Despite frozen expectations, Vacationland abides year-round.
Ahh, the season of freezing misery crystallized on your face and clenched in knots between your shoulders. If there’s ever a time of year you need a vacation, it’s the winter. And yet too often we’re quick to run off to white sand beaches and tropical drinks, things that leave us longing for summer when days are warm and clothes are scant. But leaning into the pain helps us endure it, and finding beauty in our troubles provides perspective. So just when you’re dreaming of palm trees and bikinis, grab your fleece- and flannel-hooded robe and stoke the fire. You’re heading to the coast of Southern Maine, where the blustering cold will make your blood run hot. But don’t be hasty: use this arsenal of treats and tools to beat back the bitter cold.
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Keep your blood moving with myriad indoor distractions, or face the bluster head-on for thrills you can’t find in the summertime.
Spend your dollars (or take a selfie with the giant Bean boot) at L.L. Bean’s Flagship store in Freeport, stock up on yummy jams, relishes, and other sauces at Stonewall Kitchen Company Store in York, or better yet, stop by one of the many, Mainer-owned mom-and-pop shops in and around the towns of Southern Maine. You’ll find one-of-a-kind treats in bookstores, clothing shops, ice cream parlors, emporiums, and grocers, all proudly showcasing their Down Easter allegiance and locally-made wares.
Or, layer up and head outside—don’t be surprised to see locals doing the same. Even in the bitter cold, getting outside in nature helps invigorate the body and beat winter blues, and Mainers have some beautiful landscapes to enjoy. Marvel the many lighthouses (Goat Island and Nubble Light are nearby), watch out for wildlife (moose, black bears, puffins, and whales), and be fascinated by the gruesome history of Boon Island, visible from Cape Neddick shore. Walk the mile-long Marginal Way along the coast of Ogunquit and watch surfers catching waves in full-body wetsuits. From the beach, watch pelicans dive for dinner. Scramble around the rocks (be careful! It’s slippery!) to see what lives just beneath the waves.
Looking for a little more drama? Get your heart racing as you snowmobile, tube, shoe, sled, or ski (cross-country or downhill) and even dogsled. Want the adrenaline without the cold? From a coast-facing window (there’s no beating the vistas from the Cliff House), storm-watching has become the hot activity for winter vacationers, providing theatrics that rival those of the old gods. Grab some hot chocolate and settle in for the show.
How would you like to have dinner in the beautifully maintained home of your friend with great taste in décor, or a similarly cozy, intimate setting that invokes feelings of nostalgia, charm, and self-generated warmth? Great. That’s literally every restaurant in Southern Maine. Pull up a chair because someone in a flannel shirt is bringing you a glass of wine.
And as for the actual eats—you know how in the wintertime it’s so wonderful to eat oatmeal in the morning because it’s so hearty and sweet but it sticks to your ribs and really ushers in the day? That’s like having a meal in Maine. Most restaurants boast locavore offerings of just-yanked-from-the-ocean seafood, freshly foraged mushrooms, locally made cheese, milk, and yogurt as well as craft-brewed beers, and seasonally-inspired menus. It’s as if a network of hipster foodie grandmothers has retired to Maine in order to feed extended communities savory-without-being-heavy meals made from ingredients raised or harvested within 50 square miles.
You really can’t go wrong with any non-chain restaurant you wander into, but here are some favorites:
Anju Noodle Bar in Kittery gets a lot of energy from its wonderfully staged dining room: cozy but not claustrophobic, modern without being pretentious. But stay for the food if not the company: a mish-mash of Asian favorites including pork buns, shrimp congee, chicken wings, and a variety of ramen noodles.
Northern Union in Ogunquit is a place you want to rehash your day, or catch up with an old friend, or simply get drunk with your family. In other words, stay awhile because this house-turned-restaurant feels like home (and they keep the wine coming). Small plates as well as full entrees are available, and ingredients are locally-sourced, of course. Skip dessert and order another cocktail—Bar Master Tim Yee will whip you up anything ranging from classic to creative. If there’s a wait at the door? Try Roost Café and Bistro across the street, another local favorite.
Experience a microcosm of Portland’s urban woodsmen mentality at Bard Coffee in Portland, where creatives, college students, and coffee lovers peel off layers of clothes to linger in the rich roast offerings from coffee-makers extraordinaire (owners and employees alike have won US and World Barista Championships). Bring a book or your laptop and watch the world hurry by.
Back in Ogunquit, The Greenery Café provides healthy, hearty meals with that made-from-scratch flavor that gratifies well after you’ve finished eating. It’s almost impossible to walk past the pastry counter without ordering one to go with your morning cup of joe, but don’t miss the seafood dishes at The Greenery either—the egg benedicts are always offered with options for fresh lobster or crab cakes.
Soaking in the snow is both surreal and therapeutic. The sensation of chilly fronts smashing up against a cozy steamy bath is the kind of Maine dissonance that will make your head spin. From your pool of serenity, its easy to see snowflakes as the incredible mandalas of art they are, because you are not scraping them off your windshield prior to driving through the flurries. No, you are experiencing the swirling magic of nature’s many forms of beautiful precipitation without worrying about getting wet. Sit back, look up, and let your pores open while your eyes take in snow against stars.
Ridiculous Levels of Cozy
Even adults can use security blankets when it comes up against cold winter nights, and what better blanket than one with arms, a hood, and a belt. At the Cliff House Maine, a rustic-luxury hotel in Cape Neddick, cozy levels are at a 10+. The fleece-and-flannel robes sell for $135 in the gift shop, but you’ll be provided with one (to borrow) as a complimentary amenity when staying as a guest. Which is great, because it’s hard not to feel at home when strangers are comfortable walking around hotel common areas snuggled in matching robes. You’re part of a swaddled community, and no one is judging you for being a big warm baby (because they are, too).
The smell of winter cannot be understated, and certainly not replicated. I don’t care how many “pine mix” or “Christmas cookie” scented candles you buy, there is nothing that can replace the crisp bouquet of cold fresh air or smoky wisps of crackling fires.
Like everything in Maine, there are many forms of entertainment surrounding this activity but also no entertainment at all, if that’s what a visitor desires. For example, wonderful conversations, sing-a-longs, s’more-making, storytelling, inebriating, and general merrymaking (you get the picture) can all take place gathered ’round a fire. On the other hand, fire, that comely tool that advanced humanity, can provide the perfect backdrop to contemplation, meditation, reflection, and general gratitude for being.
So why go to Maine in the dead of freezing winter? Because it’s Maine. Rain, snow, summer, winter; this northernly state is always a gorgeous place to relax and enjoy its offerings—including the wonderful inhabitants whose kindness will keep you warm.