Psst! Here are twelve secret strands you probably won't find on your own. But let's just keep this list between us, okay?
On a bright July afternoon Scarborough Beach State Park becomes something of a suburb in itself. Thousands of sun-lovers flock to the strand on an average day, filling it from one end to another, overwhelming its five-hundred-car parking lots and spilling out onto the Black Point Road. They come from all over, Greater Portlanders eager for a cool breeze and a hot tan; people from Nebraska marveling at the salty sea. They spread out across the beach’s acres of white sands with their radios, big umbrellas, beach balls, and vocal kids, a sea of bronze skin and cocoa butter.
Just down the road, though, not even five miles away in either direction, are a pair of beaches where the scene is much more subdued. Both Higgins Beach and Ferry Beach see their share of summer revelers but not on any scale like Scarborough Beach. Most people from away simply don’t know them.
This is true of many a secret strand — from Kittery all the way down the coast to the Machias area. What follows are a dozen local treasures. Some are downright tiny with limited or restricted parking. Our advice: get there early, and please, do not park illegally. If you do, you’ll deserve whatever tickets come your way.
Seapoint Beach, Kittery
You’ll need a good map and compass to find this one. The beach is set in a residential area down an anonymous side street between Gerrish Island and Brave Boat Harbor in Kittery Point: six hundred yards of gray sand in a town known more for its shopping. Not the finest sand — or the finest strand, for that matter — and Seapoint has a lot of sea wrack, mostly seaweed and kelp beloved by nasty green-eyed flies. If you can look past the nori, you will find a relatively quiet stretch of shore in Maine’s most southerly town. The facilities are limited — there are no lifeguards, bathhouses, or snack stands — but the view stretches out to the open sea. You pass through sections of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on your way in, so watch for egrets and other interesting birds. Right up the middle of the beach is a tumble of rocks in a jetty that kids may find interesting to explore. Other than that, it’s sand and surf.
No fee is charged and the beach is open from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. (no dogs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). You find it by taking Chauncey Creek or Gerrish Island roads and connecting with Seapoint Road. There is a non-resident parking area beneath a bunch of pines that will accommodate two dozen or so cars if everyone parks intelligently; from there it’s a quick walk (five minutes, tops) through a neighborhood to the beach. Get caught leaving your car in the small lot nearer the beach without a local dump sticker, and you’ll face a twenty-five dollar fine.
UPDATE: As of May 2008 non-residents of Kittery are prohibited from parking in either of the Seapoint Beach lots from May 15 until October 1. A Kittery dump sticker is required to park in these lots now, and fines for illegally parking begin at $50. Down East finds this decision by the town of Kittery to be regrettable, and we encourage our readers to continue to enjoy Seapoint by parking legally elsewhere in town and walking or bicycling to the beach.
Harbor Beach, York
Harbor Beach is a very pleasant and very small smile of sand. The grains here are not quite pebble but of a rough cut, and there isn’t much shore left at high tide. But, oh, what a spot. On one side of the beach is the massive Stage Neck Inn, dominating the horizon, on the other a cliff with multi-million-dollar summer homes sticking out of it. Just up the road in one direction is the York Harbor Inn, in the other the post office. Houses and cottages line street after street. And somehow the little beach here thrives in spite of it all — or perhaps because of it all. There’s a lot to gawk at, and a lot to do. You can hike the Cliff Path, which starts right in the beach parking area; you can walk over to the grassy Hartley Mason Park; you can go have lunch at one of the inns; you can beachcomb in the rocks on either side of the sand; or you can simply lay back on your towel, close your eyes, and listen to the surf and the seagulls. The swells are very gentle, and the beach slopes gradually, making it a good place to wade and swim.
The beach has restroom facilities and lifeguards are on duty through Labor Day. As for parking, you’re on your own. The cul de sac of spots here are available by permit only. Best bet is to try to find something in the village and enjoy a walk on your way there. No fee is charged.
Hills Beach, Biddeford
Hills Beach is both a neighborhood of two hundred homes in Biddeford and an actual strand in the epicenter of Maine beach culture. Unlike the Ogunquit, Wells, Kennebunk, Fortunes Rocks, and Old Orchard beaches all around it, it’s somewhat quiet because access is limited. The sands are fine, very long and narrow, crowded by all those summer places. In spots there are grassy dunes. All told, there are probably five hundred yards of beach to spread out a blanket, with all the eyes of Hills Beach residents on you. (Or so it sometimes feels.)
The Saco River slides into the sea just to the east of the beach. Combine that with the fact that Biddeford Pool backs up to Hills Beach like a grand lagoon, and add in the wetlands all along the Newtown Road, and you have an ideal area for birdwatching. (Pick the right day, and you’ll see a lot of people with binoculars around their necks.) All of the natural forces here combine to make the wave action less forceful than at other area beaches. The Biddeford Pool peninsula and a handful of islands — Wood, Stage, Negro, and Basket — protect it from a real battering. And in every direction, it seems, there’s a lighthouse.
