Best Things To Do In Maine
Many of the best things to do in Maine can be found in its Mid-Coast and Down East regions. I’ll share here what I consider to be highlights of this swath of the "Pine Tree State". Maine is also known as Vacationland and with good reason!
My suggested itinerary can be best enjoyed over the course of ten days - two weeks. Don’t rush, and enjoy a restful, rejuvenating, inspiring visit with spectacular scenery, scrumptious food, lovely people and lots of art, history and culture! 2020 happens to be Maine’s bicentennial so be on the lookout for celebratory happenings!
A Word on COVID-19
The situation is in flux so be sure to check the state of Maine’s requirements, the policies of individual establishments and whether the attraction you plan to visit is open.
I visited the first half of July (2019) and felt comfortable, safe and welcomed. I found that people, locals as well as other visitors, were respectful, wore masks and practiced social distancing. Each place I visited had well-considered practices to ensure safety as well as make people feel comfortable.
Geographic and Cultural Lay of the Land
Maine is the largest of New England’s six states and occupies the northeastern most corner of the U.S., bordering Canada. Maine’s shoreline is a study in diversity: there are more than 4,600 coastal islands, and the topography ranges from steep rocky cliffs to golden sandy beaches and emerald salt marshes. The coastline is notoriously jagged, with thousands of inlets, bays, cliff heads and outcroppings carved by the movements of glaciers.
The cultural history of coastal Maine is equally complex. Native American Wabanaki peoples such as the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot are believed to have inhabited Maine for at least 11,000 years. In 1604, explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the first colony named Acadia, which means "Idyllic Place" in French. Many Maine residents trace their roots to France, which at one time claimed much of the area that is today Maine.
Within two years of Champlain’s arrival, the English settled a plantation in what is now Phippsburg. Scots-Irish began to immigrate to Maine in the 18th century, some of them as prisoners of the British Civil Wars.
Relations between these different groups of settlers were often far from harmonious. This guide will recommend a host of museums and historical societies that do a great job of putting in context the development of Maine's social fabric.
Recommended Hotels and Guesthouses in Maine
Timbercliff Cottage - This Inn’s unique hillside position provides a serene setting and beautiful views of the bay.
Captain Nickels Inn - Offers an elegant and exceptional retreat with 180-degree views of Penobscot Bay.
Aragosta at Goose Cove - Offers vintage suites and cottages with pristine ocean and forest views.
Balance Rock Inn - Oceanfront lodging in the heart of downtown Bar Harbor.
Lime Rock Inn - Rockland's first B&B is tucked away on a quiet side street encircled by a wraparound porch and landscaped gardens.
A Loop of Seven Locales
Just exactly what is Mid-Coast Maine? Some folks consider only the area directly along Penobscot Bay to be officially Mid-Coast Maine. As far as the state is concerned, Brunswick is Mid-Coast Maine’s southernmost town, and Bucksport is northernmost.
Our guide to the best things to do in Maine actually starts in Camden, which is about an hour north of Brunswick, and 3.5 hours from Boston. Camden is a relatively late bloomer as far as New England towns go; it was sparsely populated until the beginning of the 19th century, when mills sprung up along the Megunticook River and the town became a major shipbuilding center. In the 1880s, Camden was discovered by “rusticaters." These wealthy families from New York, Philadelphia and Boston could afford to take the summer off and desired fresh air, country living and communing with nature. Camden has been a popular tourist destination ever since!
We then take you 30 minutes further along the coastline to Belfast and, ten minutes further, to Searsport, both historic small towns with a shared history. Until 1759, the whole eastern section of Maine remained an unbroken wilderness. Belfast was founded in 1770 by Scots-Irish who gave it its current name.
Searsport was originally a part of Belfast and incorporated as its own entity in 1845. In the 19th century, the two towns had a combined 17 shipyards. Searsport has produced more merchant marine deep water captains per square mile than any other community in the United States.
Next, we head to Castine, Deer Isle and Bar Harbor, which are all part of Maine’s Downeast/Acadia region. Castine is about a half hour drive from Searsport, and perches on the tip of a small cape extending from the northwest corner of Blue Hill Peninsula. Deer Isle is 45 minutes south, off the very bottom of Blue Hill Peninsula. Across Blue Hill Bay to the east is Bar Harbor, an hour and 15 minutes drive from Deer Isle. Bar Harbor is one of four towns on Mount Desert Island, the largest of Maine’s 4,600 coastal islands.
