CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine - The dramatic seaside scenery that has drawn people to Prouts Neck and Cape Elizabeth for nearly 400 years also marks a distinct change in geography.
Scarborough Beach, on Prouts Neck, and Higgins and Crescent beaches to the north, are the last of the broad, sandy beaches that grace southern Maine's shoreline. North of Cape Elizabeth the coast is characterized by rocky spits and cliffs, fingery peninsulas, and a profusion of little islands. This is why Spanish explorers called Cape Elizabeth ``Cabo de Muchas Islas," or Cape of Many Islands.
Prouts Neck is a triangular swath of land settled in 1633 and named for a prominent farming family who lived there. Its most striking feature is a massive granite promontory that extends about three miles into the sea. This seawall rises at a 45-degree angle more than 50 feet above the water, and waves constantly break against it with a force that has captivated artists and others for years.
The Cape was named in 1614 by Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) in honor of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I and sister of King Charles I. As its regal association might suggest, the area has cultivated an air of exclusivity. But although residents and summer visitors have long been and frequently still are affluent, they typically are not members of the social elite that has patronized other resort areas in search of luxury or fame.
Sample Maine's southern shore at explorenewengland.com.
The Cape and the Neck have been and still are home to a few celebrities, but they also have attracted artists, activists, and entrepreneurs drawn by the rugged beauty of the coast. Among them are Maud Wood Park, a suffragist and first president of the League of Women Voters; pilot Amelia Earhart; actresses Bette Davis and Glenn Close (a current resident); and many artists, including Edward Hopper and the man whose name is linked to the region perhaps more than any other, Winslow Homer.
Residents have fought to keep the area sparsely settled and as private as possible, but they also have welcomed tourists - provided that their activities could be carefully controlled. This is most obvious if you try to park. Some neighborhoods simply outlaw parking on either side of their streets by anyone but residents from April or May until October, herding tourists into a few designated fee lots. But it would be a shame to let this annoyance stop you from sampling the area's parks, beaches, and museum, because they are attractive, unusual, and historically significant.
Perhaps the most appealing, and certainly the easiest to visit, is Fort Williams Park, a lovely 90-acre site that includes Maine's oldest lighthouse. The prominence of the Cape as it juts out into Casco Bay and the fertile meadows and marshes in its interior helped to make it a minor trading center as early as the 17th century, with farming, fishing, lumbering, and shipbuilding as its mainstays. Navigating Portland Harbor could be treacherous, though, and local merchants petitioned for help. The upshot was creation of Portland Head Light, completed in 1791.
Because Portland Harbor is closer to Europe than any other deep-water port in the United States, it also was considered vulnerable to attack. So Fort Williams was created for coastal defense - although its guns have never fired a single shot except in practice.
Today Fort Williams Park offers sloping manicured lawns, a tiny beach, trails, a children's playground, and picnic facilities. You can explore some of the old fort buildings and visit the lighthouse, automated now but still flashing every four seconds. The keeper's charming home has become a museum, which tells the stories of the light, the fort, and the area.
According to Jeanne Gross, the museum's director, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th-century author, loved this lighthouse and regularly walked here from his home in Portland. Just outside the museum, a plaque marks a rock where he sat gazing out to sea and reportedly was inspired to compose his poem ``The Lighthouse."
Beachgoers can choose from among three attractive alternatives.
Scarborough is perhaps the most interesting and ecologically unusual. It includes a freshwater pond less than a quarter mile from the seashore and known as Massacre Pond, where a well-known Indian fighter and 18 other settlers were killed in 1713. ``The Indians threw the bodies into the pond. Later they extracted them and buried them all in one big heap, but nobody knows where," says Tom O'Donnell, a beach officer. ``Some people think they're buried in a golf course."
The clean, mile-and-a-half-long beach offers surfing and swimming. Its dunes are home to terns and plovers, and seals sometimes congregate on rocks offshore.
Crescent is a pretty, mile-long beach set in a 335-acre park with picnic tables and barbecue grills in a shady grove of elms and beeches. Grassy sand dunes rim the shore. Ocean waves rarely are big enough for surfing, but swimming, fishing, boating, and other water sports are allowed, a lifeguard is on duty, and facilities include a bathhouse and snack bar. In winter, cross-country skiing is permitted on the beach and its trails.
Higgins is possibly the least appealing to tourists, because it lacks lifeguards and public facilities and seems oriented mainly for the use of residents, with expensive public parking some distance from the sand. But surfers say they prefer this beach when winds blow from the north.
Another key attraction is the former home of Homer, who became a permanent resident in 1883 and stayed for 27 years, during which time he painted what to many eyes are his finest works. His studio, where he also lived, was the converted stable of his family home. It's a simple, square cottage with open working space and a large fireplace on the ground floor and a bedroom upstairs. A covered second floor balcony is oriented toward the coast, with panoramic views of the sea. Lois Homer Graham, the artist's grandniece, says the studio was cold and uncomfortable for him in winter, ``but the excitement of the storms - the great waves crashing on the rocks - kept him there."
The Portland Art Museum recently acquired the studio and has closed it for restoration. It may open to the public on a limited basis next spring.
A lovely seaside path meanders around the tip of Prouts Neck, past the studio (which you can see from the outside) and through a bird sanctuary established by the Homers in the 1880s. The trick is figuring out how to see these attractions because no public parking is allowed anywhere close by - unless you happen to stay or eat at the Black Point Inn, or want to make the long walk over from Scarborough Beach. (I recommend lunching at the inn or having a drink on its porch, and then exploring the environs on foot.)
Hikers also may enjoy seaside trails along ocean bluffs and through hilly, wooded glades at Two Lights State Park, named for two lighthouses nearby (but not open to the public). The site was intended to house a battery during World War II, but the war ended before the battery could be completed. Visitors can see the camouflaged concrete bunker and explore the rocky headlands, which offer expansive and much-photographed ocean views.
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.