southern Maine Coast
Driving into Maine from the south, as most travelers do, you’ll find that Kittery is the first town to appear after crossing the big bridge spanning the Piscataqua River from New Hampshire. Once famous for its (still operating) naval yard, Kittery is now better known for its dozens of factory outlets and a hip dining-and-drinking scene that’s recently sprung up in the old Foreside neighborhood.
“The Yorks,” just to the north, are three towns that share a name, but little else. In fact, it’s rare to find three such well-defined and diverse New England archetypes within such a compact area. York Village is full of 17th-century American history and architecture in a compact area, and has a good library.
York Harbor reached its zenith during America’s late Victorian era, when wealthy urbanites constructed cottages at the ocean’s edge; it’s the most relaxing and scenic of the three. Finally, York Beach is a fun beach town with amusements, taffy shops, a small zoo, gabled summer homes set in crowded enclaves, a great lighthouse, and two excellent beaches with sun, sand, rocks, surf, surfers, fried-fish stands, and lighthouse views.
Just outside York Village, the protrusion of land known as Cape Neddick is an excellent back-road route to Ogunquit, if you can find it (go past the police station in Short Sands, then bear right at the sign for the Cape Neddick Lobster Pound).
By Car: Kittery is accessible from either I-95 or Route 1, with well-marked exits. Coming from the south, the Yorks are reached most easily by heading for (but not taking) the Maine Turnpike; follow I-95 to a point just south of the turnpike exit, then exit to the right (“last exit before tolls”). Coming from the north, pay your toll exiting the turnpike and then take the first exit, an immediate right.
By Train: Amtrak (www.amtrak.com; tel. 800/872-7245) operates four to five Downeaster trains daily from Boston’s North Station (which does not connect to Amtrak’s national network; you must take a subway or taxi from Boston’s South Station first) into southern Maine, stopping outside Wells, about 10 miles away from the Yorks. A one-way ticket starts at $15, and the trip takes 1 3/4 hours. From Wells, you’ll need to phone for a taxi or arrange for a pickup to get to your final destination.
By Bus: The two chief bus lines serving the stretch of Maine between Portland and Kittery are Greyhound (www.greyhound.com; tel. 800/231-2222), which has service to Wells, and C&J Trailways (www.ridecj.com; tel. 800/258-7111), which runs a seasonal weekend service from New York to Ogunquit, Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Taking a Greyhound from New York City’s Port Authority to Wells costs from $60 to $100 one-way and takes 7 to 8 hours; from Boston, figure on paying a fare of $12 to $30 one-way and a ride of 1.75 hours. A New York to Ogunquit trip on C&J Trailways runs $85 and takes 6 hours. Several competing bus lines also run regular buses daily from Boston’s South Station to downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is very close to Kittery (you can actually walk over a bridge into Maine from Portsmouth).
The Maine State Visitor Information Center (tel. 207/439-1319) operates at a well-marked rest area on I-95. It’s full of info and helpful staff; has a pet exercise area and copious vending machines; and is open daily from 8am to 6pm in summer, from 9am to 5:30pm the rest of the year. (The vending machines and restrooms are open 24 hours a day.)
The Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce (www.gatewaytomaine.org; tel. 207/363-4422) also operates another helpful visitor center, one that mirrors the shape of a stone cottage. It’s across Route 1 from the Maine Turnpike access road (right beside the Stonewall Kitchen headquarters and café) on Stonewall Lane. In peak season, it’s open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm; from Labor Day through June, it’s open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm, Saturday from 10am to 2pm, and Sunday 9am to 1pm.
From mid-June through Labor Day, a trackless trolley (a bus painted to look like a trolley) runs back and forth between Short Sands and Long Sands beaches in the Yorks, providing a convenient way to explore without having to be hassled with parking. Hop on the trolley (www.yorktrolley.com; tel. 207/363-9600) at one of the well-marked stops; it’s $4 each way, $3 to sit on board for the entire loop without debarking. The trolley makes a circle through the Short Sands business district before heading out to Long Sands and proceeding all the way to the Libby’s and Camp Eaton campgrounds at the far southern end of that beach, before turning around again. (It does not travel to Nubble Light, but if you want to see the famous lighthouse, debark the bus at Nubble Light Road and hoof it a little more than a mile out to the point.) The trolley operates from late June through Labor Day daily on the half-hour, from about 9:30am until around 10:15pm.
Swing through York in late July or early August, and you’ll notice the sidewalks are even more packed than usual for the annual York Days festival, a week-and-a-half–long civic celebration with a slate of outdoor bands, a road race, fireworks displays, and the usual small-town revelry. Highlights include a sprawling, partially tented craft fair that takes over the York Beach baseball diamond on the festival’s closing weekend and the Christmas in July ceremony out at Nubble Light, with the striking, island-bound lighthouse bedecked in holiday lights (plus a visit from Santa).