It’s hard to leave Canada behind on a trip to Maine. Once you’re in the state, you’ll notice that road signs often carry distances in both miles and kilometres. And it’s not uncommon to see “Welcome Quebecois” banners strung across streets in the many beach towns and hearing French being spoken as often as English — reinforcing the fact that Quebec residents have known for years that Maine’s Atlantic shoreline is the place to be during the summer.
We — myself, my wife Sharon, our 11-year-old daughter Carlyn and for the first time, our dog L’il Bit —headed to Maine last August to experience that true feeling of summer, which for us includes great food, some fantastic beaches and some unplugged fun like biking, boogie boarding, beach Frisbee and arcade games.
Driving from Toronto, we headed south through Massachusetts, stopping in Springfield at the end of the first day. The plan was to hit as many Maine beaches as we could. Our first home base was Kennebunkport, then we moved north to Saco, then a quick jaunt to Portland before backtracking a bit down the coast and then turning inland to head home, passing through Burlington, Vermont. As we found, rules vary on when dogs are allowed on Maine beaches (some don’t allow them on the beach before 5 p.m.), which required some creative scheduling on our part.
Arriving in Kennebunkport, we were booked into the Colony Hotel, an old-school (and pet-friendly) American gem. Built in 1914, the Colony has no air conditioning in the guest rooms, which means the ocean breeze is a welcome constant. (There are also no TVs in the rooms, but there is Wi-Fi, much to the relief of the 11-year-old).
Its creaking wood floors remind you of its history and the wide-open verandah offers a perfect view of the ocean. We ate a late dinner there one night watching a thunderstorm roll in with lighting poking through the clouds.
Just down the street from the Colony, is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, where we enjoyed a lobster dinner on the patio and Carlyn tackled — almost literally — her first full lobster and came away with a new appreciation for seafood. Mabel’s is a popular spot, with both locals and tourists, and it’s small, so be prepared to wait. The Clam Shack in Kennebunk Village, about a five-minute drive or 15-minute bike ride away is another great place for lobster. You can enjoy it with a beer for lunch at one of the patio tables.
Ogunquit, which is about a half hour drive south along the coast from Kennebunk Village is one of the most popular Maine beach havens, and it was packed when we arrived. We made a slow crawl down Shore Rd. into the heart of the town of Ogunquit, until retreating to North Beach so Carlyn could try out her new boogie board. Father and daughter bravely took on the waves (with daughter enjoying greater success) until another thunderstorm cleared the beach and drove us to lunch.
Sunshine, clear skies and summer heat followed the storm and we followed that to York Beach, and about 20 minutes drive southwest from Ogunquit on U.S. Route 1.
York Beach combines the best parts of the Jersey Shore with the spirit of Maine from the 1950s. Downtown, there’s The Goldenrod, a candy store and ice cream shop that’s been open since 1896. While you’re deciding what kind of fudge, ice cream or saltwater taffy to try, you can be mesmerized by watching taffy being made, the brightly coloured strands of the sticky stuff being twisted and pulled on machines in the windows. You can also order taffy by mail, if you just can’t wait to get there in person. Around the corner and just off the beach is the Fun O Rama arcade — a noisy magnet for kids with their parents change burning a hole in their pockets.
After a full day of beaching, boarding and candy eating, the 45-minute drive up the coast on I-95 to Saco was a quiet one. The next day, though, we were back at it again, this time heading to Old Orchard Beach. Old Orchard Beach is arguably one of the most famous Maine beaches and it’s a quick 10-minute drive from Saco along scenic Old Orchard Road. The beach itself is vast and marked by The Pier, a collection of bars and restaurants that juts into the water. The water is shallow and its awesome waves mean its great for boarding. It’s also really great for a round of Frisbee, even if the waves and fellow canines too easily distract the dog. Just up from the dunes is the Palace Playland, Old Orchard Beach’s signature amusement park. The dog cowered at the sound of balloon darts but Carlyn loved the spectacular views of the beach from the Ferris wheel.
Dinner that night was on the patio at The Landmark, where L’il Bit was welcome to sit at our feet. We struck up a conversation with some French Canadians who had been taking their summer vacation to Maine for years. After just a few days of sand, sun and waves in a few very different places, we can certainly understand why.
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of CAA Magazine