With its sweep of white sandy beaches totaling almost seven miles, it’s easy to understand why tourists flock to Wells, Maine, making it a popular summertime destination. But poke around this historic town—the third to be incorporated in Maine—and you’ll discover there’s more to do in Wells than sunbathe on its scenic shoreline.
Beyond the occasional trip to Big Daddy’s and the Maine Diner—which serve up some of the best ice cream and seafood chowder, respectively—I hadn’t much cause to travel to Wells when I lived in neighboring Kennebunk during the 1980s. These days, however, Jim and I always seem to find ourselves tucking into one of the shops or restaurants that crowd the edges of Post Road (U.S. Route 1) when we’re in the area. And the months leading to peak season are an ideal time to explore this coastal town.
Antiquing is big business along U.S. Route 1’s busy southern corridor, and we’re sure we’ll uncover treasure in one of Wells’ many shops. We brush by countless shelves bowing under the weight of the usual suspects—stacks of moldering magazines, vintage Pyrex dishes, and glass electrical insulators—in our quest to find that one thing we can’t do without.
It’s not possible to talk about unique antiques without mentioning the Johnson Hall Museum and its proprietor, the late Bill Johnson. Bill spent much of his life amassing an enviable selection of antiques, collectibles and memorabilia, which he displayed publicly in a cluster of buildings that ramble alongside the northern stretch of Route 1 in Wells. Sadly, Bill passed in February, and though there’s talk that the museum will continue on, all visitors agree it won’t—can’t—be the same without him there to act as ringmaster.
The trees have not yet cloaked themselves in leaves when we stop to roam the grounds of Wells Reserve at Laudholm, but the views are stunning. A former saltwater farm, the reserve now encompasses 2,250 acres of protected land, with a network of trails twisting through the grass and woodlands that spread out from the parking lot. The Salt Marsh Loop, Forest Learning Trail, and Laudholm Beach each provide a peek into diverse estuarine habitats.
The abundance of fresh fish lures visitors to the coast of Maine, but the seasonal hours of seafood joints catering to the summer crowd can make satisfying that craving a bit tricky in the off-season. Ask around to learn which eateries curry favor with the locals to find the best meal at any time of year.
The rattle of glasses clinking together punctuates the buzz of conversation when we push through the doors of Joshua’s, a family-owned and operated restaurant that’s open year-round, seven days a week. The dining room’s booked, but we slip into the tavern to catch up with our friend, bartender extraordinaire Christina Holbrook.
We go for the food. Chef Joshua Mather has created the best duck entree I’ve ever tasted and Jim feels equally passionate about the haddock, but it’s the lively conversation with neighboring patrons that persuades us to linger. We usher the evening off in the company of friends newly made over one of Christina’s signature cocktails squeezed from fresh seasonal ingredients.
The following morning, our friend Keira’s waiting for us to pick her up to wind our way along Coles Hill Road for a leisurely brunch at Merriland Farm Cafe. The café offers traditional breakfast fare served with an eclectic twist, like poached eggs topped with hollandaise sauce perched atop a light, airy popover or a flaky biscuit.
Clouds are racing along the horizon in typical April fashion when we leave the café, but the sky’s a blazing blue, so we decide to explore the byways that snake off U.S. Route 1 toward the shore. Mile Road leads to Wells Beach which becomes the hub of beach-going activity in the summertime. A cluster of shops, an arcade, and public bathrooms make this the place to park the car and spend the day relaxing at the seashore.
All’s quiet save for the screech of the gulls wheeling overhead when we reach the harbor located at the tip of Harbor Road. The harbor area encompasses a public boat launch, private marina and restaurant, but it’s the Wells Harbor Community Park that draws families here. Not only does the park host free summer concerts on Saturday evenings from July to Labor Day, it also boasts a playground, bocce ball and horseshoe courts and a modest observation deck.
Our last stop is to the beach at Drakes Island—accessible by a road of the same name. A squall of wind kicks up, churning the Webhannet River into a frenzy of white caps as we’re strolling alongside the jetty that juts beyond the beach’s border into the ocean. A rush of frothy water obscures the sleek head of a seal bobbing between the waves in the harbor, and drafts of wind begin snatching at our hair and clothing. The shoreline spills into Laudholm Farm Beach, but we don’t make it that far, sheets of blowing sand signaling the end of our exploration in Wells, Maine.