When you adopt the nickname “Vacationland,” you better be ready to back up the boast. Maine does, with a flourish.
Coincidentally, the “Vacationland” moniker was adopted by Maine in the 1960s, at the height of American car travel, so it’s particularly appropriate now, when the coronavirus pandemic has severely curtailed air travel. Given its sheer size, New England’s largest state boasts an almost absurd number of attractions for those looking to get away for the day.
The state has 3,478 miles of coastline — more than California’s 3,427 — and more than 5,000 miles of coast if you include all its islands. The mainland, weighing in at more than 35,000 square miles, is more than three times the size of Massachusetts (at 10,500 square miles). Some of the more remote areas of Maine (say, Fort Kent, at the northern terminus of Route 1) may not qualify for a “day trip” from Boston, and might even be a stretch from the state’s economic hub of Portland. So, let’s establish the state capital of Augusta as our starting point (it’s also home to one of the state’s underappreciated treasures, the Maine State Museum, right next door to the State House).
The most difficult decision is deciding which direction to head. Once you make that determination, load up the family vehicle and hit the road.
Like my piece on day-tripping in Massachusetts in this issue, I’m taking advantage of having a good friend who is particularly well-positioned to help highlight great local trips in Vacationland — Hilary Nangle, founder of MaineTravelMaven.com and the author of three Maine guidebooks including the 2020 edition of Moon Maine. When you’ve got knowledgeable friends like Hilary, you defer to their expertise.
For starters, let’s head over to the coastline, which was once such a dominant part of the state’s identity that Maine license plates sported lobsters (much to the consternation of the good folks who live inland). The schooner tourism business is a thriving industry, but better known for multi-day trips. Nangle, however, suggests a day sail from the village of Penobscot (just south of Bar Harbor) aboard the 1886 schooner Boyd N. Sheppard, with Capt. Katie and Chef Adam McKinlay, who restored the 134-year-old vessel.
“Choose from a variety of 3-hour options, but opt for one with food,” said Nangle. “And don’t miss the oysters, as this vessel served as an oyster freighter. Penobscot Bay is renowned among sailors for its challenging waters along with coves, bays, harbors, and reaches.”
The “Happy Hour” and “Dinner” cruises from 5 to 8 p.m. not only showcase Adam’s culinary talents, but also Captain Katie’s dual threat as a mixologist. For those who can afford it, a private charter is a great option for weddings or larger family outings.
As mentioned earlier, there are numerous islands off the coast worth exploring. Just outside of Portland, Peak’s Island and Chebeague Island (with a wonderful 9-hole seaside golf course affiliated with the Chebeague Island Inn) are personal favorites, although the inn is not opening this summer. But Nangle suggests Monhegan Island — the Artists’ Island — 12 miles from the mainland.
“You can hike the trails ascending cliff-edged headlands and lacing Cathedral Woods, visit artist studios, enjoy brews at Monhegan Brewing Company, visit the fabulous Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum in the lighthouse complex, and be sure to climb the tower for the views,” said Nangle. “Monhegan is also one of the East Coast’s best bird-watching sites, especially during spring and fall migrations. And don’t miss the roughest lobster-in-the-rough at Fish House Fish, with a handful of tables on the beach.”
If you’re near Rockland, leave the car at the Maine State Ferry Service lot and hop over to Vinalhaven, the town situated on the larger of two Fox Islands (at 23 square miles, it is Maine’s largest offshore island).
“Bring bathing suits for swimming in one of the two quarries, perhaps hike in Lane’s Island Preserve,” said Nangle. “You’ll find a handful of shops and restaurants in the village. You can walk, but if you want to get around more of the island, bring bicycles. Rentals are available at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport.”
The Vinalhaven Historical Society is a great take for history buffs, and if you want more time on the water, The Tidewater inn rents kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. And if you get back early, treat yourself to a visit to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, featuring a rare collection of Andrew Wyeth’s works.
Another terrific coastal option is getting together with Master Maine Guide Don Kleiner of Maine Outdoors for a day full of adventure along midcoast Maine. “Choose from fishing trips, nature exploration trips, or day hikes,” says Nangle. “Don is fabulous, and he knows his stuff.” For a complete list of fishing guides, locations, program, and resources, visit the website for the Maine Professional Guides Association (maineguides.org).
