Wild, difficult and mostly untamed, it is also inspiring, dramatic and, as we found, charming. Welcome to the Maine coast.
It’s a difficult place, Maine. A “drowned coast” as geologists have it, where ancient rising seas invaded the land, turning valleys into bays and mountaintops into islands. Algonquin-speaking natives lived here and the French and British tried, but most of the foreign settlements ultimately failed. Blame conflicts among the would-be inhabitants, but in truth Maine itself won the battles. The howling winds and merciless winters, the rocky, ship-hungry waters that saw more provisions sunk than delivered, and the sheer remoteness of the place made it a tough homestead. Today’s inhabitants—“Mainers,” in the local parlance, “Maineiacs” to some who live elsewhere—survive the state’s year-round challenges with a mix of rugged character and hard work, a testament to the kinds of settlers who were able to eventually make a go of it here. Year-round Maine is not for the faint of heart, but if you visit in the right season you’ll be treated to straightforward, warm people, great seafood and a landscape that’s inspired countless works of literature and art. As beautiful as it is brutal, Maine is a living glimpse of the America our forefathers first encountered. And in that, it’s a national treasure.
In the broadest terms, Coastal Maine was and remains developed from south to north. From York, near the state’s border with New Hampshire, to the well-known vacation area of Bar Harbor, Maine is classic New England: well-maintained quaint towns that become bustling tourist centers in summer, gentle highways in good repair rolling between villages, and charming, clean, well-appointed inns with plenty of smiling people ready to point you in the direction of a nearby lighthouse or attraction. From Bar Harbor north it’s a working and wild state: fishing villages with basic accommodations for visitors, rather utilitarian rental houses near rocky beaches, numerous farms and small roads cutting between the sea and a lot of forested land. The north/south division is an oversimplification, but one that helps when you’re deciding what kind of Maine trip you’d like to have.
Availing ourselves of a Hertz rental car, we shot straight up the coast to begin our trip in Lubec, where you really can see a foreign country from your house, and then drove back down, stopping at various points along the way. The leaves were just beginning to change into their fall colors and most of the tourists were on the way out, giving us the run of Highway 1 and the coastal views.
Lubec and Downeast
“Downeast” (or “Down East”) is a term most narrowly used to define the Maine coast from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian Border, though some use it in reference to Maine’s entire coast. At the “top” of the coast sits the town of Lubec, which is weathered but still worth a stop. The easternmost town in the contiguous United States, Lubec sits on a peninsula overlooking a beautiful, ice-free harbor, one of the strengths upon which the municipality was built. Settled just before the Declaration of Independence, the town didn’t really take off until the 1800s, after which it became known for smuggling (especially after the War of 1812), fishing, agriculture and trade. Its grist mills, sawmills, tannery, shipyards and sail-makers established it as another budding coastal community in Maine, but the real star of the town for tourists has long been its distinctive red-and-white-striped lighthouse, which sits on West Quoddy Head, the easternmost point in the United States. There’s been a lighthouse of some sort on the point since 1808, with the current (and photogenic) structure dating to 1858. You’ve likely seen the West Quoddy Head lighthouse in a calendar, on a product label or in paintings, but standing before it as the sea washes over the rocks below is certainly a marvelous experience. Another worthwhile stop is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s retreat on Campobello Island, accessed via a bridge named for the late president that stretches from Lubec’s main street to the island in New Brunswick, Canada. FDR spent a lot of time here, from childhood summers through the end of his life, and the homes and park offer an intimate look at part of his legacy. The park itself is unique in that it is jointly maintained by American and Canadian services. Otherwise, as far as we’re concerned, Lubec’s main attractions are the local beers available in its few pubs, the sight of seals playing in the strait between Canada and the U.S. and the whales swimming just offshore. Those, blueberries, and plenty of quiet all make Lubec a valid stop on any trip, though a single or half-day would suffice, we think.
