YORK — Maine’s picturesque southern coast, near where I grew up, was a natural choice not only for my first sweaty-palmed high school date but also for my wedding to the same boy five years later. So for our 20th anniversary, Dana and I recently returned to the quaint little town where it all began.
With fine restaurants, intimate inns, and proposal-worthy parks and footpaths, the village, harbor and beaches known as “The Yorks” provide a nostalgic escape for modern romantics. Old and new visitors alike will feel drawn back in time. After all, the first residents rowed ashore in 1623, making York one of the country’s earliest English settlements.
As a result, Colonial houses line the narrow streets, giving way to majestic mansions before winding up at a sizzling mile-and-a-half-long beach. Surprisingly little has changed since Dana and my first date scampering over the sun-warmed ledges overlooking Nubble Lighthouse — one of the most photographed in the world. Whether you’re looking to rev up a relationship, take a trip back in time or hit the beach, York’s three distinct sections entertain with enduring grace.
With brick-front galleries and upscale boutiques, York Village lies just a few minutes’ drive over Maine’s southern border. Considering a wedding? The soaring white-steepled First Parish Congregational Church (180 York St., 207-363-3758, www.firstparishyork.net) hosts dozens all summer — once including ours. While the building dates only to 1747, the church began a century earlier, making this the oldest religious society in Maine.
If such olden days make you swoon, step across the street to where the Museums of Old York (3 Lindsay Road, 207-363-4974, www.oldyork
.org, $5 adults, $3 children per building or $12/$8 per day, free under 5) offer family-friendly or self-guided walking tours of the town’s oldest buildings including a wharf once owned by Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock. The red clapboard Old Gaol, on a hill in town, includes wooden stocks for snapping humorous photos.
The village is also a great place to grab an ice cream or lunch before setting off on a scenic walk. A stone causeway between the York River and Barrell Mill Pond leads to the antique steel suspension Wiggly Bridge (off
Lilac Lane, parking on Harris Island Road), which bucks as you cross it. On the far shore, explore the shaded mile-long path through Steedman Woods.
Opposite Lilac Lane, continue toward the coast on the charming Fisherman’s Walk, which traces the York River all the way to the modern Stage Neck Inn resort (8 Stage Neck Road, 207-363-3850, www.stageneck.com, from $330 per night) and the beginning of York Harbor. Those wanting to ride can hop aboard the flashy red York Trolley (207-363-9600, from $1.50 one way). Scenic Route 1A, also known as York Street, is also popular with walkers and cyclists.
Quietly nestled between the village and beach, York Harbor (a one-mile stroll south of the village) offers a pause from the summer crowds. Snug, horseshoe-shaped Harbor Beach (off York Street) is a favorite for its sheltered shore, public restrooms, and stunning — but crumbling — Cliff Walk. Arrive early, as parking can be scarce.
Starting at the east end of the beach, the narrow path resembles a goat trail as it meanders between cliffside mansions, mounds of fragrant roses, and the moody sea. A few minutes in, a sign warns that the remainder of the path is dangerous. We, and other couples we met, found it passible, but it has deteriorated over the years. If you’d rather play it safe, stick to the beach or admire the harbor from the adjacent Hartley Mason Park, with a groomed path to the shore.
Across the street, the white-gabled York Harbor Inn (480 York St., 207-363-5119, www.yorkharborinn.com, from $189 per night) is as charming as when we first clinked glasses at our reception. The central, dark-beamed “Cabin Room” dates to 1623 and was brought here by barge 200 years later from the Isle of Shoals, part of an entire fishing community that dismantled their houses and relocated to the mainland. With several buildings, the inn also serves diners at small tables overlooking the harbor. The night we returned, the menu included appetizers of smoked salmon bruschetta and a lamb’s leaf salad with fresh berries sprinkled with almond brittle and champagne vinaigrette. The Ship’s Cellar Pub, literally in the cellar, offers relaxed fare and drinks.
Rounding the point, York Street turns into Long Beach Avenue. Here RVs and beach bungalows line the road to the smooth stretch of shore known as Long Sands, which is popular with sunbathers and star gazers. Turn right onto Nubble Road to view the red-roofed keeper’s cottage and adjacent light, officially known as the Cape Neddick Lighthouse. Unlike on our first date, the lighthouse now includes a park, gift shop, and visitors center (Soheir Park Road, 207-363-1040, www.nubblelight.org).
After snapping photos with a like-minded throng of sightseers, head down Ocean Avenue to Short Sands Beach. At the heart of this traditional summer colony, there’s plenty to explore including a zoo and amusement park, an old-fashioned arcade, swim shops, seaside hotels, and the granddaddy of them all: The Goldenrod restaurant (2 Railroad Ave., 207-363-2621, www.thegoldenrod.com). This vintage trolley stop, which has been feeding hungry beachgoers for an astonishing 118 years, still serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in its original rustic, open-beamed dining room. The taffy-pulling machine, visible through a front window, and indoor penny candy counter are a continuing delight as are the homemade ice cream sodas and hot-fudge sundaes served in frosty tumblers. Be prepared to wait, as there is often quite a line.
But what’s the rush? While it’s possible to enjoy York in a few hours or a day, those who linger are likely to find more reasons to return — as we did, even after 20 years away.