Have you heard of Old Orchard Beach? As New England summer beach destinations go, it's not as well known as Cape Cod and not quite as crowded as Hampton Beach or the beaches along the Rhode Island shore. That means this seven-mile stretch of sand in southern Maine is the perfect choice for those who seek not only the amusements typical of a family beach destination but the chance to claim more than a towel-sized piece of beach as their own.
If you are familiar with Old Orchard Beach, you likely immediately think of The Pier, which has been the center of activity for the beach resort since the original pier was built in 1898. On hot summer days, the area surrounding The Pier is as densely packed with ocean lovers as any beach in New England, but the beauty of Old Orchard Beach is that it stretches on and on--for about 3.5 miles in either direction of The Pier--and as you move away from this epicenter, you will share the soft sand and sea with fewer and fewer folks. Even more beautiful--all of Old Orchard Beach is open free to the public.
One reason the area surrounding The Pier is most popular is that Amtrak's Downeaster stops at a railroad station just diagonally across the street from The Pier, allowing visitors from Boston and Portland to escape to the beach without the need for a car and without fighting traffic along I-95. There is no other beach in New England that is this easily accessible by rail. Traveling to the beach by train is also a nostalgic way to arrive--trains brought visitors to Old Orchard Beach from 1842 until the mid-1900s, but the town was without an active station for many years until Amtrak's Downeaster debuted in 2002.
Speaking of nostalgia, Old Orchard Beach is undergoing a bit of a transformation these days, as efforts are underway to tone down the honky tonk reputation of The Pier and to recapture some of the seaside town's Victorian-era charm. The focus is on creating an inviting atmosphere for families, and while The Pier is still home to amusement rides, carnival games, arcades, temporary tattoo stalls, bars and food stands, the town's goal is to become a year-round resort community.
You may be wondering if the water is cold. While it's certainly chillier than what you'll find at more southerly beaches, it's certainly tolerable for getting your feet wet or taking a quick dip, and kids don't seem to mind the brisk ocean temperatures at all.
In addition to playing at the beach and on The Pier, local attractions include the Funtown Splashtown USA waterpark, fishing charters, golf and miniature golf courses, lighthouses and more. Portland--Maine's largest city, and the outlet stores of Kittery are both a short drive away. During special annual events at Old Orchard Beach, such as the Sand Sculpture Contest or the annual Beach Olympics, there are even more diversions to fill your days. Nights are fun-filled, too, as Old Orchard Beach puts on a free fireworks display near the pier every Thursday evening from late June through late August. Concerts are performed most Saturday or Sunday evenings at the Ocean Park Association temple.
Winter is a hushed time at Old Orchard Beach, but more and more hotels are extending their seasons into the spring and fall and some do remain open year-round for those who crave a quiet oceanside escape. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, you'll find attractive off-season rates.
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