A short drive from Lubec, the country’s easternmost city offers a bit more charm than its easternmost municipality. Eastport, which occupies a series of islands, has a historic downtown that’s delightful, with a handful of touristy shops distracting enough but far less appealing than the old architecture and surrounding environment. Enjoy the views from shore or take a quick boat trip to see, among other things, “Old Sow,” the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere. If you’re fortunate enough to visit Eastport on the 4th of July, you’ll see one of the best Independence Day celebrations in the country. Navy ships have docked in Eastport for the 4th since at least 1905, and thousands of celebrants drive in to join the fun, which is shared with the Canadians. The fest actually begins on Canada Day and runs through July 4th, with both sides participating in parades, games, fireworks over the Bay of Fundy and other activities. Eastport’s most attractive areas are easily walk-able, and with a couple of local pubs on the waterfront, the city makes a great lunch stop en route to Canada or south, back down the Maine coast.
As you drive past the turnoff for Lubec on your way south, don’t forget to stop at Monica’s Chocolates. Monica herself will greet you when you enter, and immediately tempt you with a sample from her kitchen. A native of Peru who’s been in Maine for over a decade, her flavors tend toward dark, rich chocolates complemented by Maine sea salt, various nuts and spices and even the state’s famous blueberries. Some of those should absolutely find their way into your road trip.
Like many towns on Maine’s coast, those surrounding Machias Bay, which is approximately 30 miles west/southwest of Lubec, deliver some of the world’s best lobster and clams to restaurants and markets around the world. For this reason alone, the area is well worth visiting. But in addition to being known for great fishing, the town of Machias itself is notable to historians as the site of the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War. Less than a month after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the armed British schooner “Margaretta” arrived in Machias with the intention of taking a load of lumber back to Boston to build barracks for British troops. After hearing of the events at Lexington, Machias locals had erected a “liberty pole” in town, a flagstaff of sorts that symbolized freedom. The British captain of the Margaretta wanted the pole taken down, and threatened the locals with an assault from his ship’s cannons if they did not comply. The locals had a few meetings, voted to keep the pole, then tried to capture the captain, who fled down river in his schooner. The next morning, in a classic story of the Revolution, a handful of locals armed with a few muskets, pitchforks and axes, sailed a few small boats in pursuit of the Margaretta. Finding her in the bay, they attempted to board but were attacked with the larger schooner’s guns. Most of the small boats were destroyed and a few men were killed, but those remaining regrouped and, balancing an un-mounted cannon on the rail of a small boat, managed to fire it off and clear the decks of the Margaretta, taking out a number of the crew and the commander in the process. The remaining crew surrendered, and the Margaretta became the first British vessel captured by American revolutionaries. Artifacts from the battle are on display at Burnham Tavern, a museum in Machias that’s registered as a National Historic Site.
It’s a fair guess that most Maine tourists visit Bar Harbor, an hour and a half south of Machias, and it’s possibly the only bit of the state many of them will see. The town, originally called “Eden,” really hit its stride in the Victorian era, with some 30 hotels in operation and numerous lavish mansions popping up by 1880. The Eden lifestyle was straight out of Gatsby: Yachting, garden parties, horse racing, cocktails at posh local clubs, carriage rides up Mount Cadillac and even a bit of golf. In 1908 the town welcomed its newest resident with the birth of Nelson Rockefeller, two years before President William Howard Taft played a round at the Kebo Valley Golf Club (a links-style course still in operation and open to the public). The “Bar Harbor” moniker came in 1918, but the area’s reputation didn’t change a bit—and it still hasn’t, remaining a popular getaway for Hollywood celebrities, writers and New York elite.
For visitors, there’s plenty of information on the quaint inns, readily available lobster restaurants, whale-watching tours and shops that cater to tourists, but our favorite aspect of Bar Harbor and the surrounding area was, as ever in Maine, the landscape, and specifically Acadia National Park.
Unlike many national parks that can seem overwhelming with millions of square miles of open wilderness, the first national park east of the Mississippi River feels quite manageable, despite its 47,000 acres. Simple afternoon drives are quite enjoyable along the fantastically maintained roads, clear to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point within 25 miles of the coast in the Eastern United States. Though seemingly modest at 1,528 feet, you’re often driving through the clouds and coastal mists to get to the top, and the views—if not obscured—are marvelous. Even with the clouds, it’s lovely. The summit becomes an otherworldly place, with bunchberry, asters, goldenrods and sea lavender bursting from large tapestries of granite and moss. You can smell the salt in the air, and the wind cutting through the spruce-fir forests below is both bracing and refreshing. Carriage rides are still possible here (on carriage roads originally designed and financed by John D. Rockefeller) and there are plenty of cyclists and pedestrians about.