For our final stop, we make a two-hour loop south from Bar Harbor to Rockland, which is near our starting point of Camden.
You can’t beat an afternoon at Camden Harbor for one of the best things to do in Maine. Camden’s waterfront is a charming place. You can idle away an afternoon watching yachts, lobster boats and schooners glide in and out of the snug port.
The verdant hills rising from the water are likely to be an unexpected sight for someone who associates Maine with a rocky coast. Completing the picture-perfect setting is the quintessential New England church spire which pierces the sky and a waterfall that runs through the center of town.
A private rowboat is available in Camden Harbor to rent for a small fee on the honor system. Look for posted ads pinned on a few bulletin boards throughout town. The adventuresome can pack a picnic and row out to Curtis Island in the harbor to see the lighthouse!
Harbor Park, adjacent to the library, overlooks the marina. This green space resembles a mini amphitheatre and features a statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay; the Pulitzer-winning poet and feminist grew up in Camden.
If you hanker for some unique handcrafted goodies, boutique stores like Once A Tree, The Cashmere Goat and Owl & Turtle Bookshop make for inspired browsing!
Go on a Sail on the Owl
We enjoyed a splendid sunset cruise of Penobscot Bay with Captain Sarah, skipper of the cutter Owl. A cutter is a small, speedy sailing vessel similar to a sloop. It has a single mast rigged fore and aft, carrying a mainsail and at least two headsails. Its traditional hull design, deep and narrow, features a raking transom stern, a vertical stem, and a long bowsprit. This sailboat is one of the most versatile in Camden’s fleet, built-in 1941 by world-famous yacht designer John Alden to be a fast and comfortable cruising boat. Let Sarah give you a snapshot of what you’ll experience on a cruise!
Enjoy the View from Mt Battie
Drive north on Rt. 1 past all the gorgeous old inns and B & Bs on Camden’s High Street. Just on the outskirts of town you’ll arrive at Camden Hills State Park, which is clearly marked.
Take a left off Rt. 1, and you'll be on Mt. Battie Road. After paying admission, you can make the quick but winding drive right up to the summit of this 800-foot peak. Alternatively, you can hike on a 2.7 mile trail through the woods, or walk along the road, which is a 1.8 mile trek round trip. However you get there, the top of Mt. Battie affords a stunning panorama of Camden and Penobscot Bay swathed in a ring of deep green of the surrounding forests.
There is more to Camden Hills State Park than Mt. Battie. The park’s 5,700 acres also feature Battie’s big brother, Mount Megunticook, a 1,385-foot peak reached by a 3.8-mile out-and-back trail. This hike is said to be steep, challenging and buggy in summer--but well worth it! There are actually several peaks over 1000 feet in the vicinity that include Ragged Mountain, Bald Rock Mountain, Bald Mountain and Hatchet Mountain.
If you are feeling ambitious, there is a little trail from Megunticook Street in Camden with a steep hike up to the top of Mt. Battie in the State Park. This the original hiking trail to the summit.
Camden Hills State Park also features 30 miles of trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, cross country skiing, snow-shoeing and rock climbing. Camping sites are also available.
If you take a right off Rt. 1 instead of turning into the Mt. Battie entrance, you’ll enter a forested area with picnic posts and a trail down to the water. Here the coastline is pure Maine, with rocky outcroppings atop crashing waves. Along the waterline, there is a well-used trail that is peaceful and pine-scented.
A neighbor to the north of Camden, Rockport was named as one of America's prettiest towns by Forbes magazine. Its tranquil cove has to be chief among its qualifications. Parking is available in the Marine Park, at the bottom of a hill off Pascal Avenue.
You can easily spend an hour or more wandering around the tiny harbor watching the working boats, yachts and windjammers come and go. You can also get a firsthand look at the workings of the lime industry that thrived in the 19th century here. Several old kilns are preserved in the Marine Park, with signage that explains the process.
Lime was burned here for more than a century, ending only in 1958. At one point, there were 160 lime kilns in Rockland, burning lime around the clock. The kilns were located in the harbor because the product was loaded directly on to schooners. The lime would be transported to places like New York and Boston, where it was used to build the urban growth occurring at the time.
