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Life in the Slow Lane

The Maine Coast

By Julian E. Barnes

The water is freezing, mud is everywhere, nearly every motel is boarded up for the winter, the information kiosks are our of their handy "Guide to Vacationland" pamphlets and the tourists carrying plastic lobsters are nowhere to be found.

It's the perfect time to visit the coast of Maine.

So there's no swimming and, well, most of the beaches are made of rocks, but how many people can afford to go to California or Florida? And who would really want to when the greatest state in the union is only an hour and a half from Cambridge.

In the summer, Maine becomes a giant tourist trap, luring people in with fried clams, lobsters and George Bush. But things quiet down in September and stay that way.

The T-shirts tucked between the camouflage and the hunting gear at the the Kittery Trading Post read "Maine, life in the slow lane." Only tourists buy the T-shirts, but the saying is true, and Maine does make for a good place to spend a quiet spring break.

There is nothing as quiet and relaxing as an empty beach on a cool spring day. The natives may have learned to ignore the allure of desolate wind-swept beaches. But after half a semester in an urban metropolis, few things are better at making painful memories of failed problem sets disappear.

And there is no better beach in Maine than in Ogunquit, just a half-hour from the New Hampshire border. The whole town is abuzz with Canadian tourists in the summer, and French is almost required to communicate.

On a clear day, most tourists seem to think they can see up the coast a few miles to Kennebunkport and Walker's Point--home of the Bush family, including best-selling author Millie the spaniel.

Winding away from Ogunquit beach is the Marginal Way, a twisting walk along the famed--and cliched--rocky coast that writers and painters love to romanticize.

The path comes to an end in Perkins Cove, a haven of pretentious botiques and overpriced art galleries--all thankfully boarded up in March. (As everyone knows, the real money doesn't arrive until June.)

Downscale Maine

York is a downscale version of Ogunquit, catering not to French Canadian tourists but to Massachusetts day-trippers. The EconoLodge replaces the Four Seasons (okay so it's not the real one), and the Fun-O-Rama Arcade replaces the pretentious Art Galleries.

Like the "culture," the beaches in York are not quite as fancy. The sand is not as pure, the seaweed smells worse and the dunes have been replaced with vacation cottages. But York still has something to offer. The tide pools beg exploration, the rocks are climbable and York's gritty sand is perfect for castle building.

Besides the beaches, Maine has factory outlets. Lots of them. Not as beautiful but just as profitable, the outlets and the bargains they offer draw as many people wearing "life in the slow lane" t-shirts as the puffins and the seals do.

And there is no greater place for those with the "shop till you drop" attitude than Kittery, a town that is nothing less than the Mecca of factory outlets. In an utterly disgusting display of commercialism and poor community planning, more than 14 malls dot a three-mile section of Route 1.

From Ralph Lauren's Polo Shop to Nevada Bob's Golf and Tennis, from Dansk Kitchenware to Hanes Underwear, every store that has a factory unleashes its slightly-defective merchandise on Kittery.

And, of course, every store that has an outlet in Kittery has a companion in Freeport, home of L.L. Bean.

Bean's has moved far from its roots when it just sold boots, tents, canoes and Dickies. The store has undergone several renovations making it larger and more department store-esque with each new coat of paint. But behind the neon and the New York tourists, Bean's still stocks canoes, tents and fishing tackle.

There's another problem with Bean's, however. Everyone knows where it is, and everyone goes there. All the time.

Freeport is jammed every day of the year. There are no parking spaces to be found, but, luckily, not at night--and L.L. Bean is open 24 hours a day. At 1 a.m. or, even better, 3 a.m., the store is very empty.

In Maine, spring--like everything else in the state--comes a little later and a little bit slower. Spring breaks often end up as late winter breaks, but the empty beaches are all the more peaceful, and even when the outlet stores are empty, the bargains are just as good

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