DATELINE: OGUNQUIT, MAINE

The French wave makes a big splash

The good times roll as Québécois once again descend upon their favorite seaside holiday spot

Wayne Grigsby August 10 1981
DATELINE: OGUNQUIT, MAINE

The French wave makes a big splash

The good times roll as Québécois once again descend upon their favorite seaside holiday spot

Wayne Grigsby August 10 1981

The French wave makes a big splash

DATELINE: OGUNQUIT, MAINE

The good times roll as Québécois once again descend upon their favorite seaside holiday spot

Wayne Grigsby

Jocelyne Caron and Pierre Gosselin gingerly popped out of their silver-grey Renault. The sun was high and the breakers were curling perfectly up and down the five-kilometre length of Wells Beach, Me. Tangy saltwater breezes idled in off the ocean picking up an oily, languorous note as they crossed the wide, sandy beach: the scent of a beachful of slowly bronzing bodies. Caron and Gosselin were ready for action: shorts, T-shirts, tank tops, bathing suits, sandals, towels, sunglasses, tanning lotion, a picnic hamper and the giddy smiles of sun-starved northerners. This was what they had come for. This is what made the six-hour drive from Quebec City worthwhile. Sun. Sea. Sand. A real summer holiday. A coast of Maine summer holiday.

Pourquoi pas le Gaspê? asked a curious bystander. Mais, they chorused, c’est pas pareil! They’re right. It’s not the same. The south coast of Maine is warmer, sandier, more accommodating and, above all, closer than the Gaspé or any other resort area on Canada’s East Coast. Maine’s sandy summer coast starts at Portland, an easy 5 Vis-hour drive from both Montreal and Quebec City, and sweeps down to the Massachusetts state line in a riot of lobster pounds, picturesque villages, campgrounds, cottages, guest houses, hotels, motels, shopping malls and gloriously sandy, spacious beaches that slope gently out to sea. The border takes a 20cent bite out of their dollar, and French

enjoys no official-language status in Maine, yet thousands of Quebeckers trek south every year to the Maine coast. In the summer months of 1980, the principal resort towns of southern Maine—Old Orchard Beach, Kennebunkport, York Beach, Wells Beach and Ogunquit—sold more than $36 million (U.S.) worth of food and lodging to tourists. Best estimates indicate that 40 to 50 per cent of those tourists were Canadians and 90 per cent of them Quebeckers. George Ouellette, executive director of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 85 per cent of Old Orchard’s 32,000 beds were occupied by Quebeckers during the last two weeks of July. “Always our biggest period,” he says, “that’s when the Quebec construction industry shuts down for a two-week holiday. The rest of the time I’d say they make up anywhere between 40 and 65 per cent of our business. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if we got upwards of 250,000 Quebeckers coming through here in the course of a season.” Like most other Quebeckers, Jocelyne Caron, an attractive and frank 30-yearold, was introduced to the pleasures of beach life in Maine at Old Orchard Beach. A graceful and respectable seashore resort when The Grand Trunk Railroad delivered its first trainload of well-heeled Montrealers in 1852, Old Orchard Beach has slowly been transformed into an unbelievably gaudy and grubby seaside honky-tonk; a town knee-deep in junk food, egg-carton cottages, arcades and stomach-tossing carnival rides. A tawdry, tumbledown box-

ing ring graces the main drag. A sign on it challenges passersby to tarry a while and do a little bear-rasslin’. “I just won’t go there anymore,” says Caron, her nose wrinkling as if at a bad smell. “I want a little more peace and quiet.”

Caron, like many of her compatriots, found peace and quiet further south. Ogunquit, 38 km down Route 1, is the chic new buzz word for Québécois holidayers. Where Old Orchard is gaudy, Ogunquit is slick. Neon signs are out, tastefully etched and hand-lettered wooden shingles are in. Smart restaurants are replete with brick and fern, chichi boutiques are stuffed with the right designer labels and art galleries downplay seascapes in favor of prints and graphics. Cool and resolutely artisanal, Ogunquit (pop. 1,500 winter, 10,000 summer) feels like home to Quebec’s upwardly mobile young professionals. It even received the nationalist seal of approval with Premier René Lévesque’s holiday visit of 1977.

Twenty-one-year-old Marc Lemieux remembers Ogunquit as a different kind of resort town. “When I used to come here as an eight-year-old, this town felt more English than American. There were gardens everywhere, manicured lawns, lots of old ladies in floral dresses and men in ice-cream suits and straw hats. Blue and grey hair everywhere. I guess the town started changing about seven years ago. A lot of Quebeckers are snobs,” he explains, an impish grin barely crinkling the corners of his mouth, “they don’t like having too many other Quebeckers around, so they

started coming here to get away from Old Orchard.” The look of Ogunquit hasn’t changed so much as its clientele. The secluded tree-shadowed streets are still lined with graceful, old-fashioned houses, and the more gracious summer homes—the ones where a view of the beach is considered better than being on same—still pride themselves on a croquet-court lawn and dazzling gardens.