Penobscot Marine Museum
Are you a lover of all things nautical? Fascinated by history? An aficionado of fine craftsmanship? Then you need to head to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport Maine, where you can immerse yourself in some really terrific exhibits that pay homage to life on the water!
The Museum’s boat barns feature crafts ranging from a Wabanaki birch bark canoe, with cedar ribs that are truly an exquisite work of sculpture; racing sloops; square-riggers; and "pea pods".
The Museum’s tagline is “We bring history to life” and, in fact, they do! In guided tours, the Museum’s interpreters share the history of the 14 buildings on its three-acre campus, and introduce some of the area’s colorful characters, such as Jeremiah Merithew. Commissioned to skipper a delivery of cargo to the Caribbean when he was only 20 years old, Jeremiah went on to become a wealthy ship builder and commander of the Schooner Harriet & Eliza. Known as being ornery, Jeremiah started a brickyard in Swanville and tried to get the Congregational Church to buy his bricks when they were building the new church. When they went with wood, he left the church and gave the bricks to the Methodists for their new church.
The Museum’s collections of well-preserved boats and buildings are well-researched and imaginatively presented. This is a gem!
Searsport is the "Antique capital of Maine." If you like poking around in the past as I do, then you'll be in your element! Along Route 1 from Searsport to Bucksport there are no less than ten antique businesses, among them Pumpkin Patch Antiques, Captain Tinkham’s Emporium, and past the punnily-named Baits Motel are Hobby Horse Antiques Marketplace and Red Kettle Antiques.
Best Things To Do in Maine: Belfast
Belfast is one of those places that you wish you grew up in. Main Street has a homey feel that is both retro and funky. Park your car in the center of town and then amble down to the Passagassawakeag River and Penobscot Bay at the bottom of the hill. Along the way, browse in the fun shops like food purveyors Eat More Cheese and Vinolio; specialty shops Left Bank Books and All About Games; and vintage decor market Epoch, which are all housed within architectural gems built in the 19th century. Keep your eyes peeled for artful displays of whimsey, like elaborate dreamcatchers nesting in trees and a delightful outsized carved bear who seems to be asking "WTF"?
I met brothers Willie and Clayton as they busked on Main Street, playing a mix of Acadian and Old Time tunes on the fiddle and accordion. The pair told me that they are regulars at contra dances held on the first Friday of every month in Belfast at the American Legion Post 43, at 143 Church Street. They explained that contra dances are similar to square dancers, with live music and callers who describe the dance steps. This style of folk dance has its origins in 17th century English, Scottish and French country dances and is also known as New England or Appalachian folk dance. Dances are cancelled between now and the fall due to COVID; check with community dance organizers Belfast Flying Shoes to find out if dances will be occurring when you visit!
There may well have been such dances taking place in Belfast long ago, as the town has a Scots-Irish lineage. Belfast was settled in 1770 by descendants of Scots-Irish who first came to New England in 1718. Those immigrants were Scottish Presbyterians who arrived in the New World via the northern counties of Ireland, where they had been sent by King James I.
This dimension of the Scottish diaspora is complex, and the Maine Ulster Scots Project (MUSP) is a great resource if you are curious to learn more. MUSP uncovers North of Ireland migration stories through genealogy, public outreach, archaeology, and research. According to MUSP, Maine has, per capita, the highest percentage of self-identified Scots descendants in the entire USA, and ranks third in the country for Scots-Irish descendants.
If you’d rather just raise a glass to Celtic culture with like-minded people, then check out the annual Maine Celtic Celebration which occurs in Belfast in mid-July. This year’s fest occurred virtually but it's always a good time, filled with musical performances; a medieval artisan village; kilt competition; Highland Game contests like the caber toss and open stone put; sheep-herding demonstration, and more!
To appreciate Belfast’s tangible cultural heritage, take a walking tour of its impressive architecture. Brochures are available at the Belfast Museum and the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce Information Center that offer self-guided tours of houses, churches and commercial structures of historic and architectural interest. Of particular note are Church Street and Primrose Hill. The 19th-century homes here were built by ship captains, bankers, and merchants and span styles from Federal and Greek Revival to Italianate and Queen Anne.
Fort Knox and Bucksport
Fort Knox is about 20 minutes north of Searsport on Route 1. For most Americans, the name will conjure up the U.S. Army post adjacent to the bullion depository where the country’s gold reserves are stored. Sorry, not the same place!
