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Tramel New England travelblog: The gray and great state of Maine

The main drag of York, Maine, on Friday was gray and wet. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
The main drag of York, Maine, on Friday was gray and wet. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

The sky gray, the wind sharp. The air wet, the waves high. The boulevard deserted, the businesses shuttered.

The seabirds held court.

The town, at least the portion sitting literally across the street from the sea, seemed like a vacant movie set.

A Stephen King movie.

Sometimes, places turn out exactly as you picture them, and that’s what happened Friday in York, Maine.

I’ve always wanted to go to Maine. I don’t know why. I mean, the Atlantic Ocean beckoned, but the U.S. has 23 states with a coastline (not counting the Great Lakes). I don’t know why Maine has held my fascination.

But it has. I always thought it would be cool to rent a beach house on the North Atlantic, far from the crowds, with a chilly breeze even in summer. We almost pulled the trigger four years ago; Trish the Dish found the perfect setting in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the United States, but we decided the beaches were too rocky for the granddaughters, so we went to Prince Edward Island instead. 

So my Maine quest continued. Until Friday.

We drove over from Manchester, New Hampshire, and had a glorious day checking out a sliver of one of America’s most mysterious states.

The harbor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
The harbor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

We went by way of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Goofy me, I didn’t even know New Hampshire was on the coast. I pride myself on geography but never knew that about 15 miles of New Hampshire fronts the Atlantic Ocean. You learn something every day.

Portsmouth is an ancient place, first traveled by Europeans in 1603 and settled in 1630. It’s a seaport and has a charming downtown that abuts the bay, with tons of centuries-old buildings housing restaurants and shops. We could have spent a whole day in Portsmouth.

Instead, we popped into a couple of shops and had lunch at the River House, overlooking the water. I had a lobster roll (basically a lobster sandwich) and seafood chowder. Both were excellent.

And then it was off to Maine.

Most Americans know Maine only by Stephen King’s stories, most of which are set in Maine. “Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, the Tommyknockers,” dozens more.

My early memory of Maine came from “Dark Shadows,” the horror series from the 1960s with vampires and werewolves and Barnabas Collins, set in Collinsport, Maine.

And of course, L.L. Bean, the iconic retailer, is headquartered in Freeport, Maine. More on that later.

Few states are more unique than Maine. It is the only state among the continental 48 with just one border state (New Hampshire). Maine borders more Canadian provinces (New Brunswick, Quebec) than American states.

Maine is old. Its indigenous population dates back perhaps to 3000 B.C., but archeological discoveries have found some interaction with Norwegians as early as the 12th century, and the first European settlement, from France, was in 1604. Maine is the least densely-populated state east of the Mississippi River; 80 percent of its land is forested or unclaimed.

Maine has 3,478 miles of coastline -- more coastline than California. The jagged shore is mostly rocky; almost all of Maine’s sandy beaches are in the relatively small area between Portland, its biggest city, and New Hampshire.

Maine is a tourist mecca for New Englanders, who vacation in the summer along those sandy beaches in places like York and Ogunquit and Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach.

But like many coastal towns, Maine’s beach fronts are dormant during the offseason.

We drove into York, coming in from the north end of the commercial district, and were stunned at the setting. Huge waves rolling against the rocks, sitting hard on the east by Highway 1A. On the west side of the road, vacation rentals were fit snuggly, with occasional shops and restaurants mixed in.

The cool rain and heavy breeze created a foggy sensation. A sandy beach accounted for maybe half the mile-or-so-long commercial stretch. You could imagine thousands of tourists strolling the sidewalks and crossing the street on July days, but on this October Friday, York was mostly deserted.

A York, Maine, house sports autumn color in the front and the Atlantic Ocean in the back. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
A York, Maine, house sports autumn color in the front and the Atlantic Ocean in the back. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

Maine’s jigsaw shore and frequent jutouts are a real-estate dream. A straight-line shore keeps beachfront property to a minimum, but in Maine, the oceanview possibilities abound.

In York, extending both ends from the commercial strip, houses have been constructed, backing up to the Atlantic, most of them on hills and bluffs. Not all the houses are opulent; some are normal-sized houses that might cost $150,000 in Oklahoma but have a million-dollar view in Maine. 

We drove up the windy roads of the coast -- most of which don’t have an Atlantic view; houses are in the way -- and found other charming places.

Ogunquit, north of York, still had some tourists. Its Perkins Cove, a small peninsula, is a quaint commercial district that sits right on the water.

