Beaches of Maine's Southern Shore

“What do they long for, as I long for, one salt smell of the sea once more?” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

In summer’s late-afternoon light, the weekend warriors and sun worshippers arrive, emptying out of their cars onto Fortunes Rocks Beach. A nearly full moon is pulling the waves and raising the tides. Surfers and paddleboarders are in the water, glistening on their boards, and the whitecaps are rolling in on this stretch of Biddeford Pool, about 25 miles south of Portland. When the surfers duck-dive under the froth, they remind me of wild seals or otters.

We’re staying nearby for a few sunny days on the sheltered, south-facing Goose Rocks Beach, where water conditions are much gentler. The variety in the shoreline in this part of Maine is fascinating. Since arriving, all I’ve wanted to do is face the ocean. I’m not the only one. Most everyone seems to be gazing seaward, even when they’re holding a cocktail in one hand as the sun falls—say, from a deck at the houses we pass on Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport. Boats and horizons remind me of seafarers like my bayman grandfather and clam-digging uncle. I breathe and wonder about life’s big, vague, vast questions. Or sometimes while standing on beaches, I recall lighter moments and teenage summers with sand and the ocean’s salt on my skin and in my hair—I always had crushes on surfers.

With the miles of oceanfront, the tidal KENNEBUNK RIVER and MOUSAM RIVER, sand spits, and coves, water is everywhere on the south coast of Maine. That the shoreline here isn’t always rocky, as it is along so much of New England’s natural oceanfront, adds to the captivation. Sandy coastline is a rarity in Maine, but here in the Kennebunks it’s possible to find soft beaches, where your toes can stretch into the sun-warmed sand. Such shores draw people (like me) almost magnetically, to bask, walk barefoot, and contemplate—maybe even settle into beach chairs and suntans.

Summer Seeking

The 21-room Tides Beach Club looks more like a large beach house than an inn. It sits in the lineup of family cottages at the nearly three-mile long GOOSE ROCKS BEACH. Inside, the rooms are airy and bright, with seagrass rugs, whitewashed walls, hallways hung with hip art, and a restaurant with a terrific bar and wine list. There’s plenty that’s good to sip, and simple, fresh dishes like tuna poke salad or a bowl of corn chowder. Bowdoin grad Hillary Peterson, 31, is an attorney who lives in Andover, Massachusetts. She tells me that the natural, mellow beachfront at Goose Rocks has been her favorite getaway for years. “This is my sliver of Maine,” she says. Her parents own a house here, and in 2010, her wedding to Bowdoin classmate Ben Peterson was held in her parents’ ocean-facing front yard, followed by a reception in Kennebunkport in the 130-year-old Nonantum Resort. During summers at Goose Rocks, she grew up going to the beach, teaching tennis lessons, and riding in the Fourth of July bicycle parade. She finds some pictures that she sends to me later by email; one is of her mom leading the annual Independence Day parade in her teal-blue 1970 Oldsmobile convertible with a Maine HPY4TH license plate.

Inspired by such Kennebunks tales, we seek more waterfront scenery and beaches. Cruising by car from Goose Rocks Beach, and sometimes by bicycle (parking for cars is at a premium in summer), we stick mostly to the two-lane Route 9 and less traveled, shoreline-hugging roads. Hopping from stop to stop in intervals of single-digit miles, even yards, I quickly begin to feel like we’re on a treasure hunt. Many of the beaches and waterside features are places I haven’t seen before, and some are tricky to locate on maps or have differing local nicknames or alternate spellings—depending on the source, it’s either Turbat’s or Turbot Creek; and Gooches or Gooch’s Beach, which is the same as Kennebunk Beach. That adds some fun to the challenge of finding them.

Next stop is the village of CAPE PORPOISE, which is known for its classic seafood places. There’s the red- and yellow-painted Nunan’s Lobster Hut that’s hung with buoys and nets inside and out; the cozy waterfront digs at the Ramp Bar and Grill under Pier 77 (watch fishing boats, slurp chowder); and the old-school Wayfarer, established in 1958 and reopened last summer. I’ve heard the new owners at the Wayfarer have hired Brendan Levin, a chef with New England ties who worked most recently in South Carolina kitchens and has a preference for locally sourced ingredients. At a sunny booth we order a tasty lunch of a native shrimp po’ boy with a New Orleans-style remoulade, cheeseburger, fries, and iced tea. Meanwhile, I overhear locals talking about how they’re happy the Wayfarer hasn’t changed too much, including that it’s still BYOB.

The hills and shade of WILDES DISTRICT ROAD between Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport make for a scenic drive (or pedal, in this case), and we turn onto TURBAT’S CREEK ROAD and follow it to where it ends, unpaved, at salt water. A woman is sliding a kayak into the creek, and all around her is a cluster of small, wooden houses—some on stilts. These are the historic “fish houses,” the simple, shed-sized fishermen’s shacks that have been here for decades. The tide rises and falls underneath some of the cottages, and old dock pilings jut out of the mud in other places—the docks they once supported are long gone. Rustic and captivating, this lost-in-time scene looks to be the inspiration or subject of paintings that I’ve noticed in Kennebunkport galleries—the simple lines and angles of the houses juxtaposed against glimmering water or marsh grass and mud.