Maine’s Fort Knox is significant for two reasons. First, it's the best preserved and most accessible of any fort in the U.S. If you have any interest in military history, this is your chance to see firsthand the entire workings of a 19th-century American fortification, from top to bottom.
Second, Fort Knox offers a window into a period of U.S. history and cultural politics leading to Maine’s statehood in 1820.
Two military confrontations between the Americans and the British--the Penobscot Expedition and a battle of the War of 1812--had made residents defensive and wary. Then came the “Aroostook War." This conflict was technically more of a short-lived international incident between the U.S. and U.K. over the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick in Canada. Nonetheless, the altercation prompted the building of Fort Knox, which was constructed between 1844 - 1869.
Ironically, Fort Knox has never seen battle. Perhaps it’s intimidating presence has served its purpose!
After touring Fort Knox, head across the 2,120-foot-long Penobscot Narrows Bridge to Bucksport. From the town’s Main Street, you get a great view of both the Fort and the stunning bridge. Have a bite to eat at the Friars Brewhouse Tap Room, run by the Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth.
Fun fact to know & tell: Bucksport is said to have inspired the fictional Collinsport of the 1960s TV program “Dark Shadows," based on its spate of notorious murders in the 19th century.
Castine reveals another layer in Maine’s history. During the 17th and 18th century, Castine was part of New France, also known as Acadia, and served as its capital from 1670-1674.
Thanks to its position at the mouth of a Penobscot Bay estuary, Castine was a vital entry point to important water routes for the fur trading that took place in that era. Not surprisingly, that meant the location was attractive to the competing Colonial forces settling the area. There was an English trading post here started by the Plymouth Bay Colony in the 1620s followed by the French takeover and control when they built Fort Pentegoet in 1630. That set in motion nearly 150 years of military campaigns between several super powers (including the Brits, French, Dutch and American colonists) that didn't end until after the War of 1812.
In the mid-18th century, colonists from Massachusetts began to relocate and settle in coastal Maine--which at the time was owned by Massachusetts. Fast forward 20 years. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, a British naval force showed up in Castine and began erecting a fort. This set in motion a nasty battle that the Americans lost--in fact, the debacle was the worst U.S. naval defeat until Pearl Harbor, a century and a half later. Not surprisingly, this created some bad blood between the Americans and the British in Maine.
Now, fast forward another forty years, to the War of 1812 era. The British again sent a fleet to “conquer” and colonize Maine. The Brits immobilized 17 American ships and took possession of numerous locations, including Castine--again. The townspeople quickly surrendered and the town and fort were occupied. Parties, plays, and attempts to cooperate ensued, and there were no bad feelings when they left. Castine was pretty pragmatic, just wanting to be on the side of whoever wins. In fact, Mainers were actually more angry at Massachusetts for not sending troops to take back forts and towns. This resulted in a vote to separate from Massachusetts and form the state of Maine in 1820.
Castine is named for Baron Jean Vincent d’Abbie de St. Castin, a French nobleman who was a settler here in the late 17th century. He traded with the indigenous Tarratines, and married the daughter of Madockawando, the chief of the tribe. This inter-cultural heritage endures, with two streets named after the original occupants, Tarratine Street and Madockawando Street.
Castine has been part of the National Historic Register since 1973 and the town’s history is evidence from top to bottom. Today, in its much-coveted harbor you can see the presence of the Maine Maritime Academy in the form of its 500-foot ship, the T.S. (which stands for training ship) State of Maine. The Academy was founded in 1941 to train merchant seamen and currently has a student body of about one thousand. The students go on to work in the Merchant Marine, Coast Guard and on tanker and container ships.
Overlooking the harbor is Dyce Head Lighthouse, built in 1828 at the southernmost point of the Castine peninsula, on property once owned by the Dyce family. It was funded by Congress with $5,000, in response to the growing shipbuilding and lumber industries on the Penobscot River.
It’s walkable from the center of town but parking is available off the side of the road. The lighthouse and lighthouse keeper's home are owned by the town who maintains them. The home is rented to help with upkeep--we got a cheery hello from a young woman as she entered its front door. People are allowed and encouraged to walk the grounds and trail. Occasionally the lighthouse is open for special events--and the lighthouse is still functioning!
