Maine – Ogunquit: “Beautiful Place By the Sea”

Route 1 comes into Maine at Kittery and follows the Atlantic Coast beyond East Machias until it comes to Whiting when it turns north and starts to parallel the Canadian border.  At a little place called Hamlin it loops west and meanders along the southern bank of the St. John River until it reaches Fort Kent.  The other end of Route 1 is in Key West, Florida.  This route has been a major north-south passage since 1926.  We can’t claim to have covered its full 2,369 miles, but we have covered a lot of its miles here in Maine.     

Back in southern Maine, along the last stretch of Cape Neddick before driving on to Ogunquit watch on the right side of the road for the low red building that is the home of Flo’s Hot Dogs.  Many summer visitors make this their first food stop in Maine…bypassing the lobster rolls and fried clams served up along the beaches in York…and I can understand why.  We try to plan our drives along this stretch of road so we get to Flo’s on Thursdays through Sundays between 11am and 3pm, the only days and hours they are open.  Florence Stacy bought the business in 1959 and the third generation of the family is still serving up their steamed hot dogs with Flo’s famous relish.       

After enjoying your hotdogs, you may want to backtrack a bit to York Beach and pick up Route 1A for the most scenic drive into Ogunquit, an Indian name meaning “Beautiful Place by the Sea.”  In town the two-lane road slows to a crawl in the summer but this is a town to visually savor.  It is worth finding…even paying for…a parking spot so you can visit Harbor Candy Shop, a family business that began as a fudge shop in 1956.

In my mouth-watering photos of the shop’s interior, we have an unusual guide.  On a family visit to California, Don’s great niece Sophia insist that we take her most favorite stuffed animal, “Plush,” with us on our travels.  For many months a blue elephant joined us and was photographed in the colorful settings we visited.  These photos were sent to Sophia so she could keep up with his cross-country and New England adventures.  Just before Christmas that year, we gently packed up travel-weary Plush and sent him home to rejoin his mistress. 

Across the street from the candy store, the little Leavitt Theater has been screening movies each summer for almost a hundred years.  We stopped there once to see one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.  It was fun to sit in this historic setting that had started showing silent movies with live piano accompaniment in the 1920s and see swashbuckling Johnny Depp taking on the ghosts of a haunted sailing ship that rose out of broiling ocean water.

Just about two blocks away is the Ogunquit Memorial Library with its Romanesque stone exterior.  If it is open, take a moment to pop in and savor its quiet, book-lined interior.   Nannie Conarroe had the library built in 1897 in memory of her husband, George.  The couple lived in Philadelphia, where Mr. Conarroe practiced law, and they summered in the Ogunquit area for many years.  In addition to having the building constructed, she donated 1,500 books from her personal library and established a generous trust fund to maintain it well into the future.  In 1914, the fieldstone building was enlarged to the size it is today. 

Ogunquit was settled in the mid-1600s and by the end of the century ship builders were making schooners, brigs and dories along the Ogunquit River.  Inland there was enough flat land and decent soil for farmers to be able to raise crops.  The first tourists began to appear in the late 1800s when cities had become such crowded, hot and dirty places in the summer that those who could began escaping to more scenic places with comfortable climates. 

In Ogunquit locals began to rent out rooms and sheds, which made the natural beauty of its coast and the picturesque farms and forests an affordable alternative.   

Boston artist Charles Woodbury (1864-1940) was already well established by this time.   Woodbury was well grounded in European style painting and was developing a more impressionistic approach to his work.  He felt that a painter should capture the big elements of a piece quickly on a canvas and then fill in only the essential elements.  While teaching his “Art of Seeing,” he met and married a woman from York, so the draw to Maine was natural and by 1898 he had established a studio on Perkins Cove and had organized the “Summer School of Drawing and Painting.”  Woodbury’s students and plenty of other artists erected their easels at sites up and down the coast to capture the magnificent waterfront and also went inland to record their impressions of Maine’s farms and forests.   

