Old Orchard Beach: Best Kept Secrets

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Old Orchard Beach, Maine (OOB) has a special place in my heart. I’ve been travelling there pretty much every summer since 1990.  As a kid, my best friend would vacation there with her family for two weeks every summer.  I always thought it was weird to go to the same place each summer, since my family generally went somewhere different for each vacation, when we actually had a vacation.  But then one year in high school my friend called me up and invited me to join her and her family for two weeks in Old Orchard, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable summers of my life.  One visit to the Maine coast, and I was hooked!

When my husband and I started dating, I took him to OOB the second summer we were going out. He’s a total beach guy, so the idea that we could drive 8 hours and be at the coast hadn’t even occurred to him – he was use to driving to Florida for the beach!  Maine cast its spell on him too.

When we had our girls, I briefly considered fore-going our annual trip – the thought of travelling with twin three-month-olds and all the stuff that goes along with travelling with babies seemed too much. But Hubby insisted and it was actually a wonderful trip.  I’m now proud to say that our girls have been going to Maine since they were three months old!

That said, with twenty-plus years of vacationing in the Old Orchard Beach area, we’ve found a few hidden gems that don’t necessary make the tourist radar, but are definitely worth checking out.

Beach Bagels

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Beach Bagels has been a mainstay in ‘downtown’ Old Orchard for well over ten years (they don’t have a website, so I can’t confirm, so I’m going on my memory…) It’s the go-to breakfast spot and offers great food at great prices. The staff is super-friendly and patient – especially when you’re eleven year-old changes her mind 5 times about which bagel she should get. And the relaxed atmosphere is beach-perfect.

34 Old Orchard St, Old Orchard Beach, ME

Ocean Park Soda Fountain

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Just a little ways down West Grand Avenue, you’ll come across the quiet neighbourhood of Ocean Park. Mostly seasonal beach homes and B&B’s, the main square in Ocean Park has a library, convenience store, small green space and a souvenir shop.  But the main hang-out is the Ocean Park Soda Fountain.  Like a lot of things in OOB, it’s like walking back in time, to a more relaxed era.  Though they serve up breakfast, lunch and snacks, their main draw is the ice cream.  The staff is generally university kids with the tip jar listing colleges they are saving for.  And unlike today’s ice cream shops, the OP Soda Fountain still keeps its ice cream in fully covered freezers.  No fancy glass sneeze-guards here

Ocean Park Soda Fountain, 14 Temple Ave., Ocean Park, ME

Harmon Historical Society

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I’ve always been interested in the history of Old Orchard Beach. It’s a vacation spot generations have been coming to year-after-year, so it’s always neat to see what it was like in the 30’s, the 50’s, the 70’s.  At the top of the hill in ‘downtown’ OOB, sits the Harmon Historical Society.  I’ve driven passed this place for years never realizing what it was exactly. I think that if it was called the Old Orchard Beach History museum, it might get a little more foot-traffic, but alas…  It’s named after one of the founding historical members, W. Warren Harmon. Staffed by volunteers, and funded by donations and memberships, it houses wonderful pictures and relics from the last 100 years of Old Orchard Beach.  If you love history and have a rainy afternoon, it’s a wonderful place to visit to glimpse into the past.

4 Portland Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME

Saco Drive-In

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Confession: this picture is from last year – as you can tell from the movies.

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If you drive past the Saco Drive-In on Route 1, you may think it’s abandoned or at least closed for the season, except when you read the marquee, and it says “Ice Age: Collision Course ” and “Ghost Busters 2”. The second oldest drive-in still operating in the US, the Saco Drive-In is a must for anyone visiting OOB.  And if you’re into marketing (like I am), you have to read about how the current managers (a couple of twenty-something college kids) took on the failing business and with the help of social media and a lot of hard work, really did something amazing.  I’m proud to say that I was about the 350th fan on their Facebook page, and through savvy marketing, they now have well over 35,000 likes!  You can also read about how those Fans helped to save the Drive-In.

What I also love about this place is that they’ve preserved everything so authentically.  The canteen is awesome and appears to be the original from the ‘60s.  Even the washrooms – all super clean and well maintained – are not retro ‘50s, they actually are 1950’s!  So cool!

969 Portland Ave (Rt. 1), Saco, ME

Biddeford Pool

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If it’s not a beach day or you’ve already spent your money shopping at the outlets, take a short drive up to Biddeford Pool. It’s a beautiful rocky shoreline with great beach-combing and nothing beats exploring the tidal pools for mini crabs and other ocean creatures.

South of the town of Biddeford on State route 208.

Schooner’s Mini-Putt & Batting Cages

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Schooners Mini-Golf is another great, local treasure. The Mini-Putt (or as my girls call it, Putty-Golf) is well maintained and even offers a hole on a pirate ship.  We always spend a couple of bucks on the batting cages, which offer softball, little-league, minor-league and major-league pitching speeds to suit all needs.  Although it never ceases to amaze me how many guys stroll up to the ‘major-league’ cage and strike out 12 balls in a row. I’ll stick with my softball pitch, thank you.

58 Ocean Park Ave, Saco, ME

Beach Lobster

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No post about Maine would be complete without some discussion about lobster.  Beach Lobster is just at the corner of Saco Ave. and St. John Street. Head down there in the morning to pick out your fresh lobsters for dinner and they’ll hold them for you to pick up after your day at the beach.  Crabs too.  They also have great local veggies, in season and amazing blueberries!

35 Saco Ave., Old Orchard Beach, ME

Dickinson’s Candy Shop

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Dickinson’s Candy Shop is a true OOB success story. And this year they’ve expanded.  Offering pretty much every candy you can think of as well as fudge, taffy and ice cream – this is a must stop for my kids. The girls especially like the dancing jelly-beans, which us parents remember from FAO Schwartz toy store in NYC.

42 Old Orchard St., Old Orchard Beach, ME

Smiling Hill Petting Zoo

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Even though this photo is from 10 years ago, it’s still one of my favourites – at Smiling Hills Farm, Westbrook, Maine

Technically this is not really in Old Orchard, but it’s just short drive away in Westbrook, ME. We came across this little petting zoo and dairy shop by accident many, many years ago. We’ve taken the girls here a couple times when they were really young to check out the pigs, geese and goats.  If you have little ones, it great spot to burn off some energy, check out the barnyard animals and explore all the kid-friendly climbing structures (trains, planes, boats oh my!).  The farm store serves a variety of diary products including flavoured milks and creams.

781 County Rd., Westbrook, ME

So if you ever find yourself in the Southern Maine area, or are looking for a fantastic, kid-friendly beach vacation that’s within budget, Old Orchard Beach is the spot.  This is just a small taste of all the things to see and do, and I didn’t even talk about the beach (over 7 miles!) or the pier or the amusement rides!

Ann