On a sunny July day in York, Me., Short Sands Beach is cluttered with colourfulumbrellas and blankets. Pot-bellied babies create clumpy castles in the sand; a mother wipes ice cream off her toddler's face.
Nearby, teenagers spill out of the Fun-O-Rama game arcade. At the Goldenrod, founded in 1896, children swing their legs and stir sundaes at the marble soda fountain, or watch, wide-eyed, as saltwater taffy is pulled.
Up the street, at Sandy's Purple Palace – which Sandy took over from her parents in 1976 – diners tuck into an all-day breakfast of eggs, sausage and toast. It costs $3.95, and credit cards are not accepted.
I feel like I've stepped into a postcard. The kind addressed to an "Ethel" or "Ida," and stuck with a three-cent stamp.
In York, a sense of nostalgia lingers as thick as Maine fog. And no wonder. Located less than an hour's drive north of Boston, York has been a popular seaside escape for urbanites since the late 19th century.
My own stepfather has been coming here since he was a child in the 1960s. Not much, it seems, has changed.
The postcards prove it. Diane Spear, who runs a York campsite on land that's been in her family for 200 years, spreads her
collection before me. In a card from 1950, the only noticeable difference about the Goldenrod is the traffic in front of it: the cars are Mercury Eights and Ford Lincolns. When I ask Diane how the town has changed in her 50-plus years here, she pauses. "Well, when I was growing up, I had a pony I'd ride down the sidewalk," she says.
If the town's beach, arcade, bowling alley, rinky-dink amusement park and souvenir stores aren't enough for entertainment, one can always visit the "other" Yorks.
That's because York is really a catch-all term for the four,
historically separate communities of York Village, York
Harbor, York Beach and Cape Neddick.
Three miles from York Beach (home of Sandy's and the Fun-O-Rama) lies York Harbor. With its gingerbread houses and manicured gardens, York Harbor is the Top-Sider to York Beach's flip-flops.
Its beauty is best appreciated from the Cliff Walk, a three-kilometre path running to Cow Beach from Harbor Beach. From here, Maine's iconic scenery unfolds: rocky coast and booming waves, beach roses and goldenrod … and, of course, the occasional stunning Victorian "cottage."
Between York Beach and York Harbor, meanwhile, lies York Village, the perfect place to explore the area's other kind of pedigree: pre-colonial history.
Incorporated in 1652, York is Maine's second-oldest town (it missed being the oldest by just two days). Colonists settled here back in 1624. The area's early history was punctuated with violence: In the Candlemas Massacre of 1692, the Abenaki tribe is said to have killed 50 of York's settlers and took 100 captive. The kidnapped were walked to Canada. Hostilities with the Abenaki didn't fully end until the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
Given its storied history, it's no surprise that, although York Village has just 3,000 residents, its "Museums of Old York" itinerary boasts nine separate buildings. One of them is the 1719 "Old Gaol," one of the oldest existing jails in the United States and once the prison for the entire province of Maine. Or a warehouse owned by Massachusetts governor John Hancock – a wealthy merchant as well as one of the Declaration of Independence's most famous signatories. Or the Elizabeth Perkins house, with rooms filled with elaborately carved teak furniture brought from China by a sea captain and his wife.
But the most iconic sight of all the Yorks is found in the fourth village, Cape Neddick: the Nubble lighthouse.
On one of my last nights, I stop at the beacon, finished in 1879. As the sun sets, the lights turn on at a rambling mansion in the distance. On the rocks below, a family tucks into a full lobster dinner, using a stone slab as a table.
As the seagulls call, and the lighthouse flashes its warning to ships at sea, I know I've found my own timeless version of York. And it's postcard perfect.
If you go
Where to stay
Located on the York Harbor Beach, the elegant Stage Neck Inn boasts lovely grounds, oceanview rooms and amenities including a spa, tennis courts and swimming pool. Rooms start at $286 in summer; stageneck.com
Built in the 1880s, the Inn at Tanglewood Hall couldn't feel more Victorian. The York Harbor B&B has lovely gardens and a relaxing veranda. Rooms are filled with antiques, and some have private porches and fireplaces. Rooms start at $180 in summer; tanglewoodhall.com.
The Union Bluff Hotel has been welcoming guests since the 1870s. Although the original building was destroyed by a fire in 1987, the "new" hotel was built to look like the old one – and still has the original's prime spot right on York's Short Sands Beach. Rooms start at $199 in summer; unionbluff.com.
Where to eat
There's nothing pretentious about the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, next door to the Yorks in Kittery (an eight-kilometre drive away). It just has the area's best lobster, hands-down. Choose a hard-shell from the tank and eat it on a picturesque dock overlooking the creek. Bonus: You're allowed to BYO anything they don't sell here (including not only wine and beer, but food, too). chaunceycreek.com.
The lines at Brown's Old Fashioned Ice Cream, located near the Nubble, are serious – almost as serious as the portion sizes (most adults would consider even the "kiddie" size a real commitment). But with reason. Ice cream here is soft, creamy and with flavours ranging from sea-salted caramel to grape nut (like the cereal). 232 Nubble Rd., 207-363-1277.
For great lobster right in York Beach (plus other Maine classics such as fried clams), head to Harry's Seafood and Grill, a no-frills joint in the centre of town. 15 Railroad Ave., 207-361-4411.