Interestingly, signage at the site explains that the use of lighthouses was likely a legacy of the British, who first began erecting beacons in the 17th century. After an up-close & personal look at the 42-foot piece of history, we followed a somewhat overgrown footpath down to almost the water’s edge, a deep drop from land.
Castine’s Historical Society offers guided walking tours Wednesday - Saturday at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and also on Sundays at 2 p.m. Meet one of Castine’s able ambassadors in front of the Abbot School and enjoy an hour’s overview of the town’s history and architecture.
Deer Isle is both an island and a town. The island also encompasses the community of Stonington on its south. Getting to the island means crossing Eggemoggin Reach via the Deer Isle Bridge. This beautiful piece of engineering truly makes you feel you are arriving somewhere special.
Stonington Harbor and The Art of Evelyn Kok Gallery
Fishermen and artists may seem strange bedfellows. Yet Stonington is a prime example of how these two callings often happily coexist in coastal communities. A fleet of more than 300 lobstermen work out of this small harbor, and the area has long been home to a host of artists and artisans. There are more than a dozen galleries on Deer Isle that feature sculptures, ceramics, metalworks, jewelry, photography, antiques and more!
Get a sandwich from Stonecutters Kitchen adjacent to the busy harbor and then grab a seat on one of the benches lining the waterfront to take it all in. Scattered across the cove are scores of contoured rocks glistening in the sun, resembling the backs of whales. Lobstermen and pleasure boaters motor to and fro; you might just see a tall-masted schooner sail by. Framing the spectacular scene is a swath of pine trees in the distance. Come back in the evening to see the harbor in a different mood, the epitome of tranquility.
One of the artists who you will want to encounter is Evelyn “Barney” Kok. Her work is presented in a whimsical Main Street gallery that was once Barney’s studio, where she spent her summers creating for 50 years. Barney died in 2014 at the age of 91 and her niece Christina decided to share her work and her story posthumously. In addition to presenting paintings and cards by Barney, Christina offers a book that memorializes her aunt’s extraordinary spirit and creative philosophy. Having read it myself, I can say that Barney’s joie de vivre is contagious and worth catching!
On the other side of Deer Isle is Nervous Nellie’s, a popular emporium making home goods and about 300 jars of jam a day. While the sweets are delicious, the main event is the expansive sculpture park of installations created by the vivid imagination of artist Peter Beerits. Working with cast-off, dump-foraged materials, Peter has brought to life a series of vignettes that range from a Western saloon to a Delta juke joint and a Medieval castle. Plan to spend a couple of hours wandering around this campus set amidst the woods. Nervous Nellie’s is located on aptly-named Sunshine Road, and your time here will make you smile and refresh your inner child.
Savor Ten Course Tasting Menu at Aragosta at Goose Cove
Aragosta is a fine dining restaurant featuring farm-to-table locally sourced ingredients prepared by chef Devin Finigan. The rustic yet elegant venue is tucked away at Goose Cove, a ten-minute drive from Main Street in Stonington. Located at the end of a winding road through a pine forest, the property also includes seven cottages and four suites. Previously a camping lodge for more than fifty years, the setting looks out at a sandy beach and the islands of Penobscot Bay.
Aragosta, which means lobster in Italian, serves lunch, Sunday brunch and offers a ten-course tasting dinner menu. Treat yourself to this gastronomic experience! Our dinner started with Long Cove Oysters and Deer Isle Scallop Crudo, followed by “Ode to Peas”, a presentation of Four Season Farm peas, Yellow Birch Farm feta, and beach foraged pea. The next course was Peeky Toe crab dumpling, Blue Hill Bay mussels, little necks, brodo, soffritto, and Four Season Farm squash blossom. Devin’s signature dish is Stonington Lobster Casoncelli with lemon beurre blanc, gremolata, and Fine Line Farm micro greens. Making the meal even more memorable is the impeccable service--attentive and helpful without being intrusive.
Bar Harbor is a scenic 75-minute drive from Deer Isle. You might want to make a stop in tiny Blue Hill, roughly halfway, which has several nice galleries on Main Street, like Handworks Gallery with contemporary crafts and Jud Hartman Gallery, featuring sculptures, as well as Blue Hill Bay Gallery and Cynthia Winings Gallery.
Located on the east coast of Mt. Desert Island, Bar Harbor is on the cusp of Acadia National Park. Long a summertime home for the wealthy, Bar Harbor is a popular Down East destination for visitors of all kinds.
