Maine's jagged, indented shoreline is longer than California's, and from south to north, you'll encounter beach towns as distinctly individual as each person who wades into its cool ocean waters. If living or vacationing on the North Atlantic coast is your dream, here are the best little places to dive into all that makes Maine wicked awesome.
The I-95 exit sign for "The Yorks" hints at York, Maine's multifaceted identity. Four distinct villages compose this harbor town, which attracted English settlers as early as 1624. York Beach is the liveliest of the bunch during the all-too-fleeting summer months. With everything seashore-loving families require clustered around Short Sands Beach—casual restaurants; balconied hotels; souvenir shops; the Fun-O-Rama arcade; and an enduring saltwater taffy factory, The Goldenrod, where old-school machines spin, cut, and wrap "kisses"—plus, less-crowded Long Sands Beach with two additional miles of fine sand, it's a nostalgic place to introduce kids to classic beach town pleasures.
No marketing firm could bestow a slogan on Ogunquit more fitting than the meaning of its Abenaki name: "beautiful place by the sea." Known for its three-mile barrier beach and the Marginal Way—a paved, clifftop, seaside walking trail—this artsy, four-square-mile community also has a long-standing tradition of welcoming LGBTQ vacationers. Ogunquit only became an independent town in 1980, but it's been on the map since impressionist Charles H. Woodbury founded a summer painting school in 1898 at Perkins Cove, Ogunquit's still picture-perfect working harbor. Start your day there with breakfast at the Cove Cafe. End it with cold-picked lobster pizza at Cornerstone and a show at John Lane's Ogunquit Playhouse. Laze on the beach in between, and you can call it a perfect summer day.
Active travelers and transplants choose Wells not only for its trio of public beaches but also for access to wild coastal landscapes that are forever preserved. Hike miles of easy-to-moderate trails at the 2,250-acre Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve at historic Laudholm Farms. Spy on migratory birds at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Book a fishing charter, or surf cast from shore. If antiques or old books elevate your heart rate, Wells has shops like sprawling Harding's Books and Cattail Farm Antiques that are beloved by treasure seekers. Of course, Wells Beach and quieter Crescent and Drakes Island Beaches are the town's most valuable assets. Join locals for free Saturday night summer concerts at Wells Harbor Park, looking out over shimmery seagrasses and moored boats, and you'll understand why most would never leave.
Some Kennebunkport beaches are in plain sight. Others, like wild and scenic Parson's Beach or tiny, tucked-away Cleaves Cove Beach, are hidden from all but locals and the few outsiders who've done their homework. This is fitting for a town that has both a thriving tourist scene and a quieter, residential side. Even 41st president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, cherish both the privacy and sense of community they feel when visiting their summer estate at Walker's Point. Sophisticated, yet authentically Maine, Kennebunkport is the coast's leading place for dining and imbibing, for shopping at Dock Square's galleries and one-of-a-kind stores, for setting out on a sailing or whale watching voyage, and for enjoying live music at Vinegar Hill Music Theatre.
Technically a neighborhood of the city of Portland, the most populous of Casco Bay's 200+ islands has fewer than 1,000 year-round residents and a small-town vibe with independent aspirations. Islanders have been repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to secede from Maine's biggest city, where most of those who aren't retired or self-employed commute via ferry to work. Regardless of its official status, once you land at the Peaks Island ferry dock, rent a bike, and pedal off to find Sandy Beach, Cairn Beach, or sea glass-littered Centennial Beach, you'll feel as though you've infiltrated a secret little place, where it doesn't seem out-of-the-ordinary to stumble upon roadside honey stands and the world's only Umbrella Cover Museum.
A dozen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, English explorers attempted to settle a Kennebec River-side peninsula that is now a destination for beach lovers and history buffs. By the second half of the 19th century, Phippsburg had become a successful wooden shipbuilding community and strategically important. You can roam the remains of Civil War-era Fort Popham and 20th-century Fort Baldwin: both now state historic sites. By the late 1800s, vacationers had already discovered the long and ever-shifting swath of sand the townspeople cherish. Popham Beach is one of Maine's most popular locations for swimming, seashell collecting, and even surfing.
Conveniently connected to the mainland by a chain of bridges, yet possessing a nurturing community spirit you'll only find on an island, Georgetown is one Maine outpost where even people "from away" can put down roots. Transient visitors will find enchanting accommodations at seaside inns like Grey Havens, or even closer to the water: You can sleep aboard a houseboat at Derecktor Robinhood Marina. The ocean constantly shapes Georgetown's 82 diverse miles of shoreline, including the wide, sandy, mile-and-a-half-long beach at Reid State Park, which is a magnet for swirled and storied driftwood. If you've come to Maine for lobster, you'll feel spoiled at Five Islands Lobster Co. by the salty air, the serene view, the taste of fresh-caught seafood, and the cost-saving option to bring your own alcoholic beverages.
The American Lighthouse Foundation is headquartered in this petite coastal town and maintains exhibits inside the lightkeeper's house at one of the most storied light stations in all of Maine. Owls Head Light holds fast to a steep cliff overlooking Rockland Harbor's entrance and serves as this fishing community's enduring symbol. A rocky, evergreen-edged beach near the lighthouse is an unforgettable spot to sit and absorb the sounds and sensations of Maine. Sandy beach lovers can find their fix, too, at Birch Point Beach, bookended by granite formations and uncrowded on the warmest days. If you're lucky, you'll spy a vintage airplane flying overhead. The Owls Head Transportation Museum is unique in its dedication to keeping pre-1940s machines in motion during regular special events.
This plucky small town's can-do spirit reaches its annual pinnacle the first Saturday in December, when volunteers stack logs for a beach bonfire to mark the start of the holiday season. Less well known than neighboring Camden, Lincolnville's natural gifts don't end with its half-mile beach on Penobscot Bay. From this saltwater swimming spot, you'll see forested mountains preserved eternally wild within Camden Hills State Park, much of which is actually in the town of Lincolnville. If you're outdoorsy and community-minded, this beachside town is fertile ground for reinventing yourself—for a day or for a lifetime.
Remote, time-forgotten, and still reliant on the natural bounty of the land and sea, Machiasport is as quaint a town as you'll find in seaside Maine. A trading post long before it was settled in 1763, this Bold Coast seaport's wartime history is incongruous with its sleepy, historic, white clapboard buildings overlooking Machias Bay. Visit Fort O'Brien, watch lobstermen at work, and don't miss Jasper Beach, which is unlike any beach you've imagined or experienced. Instead of sand, this beach is inlaid with billions of smooth volcanic pebbles that crackle beneath your feet and sizzle with each incoming wave.