THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Sunny or frostbitten, Ogunquit's a beauty

Ogunquit in winter
(Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Dean Johnson
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

OGUNQUIT, Maine -- The Abenaki people gave this place its name. No one knows exactly when, except that it was long before the colonists and their descendants inundated the area that now makes up this small coastal town 70 miles north of Boston.

"Ogunquit" in the Abenaki language meant "beautiful place by the sea." Even today, it's easy to see why they were so impressed.

The community-owned beach stretches more than three miles, and 10-foot tides mean the beach is hundreds of yards wide in some places at dead low tide. The sand is fine enough to be poured out of a pepper shaker, and anyone who has visited the likes of Nice, or St. Tropez, or Clearwater Beach in Florida knows Ogunquit's sand is superior. The tidal Ogunquit River meets the ocean at the tip of the beach, providing beachgoers a choice of crashing waves or rushing tidal waters.

There is breathtaking cliffs-meet-ocean scenery on the other side of the river topped by a footpath known as the Marginal Way. The walkway runs along the rugged cliffs for a mile and a quarter, from just outside the center of town to Perkins Cove.

Given all this, it is no surprise that Ogunquit has been an artist haven and tourist destination for decades. What is a surprise, especially for someone who has spent much of his life in the town, is the way it has evolved from a strictly Memorial-to-Labor-Day locale to a year-round community.

My family ran a restaurant in Ogunquit for several decades, and I spent much of my youth there in the 1960s and '70s. Here is the quick take on Ogunquit in those days: a busy seaside haunt after the school year ended and a veritable ghost town by mid-September. All the buildings were shuttered, and nearly all the people were gone. A single eatery (my family's, which closed at Thanksgiving), the tiny grocery store, and the drug store were the only places open until well into the next spring.

Those days are long gone. On a recent January weekend, no fewer than 12 restaurants in the town were open , along with gift shops, several large hotels, a terrific candy store, and more.

What hasn't changed, however, is Ogunquit's often stunning natural beauty, and much of that can be better appreciated with the slower pace of winter.

Try to visit on an early August weekend, and you are likely to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 1 as you enter town. Then you will get stuck in more traffic as you endlessly search for a place to park before finally pulling into a lot and paying big bucks. The restaurants are filled, the sidewalks are filled, the stores are filled, the beach is congested.

Take a walk on Marginal Way in high season, and you probably have to shoulder through or dance around people as if you were at a concession stand in Fenway Park. Nearly 100,000 people annually trek the path, and the majority visit between June and August . Perkins Cove, with its panoply of shops and restaurants, is just more gridlock .

But wintertime Ogunquit talks to the visitor in a far quieter, more intimate language.

Visit Perkins Cove in winter and park anywhere. Stroll down near where the lobster boats are moored and you understand why the Abenakis were so captivated .

All you hear is the wind, some seagulls, the creaking piers, and the sound of water cascading down the waterfall at the very back of the cove. You are bound to miss all that if you visit over Fourth of July weekend.

Walk along Marginal Way in winter and you hear the sound of the ocean constantly crashing on the rocks, not snippets of countless conversations from the scores of people in front of you, behind you, next to you, and passing you.

Wintertime Ogunquit is an ideal setting for a little meditation, a little clearing of the head, and, of course, a little romance. Head to the beach, and part of nature's soundtrack might include the sound of your feet squeaking through the impossibly fine sand, provided, of course, you're not crunching through snow.

Ogunquit in winter is getaway time, but it's also bargain time. Rooms that might bring $300 or more in high season can cost a third or less -- with the same amenities. We stayed at the Anchorage by the Sea on Shore Road, and our room was easily twice the size of a typical Boston hotel room. We had a refrigerator, a whirlpool tub, and a fireplace. The hotel also offered an indoor pool, a large outdoor Jacuzzi, and a sauna. We had all three to ourselves for nearly the entire afternoon. We paid $129 a night. We would pay more than double that in summer.

Any clothing store, art gallery, or gift shop that is open -- and there will be some -- will have drastically cut prices. Wander "downtown" to Main Street, a stretch of small storefronts on Route 1, and you can sneak into the Village Food Market for a latte or similar coffee delight.

The Harbor Candy Shop, a few doors away, is a pleasantly offbeat hybrid that melds the old-fashioned with the contemporary. It's worth visiting just to inhale. If the symphony of scents doesn't convince you to spend some quality browsing time, then you really have gotten too old.

Don't forget to drop by Ogunquit Memorial Library on Shore Road. The 1897 building is on the National Register of Historic Places and has the impressive look of a mini-château better suited for somewhere in French wine country. It also proudly declares "No Internet Access" on the front door. But really, isn't that the point of a getaway weekend ?

Take a leisurely lunch, get a massage, do a side trip to either the Kittery outlets, downtown Portsmouth, or even Portland. All three are less than 45 minutes away. Or just slow down, listen to the town's wintertime voice, and enjoy a leisurely dinner at Bintliff's , or Jonathan's , or MC Perkins Cove , or Angelina's Ristorante , or Five-0 Shore Road, all casually upscale spots with good kitchen and bar menus.

Reservations? Hah! That's summertime thinking.

Your after-dinner options might include the Friday night acoustic music series at the Old Village Inn, Saturday blues at the Beachfire Bar and Grille, or Thursday's mix of live jazz and blues at Angelina's. And if all that mellowness just gets to be too much, you can always visit the neighboring town of Wells and take in a movie.

Ogunquit in winter is a different place, and in many ways better. Just come and listen.

Contact Dean Johnson, a freelance writer in Lowell, at dcjglobe@aol.com.

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