Up and down the length of Route 1, from York Beach to Old Orchard, the merchants of Maine jostle for the much-coveted tourist dollars. Ramshackle barns are jammed rafter-high with old and not-necessarily-antique furniture, while yards are carefully cluttered with well-worn lobster pots so canny Yankee traders can milk that down-home flavor for all it’s worth. Tonier antique dealers play up snob ap-

anyone wearing shorts, or at least the wrong kind of shorts. Shopping malls sprout at every bend in the road, bristling with the necessities: a supermarket, a laundromat, a liquor store and at least one factory outlet store. Clam shacks and burger joints struggle to beat back competition from the golden arches and other fast-food empires by playing up local flavor with gimmicks such as clam buckets and handscrawled bills of fare. And everywhere you look, the Canadian holy grailcheap sheets.

Accommodation comes in all flavors. There’s motel modern, those cement block and plywood palaces that recognize no borders, and there’s the oldfashioned motor court, the kind with a white-walled office out front and rows of impossibly small, impossibly cute little cottages out back. Campgrounds range from the basic cheek-by-jowl, not-a-tree-in-sight variety through to

impeccably maintained luxury facilities. And an old standby on the coast of Maine, the Victorian gingerbread guest home, the kind where you half expect a local grandmother to tuck you in at night. The prize catches are a cottage on the sea or a room in one of the graceful old inns like The Nonantum or The Colony in Kennebunkport, staid and rambling dowager survivors of a slower, more sensible era.

Maine goes out of its way to make Quebeckers feel at home. Here they’re sure to find names such as Molson and Labatt’s in grocery store coolers, and Export “A” and Du Maurier on the shelves. Home-town newspapers are readily available, and the Expos’ score—when they’re not on strike— leads off the National League results on sportscasts. Exit 5 off the Maine Turnpike, the one that leads to Old Orchard Beach, is thoughtfully marked in English and French. Almost every store

window and motel sign in Old Orchard Beach carries the all-important codicil NOUS PARLONS FRANÇAIS. It’s small-fry stuff, but Quebeckers are well aware that it’s more than they can expect in many parts of Canada.

Québécois make concessions too. Many of them seem to check their defensive linguistic postures at the border. A misspelled sign is an insult back home, a gesture of good will in Maine. “It’s true,” admits Pierre Brunelle, a 28year-old from St. Hyacinthe. “It bothers me a lot less to speak English here than it does back home. But I think that’s because I always feel that subtle racism when I travel in English Canada, and I just don’t feel it here.”

Not yet, anyway. But if the flood of Quebeckers into Maine begins to even approach the scale of the tidal wave that has swamped parts of Florida, Brunelle may find the atmosphere a little less friendly. Florida-bound Quebeckers brought along so many cultural props—Québécois fast-food chains, French-language radio newscasts and the ubiquitous newspapers, cigarettes and beer—that many Floridians cringe at the sight of another Quebec licence plate.

Some Maine residents are already showing signs of strained sensitivities. A motel desk clerk left her home in Old Orchard Beach to move further down the coast. Why? “Too many Frenchmen,” she says frankly. A gaggle of teen-age girls lounging around at the Ogunquit Beach parking lot can spot Quebeckers by the way they dress. “They dress up to go to the beach,” snears Cindy, “some of them wear high heels.” “They wear indecent bathing suits, real tiny things with everything hanging out,” spits Joan, full of the venomous intensity only a 16-year-old girl can muster. “They strut around here like they own the place.” But even in this little thicket of hostility, Maine’s pragmatic voice is raised. “They just act weird ’cause they’re tourists,” says Sandy, a phlegmatic 17-year-old. “This town would be nothing without tourists.”

Most hostilities melt away like the grey coastal fogs that burn off under the summer sun’s relentless attack. The gust of wind that sends a sailboat skidding across a sparkling bay can just as easily clear an angry mind. It’s hard to keep a good rage on when the sunlight dances on the breakers and the lobster pot is bubbling. As long as the sun is soothing and the electronic cash register beeps, Maine folk will probably find a way to cope with the mounting tide of Québécois visitors. As long as the welcome mat is out, the beaches wide and the sea refreshing, Quebeckers, tiny bathing suits and all, will keep coming back for more.