A Southern Maine sampler, from beach to city

The Portland Head Light lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth,

The Portland Head Light lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, sits at the entrance of the primary shipping channel into Portland Harbor, which is within Casco Bay. (July 6, 2013) (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz)

For New England, Maine is pretty big. In fact, it's larger than the other five New England states combined. It's also the one farthest away from Long Island. But don't let that discourage you from dropping everything this wicked hot summer and heading north by northeast for a refreshing break. Some of its finest attractions can be found in its most readily accessible southern tip.

Here are three easily reached but still quintessentially Down East destinations, each guaranteed to quickly put you in a Maine state you won't mind. Better yet, why not try all three? They're certainly close enough to do comfortably in a week, thus allowing you to stitch together your own Maine summer sampler.

BEACHY KEEN: OGUNQUIT

PHOTOS: Southern Maine | Top 10 beaches of 2013 | Amazing travel shots | Travel gear

GUIDES: Weekend trips | Taking the kids | Around the U.S.

Of Maine's nearly 3,500 miles of coastline, only 35 miles are beach. And the best of that is undoubtedly the undeveloped, three-mile-long spit of grass-covered dunes between the tidal Ogunquit River and the Atlantic Ocean in the town of Ogunquit, 15 miles from the New Hampshire border. The town's Indian name means "beautiful place by the sea." Of course, that's no state secret, and Ogunquit, which was named New England's best beach town last year by Yankee Magazine, packs them in throughout the summer season. (The beach itself is free, but parking -- if you can find it -- will cost between $5 and $25 a day.)

The popular Ogunquit routine consists of a full day on the beach followed by a meal at one of the town's many eateries, a little ice cream or fudge and a leisurely stroll along the Marginal Way, a mile-long, paved coastal footpath that leads around a surprisingly dramatic rocky headland to photogenic, albeit exceedingly touristy, Perkins Cove with its quaint pedestrian drawbridge.

But Ogunquit is not without its less pedestrian pleasures: there's the stunningly situated Ogunquit Museum of American Art (currently featuring an Andy Warhol retrospective) and the Ogunquit Playhouse with its nightly musical revivals. For those seeking a little more physical challenge, there's sea kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, either in the generally gentle ocean waves or the even more tranquil Ogunquit River.

INFO Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce, 207-646-2939, ogunquit.org

CITY LITE: PORTLAND

Downtown Portland's makeover from downtrodden Victorian-era industrial port to "the new Boston" (minus the traffic and crowds) took about three decades to accomplish. And the reviews are uniformly positive. What is now frequently listed as among America's best small cities in which to live is arguably even better to visit, especially in the warm summer months, when many of its 65,000 residents are themselves on vacation.

The center of eminently walkable tourist Portland is the cobblestoned Old Port district with its cornucopia of shops, award-winning restaurants (lobster and seafood predominate, naturally), and lively entertainment venues, including several brewpubs. Along the waterfront, a series of wharves and piers project out into lighthouse- and island-studded Casco Bay, access to which is available via commuter ferries, sightseeing launches, schooners, duck boats and even a working lobster boat.

Inland lies the Arts District, featuring the surprisingly large Portland Museum of Art, the Children's Museum, the over-the-top Victoria Mansion, The Portland Stage, and The State Theatre. For a little more action, climb to the top of the 200-year-old Portland Observatory, ride the narrow-gauge railway along the Eastern Promenade or take in a Portland Seadogs baseball game.

INFO Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland, 207-772-5800, visitportland.com

COOL FRESH WATER: SEBAGO LAKE AREA

Located only 20 miles northwest of Portland, pine and birch-girded Sebago Lake is not only the state's second largest, but New England's deepest. Fishermen come here year-round to haul in the lake's famous landlocked salmon, but summer is the season for water sports enthusiasts of all stripes, not only on Sebago itself, but on adjacent Brandy Pond and Long Lake, which are connected to it via the Songo River and the historic -- and still manually operated -- Songo Locks.

Though most lakefront property is claimed by camps and summer homes, there are still a handful of resorts, motels, cabins and campgrounds offering both access to the refreshingly cool and clear water and a slice of the celebrated Great North Woods. For many, a stay at "the lake" is all about relaxing, be it on the grounds of their accommodations or at one of the public beaches. For others, it's all about getting out on the water -- renting powerboats for water skiing and ski tubing, Jet Skis for zipping around; kayaks, canoes and aquabikes for self-propelled fun and fishing; a pontoon boat for extended leisurely cruising; and the Songo River Queen II, an imitation Mississippi River paddleboat. There are even seaplane rides for those who want to see it all from above. By night, it's generally either sunset cookouts along the shore (don't forget the s'mores), or an excursion onto the Naples Causeway, the low-key center of summertime activity.

INFO Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, 207-892-8265, sebagolakeschamber.com

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If you go

GETTING THERE Portland is 325 miles northeast of New York City via I-95, known locally as the Maine Turnpike.

BY PLANE Nonstop round-trip airfares from JFK to Portland on Jet Blue start around $215. You also can fly nonstop from LaGuardia on Delta from around $275, or from Newark on United beginning at around $235.

BY TRAIN One-way regular coach service from Penn Station to Portland on Amtrak costs $69-$167 and requires either connecting with The Downeaster or taking an Amtrak bus in Boston. For those going to Ogunquit, both also stop in Wells, the next town north.

WHERE TO STAY They don't call Maine "vacationland" for nothing, and August is its busiest month. Don't expect great deals or wide selection, especially on weekends. But given the number of rooms available, especially in Ogunquit and Portland, you ought to be able to find something satisfactory with a little advance planning.

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