Portrait of Place
A family-oriented beach community in Scarborough
In Scarborough, Maine, land and water meet in all kinds of marvelous ways. The coast changes shape in accordance with the tide. Fields flood and then reappear. An elaborate series of rivers snake through marshes to the ocean, creating Venetian-like waterways for canoers and kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. There are also several beaches in Scarborough, each with its own unique geographic appeal and personality.?
Just south of the Spurwink River, and only several miles from the city of Portland, is Scarborough’s Higgins Beach, a personal favorite of mine. Stemming discreetly off of Spurwink Road, it’s easy to miss—use the Higgins Beach Market as a tip-off. Serving small grocery items and fresh local food (including live lobster and steamers), the market was busy the last time I visited, on a sunny midsummer day. Gleeful kids retreated from the ice cream counter with cones; others pulled up on bikes to pick up sandwiches to take back to the beach. Following the kids with their ice cream and bagged lunches, I veered left onto Ocean Avenue, and into the heart of Higgins.
Although in more recent years people have taken up permanent residence in this suburb of Portland, Higgins has been primarily a summer colony since it was developed around the turn of the twentieth century. Neither kitschy nor grand, this neighborhood is made up of modest beach homes clustered close to one another. Ranches, small Capes, and weathered cottages are standard, with flowers and blue bottles decorating windowsills, beach towels and wet suits drying on porch railings. Small yards are filled with grills and deck furniture—all the things a family needs to make the most of every single sunny second at the beach.
Higgins is the kind of place where houses get passed down from generation to generation, with nostalgia standing in the way of too-frequent updates. Small homes are made to accommodate bunches of people at a time, with bunk beds galore. Limited space hardly matters, since residents spend as much time as possible outdoors in the summer months, dropping in every now and then for a piece of fruit or a book before heading back to the beach. Closer to the water, the houses are slightly larger—but only slightly. In general, Higgins Beach has a low-key quality. Along Bayview Avenue there are gray shingled Victorians with shady porches and bright white trim. Newer homes are often playful, with porthole lookouts and second-floor decks, nautical stained-glass windows and widow’s walks. Modern designs are less common but tend to fit in nicely with the older architecture. Beach roses line the walkways to the water, and shrubs and wind- whipped trees dot the landscape.
The beach itself is a half-mile of soft sand, flanked by the river to the north and rocky outcroppings to the south. The waves draw surfers, and although public parking is limited, the wide beach can accommodate many people. On my visit the tide was low, and I passed groups engaged in all kinds of activities—toddlers building sandcastles, teens sunbathing, adults searching for snacks in coolers and tossing Frisbees. The water was littered with paddleboarders, skim boarders, and surfers.
Back in the early twentieth century there were a few hotels catering to vacationers. Now, apart from the Breakers Inn on Bayview and the delightfully old-fashioned Higgins Beach Inn (and its restaurant, Garofalo’s) there is little commercial activity. Shops and bars and restaurants are plentiful to the north and south, in places like Portland and Old Orchard Beach, but Higgins itself is a decidedly residential neighborhood. To say this place is family-friendly is an understatement. Kids pad along barefoot from house to house in their swimsuits. Beach activities spill into the streets, which are coated in a thin layer of sand. From her van equipped with an elaborate sound system, with a megaphone and a big beautiful smile, Barbara O’Brien announces the seven o’clock meeting of the Higgins Beach Association at the Club House, just as she has done for the past 30 years. Her neighbors smile back and wave from their lawn chairs.