This Coastal Maine Town Is Preserved in Time (in the Best Way Possible)

Where to eat, stay and play in York

May 11, 2024 10:36 pm
York, Maine
York, Maine
Getty Images

There’s something inherently charming and pure about Maine. Simultaneously one of the most densely forested states and the least densely populated, it’s a place that feels naturally peaceful and preserved. Despite its nickname, Vacationland, this isn’t a state known for touristy crowds or attractions, but rather one of natural beauty, pine-perfumed air and unpretentious leisure. It’s evident all along Maine’s mighty coast, where even the most touristy spots, like Portland and Bar Harbor, are still comparatively chill next to most “vacation lands.” But there’s one, oft-underrated community in particular that embodies that air of repose: the preserved-in-time town of York. 

A happy seaside hamlet a stone’s throw from the New Hampshire border, York is the type of place that many vacationers skip in favor of more populous, touristy beach towns, but those in-the-know are savvy to this quieter gem. Home to barely 13,000 residents, York’s relative lack of traffic enables it to maintain its quaintness and authenticity. Sure, there are amazing beaches here that get their fill of surfers and swimmers in the summer, but it’s the distinct vintage Americana and kitschy nostalgia, like something out of a nautical Stranger Things set, that really sets York — settled way back in 1623 — apart from its neighbors. For a beautiful blast from the past, from John Hancock’s warehouse to old-school ice cream parlors, here’s why you should set your compass to York. 

York Beach Surf Club
York Beach Surf Club
Read McKendree

Where to stay in York

With a self-described nickname like “Heaven by the Sea,” expectations might run high at York Harbor Inn, a historic smattering of ye olde abodes along coastal Route 1A. Comprising seven different buildings, all of them as picturesque as something out of a storybook, the inn dates back to 1637, when a fishing community traveled by barge to re-settle in York and construct the original Cabin Room. It wasn’t until a couple centuries later that it was run as an inn, initially the Hillcroft Inn, complete with a pub-like cellar tavern and timeworn trolley lamps. The current owners have been steering the ship since 1978, adding additional rooms, cottages and amenities, like spa tubs and fireplaces. Today, the Main Inn Building contains ocean-view deck rooms and the Ship Cellar Pub, clad with enough polished dark wood to feel like the hull of a ship, while other options include the suite-filled Harbor Hill Inn, Harbor Cliffs Inn, Yorkshire House and Harbor Crest Inn half a mile down the road, walking distance to Wiggly Bridge, York Village and Harbor Beach. 

You know a town is quaint when even the newer boutique hotels harken to yesteryear. York Beach Surf Club, while recently renovated and outfitted with decidedly modern amenities like an on-site oyster truck and heated saline pools, is a twee homage to another era in Maine lore, when the York Beach Surf Club was a literal surfing club located right across the street from York Beach. Eventually, with the uptick in tourism and the need for surfers to have somewhere to sleep, it evolved into a hotel. When new owners took over the building in 2020, they kept the name — and the surf theme — as they decorated the mod motel-like property with vintage surfboards, 100% local photography and seafood aplenty. Fresh off a multi-million dollar renovation, which saw the addition of a food and beverage program and renovated bungalows, the breezy beach club reigns as one of the coolest inns on the beach. And truly, savoring a lobster roll on a sunny pool deck is peak Maine vibes in the summertime. 

Nubble Lighthouse
Nubble Lighthouse
Getty Images

What to do in York

It’s all too easy to come to York and do nothing but the beach. No matter the season, be it a crowded beach day or a serene stroll through snow-swept sand, York’s shoreline is worthy of the fanfare. But in addition to swimming, sun-bathing and surf lessons, there’s much more to see in York than the sea.  

Keeping in a vintage New England theme, start at the iconic Nubble Light, which has been in continuous use since 1879. While the postcard-perfect lighthouse, perched on a rock island a few hundred feet off-shore, isn’t accessible to the public, the overlooking park is an idyllic location for a picnic with a view. Visitors can check out the gift shop, go fishing and look for wildlife like harbor seals and double-crested cormorants. It’s also a prime destination for scuba diving. 

Stay in the era with a trip to the Old York Historical Society, a collection of austere outposts that tell the story of one of the earliest English settlements in the U.S. With a vintage vibe like Salem, minus the hordes of bewitched tourists, the campus includes the Old York Museum Center with a gallery, colonial tavern and schoolhouse. There’s also the Old Gaol, the state’s first prison that looks curiously like a homey barn, the Emerson-Wilcox House Museum and the Donnell-Hancock Warehouse, the last remaining commercial building on the York River, co-owned by John Hancock himself. For more outdoorsy recreation, stroll a trail through Steedman Woods, a 17-acre grotto overseen by the historical society. 

