OGUNQUIT — Beach Street in Ogunquit is the gateway to one of Maine’s most prized stretches of shoreline. Every summer throngs of tourists — carrying chairs, umbrellas, and pushing carts full of beach gear — make their pilgrimage down this road that leads to the beach. To reach the white, powdery sand for which Ogunquit Beach is famous, beachgoers must first cross a bridge over the river and then walk past a short strip of businesses that cater to the beach crowd. There are hotel rooms, restaurants, an ice cream stand, and a shop that sells postcards, towels, boogie boards, and sunscreen — anything you’d need for a day of sun and surf.
But not too long ago disaster struck this small, yet important, enclave of beachfront bliss. In April 2015 flames engulfed the Blue Water Inn, a landmark hotel and restaurant at 111 Beach St., and then the fire spread next door to Huckleberry’s, a popular diner known for its blueberry pancakes.
Firefighters from several towns came in to help battle the massive blaze. After the smoke cleared, the Blue Water Inn and Huckleberry’s were no more. The fire also shuttered Bobby’s Aqua Lounge, a little outdoor bar that was connected to the Blue Water Inn.
“We were all heartbroken,” said Charles L. Waite III, who currently serves as chairman of the Ogunquit Select Board. “It was a real loss for us.”
But it could have been much worse. Waite credits firefighters from Ogunquit and neighboring towns for keeping the fire contained. With the strong winds, the flames could have easily spread to other buildings on Beach Street. “I can’t believe there wasn’t more devastation than there was,” said Waite. “They truly saved our iconic streetscape that infamous day.”
Since then, the area where the fire occurred has been completely rebuilt.
Huckleberry’s, which was part of the Norseman Resort, has been replaced by new hotel rooms. Everyone who worked at Huckleberry’s was offered jobs at Splash, another restaurant at the resort. The hours at Splash were expanded, so now it opens in the morning and serves breakfast — including the same blueberry pancakes that Huckleberry’s once offered.
The rooms in the new building are open year-round, said Katy Kelly, the general manager of the Norseman Resort.
“We have a nice, new, beautiful building with big, beautiful rooms,” she said. “The guests love the rooms.”
The former site of the Blue Water Inn is now occupied by a brand-new restaurant called the Ogunquit Beach Lobster House (www.ogunquitbeachlobsterhouse.com), which recently celebrated its first anniversary.
It’s also open year-round and serves food all day, from breakfast to dinner.
And best of all, the Lobster House provided space for Bobby’s Aqua Lounge to return to its original location. On any given day during the warm weather months you can find Robert J. “Bobby” Costello mixing cocktails and mingling with customers at the outdoor bar on the deck. (While the restaurant stays open through the fall and winter, the Aqua Lounge wraps up for the season over Columbus Day weekend).
The reception to the new restaurant has been positive.
Sarah Potter, president of the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce, said that “while the Blue Water Inn will be missed, the Beach Lobster House is making its mark with a beautiful new facility.”
Visitors may be surprised that this little strip of beachfront businesses managed to bounce back so quickly.
The summer after the fire, tourists were shocked to see that two local landmarks were gone.
“A lot of tourists were devastated,” said Waite. But when they came back and saw the new additions to Beach Street, he said, “they were floored.”
“Ogunquit is very good at pulling it together and making the show go on,” said Waite.
Today, “Beach Street is really happening,” he said.
In fact, one of the biggest issues is the popularity of the place, and the growing numbers of people who are discovering Ogunquit Beach and returning year after year.
Milt Vargelis, the owner of the Neptune Inn at 127 Beach St., recalled that back in the late 1950s there might be 400 people at the beach. Today, there’s “20 times that,” he said.
The tourist season in Ogunquit has also expanded.
“We do see that more and more people are coming” later in the year, said Nancy Gardner, assistant general manager of the Norseman Resort. “People are out here well into October and early November.”
With the addition of the new restaurant and accommodations, Beach Street is poised to play a bigger role in drawing more tourists to the beach, all year-round.
“It’s so beautiful here, even in the winter,” Gardner said.
Vargelis believes that Beach Street is much more than a gateway to Ogunquit Beach. It goes beyond that.
“It’s the gateway to Maine,” he said. “It sets the tone for Maine.”Emily Sweeney can be reached at [email protected].