What exactly is Down East? Well, it has several definitions. Many use it as a nickname for Maine, especially the coastal parts of the state. Others consider Down East to refer specifically to the area of Maine that abuts Canada. In any event, the term Down East has its origins in sailors’ familiarity with the prevailing New England winds, which come from the southwest. Thus mariners sail downwind to go east.
Bar Harbor itself was founded in 1763, relatively late in the settling of Maine. This is a result of the particularly frigid winters here. The town was first named Eden, no doubt for its glorious summers. In the 1840's, the pristine wilderness of the area drew Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and William Hart. Their romantic and idealized interpretation of the maritime landscape captured the imagination of the first of the affluent rusticators to discover Maine.
These early tourists came from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and some from as far away as Ohio. They stayed with local families, often returning annually, drawn by the salt air, fresh produce and bucolic relaxation. The growing popularity of a retreat from city living led to the creation of hotels and a summer tourism economy.
Bar Harbor Shore Path
Ready for more walking? A great way to get acquainted with Bar Harbor is its Shore Path. Just below the lovely Agamont Park, a quintessential New England common green, is the municipal Ells Pier as well as public parking. Just off to the right as you face the water is the path, which begins in front of the Bar Harbor Inn, and extends along the waterfront of Frenchman Bay for about a half-mile.
This very easy stroll takes you past spectacular “cottages." In 1920, at the recommendation of world-renowned landscape architect and local summer resident Beatrix Farrand, these landowners made the unusual civic-minded decision to grant the public access to the shoreline.
Opposite the mansions are fabulous water views of the Porcupine Islands, Balance Rock, Egg Rock Light and the Schoodic Peninsula. Each of these features of the cultural landscape have a story. To share just one, Balance Rock was "dropped" on Bar Harbor`s shoreline about 10,000 years ago. The distinctive landmark is an “erratic," a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area, and carried to its resting spot by glaciers during the Ice Age.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park, created in 1919, covers about half of Mt. Desert. Many of the rich “cottagers” who summered here were a driving force behind the development of the Park. Landscape architect Charles Eliot, from a prominent Boston family, first proposed the idea. George Dorr, also from Boston and heir to a textile fortune, is considered the “father of Acadia National Park” and dedicated his entire life to its preservation. Financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. commissioned the Park’s 45 miles of carriage roads.
The Park is about 80 square miles in total, so there is a lot to explore! The highlights include the 27-mile Park Loop Road, which circles the eastern section of the Park and Mt. Desert Island. It is studded with one spectacular sight after the next, with parking for each easily accessible.
You can follow this route from either the Hulls Cove Visitor Center near Route 3 on the northern side of the island, or from Route 3 south of Bar Harbor on the right past Jackson Lab. You’ll need a pass, which you can download online, likely get from your hotel, or purchase on site. There is also the Island Explorer shuttle bus, if you don't feel like doing the driving yourself.
Some of the stops you’ll want to be sure to make: Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Otter Point, Precipice Trail, Cadillac Mountain, Jordan House Pond. The route is largely one way, so make sure not to overshoot one of these stunning vantage points!
Bar Harbor Historical Society
Bar Harbor was originally named Eden, and was considered such by the power elite who began summering here in the mid-19th century. During the economic prosperity of the "Gilded Age," Mount Desert became a retreat for prominent people of the times. These wealthy industrialists and financiers built lavish estates coyly referred to as "cottages." If you want to get a taste for the lifestyle enjoyed by these "cottagers," then pay a visit to the Bar Harbor Historical Society. Founded in 1946, today the organization is located in La Rochelle Mansion on 127 West Street, and open to the public as a museum.
La Rochelle itself is a window into the opulent existence of the cottagers. The 13,000 square foot Greek Revival brick estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lavish forty-one room chateau was built in 1903 for George Sullivan Bowdoin, a second generation partner of J.P. Morgan; his great grandfather founded Bowdoin College and he was the great grandson of Alexander Hamilton.
La Rochelle has twelve bedrooms and nine full bathrooms on two acres of waterfront. Visitors can tour eight rooms on the first floor and enjoy a glimpse of life in the cottages, which includes the elegant dining room set a luncheon, as well as exhibits that documents the recreational pursuits of the age, from silent movies to bathing suits, as well as domestic duties carried out by the staff.
