Every summer, for almost as long as I can remember, my family would hitch up a bubble-shaped 1964 trailer near Toronto and drive two days to the southern coast of Maine. My father says he was drawn by the "smell of the ocean" -- something he missed from his youth in Scotland. For my mother, the quiet beaches and rugged coast were the attraction. We didn't go for the swimming: None of us lingered long in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.
Of course, a state that boasts "Vacationland" on its license plate is hardly unaware of its appeal. Even along the popular coast south of Portland, which includes such hot spots as Ogunquit and the Bush family playground of Kennebunkport, you'll find funky gems. While it's probably not possible to paddle a dinghy up to the holiday home of former President George Bush at Walker's Point, as we did 20 years ago, you can admire it while walking along the dramatic Parsons Way path that stretches from the Colony Hotel to the Bush compound.
There are two ways to tackle Maine's south coast -- the cheap and cheerful route, or the one steeped in luxury. To this day, I retain a fondness for the former. My heart still leaps at the sight of the Ogunquit Trading Post's "10,000 Gifts" sign along Route 1 in Wells and the outlet malls of Kittery, where you can troll for bargains on a rainy day. Every Dexter shoe that has ever touched my toes came from a Maine outlet. And the tastiest lobster ever to hit my lips was boiled at the Cape Pier Chowder House Deck in Cape Porpoise -- a quaint fishing harbor that rates a trip in itself. The 125-year-old former salt house was torn down this year to rebuild the rotting pier, but owner Allen Daggett promises identical décor and prices by the end of April.
For simple, rustic accommodation at a top price of $125 a night, few places can equal the Beachwood Resort outside Kennebunkport on Route 9 near Goose Rocks Beach, run for 36 years by the prolific Spang family. We used to take bets on the number of Spangs listed each year on the welcome sign. (Like McDonald's (MCD ), with its burgers, at some point they seemed to have given up counting.) The place always had a delightfully tacky edge, with shuffleboard and a gaggle of Spang kids scooping ice cream in the barnlike restaurant. For a different kind of fun, stay across the street in the Salty Acres campground, which starts at $22 a night and feels like camping in the woods.
If you aspire to more than an outdoor toilet, you can head to a number of ultra-deluxe hotels along the south coast. My personal experience is limited to the White Barn Inn, a breathtaking spot in the heart of Kennebunkport that served one of the best chef's tasting meals I've ever eaten. With rooms from $275 to $750, it's a splurge. But Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report recently singled out White Barn as one of New England's "Best Country Inns & Getaways."
Still, nothing beats a lobster roll at Barnacle Billy's in Perkins Cove. Fresh from a day of whale watching, you walk along the Marginal Way path to Ogunquit Beach. It's only 1.5 miles long, but you have to stop on a bench to admire the ocean view. If you're lucky, maybe you're even staying at the Marginal Way House -- a 1920s fixture that seems the perfect site for a murder mystery. Are you living the stereotype of a Maine beach vacation? You bet. And loving every minute of it.
By Diane Brady