OGUNQUIT, Maine — The difference between Provincetown and Ogunquit is best seen in the people who frequent the seaside towns. In Ogunquit, I encountered Barbara, a crusty 80-something broad (in the best sense of the word) who is a fixture at a bar called The Front Porch . Bon mots dropped from her acidic tongue between quick sips of her martini.
It was love at first insult.
In Provincetown, I bonded with a klatch of winsome men from Toronto. One was the winner of a Canadian reality show where contestants competed to be the next Halloween superstar (you can’t make this stuff up), another worked on a talk show for the Canadian version of Oprah Winfrey (yes, that’s a real thing). I’m not sure about the third, but he was nice to look at and smiled a lot, so it was fine that he was around.
These people helped define the towns as I split a week between Provincetown and Ogunquit. My initial, misguided plan was to pit the two hamlets against each other in some kind of rainbow-colored blitzkrieg. Both places are known for their longstanding embrace of “eccentrics” — that’s the polite term my great-grandmother once used to describe gay men and lesbians — and pretty much anyone else who flits in for a visit.
But placing the towns side-by-side is like comparing hard apple cider and orange liqueur. Both are fruity and delicious, but they have little in common (aside from the power to induce nasty hangovers). I doubt the Toronto trio could have kept pace with Barbara’s salty tongue, and I don’t think Barbara could have danced late into the night in Provincetown — although I suspect she cut a mean rug to the Andrews Sisters back in the day.
In the florescence of summer, there are moments when Provincetown feels like a carnival tilt-a-whirl, spinning at an unrelenting pace. Colors blur in the frenetic motion of it all with a backdrop of loud music and squeals of glee. There’s a schedule in Provincetown: Brunch, beach, tea dance, post-tea dance cocktails, dinner, entertainment, lounging, and then clubbing. It ends with a 1 a.m. slice of pizza at Spiritus.
Ogunquit has a different set of charms. The pace is slower, the crowd skews older, and the main drag is given over to families with strollers. Spend a week in Ogunquit, and you can easily hit all night life options. The only schedule I could ascertain was breakfast, beach, and dinner. Maybe a movie or a show at the Ogunquit Playhouse in the evening.
I’ve experienced both places many times, but this trip was enlightening. I’ve held a decade-long grudge against Provincetown. I dismissed the resort town as playground for a clone-like army of A-list gay men. But my fog of bitterness magically lifted when I experienced a fairy tale day. It began when I ran into director-author John Waters shopping at one of my favorite stores, Map. He kindly signed a copy of his new book for me.
Later that day I accosted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” author-actor John Cameron Mitchell on the street, and saw fashion designer Bob Mackie, the king of sequins. Mackie is the man responsible for some of Cher’s most outrageous ensembles. I had an incredible lunch at The Canteen with a man who builds sets for Hollywood blockbusters. It also didn’t hurt that the weather was flawless and I downed a very strong cup (or three) of rum-based planter’s punch at the Boatslip. Later that night I went to a show by drag queen Jinkx Monsoon, winner of last season’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” There are shows with all levels of talent every night of the week, and the crowd is just as diverse as the performers.
The best show I saw in Ogunquit was at a nightclub called Maine Street. An inebriated patron with an impressive beer gut, an ill-fitting T-shirt, and Crocs attempted to do his best Channing Tatum “Magic Mike” impersonation on a stripper pole. His impromptu performance was met with horrified stares rather than applause.
On the topic of diversity, it’s important to point out that this is not a story simply about gay resort towns. It’s a reputation both towns share, but the split of gay and straight visitors can be dead even depending on the week. Provincetown has more personalities than Sally Field in the 1976 made-for-TV miniseries “Sybil,” so it’s unfair to dismiss it as one big gay vacation ghetto. I saw families and individuals of all varieties. Some people spent a quiet relaxing week. Others slipped into their Speedos and indulged in a nonstop party.
The place where the Provincetown gay-straight split is most pronounced is at the beaches. Race Point is the straight beach. A remote section of Herring Cove is the gay beach. But to reach the gay beach, you’re required to make an arduous trek through a muddy tidal flat while enduring an odor not unlike a rancid plate of clams casino. And when the tide comes in, the water can easily rise above your waist and crabs frolic dangerously close to your feet.
The ease of the beach in Ogunquit is a dramatic contrast. It’s three miles of pristine, flat sand. There is a gay beach and a straight beach, but reaching the gay beach requires a simple walk past small children playing in the sand. The best way to take it all in is the mile-and-a-quarter walk along the cliffs called the Marginal Way.
A comparison is also difficult because Provincetown has a bustling main street with enough shopping to keep you occupied for a day or two. New stores open every year. Some new-ish highlights for me were Kiss and Makeup, a store filled with makeup and ablutions for both genders, the furniture store Room 68, the gift and art shop Loveland, and my old standby, Yesterday’s Treasures, where I can always find retro tchotchkes for friends.
Ogunquit’s shopping options are mostly limited to traditional beach fare of saltwater taffy, sunglasses, and T-shirts. It doesn’t help that a highway runs through the center of town and that during peak season there is a constant clog of cars. Its bar scene is also more limited than Provincetown’s. I spent most of my time with the eclectic mix of folks at The Front Porch. Downstairs there is a dinner menu, upstairs a piano bar with sing-alongs to showtunes and or pop chestnuts.
I didn’t mind the calmer scene of Ogunquit, primarily because I stayed in the most luxurious New England inn I’ve ever experienced. I never wanted to leave my room. The Inn on Shore Road was completely renovated last year and retains its Victorian charm on the outside. Inside is posh and tasteful. I slept on the most deliciously luxe sheets I’ve ever felt, and the expansive bathroom was about the size of my condo. I had a porch overlooking the street where I sipped prosecco and St. Germain with a friend before dinner.
For a sample of Ogunquit’s cultural offerings, we went to see the stage version of “Mary Poppins” at the Ogunquit Playhouse . When I was a little boy and my family vacationed in southern Maine, going to the Playhouse was my version of going to Broadway. I still remember seeing “Evita” there. I immediately went home and looked at a map to see where Argentina was.
As an adult, I was not entirely impressed with the Ogunquit Playhouse. It’s funny how certain things never measure up to childhood memories. To be diplomatic, the audience seemed to enjoy the production. My friend and I were happier to rush back to finish off that bottle of prosecco.
“Mary Poppins” aside, my Provincetown-Ogunquit split was one of my best-planned vacations. I indulged in the hedonistic playground of Provincetown, and then collapsed on the easy-to-reach beach of Ogunquit to blissfully recover in the sunshine.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.