Coastal Living magazine recently featured two New England locales on its list of “Top Ten Happiest Seaside Towns in America” for 2017. Camden, on Maine’s midcoast, came in at number 10 and Orleans on Cape Cod, was all the way up at number 2. (Grand Haven, Mich., topped the list.) These coastal towns are “sure to make you smile,” they report. (For the complete list, go to www.coastalliving.com.)
As much as we’d love to compare our seaside gems to the rest of Coastal Living’s top 10 (we could take you down, Hilton Head!), let’s see how these two local towns stack up. We looked at beaches, bars, fried clams, ice cream — all the things that make us happy when we go to a beach town — to see who rates the most smiles. (Please note, this is tongue-in-cheek and not a scientific poll.)
Not even a contest. Orleans, located on the elbow of the Cape, has 10-mile-long Nauset Beach on the Atlantic side, a stretch of fine sand with big dunes and big surf that’s considered to be one of the most magnificent in the state. The downside (alas): big crowds. Try to arrive by 10 a.m. in the summertime if you want to snag a parking space at this popular town beach. Three smiles.
Meanwhile, in Camden, there’s puny, pebbly Laite Beach, overlooking Camden Harbor. It’s kid-friendly, though, with swings and a playground. In-the-know locals head to Barret’s Cove on Megunticook Lake. One smile.
What? No actual beach bars? But hey, this isn’t the Caribbean. No tiki huts here, but we do have some worthy pubs, where you can cool off and knock back a beverage.
Orleans weighs in with Land Ho! (38 Main St., 508-255-5165), an in-land tavern decorated to the max with vintage signs and license plates. The bartenders do a good pour, and they’ll set you up with some raw oysters, too — a taste of the Atlantic you’ll enjoy, assuming you didn’t swallow too much sea water. For that reason, we’ll give it . . . two smiles.
Camden has the pub-biest pub of the lot, the Drouthy Bear (50 Elm St., 207-236-2327; www.drouthybear.com.) We’re talking Scotch eggs, haggis, black pudding, and blood sausage, all nicely washed down with a local beer. There’s even haggis poutine! These darkly lit environs don’t exactly scream “beach vacation,” but at least no one will notice that you’ve got a glob of sunscreen in your ear. One-and-a-half smiles.
The winner: Orleans. Oysters trump Scotch eggs when it comes to beach eats.
Locals you’ll want to avoid
Cape Cod beaches have had numerous sightings of Great White sharks in recent years, so much so that nearby Chatham has made a cottage industry out of shark cruises and the like. There have even been shark sightings at Nauset Beach. These fish are attracted to the Cape’s growing population of seals, experts say. So, heed posted “shark smart” safety tips, and consider downloading the free Sharktivity mobile app, created by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. No smile.
The scary locals in Camden are less terrifying, but incredibly annoying: they’re black flies, and they’re out with a vengeance (throughout the state) in June. No smile.
Best seafood shack
“We’re new here. We’ve only been open for 48 years,” quips owner Don Berig of The Lobster Claw in Orleans (42 Route 6A; 508-255-1800). There’s no ocean view, but this longtime favorite draws fans for its award-winning lobster salad roll (served with slaw and fries for $19.95. Don’t feel like sitting inside? Head across the street to The Knack (5 Route 6A, 774-316-4595; www.theknackcapecod.com), where swimsuit-clad families queue up for fried clam rolls, lobster rolls, and ice cream, eaten at roadside tables. Three smiles.
After a hike up Camden’s Mount Battie, there’s nothing better than a fried clam basket or a hand picked lobster roll from Mount Battie Take Out & Ice Cream, locals say. (235 S. Belfast Rd., 207-236-6122. 2017 prices were not available at press time but are typically very reasonable.) Their ice cream comes from Shain’s of Maine, making this a one-stop shop for all things delicious. Three smiles.
Verdict: It’s a tie.
Best ice cream
Throw a beach ball on Cape Cod and you’ll likely hit an ice cream shop. In Orleans, everybody (including those with dietary restrictions) loves the Ice Cream Café (5 South Orleans St., 508-240-0003; www.icecreamcafe.com). The menu includes vegan ice cream made with coconut cream and soymilk, served in a gluten-free cone if you please. On the dairy side, the café scoops up homemade ice cream in flavors like red velvet cake and salty caramel. They also whip up tasty espresso and chai shakes, great for sucking down on the drive home. Smiles all around! Four smiles.
An ice cream cone served with a water view — for New Englanders, it doesn’t get better than that. That’s why everyone flocks to River Ducks Ice Cream (19 Mechanic St., 207-322-7129) in Camden, set in a brightly painted shack surrounded by gardens and river views. Their ice cream is fairly standard (made by Hershey’s) but their toppings are first rate. Some frozen treat connoisseurs prefer hole-in-the-wall Camden Cone (33 Bayview St., 207-236-6448), a take-out place overlooking Camden Harbor. The ice cream is made locally by Round Top, including interesting flavors like ginger and, of course, blueberry; Martha Stewart is said to be a fan. Five smiles.
Best thing to do beyond the beach
Ocean views are great, but immersing yourself in the marine environment in a kayak takes your experience to the next level. Even beginners can explore the gentle waters of Nauset Marsh on a naturalist-led three-hour tour with Great Marsh Kayak Tours (508-328-7064; www.greatmarshkayaktours.com; $45; 14 and under, $35). You may see grey and harbor seals and a variety of shorebirds; you’ll definitely encounter the quiet beauty of Cape Cod’s marshlands. Five smiles.
One of the coolest things to do in Camden: Hike the short but splendid Mount Battie Trail, or one of the other wildly scenic footpaths, in Camden Hills State Park (207-236-3109; 280 Belfast Road; www.maine.gov. Non-residents, $6 per person). On the Mount Battie Trail, you’ll hike up to a stone observation tower and take in sparkling, beyond-gorgeous views of Camden, Penobscot, and the surrounding islands from Mount Battie’s 780-foot summit. Five smiles.
Kayaking vs. hiking? Love ‘em both. You be the judge.
Best place to find a little something to take home in your beach bag
Ooh, it’s chunk of petrified wood, and over there, a set of vintage corn-on-the-cob holders, and a display of jangly silver bracelets! There’s all of the above, and then some, at the cheerfully eclectic Yak Arts in Orleans (508-240-0511; 21 Route 28; www.yakarts.com.) Three smiles.
Need a keepsake box for your newly acquired seashells? Shop for these, and other exquisitely carved and crafted wood items — many made by Maine artists — at Once a Tree in Camden (800-236-0440; 31 Main St., www.onceatree.net.) They also carry pottery, candles, wind chimes, buoy bells, and not a kitschy piece in the lot. We’re giving an extra smile to Camden, because its shopping district is so compact — and because we also like the Owl & Turtle Bookshop at 33 Bayview St. Four smiles.
This one goes to Camden.
The winner: Orleans by just a half a smile. But this is the kind of thing that needs lots of research — especially on Fridays. In the summer.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.