Destinations: Mid-coast Maine

by | Oct. 09, 2009


People don't accidentally discover Maine. It's not on a major thoroughfare; in fact, Maine is at the end of the road for northeast U.S. travelers. Or the beginning of the road, as Mainers prefer to think. Their zip codes actually start with zero.

Anyone who has been there can tell you that Maine is worth every mile you drive, fly, or sail off the beaten path to reach it. The mid-coast region alone, between Portland and Bar Harbor, offers high-seas adventure, rugged scenery, and delicious regional dining on par with any vacation spot you'd find in warmer climes.

Portland The jumping-off point to mid-coast Maine is Portland, just an hour and a half north of Boston. This three-mile wide peninsular city has perfect "little-big city" appeal, with a compact city center, a working waterfront, and pedestrian-friendly Victorian neighborhoods.

Though the city's name describes itself, some visitors are surprised to find that Portland is one of the most active ports on the Eastern Seaboard. Tall cranes dominate the docks. Major cargos come ashore here: fish, oil, imports, and thousands of cruise ship passengers.

But all this activity doesn't keep visitors from enjoying the water. Portland's docks gradually give way to the Old Port warehouse district, a vibrant dining and shopping thoroughfare accessible by land and sea. Here you can stroll cobblestone streets, pick up a unique and beautiful souvenir at the Maine Potters Market, or choose among several local eateries offering the fresh catch of the day.

Latter-day Saint visitors may enjoy Old Port's many restaurants most at lunchtime, when lobster rolls are plentiful and drunken tourists are not. Look for regional menu favorites: seafood chowders, lobster, and creative concoctions made with wild Maine blueberries, artisanal cheeses, and other foods from local organic farms.

If you visit Portland during the annual Old Port Festival in early June, you'll find the streets full of Mainers selling handmade arts and crafts, while popular regional bands entertain crowds.

Though Portland is a fun visit, you'll want to keep moving northeast, or you'll miss out on some of the best Maine has to offer. Follow I-295 north to Highway 1. You'll hug the major contours of the coast, cross tidal coves, and intersect byways that will drop you down to lighthouses, beachfronts, and villages set like jewels along the dark ribbon of rocky shore.

Boothbay Harbor With an estimated three thousand miles of coast (counting coves and island frontage), Maine provides more shoreline than you can ever hope to explore. In the mid-coast area, long, skinny inlets thrust like fingers into the mainland every few miles. Tiny islands fill these tidal waterways.

Just over an hour northeast of Portland, you'll find Boothbay Harbor, a popular stopover for those who can't get enough of white sails, bright blue skies, faded wooden piers, and dock-front dining.

Visitors to Boothbay are drawn like magnets to the boardwalked waterfront. Lean against the wooden rails with the breeze against your face. Within minutes, even the most determined landlubber will want to head to sea.

Fortunately plenty of boats wait to indulge you. Re-live history on a two-hour cruise on the schooners Eastwind or Lazy Jack, where you'll ride low in the water and feel the sails billow directly over your head. Or weigh anchor with the Harbor Princess, as a certified naturalist narrates a whale-watching excursion on the open sea. You're almost guaranteed to glimpse a whale's misting spouts and dorsal fins, as well as harbor seals and sea otters.

You'll work up an appetite at sea. The locals recommend lunch on McSeagull's waterfront patio. For a tasty but casual seafood dinner, try the Lobster Dock. The Throwdown crab cakes, featured by Food Network's Bobby Flay, are not to be missed. Youngsters will be relieved to see kids' fare on the menu as well (and parents will be relieved to see that it's inexpensive). For dessert, the Greater Boothbay Ice Cream Factory will satisfy your sweet tooth with its small-batch creamy blueberry ice cream.

At the end of the day, several Boothbay bed-and-breakfasts and inns offer proper New England hospitality. Or try ocean-front camping on a nearby island at Gray's Ocean Camping; they'll even supply the lobster for your Dutch oven dinner.

Penobscot Bay An hour northeast of Boothbay on Highway 1, you'll spot Penobscot Bay, safe harbor for some of Maine's famous windjammers (historic wooden "tall ships"). Board the two-masted J & E Riggin for a short - or extended - cruise in the comfortable, protected waters along the coast between Boothbay and Bar Harbor.

More than a dozen lighthouses dot the shore and islands of Penobscot Bay. A visit to one of these solitary sentinels offers a glimpse of history and spectacular views, whether you squint into sunlit waters or watch foamy waves break suddenly out of the foggy sea.

Halfway around the bay - just before the Penobscot River delta - you'll find the Penobscot Narrows Observatory. Take a one-minute, high-speed elevator up 420 feet for breathtaking vistas from the tallest public bridge-observatory in the world. You can access this observatory through historic Fort Knox (see "Four Places You Must See," below).

Renting a sea kayak is a highlight of any Penobscot adventure. From the fishing village of Stonington on the bay's western tip, you can paddle around the Deer Isle archipelago. Half of its sixty granite-and-spruce islands are open to picnickers. Families and beginners may want to push off early in the day, when the waters are calmest. A sunset trip in a tandem kayak offers couples the perfect blend of adventure and romance.

Acadia National Park The one place in Maine you must visit is Acadia National Park. Any one of its natural attractions - mountains, island, and the sea - are alone worth the drive. Taken together, they are stunning.