A current exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art has an entire wall presenting examples of “American Modernism” and it includes Woodbury’s “Winter Sea” (1910) and Clarence Chatterton’s “Road to Ogunquit” (1940) as well as examples of other artists who followed the impressionist philosophy.   

In 1902, Hamilton Easter Field, a student of Woodbury’s, bought a row of shacks in Ogunquit and rented them out to artists.  Nine years later, he and his protégé, Robert Laurent, opened the Ogunquit Summer School of Graphic Arts.  World War I and rapid social changes had affected many in the art world and their works were going in a new direction using in a bolder and more abstract style. 

Henry Strater, a former Woodbury student, opened the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1953 on land formerly owned by his teacher.  This museum is a place we love to visit even if we are not going to tour the current exhibits. 

We cannot resist the lure of the beautifully landscaped gardens, the sculpture-filled grounds and the dramatic ocean view.  Coming around the side of the building you are greeted by Cabot Lyford’s black granite “Otters,” and beyond them waves crash into the rocks in Narrow Cove. 

On a short pedestal near the otters is Robert Laurent’s 1940 sculpture “Mother and Daughter.” 

Days later we found his “Hero and Leander,” a 1934 carving on mahogany at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA).

William Zorach’s bronze armless “Victory” (1950) stands beautifully poised amid the plantings here in the garden.  His work is well represented both here at the museum as well and in the PMA collection. 

His wife, Marguerite, was equally prolific and several of her works are also in both museum’s collections.  These paintings are currently hanging in the PMA: “Les Baux (1910), “The Garden” (1914) and “Diana of the Sea” (1940).

A leisurely walk around the museum introduces visitors to a fascinating range of sculpture and conveniently labeled plants as well: “Lion” and “Rhino” by Bernard Langlais, “Morning” by John Flannagan and Brunnera Jack Frost. 

The two art schools turned Ogunquit into Maine’s largest art community….largest but not the only art community as you will come to see as we share more of our travels around the state.

Another essential stop on any visit to Ogunquit is Perkins Cove.  It is difficult to remember that this is still a working harbor in light of all the tourists crowding onto this little piece of land.   Lobster boats, tour boats and sailboats are moored in the sheltered water and the narrowing spit of land is filled with colorful shops and parking lots. 

We sometimes pause for lunch or an early dinner at Barnacle Billy’s because we love to sit on their terrace to enjoy the view of the cove and their magnificent garden. 

This is also a perfect starting point for the Marginal Way Walkway, the greatest gift the town of Ogunquit has ever received.  Conservationist Josiah Chase, Jr., donated the original mile-long parcel to the town in 1925.  Since then generous landowners and active fundraising efforts have succeeded in extending the walk to its current mile-and-a-quarter paved length.  There is no reason to hurry along this stretch with its magnificent unobstructed ocean views and dramatic rocky shores.  Benches encourage visitors to enjoy the sea breeze while they watch the spry from the waves smashing against the rocks while others explore tide pools. 

Those who are interested can learn about the history of the folds, dikes and polished surfaces in the rocks at their feet, beginning in the Cenozoic Era through today (a period of 416-444 million years). 

Another sign identifies the birds that make the shoreline their home…while a family of Eider ducks floats atop the waves nearby.

A few people brave the bracingly cold Atlantic waters in the little pocket beaches.

The other side of the path is lined with sea roses and gnarled shrubs until it becomes the trimmed lawns and blooming gardens of the homes and hotels that would have lined the shore had it not been for Mr. Chase.   

By the time we reach Lobster Point Lighthouse we are nearing the town itself.  This charming, petite lighthouse was built in 1948 and it is not all it seems.  When we read the fine print on its sign, we learned that it functions as a pumping station for the Ogunquit sewer system! 

On the last stretch of our walk we look across at three-mile-long Ogunquit Beach.  This slim sandy peninsula was formed between the Ogunquit River and the Atlantic Ocean and its easy access has made it a favorite playground for visitors who want sand and sun. 

At the end of the Walkway, it is only a short distance on into town or a little longer walk back to Perkin’s Cove by way of the sidewalk along the road.  In either case there are lobster rolls and ice cream cones aplenty for those who have worked up an appetite.

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