Out of Town - Exploring Coastal Maine

Maine’s classically quaint seaside towns and breezy beaches seem tailor-made for a relaxing vacation and sure enough, the state’s coastal sections are invaded by pleasure seekers all summer. Prestigious, blue-blood retreats like Kennebunkport and Camden overflow with magnificent estates, while the pristine scenery of Acadia National Park and Camden Hills State Park draw scads of hikers and bikers. Artsy and gay-popular Ogunquit makes a wonderfully low-keyed alternative to Provincetown, while hip Portland and up-and-coming Rockland offer sophisticated arts and dining.

The state’s shoreline twists and turns for an astonishing 3,478 miles - counting every inlet, cove, and bay; only the states of Alaska, Florida and Louisiana can claim more miles of waterfront. You could spend all summer exploring the dozens of inviting hamlets up and down the coast.

The southwestern edge of the state — just 70 miles from Boston and about 300 miles from both Montreal and New York City - is not only the most accessible, it has the most to offer gay and lesbian travelers. The region extends from the bustling outlet-shopping hub of Kittery north through Ogunquit and up to Kennebunkport.

Fringed by a lovely 3-mile beach, tiny Ogunquit first developed a discernible gay following in the 1930s, with the opening of one of the country’s first successful summer theaters, the Ogunquit Playhouse. It still presents first-rate theatrical productions today. The gay presence grew in the ‘60s, when hippies and beatniks started regularly renting cottages and homes here. By the following decade the scene fully blossomed with the opening of a gay guest house, as well as a disco called Anabelle’s (still open but now called O2).

U.S. 1 and Shore Road, the main drags through the village, bustle with funky shops, art galleries, boutiques and several good restaurants. It’s a very short walk to the beach from just about any point in town. Ogunquit supports a pair of lively gay nightclubs, a piano lounge, and several restaurants with inviting bars. In a state where beaches can sometimes be pebbly or difficult to access, Ogunquit has one of Maine’s most celebrated ones — the northern reaches of this fine, golden spit of sand draw a predominantly lesbian and gay crowd.

Consider an excursion south to Kittery’s hundreds of mid- and high-end outlet shops. Or check out York’s Stonewall Kitchen — nearly 20 years ago, a local gay couple named Jonathan King and Jim Stott started selling their fabulous jams, mustards, relishes and sauces at a farmers market. They soon formed this now-internationally renowned emporium and mail-order company of delicious gourmet foods. For the best scenery on this trip, follow Shore Road south from Ogunquit through York’s Cape Neddick, where you can stop for a picnic at the park that overlooks the dignified Nubble Lighthouse (built in 1879).

There are about a dozen gay-oriented accommodations in Ogunquit, most of them male-owned but catering to a mix of women and men. Just a few of the excellent possibilities include Moon Over Maine (http://www.moonovermaine.com), a fully restored 1830s Cape-style house with period-decor, well-chosen art, and a great location in the heart of the village; and the reasonably priced Ogunquit Beach Inn (http://www.ogunquitbeachinn.com), a handsome little 1920s compound comprising a main house with five guest rooms, as well as two cottages with full kitchens (rented weekly). A bit more upscale are the lovely Gazebo Inn (http://www.gazeboguesthouse.com), a handsome 14-room property with two hot tubs and a gym and sauna; and the beautifully situated Rockmere Lodge (http://www.rockmere.com), which is just off the famed Marginal Way walking path — most rooms have ocean views.

Charming Portland lies within striking distance of Ogunquit, perfect if you need a dose of urbanity. Don’t overlook this youthful, progressive city as a base, either, especially if you’d rather browse museums and stroll along shop-filled streets than loll about on the beach. Portland claims a dynamic arts scene and some of the best restaurants in Maine. You can also check out a few very fun GLBT nightspots.

The city crowns a hilly peninsula, surrounded by rivers and harbors — you’ll see water from many points and find the bulk of the city’s best restaurants, shops and bars in the historic Old Port district, a warren of cobbled lanes and vintage redbrick warehouses fringed by a phalanx of wharves. A short drive or moderate walk puts you square in Portland’s West End, where grand sea captains’ mansions mingle with smaller row houses. More than two decades of intense rehabilitation have given the neighborhood a graceful countenance, and lesbians and gay men have restored many of these homes.