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For history with a bit more kitsch, head to Fun-O-Rama, a mid-century roller rink-turned-arcade located right on Short Sands Beach and open exclusively during the summer months. Home to hundreds of games, from pinball to Galaga, this is the kind of rickety, cavernous attraction that endearingly refuses to acknowledge advancements in the modern world. For even more fun, the arcade has an attached bowling alley where candlepin, a rare breed of New England bowling — using smaller balls and taller candle-shaped pins — is the bill of fare. 

And it doesn’t get any kitschier than York’s Wild Kingdom, the kind of kid-centric zoo/amusement park that looks like the animals arrive via circus train. The seasonal attraction, open since 1980, features a surprising amount of animals for a small park, from lions and lemurs to zebras, porcupines, sloths, ostriches and alligators. There’s also a 5,500-sq.-ft. butterfly kingdom, mini golf and requisite theme park rides like Go Karts and bumper cars, plus midway-style games in case you didn’t get your fill at Fun-O-Rama. 

All that said, the beaches are definitely worth your while, too. The two main ones, Short Sands and Long Sands, are the most popular (i.e. the most crowded in the summer), but they’re lined with surf shops, ice cream stands and eateries, so that helps. Harbor Beach, off Route 1A, offers a quieter reprieve. More frequented by locals, the beach is adjoined by Cliff Walk path and Hartley Mason Park, offering beautiful panoramas of York’s craggy coast. 

A Stone's Throw lobster roll
A Stone’s Throw lobster roll
Matt Kirouac

Where to eat and drink in York

Old and new, for a town as pint-sized as York, it’s teeming with edible treasures. And lobster in every form. 

Start your day at Nectar Cafe, an adorable breakfast and lunch trailer parked in front of Bell Farm Shops. The menu is refreshingly original, with pitch-perfect coffee accompanied by libations like Maine maple lattes and lavender lemonade. Sandwiches are superb, like the Pesto Paradise with eggs, cheddar, tomatoes, spinach and pesto on a grilled English muffin, and there’s, of course, a lobster roll (among other seasonal lobster specials). Be sure and nab one of their fan-favorite doughnuts, sourced from Lovebirds Donuts. If they sell out, as they’re wont to do, just head down the street to the Lovebirds Donuts storefront for your pick of whimsical treats, like salted caramel fritters and jaffa cake, a U.K.-inspired doughnut that tops vanilla cake, dark chocolate ganache and buttercream with orange marmalade. 

One seasonal staple, prized for its nautical bounty, is Frisbee’s Wharf, a sprawling al fresco restaurant perched right on the water at Pepperell Cove, a historic marina that now contains a collection of eateries and bars. Open spring through early fall, this is the kind of place where customers can bask in the salty sea air while savoring seafood chowder, oysters, crispy clam strips, fried haddock sandwiches, scallop rolls and fresh Maine lobster in any form, including the Lazy Man Lobster Cup served with fresh lobster meat, warm butter and a spoon. Inside, Bistro 1828 is open year-round, with more seafaring fodder like white wine-steamed Maine mussels, smoked salmon boards, peppercorn-crusted swordfish and an A+ platter of fish & chips. Cap it off at Ski Club, the third-floor bar with an outdoor deck, harbor views and the same full menu as downstairs. 

Back on the beach, Stone’s Throw is so close to the ocean that guests can practically see fishermen catching their dinner in real time. Part restaurant and part boutique beachside inn, Stone’s Throw serves some of the best cocktails and wine in town, and a food menu that marries the essentials with seasonal novelties. The lobster roll here, served either chilled with mayo or dunked in drawn butter, is top-notch, heaped inside a buttery grilled roll with fresh-cut Maine potato fries. There’s also a vegan alternative, made with chilled hearts of palm in lieu of shellfish, and Old Bay vegan mayo. Other standouts include haddock tacos, pan-seared scallops, panko-fried fish & chips, and a plethora of always-changing seasonal specialties. 

Near Short Sands Beach, York Beach Beer Co. has the lofty and sunny vibe of something out of SoCal. Here, the focus is on lighter, quenching beers befitting a beach day, like the Milpool Tropical IPA and the Extra Special Long Weekend pale ale with pineapple, poured in a garage-like taproom with an ample patio. 

Back at York Harbor Inn, the Ship’s Cellar Pub is cozy as it sounds. A former livery stable, the rustic tavern is filled with polished mahogany, leather booths, nautical artwork, fireplaces and all manner of nooks and crannies. Entering the lower-level bar feels like boarding a ship from a bygone era, and the menu is laden with hearty comforts, like seafood ravioli, baked stuffed haddock, crab cakes and a signature oddity, lobster-stuffed chicken with Boursin cheese sauce. 

For dessert, simply wandering around York Beach reveals a world of nostalgic sweets. Places like Wicked Good Ice Cream and The Goldenrod are old-fashioned scoop shops and candy counters that look utterly unchanged, while the York Beach Dairy Bar is a convenient go-to right across the street from Long Sands Beach. 


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