A supreme way to spend an afternoon and to work up an appetite for a big lobster dinner, no question.
Portland, Kennebunkport and South
Portland, three hours south of Bar Harbor, is a great jumping-off point for Maine excursions, with good dining options, a vibrant downtown and plenty for history buffs to enjoy. If nothing else, stop and see the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, just south of the city. A museum on-site gives a nice overview of lighthouse history in general and offers a solid nautical fix in a concise setting. The lighthouse itself is worth seeing, as well. Another 40 minutes or so south and you’re in Kennebunkport, which, like Bar Harbor, has been a popular summer retreat since the Gilded Age. The Kennedy Compound here is certainly well known, and during our trip it was rumored that President George H.W. Bush was in residence at the Bush version, which sits on a seaside strip of land once named “Point Vesuvius” and later changed to “Walker’s Point.” The residence has been a Bush family getaway for nearly a century, and it’s where the 41st President spent much of his childhood. Both 41 and 43 made this their “Summer White House” while in office, and the entire Bush family still visits often. It’s hosted Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others, and its driveway, at least, is visible to tourists from the gated entrance, which is heavily guarded by Secret Service agents.
Much easier to see—impossible to miss, actually—the Wedding Cake House in nearby Kennebunk is likely the most photographed residence in the state. Once viewed, the reason for the name is obvious as the yellow-and-white structure looks as if it was baked rather than built. Shipbuilder George Bourne was reportedly inspired by Milan’s Duomo when he set to work customizing his manse, and the result is certainly impactful. Far from being mere “touches,” the Gothic adornments here are positively plethoric, with every line of the house festooned in frills that could as easily be fashioned from butter-cream icing as from wood. That this confectionary castle of sorts is made of the latter is fair testament to the carpenter’s skill, to say nothing of his architectural palate or mental state.
One more hour south and you’re in York, which is yet another example of a Gilded Age summer retreat. Unlike its cousins to the north, however, York feels a bit more spread out and, with its beach, perhaps more fun. Much of the old architecture still remains, and the beach and historic district make great touristing. The Goldenrod Soda Fountain is a proper old-school place to get an ice cream or a float, though standing outside and watching employees make saltwater taffy (using the same recipe created in 1896 by Edward Talpey) is good as well. The taffy-pulling machine alone had attracted quite a crowd when we were there. Like many of Maine’s coastal communities, York has a lighthouse, and we found it to be our favorite.
The Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light was put into use in 1879 and it remains so today. While many lighthouses stand against dramatic seascapes, the Neddick Light’s profile is accented by the fact that it’s on a small island (Nubble Island), a large rock, really, just 100 yards offshore. Due to this setting the drama is nearly constant, with waves crashing on all sides of the island. The Voyager spacecraft mission, which photographed Earth’s most prominent manmade structures, included a photo of the Nubble Light along with the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.
With York as charming a town as one could want and the Nubble Light a fantastic finale to a brief but comprehensive road trip, we left Maine satisfied that we’d obtained the flavor, at least, of one of America’s great wilderness states. We’ll be back, and not just for the lobster.
50 Local, 50 Main St., Kennebunk, ME
Owned by Merrilee Paul and her husband Chef David Ross, 50 Local may not be the only restaurant in Maine serving true farm-to-table fare, but it was our favorite. Eschewing overwrought sauces for straightforward complements, Ross gets it right by allowing the fresh ingredients to shine through. “People will be eating green beans or chicken and say, ‘What did you do to these—they’re amazing!’ But it has a lot to do with the fact that the green beans you’re eating were picked this morning just down the road, that the chicken is from a farm nearby and it wasn’t fed genetically modified feed,” says Paul. “To buy local is more expensive, to buy organic is more expensive, but it makes a big difference.” When 50 Local first opened, Chef Ross drove from farm to farm, meeting local organic farmers and establishing relationships and sources for his kitchen, and it paid off. Because the ingredients are fresh and subject to availability, the menu changes frequently, with contributing farms listed in plain view on a chalkboard pillar in the dining room. “Here in Maine, we’re agriculturally blessed,” says Paul. True enough, and one need look no further than 50 Local for proof.