To reach the beach, you drive right through the campus of the University of New England. Parking is practically nonexistent in the immediate area. You may want to find a permissible spot at the school and hoof it. Likewise, there are no facilities, lifeguards, or any of that. No fee is charged.
Ferry Beach, Scarborough
Not to be confused with the much more popular Ferry Beach State Park in Saco, this Ferry Beach is a local favorite that fronts the Scarborough River and marsh. This places it on the opposite side of the Prouts Neck peninsula from Scarborough Beach. Whereas that state park is a relatively straight strand facing open ocean, this is a neat inlet with fine sands that follow the contours of the river. The beach feels very riverine, with a boathouse on one end and actual lobsterboats moored in the channel, and you gaze across at Pine Point, a seasonal Scarborough enclave (with a sweet beach of its own). Walk far enough to the south at Ferry, and you’ll find yourself on the adjacent Western Beach. Between the two of them, there are about 1,700 yards of fine sand here. Swimming is safer at Western because of the deep drop-off and currents of the river channel at Ferry.
Access is off Route 207 — look for signs. Parking is ten dollars per car in the hundred or so sites of the town-run lot and seasonal passes can be had for twenty dollars. There are restrooms and showers, too. Get there early to get a spot, and don’t even think of parking anywhere near heavily policed Prouts Neck, perhaps the neighborhood in Maine where non-residents are most likely to receive a traffic ticket.
Higgins Beach, Scarborough
This 910-yard long beauty is considered “a private beach with public access,” whatever that means. What it translates to is a strand, managed by the local Higgins Beach Association and the town of Scarborough, with practically non-existent parking for non-residents. You might want to leave your car in South Portland or Cape Elizabeth somewhere and bundle your beach balls and blankets into a taxi. The residents of this venerable neighborhood are very protective of their shorefront (understandably), so it’s not the easiest to get on to.
Sort of a shame, really, because this is truly a spectacular stretch of coast with sands that are fine and white and spread wide to accept the rolling waves of the Atlantic. There’s a cool old shipwreck (the Howard W. Middleton, which went aground here in 1897), good kayaking, actual surfing, striper fishing on the Spurwink River, and great swimming due to the fact that the water temperatures here are higher than at many other beaches, reaching into the sixties. This is a real, wide-open, stay-for-the-day and build sandcastles, burn your back and play volleyball, then take a nap sort of beach.
If you really want to spend some time here the best idea is to rent a summerhouse in the cottage community that backs up to the sands (www.higgins beachmaine.com/rentals). Or plan a stay at the Higgins Beach Inn (higgins beachinn.com) or Breakers Inn (www. thebreakersinn.com). Access is off Ocean Avenue, which is a side street of Spurwink Avenue. No fee is charged.
Sandy Point Beach, Cousins Island
An island beach? Won’t that be hard to get to? Sandy Point is a beach on an island in Casco Bay, but Cousins is connected to Yarmouth by a bridge, so yes, and no. This is a very petite strand — maybe more of a spit than a strand — on the north side of the island, facing South Freeport. The beach is just over the Ellis C. Snodgrass Memorial Bridge (you might know it as the Cousins Island Bridge) from Yarmouth, and some of it wraps underneath the span. The sands at this former shipyard all but disappear at high tide. Not many people outside local residents know of the place. The parking lot can fill on a hot summer day, but the beach rarely seems excessively busy.
This is an exceptional put-in for any one wanting to kayak Casco Bay. The swimming is good, and there’s a lot to see and do — just realize it’s small and the sands are ephemeral. Needless to say, there are no lifeguards or any sort of facilities.
The parking area is just over the Snodgrass bridge on the left. No fee is charged.
Winslow Park, Freeport
If you consider the fact that L.L. Bean is one of Maine’s largest tourist attractions, and that Freeport is a town known worldwide, it’s amazing that this pocket beach, five miles from the Big Boot, is all but unknown. The tidal beach — best to get here two hours before or after high tide — is part of town-owned Winslow Park. As such, it offers visitors a lot more than simply swimming. The park’s ninety acres include picnic spots large enough for family reunions, a play area for kids, a boat launch to get out onto the waves of Casco Bay, and even a nature trail that wanders along the Harraseeket River.
If you find all this to your liking, you can even camp here. There are 102 sites lined up along the bay. They’re separated from the beach a bit, though, so it doesn’t feel like the world’s on top of you when you’re spreading out your blanket. Swimming is excellent, but leave the beer and Frisbee at home — they’re not allowed.
You’ll find Winslow Park off the Staples Point Road. It’s open from 8 a.m. to thirty minutes after sunset. The day-use fee is two dollars per person, assuming you don’t live in Freeport (a dollar for residents).