History and Geography Acadia National Park encompasses nearly 50,000 acres on Mount Desert Island and nearby shores in the middle of coastal Maine. Parts of the area were explored by Sam Champlain in 1604. In the mid-1800s, Hudson River School painters advertised the area's breathtaking vistas, and tourism began in earnest.

A few of the wealthy who first summered on the island spent years reclaiming the land from commercial and private abuse. In 1919 the national park opened. Acadia now rates consistently among the most visited national parks in the United States.

Mount Desert Island is shaped roughly like a lobster claw. Both halves of the "claw" are ridged with low mountains that constitute the highest headlands on the eastern seaboard. The 1,530-foot summit of Cadillac Mountain is the highest point in the park and a much-touted spot for giving climbers the opportunity to be the first in the U.S. to watch the sun rise.

Getting Around It's possible to see breathtaking sights at Acadia without leaving your car. Just stop at the Visitor Center at Hulls Cove to pick up maps and self-guided tour information.

The popular 20-mile Park Loop Road on the eastern side of Mount Desert Island winds past Sand Beach, beneath the Champlain Mountain cliffs, along the shore, and past Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Eagle Lake, and several mountain peaks.

An alternate way to get the "condensed tour" of Acadia is to hop aboard one of the green and white buses that run regularly through the park. The driver-guide will give you a running narrative and stop at several of the most photogenic locations.

Happy Trails If you've got even an hour to spare, you'd do well to park your car and take in the views on foot. Fifty-seven miles of carriage roads and 120 miles of hiking trails lead to pristine shores and up rugged mountainsides.

With only a short walk, you can reach one of several dramatic destinations: the Ocean Path along Frenchman Bay, the top of Beech Cliffs overlooking Echo Lake, and the summit of Gorham Mountain. You can also take a self-guided nature walk along the beautiful inland Jordan Pond.

More aggressive hikers can crest any one (or two, or three) of several mountain peaks sized perfectly for climbing in a half-day or less. The trails themselves make for interesting footing, as ladders and intricate stone stairways may appear around any bend.

Looking for a challenge? Not afraid of heights? Hike the Beehive Trail on Champlain Mountain. A steep climb includes narrow ledges and vertical iron ladders drilled into the cliff face. At the top, you'll catch your breath as you take in several of the great Acadia sights at once: Sand Beach, Otter Cliffs, Gorham Mountain, Great Head, and, of course, the open sea.

Bar Harbor Most visitors start or end their visit in the resort village of Bar Harbor on the east side of Mount Desert Island. Think of this as Acadia's "downtown" district. Plenty of restaurants, lodging, and shopping will entertain those who love their creature comforts.

Bar Harbor has some of the best food in the state. It can be pricey, but even the budget-conscious can find fresh, delicious, local food. Stop in at Adelmann's Deli for a quick breakfast, bagged lunch, or affordable lobster roll. Try Gringo's for fresh Mex, fruit smoothies, and jalapeno brownies. The Mainely Maine Snack Shack serves up lobster or crab rolls and fried haddock along with burgers, all in a fast-food environment.

The Fish House, Cafe Bluefish, Maggie's Restaurant, and others offer a higher-end experience with creatively dressed seafood and other regional specialties. (If you want to sample the fine restaurant fare but balk at dinner entree prices, try a place that's open for lunch, like the Fish House.)

Though Bar Harbor may seem like the end of the line for mid-coast Maine, it doesn't have to be. Take a cruise to watch marine life or see the shoreline from the sea. Or catch some marine life yourself on a working lobster boat or fishing expedition. You can even take a ferry southwest to Portland or take a short jaunt across the Atlantic to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Four Places You Must See History buffs will love touring Maine's interactive sites. Learn about Maine's past through these historical adventures.

Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and Museum

Learn about Maine's unique narrow gauge railway system aboard a scenic ride along Casco Bay in Portland. ("Narrow gauge" refers to the distance between the rails, which is shorter on this track than standard U.S. tracks.) A single ticket lets you ride all day in antique rail cars pulled by steam and diesel locomotives. If driving a locomotive has always been your dream, you will be pleased to learn that Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad offers Guest Engineer days, where you can learn to be the conductor. It's pricey, but it's also the chance of a lifetime.

Maine Maritime Museum

In Bath, you can tour a historic shipyard that tells the story of Maine's shipbuilding industry. On ten acres of galleries and exhibits, you can see artifacts, paintings, life-size models, dioramas, and more as you learn the ins and outs of maritime life. Watch boat builders at work, or learn how to build a boat yourself. Tour a fishing schooner and clipper ship. Kids can even play on Pirate Paradise, a pirate playship belonging to the museum. While in town, upload a free iTunes narration of a walking architectural tour of historic downtown.

Burnt Island Living Lighthouse

Ever dreamed of living a charming life as a lighthouse keeper? Now you have the chance to look more closely at that life. In July and August, take a living-history tour of the island lighthouse from guides who portray the lighthouse keeper and his family. Climb a spiral staircase into the lantern room; peek into the restored keeper's home; take a nature walk; and even try a little sport fishing.

Fort Knox State Historic Site

Explore a meticulously restored fortification and its parade ground, soldier's quarters, lines of batteries, and two Rodman cannons. Originally built during the Aroostook War to protect important Maine harbors from the British, it never actually saw battle.

Learn about the daily life of a militiaman and many combat strategies such as the fire-heated cannonballs launched at wooden enemy ships to set them aflame.

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