Rock bottom

So buoy yourself with extra balls, a look at the light, a lobster stop, and then on to the arcade

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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YORK , Maine — From the seventh fairway I can see New Hampshire, most notably the arched bridge above the Piscataqua River that serves as the state line. Amid the steep ups-and-downs of The Ledges, the aptly-named course that swallows both golf balls and handicaps, are woods and marshes and rock outcroppings.

York Beach this isn’t. This is the Maine of wildflower meadows and hayfields and apple trees and corn mazes, the Maine that you encounter when you head west instead of east when you turn off Interstate 95. The Ledges, which may be the most demanding layout in New England, was carved from an undulating and unforgiving landscape that has a 200-foot variation in elevation.

The course appears to have been created by a deity with a devilish intent and designed by a man with orders to fashion a purgatory on earth. William Bradley Booth, the architect who lives in an oceanside village nearby, evidently has an impish if not misanthropic view of his fellow man. He tempts you with gorgeous scenery, then dares you to negotiate your way over, around, and through it for nearly 7,000 yards.

There are more trees than you can count, with technicolor foliage in store this month. There are ponds and brooks. And there are rocks all around (you can’t have ledges without them, after all). It’s as though Maine bought up every leftover scrap of granite from its mountainous neighbor in exchange for a small swatch of coastline and scattered them around.

Miss a fairway here and the ball will ping off a stone and carom into parts unplayable. “Need a jackhammer,’’ my playing partner Wayne advises me after he spots my ball up against a boulder on the fifth hole, where I just missed decapitating a flock of wild turkeys with a 7-iron. They didn’t stick around to see what I might do with a sand wedge.

This is a course made for sixes and sevens and the occasional 10. Once you’ve made the turn, it seems pointless to keep scribbling numbers on an unsightly scoreboard. Savoring the surroundings is much more satisfying, particularly on the back nine, which has four water holes. The 18th, which measures 618 yards if you’re playing from the championship tees, is indeed a satanic playpen with water to the right, water to the left, a wide and deep thicket in the middle, and an uphill finish to a green surrounded by bunkers, one of which appears to have a full head of hair growing out of its middle.

Even in a cart (and unless you’re a mountain goat, there’s no good reason to walk) this can be a five-hour round, counting time spent searching for unfindable balls (bring an extra sleeve or two) and admiring the environs. But even if you play in the late morning there’s plenty of time to come back down to sea level and poke around The Yorks, as they’re called on the interstate sign.

The village, the harbor, and the beach are where most visitors go after they’ve turned onto Route 1, which is the coastal lifeline that goes through Kennebunk, Portland, Bath, Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Bucksport, Ellsworth, and Eastport before heading up and in toward Canada. York, which bills itself as the Gateway to Maine, is only 60 miles from Boston, an easy day trip for those in search of “lobsters, lighthouses, long sandy beaches.’’

Many tourists zip through the gateway en route to artsy Ogunquit or The Kennebunks (Maine’s village clusters are named like families), but The Yorks, which includes Cape Neddick, are worth a meander. The village, with the country’s oldest gaol (jail) plus a one-room schoolhouse, tavern, and warehouse from the 18th century and its Civil War monument (topped by a Confederate soldier), is a period piece. Down the street and around the corner is the harbor with classic inns overlooking a sheltered beach with surf crashing on the rocks to either side. “I’m charmed,’’ my wife declared.

Like the rest of the Yorks, the harbor area is eminently walkable. To the right is the Fisherman’s Walk. To the left is the Cliff Walk, with the sign warning that “the path is rugged and unimproved.’’ In the middle is Hartley Mason Park, with its wedding photo-worthy backdrop.

The streets off Route 1A leading north to York Beach have salt-spray names: Roaring Rock Road, Sea Trumpet Drive, Lobster Cove Road. Up ahead is the Camp Eaton oceanside site that dates to 1923, with so many trailer homes aligned in rows on its 35 acres that they make a village all their own. Then comes Long Sands Beach, a mile and a half stretch of swimmable (if you can tolerate goosebumps) and surfable (in a wetsuit) water.

Up around the bend is the road to the Nubble Lighthouse, a flashing-red icon from 1879 that’s one of the planet’s most photographed beacons. The view from either side is spectacular. On the left are massive slabs of rock sloping downward with the sea slapping upward and brown gulls wheeling about. On the right is the open Atlantic all the way to the horizon.

As evening approaches and the light over the ocean turns from lavender to violet, the best vantage point is from a windowside table at Fox’s Lobster House (“One Nibble on the Nubble and You’re Hooked!’’) at lighthouse point. After steamers or creamy chowder (or both), there are multiple lobster offerings, a shore dinner, and seafood platters, followed by homemade wild blueberry pie (“Made by Phyllis every morning’’) with ice cream from the estimable Shain’s of Maine.

A U-turn away from the lighthouse along Broadway (a shoreside version) brings you to what most visitors consider York Beach, the section along Ocean Avenue that remains redolent of a downeast Coney Island. Though there’s been significant upscaling — Lydia Shire, who runs Locke-Ober in downtown Boston, offers candy stripe lobster ravioli and melted leek portabello lobster tart at her Blue Sky restaurant — the boardwalk essence along Short Sands Beach hasn’t changed. The Goldenrod, which has been in business since 1898, still makes salt water taffy in the window and the Fun O Rama, which goes back half a century, still has skee ball lanes as well as more than 300 arcade games.

While York Beach is essentially a summer resort — the Wild Kingdom Zoo and Amusement Park closes at the end of September — the town’s chamber of commerce finds ways to stretch the season. The farmers’ market runs until next Saturday, the Oktoberfest lasts for the month, and the Harvestfest, which takes place on the 16th and 17th and has been going for more than a quarter century, offers everything from hayrides to an ox roast. The Ledges closes down after Thanksgiving weekend. The wild turkeys, who have spent months dodging errant drives, are duly grateful.

John Powers can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
The Ledges Golf Club
1 Ledges Drive, York, Maine
Greens fee $55 weekdays, $60 weekends, $70 and $75 May-September; closed after Thanksgiving weekend. You will literally be between a rock and a hard place on one of New England’s most spectacular and demanding layouts. Rent a cart unless you enjoy climbing.
York Beach
Oct. 16-17
The 26th annual highlight of the town’s Oktoberfest includes a variety of family activities, live bands, vendors, and an ox roast. Saturday 10 a.m.- 8 p.m., Sunday 10-4.
Where to eat
Fox’s Lobster House
8 Sohier Park Road at Nubble Lighthouse Point
York Beach
Crustaceans, cocktails, and homemade wild blueberry pie with an ocean view. Lunch and dinner. Appetizers from $4.95, entrees from $16.95.
Blue Sky on York Beach
2 Beach St., York Beach
Lydia Shire by the seashore. Oysters, mussels, crabcakes, and lobster in multiple forms. Lunch and dinner and Sunday jazz brunch. Appetizers from $8, entrees from $24.