Take a Spin on a Tall Ship in Frenchman Bay
One of the most iconic images of Maine for many people is a majestic schooner with sails furled, gliding past a rocky coastline strewn with forested islands. If you have a hankering to see Bar Harbor’s Frenchman Bay from the water, then take a sail on the schooner Margaret Todd.
This 151′ windjammer rests at the Bar Harbor Inn pier. She sails three times daily, mid-May through mid-October. She is the first 4-Masted Schooner to work New England waters in over half a century. Margaret Todd was designed by her owner, Steven Pagels, who is at the helm during the cruise and happy to have a chat.
Most of the crew during our 2.5 hours sail were here for the summer season; if you’re inclined, you can help hoist the sails once the ship gets underway. A bit of trivia: the sails were made a brick-red color to deter mold.
Windjammers were first constructed as cargo ships. The term windjammer actually originated as an insult during the late 19th century when steamships were gaining in popularity. Deck hands on ocean liners scoffed at the square-rigged vessels as old-fashioned.
Like its neighbors, Rockland got its start as a shipbuilding center and also became home to a number of different inter-related industries like lumber, commercial fishing and lime production. Lime, a key ingredient in plaster and cement, was quarried here; the Williams Quarry was the deepest in the world at 40 stories down. The industry reached its peak in Rockland in 1892, with production of 1.4 million casks; the area’s last lime kiln closed in 1958.
Today, from its gritty industrial heritage, Rockland is emerging as an arts destination thanks to the Farnsworth Museum, Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and a growing number of galleries offering local fine art and crafts.
Farnsworth Art Museum
The Farnsworth Art Museum (FAM) has as its mission to celebrate Maine’s role in American art, and it does so with great flair. I really felt like I learned a great deal about the history and personality of the state through the lens of the artists featured in 20,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The collection of works displayed by Andrew Wyeth are a moving embodiment of Maine’s cultural heritage, as well as its spirit. The exhibition Andrew Wyeth: Maine Legacy informs you as much about Wyeth as it does about Maine. Wyeth painted in Maine from the 1920s up to year before his death in 2009. The works displayed reveal what about Maine resonated with Wyeth--the models with whom he became lifelong friends like Walter Anderson; the architecture, like the Acorn Grange in Cushing; traditional tools like peaveys and fishing nets used in salmon pens.
On the other end of the spectrum is a piece by Warren Seelig, displayed in the Museum’s Rotunda. An abstract inter-play of light and dark called Oculus, it nonetheless conjured for me an iconic Maine image, that of a lighthouse.
One of the take-aways from a visit to the Farnsworth is the diversity of Maine and the artists who have been inspired by it. The range of work displayed also includes pieces by Marguerite Thompson Zorach, an American Fauvist painter and textile artist who was an early exponent of modernism in America; Louise Nevelson, a sculptor and Russian emigree known for her monumental, monochromatic, wooden wall pieces and outdoor sculptures; and photographer Eliot Porter, known for his richly colored images of the natural world.
A five-minute walk from the Farnsworth is Archipelago, a gallery and retail store that represents more than 250 artists who call coastal Maine home. The fine art and craft work ranges from books and paper; clothing and accessories; jewelry’ ceramics; sculptures and carvings; textiles; glassware; leather goods; paintings and prints, and much more!
Archipelago is an active catalyst in Maine’s creative economy. The initiative is part of the Island Institute, a non-profit founded in 1983 to ensure the sustainability of Maine’s island and coastal communities with partnerships, entrepreneurship, education and information exchange. Since opening in 2000, Archipelago has helped to develop the careers of more than 1500 Maine residents with mentoring and skills development.
Center for Maine Contemporary Art
The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) has its roots in neighboring Rockport and as an artists’ cooperative. For the first 15 years of its life, there in fact was no center; curators were volunteers and exhibits were held at the Rockport town office, in a barn, in a storage loft, and in a former schoolhouse, among other venues. From 1967 - 2016, the CMCA was based in a former firehouse and livery stable.
Four years ago, CMCA opened a $6 million steel and glass structure designed by world-renowned architect Toshiko Mori. Since launching its new 11,500 square foot space, the CMCA’s attendance has quadrupled to 40,000.
The CMCA’s history makes a statement about the growing role of the arts in Maine. The state has long been a summer home for artists who derive inspiration from its beauty. Increasingly, artists are becoming year-round residents and tourists are recognizing Rockland as a contemporary arts destination that addresses topical subjects.
