The Perfect Summer Escape: Driving the Maine Coast

02 Jul The Perfect Summer Escape: Driving the Maine Coast

One of my earliest childhood memories is trout fishing with my grandfather at Acadia National Park. A few decades later, my wife Gayle and I honeymooned on Deer Isle. In the years between, I’ve driven the “reaches,” long, narrow peninsulas that stretch like fingers into a sea that is so deeply blue it nearly looks black. I’ve handled a sailboat off Schoodic Point and dug clams not far from Eastport. And I’ve eaten enough lobster rolls to know that the ratio of celery and mayonnaise to lobster is like that of vermouth to gin in a good martini — just enough to know it’s there.

Featured Trip: Maine Bike Tour: Cycling Acadia National Park

The rocky, frequently fog-bound coast of Maine has played a central role in my life. With thousands of bays and reaches, it’s calculated to be 3,478 miles long, much longer in fact than the coastline of a far
bigger state — California. The closest thing to a straight line around here is Route 1 but even that road meanders playfully along the coast, playing cat and mouse with sea views. It’s the detours off Route 1 that are by far the most compelling parts of this drive. So count on your GPS or a good map, and pack a fleece, because even in summer, it can be chilly when the fog rolls in.

The best coastal drive begins in Rockland, a fishing town overlooking Penobscot Bay. It’s about 82 miles up the coast via Interstate 95 and Route 1 from the city of Portland. In Rockland’s busy harbor, you’ll see working lobster boats and ferries scuttling off to Vinalhaven and North Haven Islands. And you’ll see tall masted schooners, for Rockland is known as the “Windjammer Capital of the World.” Ships such as Victory Chimes, which I sailed on a few years ago, call this harbor home when they’re not taking guests on voyages past the dozens of islands in Penobscot Bay.

But in the last couple of decades, Rockland has boomed, becoming a haven for artists, a reputation enhanced by the presence of the estimable Farnsworth Art Museum. More than 5,000 works can be found here, many by painters who called Maine home or summered here, including Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Winslow Homer. A separate building down the street, a converted church in fact, houses an extraordinary collection of three generations of the Wyeth family: N.C., Andrew and Jamie. The latter two, father and son, live not far from here. And if you’re around in August, you’ll be in time for the Annual Lobster Festival.

camden maine

Camden Maine by George Lazenby is licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Now head north on Route 1 to Camden, a patrician town of sea captain’s houses with a cluster of pristine sailboats in the harbor. Carry on through Belfast and Searsport. In the latter, you’ll find the
fine Penobscot Marine Museum, with a collection of small boats and marine art. Stay on Route 1 and head Downeast. The term “Downeast” comes from the old clipper ship days. To move along the coast of Maine, these ships had to travel downwind in an easterly direction.

You should continue Downeast until you see a sign for Route 175 south around Orland. That’s right, due to the quirky coastline, you’re now heading south for 15 miles, to the town of Castine. This collection of stately Federal and Greek Revival houses is like a return to the 19th century.

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So is a common surrounded by elms, a tree that’s become a rare sight in many parts of the country. The oldest European settlement in North America, Castine has a handful of old hotels, a few shops and a serene beauty.

Now take out your map, because you’ll need it to take Route 166 out of Castine and drive 30 miles along Routes 199, 175, 176 and 15 to get to Deer Isle. It’s a misnomer, because it’s no longer a true island, as you’ll see when you cross the bridge over Eggemoggin Reach, a watery thoroughfare that’s
well-known to yachtsman.

People come to Deer Isle because it’s drop dead beautiful. There’s a ragged coastline lined with pink granite coves and inlets. I don’t think that there’s anywhere else that exemplifies the
Maine coast better.

Follow Route 15 South to Stonington, a classic working fishing village. It’s picturesque without being grand, a jumble of houses and cottages pressed tightly together. In backyards are fishing shacks
stuffed with lobster traps and on Main Street, a handful of artists’ studios. Like a scene from Robert McCLoskey’s beloved “One Morning in Maine,” which was set nearby, lobster boats putter around the harbor. The rare concession to the 21st century are a few kayakers setting off from the harbor for a day or week spent among the fir-clad islands offshore. It’s the last part of the Eastern seaboard that remains untouched.

Lacking a kayak, you can take the mail boat from Stonington to Isle au Haut, seven miles out to sea. Two thirds of the island belongs to Acadia National Park but its remoteness means that it attracts less
than one percent of the overall visitors to Acadia. But bring your hiking boots, because your car must remain in Stonington.

Spend the night in the area or carry on up Route 15 and make your way 24 miles northeast to Blue Hill, a town that rivals Castine for sheer perfection. Then it’s back to Route 1, via Route 172, past the
strip malls of Ellsworth and down Route 3 and across the bridge to Mount Desert Island. You’re entering bustling Bar Harbor, the town that’s the gateway to Acadia National Park.

bar harbor lobster boats

Lobster Boat Skiffs by Ken Rowland is licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

For many people, this is the real coast of Maine, though the plethora of ice cream shops, tour buses and crowds in Bar Harbor might make you think otherwise. The massive shingled summer “cottages” in the
area have been home to Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts and more recently, Martha Stewart. You might glimpse the cottages, but the real reason to come to Acadia, which protects two-thirds of the island, is to see a truly stunning coastline with granite-topped mountains, deep woods and remarkably pristine lakes and ponds. And the smartest way to see the park is to get off the major roads that thread through it.

My favorite hike is to climb Acadia Mountain, where the reward is a staggering view down to Somes Sound, the only true fjord on the Atlantic coast. Ideally, you’ll luck out with a crystal clear day and
just the slightest nip in the seabreeze. Spend some time on a shore walk and there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded with the sight of seals lounging on huge, wave-rounded boulders. And the sound of the ocean is sometimes punctuated with the diesel chug of a lobster boat going from trap to trap.

By the time you depart, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a lobster buoy stowed in your carry-on,
along with a copy of McCloskey’s “Blueberries for Sal” for your kid or grandkid and a fresh lobster roll to eat on the plane on the way home. They’re telling reminders that the Maine coast remains one of America’s greatest treasures.


You can also explore the wonders of Maine by pedal on a Backroads Maine Biking Tour.

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