Two more options recommended by Nangle are the ever-expanding Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, which first opened in 2007 and is now one of the largest public gardens in the country, and kayaking or SUP tours with Seaspray Kayaking & Paddleboarding out of Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg. Seaspray also offers lessons, making it an ideal choice for all family members, regardless of ability level.
Another travel writer friend, Steve Jermanok, author of the forthcoming guidebook “New England in a Nutshell,” is a big fan of Ogunquit along the southern coast.
“Walk the Marginal Way as it rises atop the rugged shoreline, rewarding folks with views of pocket-sized beaches buttressed by boulders,” he said. “Then grab lunch at the quintessential lobster-in-the-rough joint atop Perkins Cove, Barnacle Billy’s.
“But by far the most fun you’ll have this day is tubing the Ogunquit River back down by the town beach,” said Jermanok. “Halfway between high tide and low tide, the current of the Ogunquit River flows swiftly out to the Atlantic, creating a natural lazy river.”
Just to the north, Kennebunkport offers the oceanfront mansion of former President George Bush on Walker’s Point, the Seashore Trolley Museum, Goat Island Lighthouse, and an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Don’t pass on one of the best general stores in Maine called HB Provisions, with its scrumptious lunches, craft beers and wines. And to the south of Ogunquit, the Stonewall Kitchen campus in York has a variety of cooking demonstrations and free samples of their delicious food.
Portland Head Light
Closer to Portland, my wife and I usually detour to the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. There we’ll treat ourselves to one of the best lobster rolls in all of Vacationland at the Bite Into Maine food truck, run by Sarah and Karl Sutton at Fort Williams Park. The couple have since opened two more locations, at The Commissary in Scarborough and the Allagash Brewing Company in Portland (and yes, you can get a fine Belgian-style brew to complement your lobster roll).
If I want to relive one of the wackiest escapades from my bygone college days, we’ll motor up to the outlet oasis of Freeport and the L.L. Bean store anytime, day or night. This shopping bonanza is a dream for the “shop ’til you drop” crowd, of which my wife is a proud card-carrying member. If we go, I may let my wife feed her retail craving while I go romping around Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park (L.L. Bean also has an impressive menu of local outdoor classes and tours). And I always make time to sample the daily “lunch beer” at the tasting room of the Maine Beer Company.
Canoeing and kayaking
Inland, near the New Hampshire border, paddling enthusiasts can canoe a stretch of the gentle Saco River in Fryeburg. “Rentals and shuttles are available through Saco River Canoe and Kayak,” said Nangle. “Pack a picnic to enjoy on one of the river’s sandbars. Or head over to secluded Kezar Lake and rent canoes or kayaks from Kezar Lake Marina.”
Another super destination close to the Granite State is the town of Bethel. Voted by the readers of USA Today as New England’s “Best Ski Town,” Bethel is awash with summer fun as well. The mountain biking and golf here and at neighboring Sunday River Ski Resort are highlighted elsewhere in this issue, but you also can find the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, the Gem Theatre, Elements Art Museum, Grafton Notch State Park, the Mount Will Walking Trail, and rafting and kayaking on the Androscoggin River.
Speaking of river rafting, the whitewater paddling on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers is outstanding. Though a little long for a “normal” day trip, the experience is well worth setting your alarm clock early. There are a number of first-rate outfitters to choose from, with Northern Outdoors, Magic Falls Rafting Company, Three Rivers Whitewater, and Maine Rafting Expeditions at the top of my list.
Maine Huts & Trails
Close to The Forks, where Northern Outdoors is situated, you can also check out the Grand Falls Hut of the Maine Huts & Trails system, one of the four impressive “eco-lodges” connected by a growing, 80-plus-mile trail network. The Flagstaff Hut on Flagstaff Lake is a prime location for paddling, swimming and fishing, as well as hiking and mountain biking.
Finally, for an outing that helps re-create another era, consider panning for gold in Coos Canyon in Byron, in the Rangeley Lakes area of western Maine.
“You can rent everything you need — pan, trowel, and screen or a sluice box from Coos Canyon Rock and Gift shop,” said Nangle. “Pair that with an easy-to-moderate hike to 90-foot Angel Falls, one of New England’s highest cascades. And while you’re there, don’t miss the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum.”