Most visitors to southern Maine speed along Interstate 95 en route to York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, and points farther north. The meandering Route 103, jig-jagging some 10 miles from Kittery to York, barely gets notice, except by savvy travelers with a little time on their hands. Hop off the busy highway, slow down, and enjoy this serendipitous seacoast journey. The coast-hugging, winding backroad is a gem, leading to two historic sites, pocket beaches, and water views.
From I-95, cross the bridge into Maine, and take the first exit. Follow the signs for Route 103, heading toward Kittery Foreside. You’ll cross busy Route 1; look for Loco Coco’s (36 Walker St., 207-438-9322, www.locococos.com, $2.85-$14.99) on your left. The always bustling restaurant is popular with locals for its authentic Mexican dishes, house-made salsas, and stiff margaritas. Too early for cocktails and food? Continue on Route 103 as it twists and turns, making your way into the historic Kittery Point district.
Consider a stop at the First Congregational Church (23 Pepperell Road, 207-439-0650, www.kitterypointucc.org). Built in 1730, it’s considered to be the oldest church building in continuous use in the state and still retains several original features, including a 1730 pulpit. The Old Burying Yard behind the church, with gravestones dating to the 1700s, is a popular site to visit on local “ghost tours” as it’s said to be haunted. Across from the church, you’ll see the historic 1760 Lady Pepperell House (open to the public only on special days).
Farther along Route 103, you’ll pass the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Continue slowly to glimpse the homes and cottages fronting the water and sailboats bobbing on moorings in the string of picturesque coves.
Just past the shipyard, you’ll cross a bridge with views of Spruce Creek on one side and the Piscataqua River on the other. Just ahead is the Fort McClary Historic Site (Kittery Point, 207-384-5160, www.maine.gov, open Memorial Day-September, dawn-dusk, $3 nonresident), a great place to stop and explore. The fort, on the tip of Gerrish Island, protected approaches to the mouth of the Piscataqua and Portsmouth Harbor for more than 275 years. Several buildings from different eras remain, including the Blockhouse, built in 1844-46 of local granite, fieldstone, and squared logs. There are also powder magazines, a rifleman’s house, caponiers, barracks, and historic granite and earthen walls surrounding the fort. Take time to explore and to enjoy the coastal views. From here, you’ll have a sweeping vista of Portsmouth Harbor, the Piscataqua, Pepperell Cove, and Whaleback and Constitution lighthouses.
Back on Route 103, you’ll head into Pepperell Cove, home to the Kittery Art Association (8 Coleman Ave., 207-451-9384, www.kitteryartassociation.org , Thu 2:30-5 p.m., Sat noon-6, Sun noon-5), with two small galleries showcasing the works of local artists. On the other side of the street is Enoteca (88 Pepperell Road, 207-703-0153), housed in the old Frisbee’s Supermarket building. The store stocks a nice selection of wine and gourmet food items, along with breakfast and lunch sandwiches and salads ($6-$10). One option for lunch is Captain and Patty’s restaurant (90 Pepperrell Road, 207-703-2397, spring hours Thu-Sun 11 a.m.-8 p.m., $10-$20) located behind the market, overlooking Pepperell Cove. There’s a lounge upstairs and a cluster of outdoor picnic tables, decent fried seafood baskets, and pretty views of sailboats, yachts, and working lobster boats.
Another option: Purchase beverages and side dishes to go, and head to the widely-popular Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier off 103 (16 Chauncey Creek Road, 207-439-1030, www.chaunceycreek.com, open Mother’s Day-Labor Day, daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m.). Crowds line the street and boats come and go at the docks of this come-as-you-are lobster shack, famous for its just-trapped steamed lobster, and scenic location overlooking tidal Chauncey Creek. We like that you can bring your own drinks (beer and wine included) and other food to go with their main course (crustaceans!). Even if you decide on a small snack, say a bowl of chowder or a bucket of steamed mussels, it’s worth a stop for the view, a scent of the tide, and the fun atmosphere.
Next stop is Fort Foster (Pocahontas Road, 207-439-2181, www.kitteryme.gov/Pages/KitteryME_Clerk/FortFosterPolicies, open weekends in May, daily Memorial Day-September, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., $10 per vehicle). Continue east on Chauncey Creek Road; take a right over the bridge crossing Chauncey Creek, and veer right onto Pocahontas Road. Fort Foster is at the end of this road. The fort, built in the early 1900s and now owned by the town of Kittery, contains remnants of the old military fortification. Climb the stairs to the top of the lookout for great views of Whaleback Light, Fort Constitution, and the Atlantic Ocean. There are also bunkers and old gun mounts scattered about the site, and an old fire control tower tucked in the woods. But the main draw for most locals is the coastal setting, with three small, sandy pocket beaches. We like to walk the trails here, too, a network of paved pathways and trails rambling the rocky coast and crisscrossing through the forest.
From here, backtrack over the bridge; stay straight on Gerrish Island Lane, back to Route 103. The twisting road is now lined with towering maples, oaks, and pine trees, tidal streams, and picturesque salt marshes, and surrounded by sections of the protected Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Keep an eye out for great blue herons, egrets, and other waterfowl in the protected wet areas that flank the road. Soon, you’ll cross over to Harris Island, home to Dockside Restaurant (22 Harris Island, York Harbor, 207-363-2722, www.dockside-restaurant.com, open for Mother’s Day brunch and daily starting Memorial Day weekend; entrees $19.50-$32.50). A meal here is reason enough to travel Route 103. The harbor and ocean views are fabulous, and the food lives up to expectations too. Start with cocktails on the porch — say, a ruby red martini made with fresh grapefruit juice or the signature voodoo rum punch. Move on to appetizers, like the flight of New England artisan cheeses or the hearty seafood chowder. Popular entrees include the Harris Island haddock stuffed with Maine rock shrimp and the pan-seared diver scallops served with soft polenta cakes.
Now, it’s decision time. You could join a registered Maine guide on a kayak trip along the southern coast, exploring coves, estuaries, and scenic harbors. Harbor Adventures (departs from several locations, 207-363-8466, www.harboradventures.com, $45-$60) offers two-hour and half-day guided trips, and no experience is necessary. Or, follow Route 103 until it joins Route 1A, traveling through historic York Center, on your way back to the highway.
Why hurry back to the hustle? Book a room at the Dockside Guesthouse (22 Harris Island, York Harbor, www.docksidegq.com, $169-$275). Light-filled rooms in the main 1896 house and oceanfront, multi-unit out buildings have upscale cottage decor, private baths, and water views.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.