Old Orchard Beach, Maine, is a classic New England beach town. What began in the nineteenth century as a Free Will Baptist revival camp on a stretch of sandy beach south of Portland gradually gave way over the decades to fried clams, Tilt-a-Whirls, and t-shirt shops. The town is one of the last of a dying breed of honky-tonk seaside resorts, and its boardwalk has been hailed as one of the best in the country.
The boardwalk is anchored by a 112-year old amusement park, the Palace Playland, and a pier lined with kitschy shops and fried dough stands has been a pier at Old Orchard since 1898. The first was the longest steel pier in the world but, after 11-and-a-half decades of fires and blizzards, shorter and shorter reincarnations have been reconstructed on the site. (The current iteration dates from 1980.) A casino once graced the end of the pier. 5,000 revelers once packed its ballroom to dance to Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Guy Lombardo.
In the summer, Old Orchard is crowded with visiting Quebeckers. Road signs give distances in both miles and kilometers, poutine is for sale along the boardwalk, and the area is jokingly called the French Canadian Riviera. The town is a mid-century time capsule. Large chain hotels never made it to the beaches this far north, and small motels crowd the beachfront and line the approach along Route 5. Miniature golf courses, seafood shacks, and tacky souvenir shops round out the town.
But in early November, after the season has ended, the motels have shuttered, the rides have stopped at the Palace Playland, and the last clam strip has been fried on the pier, the town is empty. Visiting one snowy afternoon, we had the town to ourselves. The beach was covered in white, the amusement park was empty and locked away behind chain-link fences, and the pier was quiet.