Tucked between Kittery and Ogunquit on the southern Maine coast, York Beach is a popular summer seaside destination thanks to its family-friendly vibe, beautiful beaches, fun downtown, and memorable attractions.
By Aimee Tucker
Jul 07 2022
No visit to York is complete without a stop at the Goldenrod for saltwater taffy kisses.Photo Credit : Aimee Tucker
It’s this vibrant mix of accessible sun and fun that earned York Beach a spot on Yankee‘s list of The 25 Best Beach Towns in New England, so while I was spending a recent long weekend in nearby Kittery Point, I decided to try and take in all of York Beach that I could in one afternoon.
First up? We kicked things off right by heading straight to the feather in York’s cap, the Cape Neddick Light Station, better known as the Nubble Light for the “nub” of island it sets on. Look familiar?
Dating back to 1879, the Nubble is arguably the most photographed lighthouse in New England. In fact, the image of Nubble Light is so iconic that when NASA sent Voyager II into space in 1977 armed with artifacts that might teach extraterrestrials about Planet Earth, one of those was a picture of the Nubble.
The romantic allure of Nubble Light is twofold. Not only is the structure and setting almost painfully idyllic (the rocky coast, sturdy light, and button-cute adjoining keeper’s house — which, for the record, is unoccupied and has been since 1987), but the island setting just a hundred yards across the water from Sohier Park on the mainland means the Nubble is always tantalizingly just out of reach.
If you’re curious about what it looks like over the water, Yankee featured photographer and Nubble Light keeper Matt Rosenberg has a fun collection of unique, behind-the-scenes shots to admire, and if you’re into knowledge and wisdom, we’ve also got a trove of Nubble Light facts and trivia.
After dutifully circling for a parking spot, then admiring the postcard-perfect view at great length, it was time for some refreshments. Fox’s Lobster House is close enough to offer views of the Nubble while digging into a lobster roll or bowl of chowder, but we opted to head to Brown’s Ice Cream a short distance away. [Editor’s note: Brown’s Ice Cream closed before the 2015 summer season. Former operator Steve Dunne has opened up his own shop, Dunne’s Ice Cream, nearby.]
The stand’s “old fashion” ice cream was a local and tourist favorite for a cup, cone, or sundae. I’m fond of classic Yankee flavors, so on my visit, I ordered a cup of Grapenut ice cream (narrowly victorious over Wild Blueberry). Rich and creamy with just the right amount of nutty cereal bits, this was a good scoop.
We next made the mile-long trip to the hub of York Beach along Route 1A. A large lot with metered parking is just steps from the action, which includes a beach, arcade, restaurants, shops, and even a zoo animal or two (or more). If you can’t wait to swim or soak up some rays, the small but sufficient quarter-mile of Short Sands Beach (one of York’s two main beaches) is your first stop.
A literal stone’s throw from Short Sands are two of York’s most enduring tourist spots — a compact candlepin bowling alley (there’s miniature golf in there, too) and the Fun-O-Rama arcade.
According to their Web site, the Fun-O-Rama building was once a 1940s bathhouse before converting to an arcade and sometimes roller rink a few decades later. Today it packs more than 250 rides and arcade games (including my favorite, Skee-Ball) into its 10,000 square feet, and there’s something endearingly boardwalk-retro about it that makes you want to stroll through even if video games and old-fashioned photo booths aren’t your thing.
A few steps away, the Goldenrod in downtown York Beach has been luring in hungry folks for more than a century, and the old-school neon-style signage out front speaks right to the heart of memory-seeking visitors. Inside, a three-part operation offers up something for everyone, from the bustling candy counter to the soda fountain and adjacent traditional dining room.
Saltwater taffy is the signature sweet at the Goldenrod (they call them “Goldenrod Kisses“), and visitors are treated to a sneak peek at the taffy-making process from the outside sidewalk, where children and iPhone-toting adults peer through the glass windows to watch the candy being made in separate stages — from boiling to pulling to cutting and wrapping.
Inside, the candy counter is expertly staffed to serve up all the fudge, bark, brittle, and caramel corn you could ever ask for, but if you want ice cream, a root beer float, stack of pancakes, or even a club sandwich or burger, they’ve got that, too.
Still feeling the sugar effects from our ice cream at Brown’s, we opted for something salty instead. Fresh guacamole and plentiful sunny outdoor seating proved too tempting to resist at Guac-n-Roll just around the corner, but we easily could have sought out a sandwich, wood-fired pizza, or gourmet popcorn just a few steps in either direction.
Continuing down Railroad Avenue, you’ll pass the usual clutch of gift and souvenir shops, food joints, and even a spot to have your palm read before ending up at York’s Wild Kingdom, which is billed as New England’s only zoo and amusement park. It might look small from the entrance, but, as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Inside you’ll find traditional amusement park rides, classic fair food (like fried dough), a number of landscaped animal exhibits (lions, monkeys, alpacas, and more!), a “butterfly kingdom,” and mini golf. We opted to save our visit for another day, but I suspect a stop at York’s Wild Kingdom packs in enough fun and adventure to fill a whole day.
Full of sugar and salsa and feeling tired from the late-summer sun, we got back in the car and headed down Route 1A toward Long Sands Beach, which, as you might guess, is larger and longer than Short Sands, for a final look at the ocean. Stretching 1.5-miles, Long Sands has a more traditional “day-at-the-beach” feel with plenty of room for the whole family to spread out for a day of fun, from strolling the shoreline to boogie boarding to wave jumping. You can even see the Nubble Light in the distance from the sand, and there are restaurants across the road should you need sustenance.
So what did we miss on our visit to York Beach? Had we ventured further north up Route 1 we could have stopped at the famous Flo’s Hot Dogs, but the beauty in forgetting a thing or two on vacation is that you’ve got the perfect reason to plan a trip back.
Have you ever been to York Beach? What would you say is the best thing to see, do, or eat while you’re there?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.