During my visit, one of the exhibits called “Skirting the Line” celebrates the centennial of women’s right to vote with exhibits by women. The show offers the work of five female painters exploring the interplay between abstraction and representation.
Rockland Harbor Breakwater Light
An itinerary of the best things to do in Maine has meant a lot of walking in wonderful fresh salty air. Why stop now!
This iconic lighthouse in Rockland Harbor is just nine minutes from downtown but it feels like a world away! That is for two reasons. One, you will have to walk on water to reach the lighthouse. Two, that walk--across a breakwater--is 7/8ths of a mile long!
This is not a jaunt for anyone with mobility issues. The surface is uneven, with crevices between the huge stones with which the breakwater is constructed. That said, if you take your time, you’ll enjoy not only a unique vantage point of the lighthouse but also be on eye level with the many sailboats gliding by, along with other marine traffic.
Interestingly, the breakwater was built before the lighthouse. Massive nor’easters in the 1850s that did considerable damage to Rockland’s waterfront were the catalyst for these protective barriers to be erected--and yet politics kept the project from reaching fruition until 1901! At the end of the day, a total of 768,774 tons of stone were used at a total cost at the time of $880,093.
Sometimes solutions can create unexpected problems. In this case, while the barrier was meant to provide a defense against Mother Nature, it proved to be a hazard to navigate. Lanterns were used as an interim measure, with a building to house the beacons erected in 1895.
Owl Head Lighthouse
While Maine is best known for the majesty and grandeur of Acadia National Park, there are many smaller parks across the state that are quietly impressive.
Owls Head is both a peninsula and a town, located just south of Rockland. The area is actually named for an owl's face that appears in its rocky cliffs, only visible from the water, rather than the nocturnal bird.
At the tip of the town is a finger of land pointing toward Rockland, which is home to the 13-acre Owls Head State Park and the lighthouse, originally erected in 1825. Reached at the end of a short pleasant walk through pine trees, the 30-foot tall lighthouse is dramatically positioned at the top of a steep hill. An adjacent keeper's cottage, built in 1854, serves as the headquarters of the American Lighthouse Foundation.
Marshall Point Lighthouse and Museum
The last of the four Maine lighthouses we feature, Marshall Point is located in the fishing village of Port Clyde, at the end of the St. George peninsula, about 19 miles due south of Owls Head, and a half hour drive on Rt. 131 South. The final leg of the drive passes some beautiful homes that inspire imagining having a peaceful retreat here. There is a small parking lot that can accommodate about a dozen cars, which was at capacity even amidst the modest levels of tourism given COVID.
If you can't shake the feeling that Marshall Point Lighthouse looks familiar, there is a good chance in the recesses of your mind you remember it as Forest Gump’s final destination on his epic cross country run. The stunning simplicity of the lighthouse’s architecture, set on the rocks at the end of a long walkway, makes it a favorite spot for wedding photos.
Set on the water just before the lighthouse, and found at the end of a tiny path, is a memorial to the fishermen of St. George. The granite plaque was erected in 2008 and features the image of Gary Thorbjornson and honors him and the 10 other local fishermen lost at sea since 1941. It is a poignant reminder that lighthouses, while picturesque, serve to keep safe those whose livelihood is often dangerous.
With its dramatic history, sublime scenery, iconic architecture, and burgeoning arts scene, Maine is a wonderfully rich and inspiring destination to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Recommended Restaurants in Maine
I hope you’ve enjoyed these recommendations of the best things to do in Maine! Do you have a favorite place in the Mid-Coast and Down East regions, or any other part of Maine? Please, pay it forward and share it with us!
How To Use This Map
Above you’ll find a map of the destinations mentioned in our article. Click on the top left of the map to find a list of all points of interest. Click on any of the icons (stars) to see more information about that point of interest. Hope you enjoy it!
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Rent a Car
For car rentals, we recommend thriftycars4rent.com because they offer good quality vehicles at the lowest prices.
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We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides.
Recommended Tours in Maine
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. We recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
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- Are you a culture and outdoors lover? Then you might be interested in exploring the Azores!
- Looking for a New England vacation destination? How about a special place on Martha's Vineyard?
- or historic artist colony Rockport, with the most painted building in America!
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