The state of Maine is at least three places, each of which could be subdivided into smaller, distinct regions. Coastal Maine — one of the longest coasts in the U.S., in fact — is where most of the money and most of the tourists are. The major shore route (Route 1) is usually unpleasantly crowded in mid-summer, but many of the places and features this road takes you to are well worth the visit.
Away from coastal Maine, whose northernmost point of Eastport is a full 120 miles south of the state’s northern border, is a huge and varied landscape that includes cities such as Augusta and Bangor to rural farmland and vast wilderness, some of it traversed only by gravel-packed logging roads.
Maine’s western countryside is among the most beautiful lake country in the East, bordering New Hampshire and Quebec. A developed vacationland in the south, western Maine stretches into the wilderness of Moosehead Lake, the 100-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, with unlimited canoeing and kayaking offerings. West of Moosehead is the stunning crown of Maine, the mile-high monolith of Mount Katahdin.
Southern Maine from the border to Portland feels like an extension of Massachusetts, which of course once was Maine. The largest cruise ships bring huge crowds to Portland, which has become famous in recent years for its cuisine. Signs of a seafaring history abound on the Portland waterfront, where an active fishing fleet carries on its business well within the view of diners in the many restaurants on shore. The city lies on Casco Bay, whose dozens of islands are bound together by the Casco Bay ferry line on the Portland docks, offering ferry rides of varying length to the “Calendar Islands.”
Lobster roll hunting
A friend of mine jokes that when he continues to gather notes for his book on lobster rolls, he doesn’t have to move far from Midcoast Maine, where, around every twist on the coast road, there seems another lobster shack on another rocky peninsula jutting southeast from Route 1 into Penobscot Bay. From Boothbay to Wiscasset, Rockland, Castine, Bar Harbor — to name just a few — the lobster rolls are fat, with nothing but lobster meat on a toasted bun. His current leader is Holbrooks’ in Harpswell.
Further up the coast is a region referred to as “Midcoast,” though you won’t find the word on a map. It refers roughly to the geography of Penobscot Bay, which stretches from Bath northeast to Bar Harbor with Acadia National Park containing the highest elevation on the U.S. East Coast, Cadillac Mountain. Here, ocean waves thunder into the rock-bound coast (in fact, one well-traveled viewing post is called “Thunder Hole,” and while no one takes this route for a solitary experience, it is one of the most spectacular ocean views in the country.
The top of Cadillac Mountain (which can be climbed or driven to) looks for miles into Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic, and many early risers enjoy taking in the sunrise from its summit. South Ridge Trail is a gradual ascent to through forest to exposed pink granite ledges at about 1,500 feet. There is parking at the summit, a restaurant and gift shop.
Trail of artists
Of course the state’s favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth, is well-represented at several superb art galleries that display Maine through the eyes of its artists. Museums in Portland, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Colby College in Waterville and Farnsworth in Rockland almost always feature some work by Wyeth, son Jamie, and father N.C.
And speaking of artists, don’t miss the 10-mile boat trip from Midcoast out to Monhegan Island, a spot Jamie Wyeth himself calls “staggeringly beautiful. There’s a remoteness. This light. This amazing sea air.” The Monhegan Museum of Art and History is housed in the former light station and sits atop the highest point on the island. There are numerous hikes and trails, and the boats go from Midcoast harbors such as Port Clyde and Boothbay.
Baxter State Park
We swing northwest to central Maine and the logging land around the town of Millinocket that connects via logging road and river to Baxter State Park. This 205,000-acre tract of prime wilderness was a gift of former Maine Governor Percival Baxter, who acquired the land over his adult life and left it as his legacy to the state. The park does have dirt roads and interconnected hiking trails webbing through its amazing natural beauty.
From land to sea, Maine has the nation’s largest fleet of windjammers — tall ships and schooners assembled, and ready to sail. From the nationally registered Victory Chimes to the Victorian-era Stephen Taber and Lewis R. French, the fleet assembles several times each summer in Penobscot Bay for a parade of sail and the Great Schooner Race. These are fun to see from the Camden or Rockport shore, or even more fun to experience from the deck as you sail from Isleboro down the bay. Check the calendar of schooner activity at sailmainecoast.com.
Paddle the NFCT
Fans of inland waterways can paddle part of the 740-mile portage route of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which stretches from the Adirondacks of New York to the Allagash in northern Maine and features some of the greatest unbroken runs of natural, unspoiled wilderness in the East. The NFCT takes you to the upper reaches of the state, which are less populous (than almost anywhere else you know) and take serious canoeists through some of the most unspoiled fresh waterways in the East, running from Lake Umbagog on the border with New Hampshire all the way to the Fish River at Fort Kent.
At its center of Baxter State Park is Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail that emerges out of New Hampshire 276 miles to the south. That makes this mile-high mountain a busy place in spring for short-trip climbers to through hikers who are winding up their thousand-mile hike from Georgia up the Atlantic states. Climbing Katahdin is a wonderful adventure, but it is challenging and will take a full day to summit and return. Prospective hiker/climbers should study maps, read literature about the mountain, be in reasonably good physical condition, and know how to pack for all weather. That said, there are many shorter, less challenging hikes in the park. All visitors must register in the ranger office at the park gate on Balsam Drive. Cabin rentals and tent sites are available, but call or email for reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have come to love Maine’s wildlife and landscape, have spent a lifetime skiing, hiking, paddling or pedaling New England’s largest state, or have newly stretched yourself to the northern climes, there’s a way to stay connected. Maine Audubon is only partly about birds and waterfowl but for 176 years has played a large role in its devotion to the huge tracts of Maine’s wilderness and wild places.
Maine Audubon protects and manages eight wildlife sanctuaries, from small coastal preserves to the vast lake country in the western part of the state, where the Appalachian winds its rugged way toward Katahdin. There are dozens of education and volunteer wildlife programs that require support from people who love and enjoy the state. Natives and visitors alike are encouraged to take part in outings and workshops, if only to volunteer in an effort to pick up a bagful of plastic trash.
Canoe the Wabanaki Trail
Maine once was home to many Native Americans. About 50 years ago, hikers around Old Town, on the banks of the Penobscot River, came upon what University of Maine archeologists came to realize was one of the region’s largest and longest-occupied native villages, dating back some 4,500 years. Those with a history bent can rediscover this land on the Hirundo’s interpretive Wabanaki Trail. Not challenging as a hike, this easy half-mile trail passes the excavated site where natives lived along Pushaw Stream, where the fishing and hunting and fur-gathering opportunities were rich indeed. Hirundo’s offers free canoes to visitors seeking to paddle the streams where Maine’s natives once thrived. You’ll find the Wabanaki Trail at 11107 West Old Town Road.