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Turned on by Off-Season Ogunquit

I’ve written about coastal Maine before, specifically about our road trip up to Bar Harbor, and there was no shortage of great seaside towns to explore—York, Kennebunkport, Portland, and beautiful Camden, to name a few. But, for us, Ogunquit is the favorite. The coast offers a progression of sorts—from Hampton on the New Hampshire side of the border with its arcades, lights, and fried dough, to York in Maine, which offers arcades as well and salt-water taffy and even an amusement park, but does so in a landscape that feels quainter than Hampton, a little heavier on the New England charm. Then Ogunquit, one more town north, takes the vibe one more step, eliminating the arcades and petting zoos for true vintage New England feel. My wife and I will hit any one of these three towns of varying degrees based on our mood. But Ogunquit more often than not ends up being the go-to.

One negative: Ogunquit is extremely popular and extremely crowded, especially on summer weekends. Route 1 empties onto Ogunquit’s Main Street and Shore Road, and the backup can be miles long. In this way it can remind me of Cape Cod. So our day trips to Ogunquit in the summer are often minimal, and some summers we skip it altogether. I went one weekday in July this year when my brother was in town from California, but usually I’ll wait for the fall.

My wife and I got engaged in Ogunquit ten years ago this past September. One of the crown jewels of the town is the Marginal Way, a 1 ¼ mile walking path that stitches along coastal cliffs. It’s a leisurely walk, offering beautiful sea views on one side and some pretty impressive houses to look at on the other. Benches dot the walk, each looking out over the ocean and inviting your leisurely walk to become even more leisurely. We got engaged sitting on one of these benches—number five, to be exact. In September, we drove up for the day and walked the Marginal Way, unusually hot and still summer-like, and we found bench #5 and sat for awhile. It was a nice, reflective afternoon, but the warm weather had lured the crowds and I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind taking a drive up here later in the fall, when the palette of the leaves have turned to explosive oranges, reds, and yellows, but before Barnacle Billy’s closes for the season.

Barnacle Billy’s, in quaint, cute Perkin’s Cove, is a New England institution. The Marginal Way roughly connects Ogunquit’s central downtown area to Perkin’s Cove, and Billy’s makes for a perfect reward at the end of the walk. On our visit in September, we both ordered hot dogs and fresh lemonades. The dogs are grilled, and so too are the rolls, and it makes for a cheap, tasty lunch with what might be the best views in Maine. Barnacle Billy’s patio overlooks the small cove, charter boats and fishing boats resting on the glassy surface, the pedestrian drawbridge stretching in the background. Back in July, my brother bought the lobster roll and gave it a thumbs-up. But I say, for about $7, you can’t beat the grilled hot dog, lemonade, and soul-soothing view.

But the best time of year to visit Ogunquit just might be, believe it or not, the winter. A couple weeks before Christmas is their weekend-long Christmas by the Sea festival. It’s three days of holiday events, but my wife and I in recent years have focused on Saturday afternoons. We’ll arrive in time to have a late lunch, likely at the Front Porch with its central location at the crossroads of route 1, Main, and Shore Roads. I like the atmosphere here, and am particularly fond of the long windows behind the bar that look out on the downtown area.

The retail businesses are open and their facades decorated in the holiday spirit. Ogunquit has an ordinance regarding curb appeal. For instance, businesses can’t have lighted or neon signs. The idea is to preserve the classic charm. There are no chain businesses or restaurants here. So frosted windows are lit by candlelight, iron railings strung with white lights, holiday wreaths peppered with snow hanging from doors.

We bundle up because we know we’ll be outdoors most of the afternoon. Cold air chops off the ocean, unforgiving and relentless. One year it could not have cracked ten degrees, colder with the air chill. We watch a little bit of the parade that caravans through downtown at 3:00, Santa, fire engines, decorated buses. But really we’re more interested in the polar plunge at 4:00. The crowd gathers early, turning our backs to block the cold, shoulders hunched, some jumping up and down to keep the blood moving. It’s hard to believe, standing there in the frigid air, that in a few minutes the Ogunquit lifeguards are going to sprint down this beach in bathing suits and bare feet and into the water, but they are. I can feel the cold sand sneaking through the bottom of my shoes.

After the polar plunge there is a bonfire right there on the beach, and the crowd migrates in that direction, forming a circle. Someone will inevitably get some Christmas carols going. The heat feels good, fighting for authority with the frigid night. The sun, by 5 p.m., is long gone. The flames are so bright and alive that everything in the backgrounds disappears, blacked-out by the tower of fire.

Fireworks cap off the evening, and my wife and I consistently say that they’re the best we’ve seen all year. Christine thinks that there’s something about the cold winter sky that is conducive to fireworks—no mugginess, no humidity to hold the smoke in and create a net. Instead, the night is dark and clear and vivid, the fireworks popping with three-dimensional high-def life. But what I like so much about these fireworks is that they feel almost private. Summer fireworks always seem to go hand-in-hand with crowds and traffic. Not so here in Ogunquit. We take a left off Shore Road and walk in between a couple of hotels, moving slowly because we can hardly see anything, and we find a quiet, remote space to watch what feels like a private show. Occasionally, I can hear voices, so I know we’re not truly alone, but it sure feels that way.

When we leave a short time later, we know that this was our last visit for a while. We’ll turn our attention to skiing and flying out to see my brother in California at some point during the winter. But one day, usually at the first hint of a spring thaw, the last of the snow finally melted and the ground spongy with spring mud and slop, it will call us back. Winter coats will give gradual way to windbreakers and sweatshirts, the sun coming on a little higher and a little stronger. Maybe I’ll see an Instragram post reminding us that Barnacle Billy’s has opened at last with their spring hours. “It’s nice out; let’s take a ride,” one of us will say. And I’ll wash the car of dried mud and road salt, and we’ll grab a couple iced coffees for the ride, the windows cracked a few inches for the first time in months.

“Where to?” I’ll ask.

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