An insider's guide to great nature escapes and kid-friendly excursions from Portsmouth to Kennebunkport
Nubble Lighthouse, Cape Neddick, Maine
Credit: Veer

Every summer, our family sees a steady stream of tourists heading into the region where we live in southern Maine. We've always known that the area is special. But on a recent "staycation," we set out to investigate all that it has to offer, from the small coastal city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to the charming beach towns across the Piscataqua River in Maine. Along the way, my husband, Andrew, our children (Sarah, age 7, Miles, 4, and Alex, 1), and I explored tide pools and hiking trails, visited beautiful beaches, stepped into the past at a hands-on history museum, and took a cruise on a lobster boat. By the end of our expedition, we were reminded of how lucky we are to live in such an amazing place.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Marine Life Touch Tank

Starfish, rock crabs, and periwinkles are just some of our favorite creatures on view in the Blue Ocean Society's touch tank, a stand-alone outdoor exhibit located on the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company dock. We learn all about sea urchins at the "creature-feature story hour," which includes a storytelling session and a make-your-own pretzel-and-marshmallow snack. While we gobble down our marshmallow sea urchins, we watch the lobsters, moon snails, and other Gulf of Maine species enjoying their own feeding time. Suggested donation $3 per person; 603-431-0260.

USS Albacore

As we squeeze through the Albacore's narrow doorways and check out its tight sleeping quarters, we find it hard to imagine an extended stay on this historic submarine, a pioneering research vessel that was commissioned in 1953. But Miles enjoys playing pilot in the two-seat control room, while Sarah peers through a periscope at the neighboring Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where the Albacore was built. We also stop at the visitors' center to take a look at some historic submarine artifacts and end up purchasing a plastic submarine for bath time. $5 for adults, $3 for kids ages 7 to 17; 603-436-3680.

Strawbery Banke Museum

This 10-acre living history museum spans four centuries in Portsmouth's Puddle Dock neighborhood. We learn about wartime rations from a shopkeeper in the re-created 1940s market -- "It's just like sharing at snack time," Sarah chimes in -- and play with classic, early American toys in the Discovery Center. Then we head outside to explore the Victorian-era children's garden. My kids adore the garden's intricate fairy houses and the plants with animal names, such as zebra grass and lamb's ear. There's also a charming kid-size table made from branches and adorned with seashell dishes that inspires a make-believe tea party. $15 for adults, $10 for kids ages 5 to 17, or $40 for families; 603-433-1100.

Flatbread Company serves made-to-order pizzas with local and organic ingredients. Pies from $8.75; 603-436-7888.

Southern Coast of Maine

Fort Foster, Kittery Point

This historic fortress is one of our crew's favorite places for seaside adventure. It was used during World War II to protect Portsmouth Harbor, but today it's a recreational area with three public beaches. We usually head straight for the pier, then swing high into the sky at the park's playground. If it's a hot day, we let the tide pools keep us cool. $5 for adults, $1 for kids ages 12 and under, or $10 per car; 207-439-0333.

Mount Agamenticus, Cape Neddick

The Big A, as this mountain is locally known, sits in one of the largest undeveloped coastal forests in the Northeast. We love racing over roots and stopping to look for animal tracks and wild berries beside the trails. After following the Ring Trail to Blueberry Bluff summit, we stop for a collective breath, then enjoy a picnic with views of Mount Washington to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Free; 207-361-1102.

The Goldenrod, York Beach

The sight of saltwater taffy being pulled in the window of this landmark candy shop and restaurant stops the kids right in their flip-flopped tracks. 207-363-2621.

York's Wild Kingdom, York Beach

My kids have a hard time deciding what to do first at this 25-acre zoo and amusement park, with its exotic animals and 22 rides, more than half of which are geared to little kids. Sarah is won over by the Ferris wheel with ocean views. $21.25 for adults, $16.25 for kids ages 4 to 12, $4.75 for children ages 3 and under; 207-363-4911.

Perkins Cove, Ogunquit

Our day in this picturesque fishing community includes a nature walk on Marginal Way -- a paved, oceanfront path that connects Perkins Cove and Ogunquit Beach -- and a hands-on lobstering trip with Finestkind Scenic Cruises ($16 for adults, $8 for kids ages 4 to 11; 207-646-5227).

After docking, we enjoy a seafood supper at nearby Barnacle Billy's (207-646-5575).

Seashore Trolley Museum, Kennebunkport

With more than 250 trolleys, buses, and other transit vehicles, this is the oldest and largest electric railway museum in the country. It's a bit farther afield but worth the trip, because it gives us a firsthand look at transportation in the early 20th century. "I hear the ding-ding!" shouts Miles, as we board an open-air street car for a ride around the property. $10 for adults, $7.50 for kids ages 6 to 16; 207-967-2800.

Beach Pea Baking Company, Kittery

This European-style café has an outdoor patio and deli sandwiches big enough to share. Sandwiches from $6.75; 207-439-3555.

Some of these attractions are open only in summer. To learn more about southern Maine and Portsmouth, visit the sites below.

Writer Amy Bartlett Bevan lives in South Berwick, Maine.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of FamilyFun

Family Fun