 

Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport

 

KENNEBUNKS BEACH-AROUND

In a car, I might have missed the diminutive Hazel’s Cove, but from my bicycle, I notice an ocean-facing bench on a rocky ledge. Not quite a half-mile south of the green lawn and oceanfront dining room of the Cape Arundel Inn, this little cove sits below Ocean Avenue and is maybe 100 yards wide. When the tide is low, a beach is revealed, deep with smooth stones, many no larger than gumballs. Rock walls rise on either side, and a set of concrete steps leads to the waterline at one end. It’s the kind of place you can feel is all your own, for a time. I’m the sole visitor to this compact cove for several minutes, and I sit quietly and watch a schooner pass by.

This is also a good preview for a visit to the stone marvel next door that’s St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. Perched on the shore like a lighthouse, the chapel is cool and quiet inside, with doors open for visitors. A few years ago, a restoration of the steeple and bells was dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Walker Bush, mother of President George H. W. Bush. We’re just minutes from the presidential-level security and secrecy of the Bush compound, Walker’s Point. It’s situated on a narrow peninsula that connects to Ocean Avenue. Parking and benches draw onlookers and offer surprisingly easy vantage points, but on this beach getaway, our closest brush with the Bush family is to see them in snapshots posted on the walls at the Ramp.

Later I talk with Lisa Brodar, who moved to Maine from New York City to live at first in Portland’s East End, and now in Kennebunkport. She and her partner, Troy Tyler, are founders of the Portland General Store skincare line. Proximity to the water is what drew them here. “The long coastline is so accessible and beautiful,” she says. “We can almost always hear the waves.” Most often, the seaside playground and shorefront at Mother’s Beach is the family destination. This summer, her five-year-old son wants to try the surfing lessons taught by a neighborhood teenager. They also like to wander the shore at Colony Beach (also called Arundel Beach), where the white-columned Colony Hotel towers above beachgoers. For the past century, this Kennebunkport retreat has stood on the Kennebunk River. Locals seem to congregate there, Brodar tells me, particularly at the sunset golden hour, some unfolding chairs to sit for a while.

It’s KENNEBUNK BEACH (Gooch’s Beach, or Point Beach), though, that draws the most seaside crowds. People are on foot, with dogs, on bicycles, and lounging around blankets or benches—gathered to see the ocean and each other. Water hangs on top of the sand as waves recede; the beach looks like a shelf of glass at low tide. I don’t see anyone on skim boards, but the conditions look good for gliding across the wet sand. Several people are in the water in wetsuits on boogie boards. One 50-something man dressed only in swim trunks and without a board emerges from the water and walks briskly up the beach to his sun-warmed car. He’s from the Netherlands. “I swim there, so I’m used to the cold water,” he explains, smiling. Going for a chilled dip is simply part of Maine in summertime. At the Kennebunk beaches, June to August ocean temperatures are often in the upper 50s and low 60s. Hillary Peterson says she developed some cold ocean swimming techniques growing up at Goose Rocks Beach. “There’s this whole system,” she says. “You wait until the sun beats down for a period of hours and then jump in all the way up to your chin, get numb, and enjoy the swimming.”

Next we go looking for STRAWBERRY ISLAND (Libby’s Point). We find a sign marker on the ocean side of Great Hill Road in Kennebunk, a residential road off of Sea Road, not far from Lord’s Point and Mother’s Beach. The “island” is connected to land, a ridge of rock and smooth stones jutting into the water. It was acquired by the Kennebunk Land Trust in the early 1970s.   I quickly realize I won’t be bare-footing it here. I walk (and hop) carefully over the smooth stones. This is a long, mounding spit, and after five minutes of walking, I’m not even halfway to the end. Meanwhile, a few people in skiffs are cruising near, exploring the sheltered pools that look like perfect spots for swimming.

Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve in Wells


THE EDGE OF THE SEA

South of Kennebunk, toward Wells, is the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, where we walk along a looping woodland trail and boardwalk and learn some of the science and ecology of the coastal landscape we’ve been exploring, from maritime forests to marshes and beaches. The refuge is named for the 20th-century marine biologist and environmentalist who had an affinity for Maine and built a cottage farther up the coast. I have a copy of her classic 1956 guide, The Edge of the Sea, which is a scientific and poetic read for a Kennebunk beach trip, giving clues to the origins of Maine’s rare, sandy beaches. “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place,” Carson wrote. “Here and there on the predominantly rocky coast of northern New England there are small beaches—some came from the glacial debris that covered the rocky surface when the land tilted and the sea came in.”

On a hunt for one more seaside stop, we follow maps and directions to PARSONS BEACH. I’ve heard it’s private and beautiful, and the anticipation builds. Just south of the Mousam River, we turn from Route 9 onto Parsons Beach Road, where we can see horses grazing in the distance. The road continues beneath the tall trees that line the road on both sides and then traverses a causeway across Back Creek. To one side, I spot long-legged herons fishing in the grasses and shallow water. We park at the end of a line of cars and take the beach path that’s ahead. I’m barefoot now in the deep, soft sand. On the ocean side of tall dunes, the scene strikes me as very similar to a Carolinas beach. Groups of sunbathers and lone driftwood logs dot the beachfront. In the sunlight and steady breeze, I follow the water’s edge to the northern end of this sandy spit and watch the currents of a tidal inlet sliding past.

Hello, summer. 

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