Pemaquid Beach, Bristol
Sand beaches get scarce indeed the farther north of Portland you go. Pemaquid is one of the rare ones in the midcoast. Even so, it is nowhere near as packed on a hot summer day as Popham or Reid State parks. Another classic beach-lover’s beach, Pemaquid boasts 575 yards of arcing white sand with all the amenities: changing rooms, showers, and snack bar. Thin compared to the wide beaches of the Bath area, Pemaquid fronts John’s Bay and its islands. Because it faces west, it doesn’t get the open ocean pounding that Reid does, for example. (You won’t be boogie boarding.) But the swimming is great if you are of the warm-blooded sort.
One of the admirable aspects of Pemaquid is the care shown for it by the community. The town has water-quality and dune-protection policies in place, and it manages the beach well. Drive to Fort William Henry or the Pemaquid Point Light, have dinner at Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf, and you’ll have a complete day by the sea.
The beach is off Snowball Hill Road. There’s generally good parking here. Day use is two dollars per person, kids twelve and under are free.
Birch Point State Park, Owls Head
This is another of those precious stretches of sand in a region known more for its granite fingers, but you’d hardly know it on a steamy July afternoon. It’s often astonishingly quiet; there always seem to be more cars in the lot than there are people on the sand. This effect is created by locals who gravitate to the rocky headlands that flank the beach, tucking their beach chairs away in the nooks and crannies.
The sands here are a bit coarse, but plenty comfortable for a towel or a blanket. Your view is of the waters of the frigid Muscle Ridge Channel. The state of Maine acquired the land here — formerly known as Lucia Beach — in 1999 as part of the Land for Maine’s Future program. It put in some pit toilets and a big brown sign, but that’s about it by way of changes. Access is by the Ballyhac Road off Route 73. Birch Point State Park is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, and there is no fee.
Sandy Point, Stockton Springs
More than two million people every year motor to Acadia, many of them excited to visit gems like Sand Beach, the only large swath of sand in a national park famed for its rocky coastline. And on their way through Stockton Springs, these travelers drive past a wide-open strand that dwarfs Acadia’s prized beach. Few people other than locals know that this Sandy Point Beach (not to be confused with the one on Cousins Island) exists, let alone that it’s located within a half-mile of Route 1, tucked down a side street in Stockton Springs.
At 1,370 yards, the beach is big and broad, sitting at the point where the Penobscot River tumbles into Penobscot Bay. The sands are not the finest — kind of gravelly, really — and they get hit by a lot of wrack. There are facilities — a seasonal, handicapped accessible, public bathroom — and the beach itself is also handicapped accessible, with wheelchair accessible trails leading to the beach and a scenic overlook.
You’ll find Sandy Point by taking the Steamboat Wharf Road straight though the intersection of Hersey Retreat Road. Steamboat dead-ends at the beach. Parking is not usually a problem, and there is no fee.
Lamoine Beach has something few other Maine beaches can claim — mountain vistas. One of its finest features is the jaw-dropping view you get of the mountains of Acadia. (Mount Desert Island is less than a mile away across Eastern Bay.) A lot of people confuse this little gem with nearby Lamoine State Park. This is the actual beach, and it sprawls for more than 2,740 yards — yes, more than a mile of sand. Lamoine is fairly narrow, with the grains getting grittier the farther toward the water you go, but there’s quite enough shore to go around.
The swimming is cold, as you can imagine, and the only surfing you’ll do here is the wind kind. The facilities are limited to picnic tables and a boat ramp. Many beachgoers will combine a visit here with one to the state park, where there are bigger playgrounds, showers, and more picnicking spots.
Take Route 184 off of Route 1 in Ellsworth. Follow it for about nine miles. You’ll see the sign for Lamoine Beach State Park. Go past it, and within a mile you’ll come to the parking lot for the beach. There is no fee.
Roque Bluffs State Park
Like Lamoine, Roque Bluffs is unique among Maine beaches. First, this is a 910-yard sand and pebble beach in granite country — they don’t call this stretch of Washington County the Bold Coast for nothing. And secondly, it’s a rare experience where you can go for a dip in the frigid seas and then step across the beach and rinse off in the warm waters of Simpson Pond, a sixty-acre freshwater lagoon that backs up to the strand. Sort of like taking a dip in the pool before relaxing in the hot tub.
This is not your fair-haired, beach bum sort of beach where you go to cruise chicks, hang out at the snack shack, and then go shop for T’s. Set in a spectacular 270-acre state park that is barely used compared to hotspots like Reid and Popham, this is a much hardier Maine strand where you can swim and sunbathe. It’s all back to basics here — just the two swimming areas, some picnic places, changing rooms, and five trails, the longest of which is about two miles, that loop through the woods along Englishman’s Bay.
Roque Bluffs is located on a peninsula south of Machias. Take the Roque Bluffs Road from Route 1, then follow signs to Shoppee Point. The park is open May to October and there is a three-dollar fee for adults; children five to eleven one dollar, under five free.
- By: Andrew Vietze