USA Reflections East Coast: Ogunquit, Maine
New York was hot and had been the whole week. The days of scorching sunshine and temperatures well into the thirties were interrupted only by one of the most sudden and dramatic rainstorms I have ever seen. My partner Liam and I had spent an exciting, non-stop week in the city but as we waited in Penn Station – Grand Central’s ugly step-sister – I looked forward to a chilled week on the coast in Ogunquit, Maine. Visions of lobster and chowder danced in my head.
I had chosen the town of Ogunquit almost at random, as the Maine portion of our two-week American adventure. Reading that it was a charming, classically Maine seaside village, full of good restaurants, gay-friendly and with a vibrant artistic and theatrical community, I thought it sounded perfect.
Taking the train from New York to Boston, where we’d pick up a car, was something I had looked forward to with unashamed excitement. Working for a railway company, I love journeying by train and Amtrak’s Northeast Regional did not disappoint. Travelling first class in comfortable seats next to huge windows, we watched the states roll by as the train made its way along the New England coast. New York State, Connecticut, Rhode Island, then north into Massachusetts. If you’ve never travelled by inter-city train in America, I really recommend it.
The drive from Boston up I-95 took a little over an hour, when all of a sudden we were turning off onto a tiny track that led through the woods to our rental house. This beautiful, architect-designed lodge was to be our base for the week, where we’d be surrounded by Maine’s ancient pines and wake up to find chipmunks playing on our deck. One afternoon we came back from Portland to a troupe of wild turkeys marching in circles round the house, squawking at nothing in particular.
Dinner time, and our first proper look at Ogunquit.
The place is made up of two halves – Ogunquit village in the north, and Perkins Cove in the south. After parking near Perkins Cove, we walked up into Ogunquit and I went into rhapsodies. It is quite simply one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited. ‘Ogunquit’ is a Native American word meaning ‘beautiful place by the sea’, and it is well-named. The streets are lined with picture-book New England houses, all white clapboard, picket fences, covered porches and immaculate gardens.
Restaurants and bars are everywhere – the town has a law prohibiting chains, so they’re all indies – and throughout our stay we visited our fair share. However, this being our first night in Maine it seemed only proper to experience the state’s most famous product – lobster. 90% of all lobsters eaten in America come from Maine and their abundance means good quality and far lower prices than I would pay in the UK. We wandered up to The Lobster Pound, one of the larger restaurants in Ogunquit, and had a delicious lobster each.
After dinner, we selected a bar almost at random: The Front Porch. We headed upstairs to the piano lounge where, to put it simply, our trip came alive. Ogunquit is not only one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited, it’s also one of the friendliest. The Front Porch is legendary in New England and is packed night after night. With an array of colourful characters sitting round the piano, belting out show tunes with hilarious gusto, it has a uniquely warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Everyone there wanted to talk to us. A hen party from Connecticut took us under their wing. We were given the bride-to-be’s long red necklace as ‘a souvenir to remember her by’. I’ve forgotten her name but the necklace is still in our suitcase. Returning to our house in the woods at almost 2am, we realised that we had stumbled upon a very special place.
The following day was earmarked for exploring the town and the best place to start is the Marginal Way, a mile-long pathway running along the stunning Maine coast from Perkins Bay to Ogunquit’s long, sandy beach. Marginal Way represents many of the reasons I love America so much. Americans love to get rich and make money; they also love to use that money philanthropically and that is exactly how this place came to be owned by the people of Ogunquit. Conservationist and politician Josiah Chase bought a 20-acre parcel of land along the coast and in 1928 donated the land that became the Marginal Way to the public. We enjoyed a slow amble, drinking in the ocean views and taking envious peeks at the enormous houses that sit atop the cliffs.
A find on a par with The Front Porch was a shop near the beach called Spoiled Rotten. Set in a charming yellow New England house, we intended to poke our head round the door and ended up staying for over an hour. I love business owners with a genuine passion for their products and Toby took us through their impressive range of scented candles, room fragrances, gourmet foods and other enticing gifts. We spent far too much money, but it was all worth it. When you go, you must spend time with Harold, the octogenarian groundskeeper and an absolute gent.
Ogunquit continued to demonstrate its friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Walking down the street, someone on the other side of the road recognised us from The Front Porch and called, ‘hey, it’s the British people!’ waving frantically. In Barnacle Billy’s for lunch, the waitress said, ‘keep talking. I don’t care what you say, but just keep talking’. The cliché is true: Americans do love a British accent.
When Liam and I go away, we like to do things. We wouldn’t last five minutes lazing on a beach or by the pool. Fortunately, there are a great many things to do within an hour’s drive of Ogunquit. Portland, Maine’s largest city and a rather cool place, is a hub for creative industries and home to lots of great restaurants and interesting independent stores. One tip – the clam chowder from Gilbert’s on Commercial Street is to die for. And we ate a lot of clam chowder…
Then there’s Kennebunkport, a slightly more WASPish seaside village just north of Ogunquit, which happens to be the location of the Bush Family’s impressive summer vacation home at Walker’s Point.
Another option is to take one of the many boat trips on offer. We took one along the coast to Cape Neddick Light, the archetypal New England lighthouse, before enjoying a trip in a lobster boat where we learnt about the art and science of lobster fishing.
Back in Ogunquit, we explored the town’s significant artistic heritage. It seems that everyone there is an artist or an art collector or an art dealer and little galleries abound. The mainstay of the art scene is the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, a rather cool mid-century modern building perched on an imposing spot on the coast south of Perkins Cove. Here, as well as seeing some great works of art by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder and – my favourite – Edward Hopper, you can trace the town’s artistic development from its beginnings as an ‘arts colony’ for artists from across America. OMAA is an absolute gem and whether you’re a serious art lover or just curious, it is worth the detour.
As well as being something of a mecca for artists, it is also famous for its theatre, the Ogunquit Playhouse. The playhouse produces musicals specifically for its Maine audience and is renowned for the quality of its shows. We saw West Side Story in an electrifying, exhilarating production that I will never forget.
Our last night was spent, of course, at The Front Porch with some of our new friends. Drinking, singing, talking, laughing – it was fitting that we ended our holiday here at this place, where on our first night we had realised just how unique a town Ogunquit is. The pianist played ‘At Last’ by Etta James, our wedding song, and we said our semi-tearful goodbyes.
Walking back to our house in the woods along the coast, I looked up at the big Maine moon hovering over the Atlantic Ocean. The town slept and there was a slight chill in the air; a few more weeks and the leaves would begin to turn before exploding into the famous New England Fall. Ogunquit would hunker down for the winter; its population would shrink to just 900 year-round residents.
The next day, we packed and drove south to Boston to catch our flight home. Landing at 6am at a cold, wet Heathrow Airport was a depressing contrast to Maine’s gentle sunshine.
Ogunquit is a special place, full of character and characters. Achingly pretty, it shimmers like a gem on Maine’s southern coast. We loved our beautiful place by the sea. So much, in fact, that we’ll be returning in the Spring.
Words by Nicholas Rogers
Photos by Liam Shoots