The first in a series of New England getaways on public transportation
Taking the train to Old Orchard Beach has been a summer rite since 1843, when the first steam train making the Boston-Portland, Maine, run stopped 2 miles west of the village. By 1853, the Grand Trunk Railroad connected Montreal to Old Orchard, and the 7-mile crescent of sand quickly blossomed as the French-Canadian Riviera.
The Ride: Amtrak’s Downeaster from North Station
The comfortable modern cars of the Downeaster (www.traintomaine.com) are equipped with 110-volt plugs and Wi-Fi, but weekends tend to see a holiday crowd without a computer in sight. The trip is scheduled to run a little over two hours; in both directions on our journey, the train arrived about 15 minutes late. If you’re traveling to North Station on the MBTA, allow time for possible delays (and crowded cars) on the Green Line. Our only quibble with the trip (which mostly passes through people’s backyards) was that the cafe car did not have the Wicked Whoopie Pies as advertised.
The train pulls in on First Street, one block back from the pier and the amusement park. A welcome center next to the train platform offers maps and other information. Several trolleys shuttle visitors to hotels, motels, and campgrounds on the outskirts, but with a minimal amount of walking, you can reach everything you might need for a day trip or a weekend.
What to do
Old Orchard Beach delivers the trifecta of summer fun: an extensive sandy beach with lifeguards and gentle surf, amusement rides and games, and marvelously tacky souvenirs — and all the fried food you could possibly eat.
If you take the first morning train, you’ll arrive around 11 a.m. That gives you plenty of time to indulge every aspect of Old Orchard Beach before the last train south to Boston leaves at 8:15 p.m. (8:10 p.m. during the week).
You’ll probably want to hit the beach first and when you’ve had enough of the sea, you can wash off the salt and sand at the showers at George’s Parking (corner of Milliken and Old Orchard streets; $2 donation for cancer research).
Palace Playland (1 Old Orchard St., 207-934-2001, ride tickets $1.25 each, 20-ticket book $23, unlimited day pass adults $30.95, children $22.95) has all the amusement ride classics from a sweet carousel to a roller coaster, water-slide coaster, tilt-a-whirl, bumper cars, and carny games of skill and chance. We love the fact that you are more likely to see folks trying to win a pink teddy bear for their kids or their girl by popping balloons, shooting hoops, or throwing baseballs rather than hunkering down over video games. A good old-fashioned game of Skee Ball beats firing an electronic rifle at video images of a deer.
The Pier, a 1980 version of the 1898 original (destroyed in 1907 and again in 1978), is the place to search out that tacky souvenir — from a temporary henna tattoo or more permanent ear piercing to a T-shirt, photo booth portrait, toe ring, shark teeth necklace, or marshmallow gun. Steve “Hurricane Getch” Getchell, an Old Orchard Beach native, says that it’s all in good fun. “Compared to the 1970s, when every other door was a bar, it’s going back to a family resort. Now it’s beautiful.” Getchell oversees Hurricane’s Raw Bar (on the Pier, no phone, entrees $7.99-$18.99) where you can slurp Damariscotta and Connecticut Blue Point oysters, indulge in an overstuffed lobster roll, and generally make like an Old Orchard version of a Parrothead.
For a seat at a picnic table overlooking the beach, try Surf 6 Oceanfront (6 Cortland St., 207-934-2058, entrees $10-$20) for lobster cakes, fried clams, fried shrimp, fried sea scallops, and more.
The Original Pier French Fries, established in 1932, offers fries in three serving sizes, as well as chili-cheese fries, fried dough, and even poutine for homesick Quebecers. Pier Fries is right next to Bill’s Pizza, established in 1949 and self-proclaimed “originators” of the jumbo pie. Top it all off with an ice cream cone and you’ll be ready to call it a day.
But if you want to do it all over again the next day, there are plenty of beachside motels within walking distance of the Amtrak stop. Just pack light: a bathing suit, shorts, and T-shirts should do it. Two good options are the Beachwood Motel (29 West Grand Ave., 207-934-2291, www.beachwood-motel.com; doubles $170-$230) and the Edgewater (57 West Grand Ave., 207-934-2221, www
.theedgewatermotorinn.com; doubles in summer $219-$289). Plan your overnight for a Thursday and you can grab a table at Hurricane’s for a grand view of fireworks bursting over the beach.
Go for it. Tickets are $40-$48 per person round trip, but through December, Amtrak is offering two adult fares for the price of one if purchased at least three days in advance. Amtrak even allowed us to change the date of our tickets one day before the initial departure for no charge. This is a seriously good deal.