Although it’s true that some coastal communities all but roll up the sidewalks after Columbus Day, not all do. Visiting in the off-season, from mid- October through late May, has its merits. Sure, the water’s too cold for a swim, except for the annual polar bear dips on New Year’s Day, and many outdoor attractions and small museums are shuttered, but there are pluses. Rates are low, crowds are few, and traffic is nonexistent. Winter recreation is a draw, and in bigger cities and college towns, cultural offerings actually increase in winter.
Sun, snow, rain, fog, sea smoke, and ice are all possibilities, which means being prepared for all. In late fall, it’s best to avoid the woods unless dressed in hunter orange; in early spring, warm and waterproof boots are a must for slush and mud. In winter, you might walk, snowshoe, or cross-country ski across a beach; glide across a frozen pond; or perhaps even don alpine skis or snowboard or toboggan for a downhill schuss.
The following are good bets for an off-season escape. If you want to avoid the hassles of winter transportation, Portland, Freeport, and Brunswick are all on the Amtrak Downeaster train line, and if you stay downtown in any of them, you won’t need a vehicle.
Ogunquit and Kennebunkport
Neither of these two Southern Coast beach towns truly slumbers until after Christmas (and Kennebunkport’s Christmas Prelude alone is worth a visit), but even then, a handful of restaurants and inns remain open. Winter is best for immersing in the quietude of the season, gazing spellbound at furious ocean waters, or simply hunkering down fireside with a good book and a glass of wine.
Prefer more action? Maine’s cultural hub keeps up the pace in winter with a full slate of theatrical and musical performances. Restaurants remain open, and it’s far easier to get a reservation at the top tables. On a brilliant day, bundle up and ride an island-bound ferry. On a stormy one, watch surf crash against the craggy shoreline under Portland Head Light. Take advantage of the city’s urban trail network and outlying parks.
This is the perfect spot to shop till you drop. L.L.Bean never closes its doors, and the more than 100 shops and outlets in its shadow keep business hours in winter. Post-Christmas, the sales are abundant and you won’t be fighting for a dressing room. Need a breather from shopping? Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park is open and offers winter programs.
Brunswick and Bath
Thanks to Bowdoin College, Brunswick’s cultural offerings are plentiful in winter. In addition, you can skate on the town mall, forage for treats at the farmers market, and enjoy ocean views. Nearby Bath’s downtown is filled with independent shops as well as a Reny’s, Maine’s favorite discount brand-name store, and the Maine Maritime Museum is open.
Rockland and Camden
Museums, including The Farnsworth Art Museum and Owls Head Transportation, and downtown shops keep Rockland lively year-round, and the January Pies on Parade event draws throngs. Just up the road in Camden, you can ski, snowboard, and toboggan at the Camden Snow Bowl; winter hike or cross-country ski at Camden Hills State Park; and savor harbor views. Both towns offer active cultural programs and live entertainment.
Mount Desert Island
The island, home to Acadia National Park, is mighty quiet in winter, but remains open for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, winter hiking, and even, for the hardy, camping. The College of the Atlantic offers lectures and live entertainment, and a handful of restaurants and accommodations open year-round.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Coastal Maine.