Kennebunkport, famous as the home of the Bush Compound, was hopping. All kinds of autumn visitors. It has a thriving shopping district not on the water but not far. You can’t tour the Bush Compound, you can only see it from outside, so we decided not to even drive by. It gets dark early in Maine.

We left the coast and jumped back on Interstate 295 to head for Freeport. The Dish had heard about Freeport shopping for years, and we wanted to check it out.

We drove through Portland, Maine’s largest city, though the population is only 66,000 or so. Portland has a metro population of about 514,000, so it’s a substantial place. A little bigger than Shreveport, a little smaller than Wichita.

Portland is aptly-named. It has a big port, but we learned that much of Maine’s coastline is not inhabitable. Lots of marshy land. Northern swamps. And Portland seems surrounded by those marshes.

Freeport is about 20 miles north of Portland, and that’s where Leon Leonwood Bean in 1912 started selling his invention -- hunting shoes made of light leather at the top, with rubber bottoms. L.L. Bean started a mail-order business and soon enough became a national brand.

Today, L.L. Bean dominates Freeport no less than Disney dominates Orlando.

L.L. Bean’s campus in downtown Freeport actually has four huge, glittering stores: apparel, hunting/fishing, bike/boat/ski and home.

Since 1951, L.L. Bean prided itself on never closing -- it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Why a clothing store needs to be open at 3 a.m. in Freeport, Main, I don’t know. But it was.

L.L. Beam closed only for two Sundays in 1962, when Maine’s blue laws demanded it before a voter revolt, and to honor the deaths of John Kennedy, Bean himself and Bean’s grandson, Leon Gorman. 

However, in March, L.L. Bean closed because of the pandemic. It reopened June 1.

The stores were not crowded. Some merchandise was removed, creating more space, and L.L. Bean limits the number of people in the stores, though no one had to wait Friday while we were there. 

The Dish bought a few things and the whole experience was fascinating. An American success story. L.L. Bean now has stores all over America, and its mail-order business was groundbreaking, helping lead to today’s online revolution. But Freeport is the mothership.

And Freeport is the beneficiary. Downtown Freeport is full of factory stores and shopping outlets from other companies. A thriving place, because of the work and vision of Leon Leonwood Bean.

We left Freeport about 4 p.m. and it was already getting dark. Sunset was, I don’t know, 5:45 or so, but the rain and clouds and gloom give you the impression that it’s always dusk.

My former pastor, Brian Wade, spent 10 years in Maine and said you ought to see it in winter, when the temperature drops and darkness comes in the middle of the day. I think I’ll pass on that one. 

Summer and autumn seem to be the times to be in Maine.

Move a block or two away from the beach, and Maine has much the same color as the rest of New England. Gorgeous yellows and reds and oranges. They say the North Woods, in northern Maine, are gorgeous, they’re just so difficult to reach.

We had fun viewing some of the houses around York from the front. Beautiful home, in an idyllic setting, with autumn colors, and, oh yeah, in the backyard was the Atlantic Ocean. Amazing.

On the way back south, we stopped off in Scarborough, a Portland suburb where the Wades pastored, and shot a picture of his former church. Then we headed over to the coast and drove through Old Orchard Beach, a huge summer tourist destination with the traditional setting of houses and rentals and hotels backing up to the water.

Lots of lights on and lots of cars jammed into the tiny parking areas around the houses. I assume lots of people, during the offseason, live in the relatively-small houses, then rent them out in the summers.

We finally made it back to York, where we had spotted a waterfront Lobster house, Fox’s. We sat upstairs, overlooking the Nubble Lighthouse and the darkened Atlantic.

The lobster dinner at Fox's Lobster House. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
The lobster dinner at Fox's Lobster House. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

Maine lobster is a must-do, of course, and they say they’re relatively inexpensive if you get them on the coast. They’re actually not that inexpensive, and frankly, lobster is a little overrated.

Hard to eat. Lots of work for not that much great seafood. Overpriced. And not that much better, if any, than a really good piece of fish.

Both the Dish and I had 1⅛-pound lobster dinners; I had the upgrade to chowder and shrimp cocktail. I think our bill was $80 before tip. It was a fun experience. But not even close to the best dinner we’ve had in New England.

We drove back to the interstate through the rain, leaving Maine and returning to New Hampshire, having experienced a little of a state that’s always fascinated me. I’d like to go back and see even more.


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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›