In the heart of downtown’s arts district, the gay-friendly Eastland Park Hotel (http://www.eastlandparkhotel.com) has tastefully appointed rooms with handsome colonial-inspired furnishings — several units have kitchens. Amenities include a well-equipped fitness center, and a rooftop lounge with great city views. More intimate gay-popular options include the historic Inn at ParkSpring (http://www.innatparkspring.com), which is just steps from the Portland Art Museum and six warmly furnished rooms; and the Morrill Mansion B&B (http://www.morrillmansion.com), a 19th-century mansion on a picturesque West End Street — the seven tasteful room contains period-style furnishings.

To see a less-developed side of the state, it’s about a two-hour drive from Portland — much of it along a very scenic stretch of U.S. 1 — to the resort communities along western Penobscot Bay, including Rockland and Camden. You’re not going to encounter as many gay travelers out this way, but there are a handful of very gay-friendly accommodations. Maine’s Mid-Coast is a place for quiet vacations, ideal if you’re a hiker, photographer, fishing enthusiast, or sailor. Camden is home to a fleet of Windjammer sailing ships (http://www.mainewindjammercruises.com), which can be booked not only on multiple-day excursions throughout the region but also for afternoon jaunts along Penobscot Bay.

The craggy 1,000-ft peaks of Camden Hills State Park are a regional highlight; you can tread along more than 20 miles of rugged nature and hiking trails through this dramatic 5,500-acre paradise, and overnight in a 112-site camping area. The once-workaday town of Rockland has blossomed of late, with several outstanding restaurants and cafes. The key draw here is one of the foremost small art collections in the nation, the Farnsworth Art Museum, which contains works by many noted Maine painters, including the George Bellows, Louise Nevelson, and the Wyeth. The on-site Wyeth Center explores that famous family of painters.

Rockland’s elegant, yet reasonably priced LimeRock Inn, is operated by a knowledgeable and friendly couple Frank Isganitis & P.J. Walter, who prepare a delicious breakfast each morning. Rooms in this handsome Queen Anne Victorian are done in period style, but with such modern perks as flat-panel TVs with HDTV/DVD and clock radios with iPod docks. First-rate restaurants and galleries are just steps away. The gay-owned Camden Harbour Inn (http://www.camdenharbourinn.com), with its spectacular location overlooking the town’s harbor, is ideal for a luxury getaway — the 18 rooms and suites are sumptuously appointed, and the on-site restaurant, Natalie’s, serves exceptional contemporary American fare.

Still about 75 miles farther “down east” (Maine lingo for in the direction of the Canadian Maritimes - “down” refers to the fact that longitude decreases as you travel east), lies Mt. Desert Island. Here you’ll find the resort town of Bar Harbor and the adjacent 40,000-acre Acadia National Park. A 27-mile Loop Road meanders through the park, accessing trailheads and many scenic vistas. Some hiking trails climb up to 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard, and still others hug the granite-strewn shore. In Bar Harbor, the Abbe Museum, set in the 1893 former YMCA overlooking the village green, contains an enormous trove of artifacts and exhibits that trace the state’s Native American history.

Bar Harbor has dozens of motels, hotels and inns, among them the gay-friendly Anne’s White Column Inn (http://www.anneswhitecolumns.com) and its sister property, the larger and more elegant Cleftstone Manor (http://www.cleftstone.com). The advantage of Anne’s White Column Inn is its close proximity to area shopping and dining. One other excellent LGBT-friendly option in Bar Harbor is the Aysgarth Station (http://www.aysgarth.com), which is quite affordable and located very close to several good restaurants.
With so long a shoreline and so relatively small a population, Maine offers one precious commodity that’s all too rare in the northeastern U.S.: space. Although parts of the coast has been developed with mini-golf centers and condo colonies, the majority of it remains beautifully preserved and ideal for a memorable getaway.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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