State number 47 on my list, how did I let this happen? Actually I know the answer to that; it’s a difficult one to build into a longer road trip, being up in the north east corner of the country means making a special trip to see it. I’d tried over the years and something else, often more tempting always came up. Finally, Steph and I made it our mission to road trip this modern yet rustic, hipster yet salt of the earth, American yet ever so slightly British state, and it has become an instant Unearthed favorite. Here’s the film short of the trip, including the crazy flight over Acadia:
Maine has a summer peak season like most other temperate parts of the nation, its tourist season ends around mid October, but it does finish with a flourish. October brings about the cooler weather, and with it the grand falling of the leaves. Referred to as ‘leaf peepers’, thousands of tourists flock to the New England region to watch this natural phenomenon, the state becomes a kaleidoscope of fiery orange and reds, almost everything you look at tries to impress you with its rugged or colorful beauty. Knowing that we could find a slightly quieter state at the very end of tourist season but also witness the floral displays, we aimed to kick off the trip mid October and having done so, would highly recommend you do the same. The towns felt quiet and calming, we never felt rushed nor did we have to wait for anything and we were able to book onto some last minute boat trips and activities without a problem. Oh, and the leaves looked incredible.
After flying into Boston and picking up a rental car, we made the easy two hour drive up (through New Hampshire for about 25 minutes) to Portland. We’d read that Portland was one of the coolest small cities in America, so we were pretty excited to hang out here for a while. Aiming to make this one of the most relaxing road trips to date, we chose to stay in inns along the coast, not only would it mean relaxation, it also felt like a better option given the typical temperatures and rainfall in Maine at this time of year, especially by the ocean. Our first base would be the Higgins Beach Inn, a wonderfully quaint hotel/inn located about twenty minutes south of the city, on a strangely quiet and stunningly beautiful stretch of sand in the town (more of a village) of Scarborough, or as the GPS referred to it; Scarrrrbrourrrrr.
We arrived late due to our delayed flight, but we were met by a lovely guy who helped heave our compact but weighty case up three flights of stairs and into a room which was both instantly Maine, and yet homely at the same time.
The following morning we woke slowly, and headed down to ‘The Shade’ a restaurant which produced the most delicious and hearty fry up I’ve had in ages. Bellies filled with eggs, bacon and sausage, we headed out to explore.
It takes just a few minutes, and a nice scenic drive over the water to pull into Portland’s Waterfront Harbor area. We hopped out and explored for the day.
Food is the main attraction here, there are more seafood establishments than you can shake a lobster at, and all look equally inviting. It becomes quite the stressful dilemma attempting to decide which will give you your fishy fix for the day. As we headed along the frontage, we delved into plenty of typical tourist shops, a guilty pleasure of ours, and then headed uphill and away from the water.
As you move up toward Middle St you may well find yourself on Exchange St. It’s a funky little road which feels like any English town, I could easily have been fooled into thinking I was back in Nottingham for a minute. Quirky donut stores and coffee shops can be found and a unique store called the Salt Cellar, which sells all things made of pink salt crystals, lights and all.
Further west is the cemetery which given its views, due to its position on the hill and its age, makes for an interesting stroll. We spent some time reading the life stories of various individuals from the early 1800’s before heading to the Shipyard Brewery, a small but quaint little craft brewery at the north end of town. We met it just as a large tour had finished so ended up moving on, but it gave me a taste of what was to become a phenomenal craft beer experience in Maine.
The evenings were spent eating delicious sea food, in particular, Boone’s Restaurant on the waterfront was sublime, and has an awesome atmosphere. And though we didn’t get chance to try it, we heard only good things about the low key fish and chips cafe called Becky’s.
On the outskirts of town there is a little zone with a few breweries in, Allagash is here along with Austin Street Brewery. Across the street however, Foundations Brewery was having a fun looking outdoor pumpkin carving event. We headed over and had a wonderful flight of beer. One of the nicest IPA’s I’ve tasted, which gave Maine a couple more craft beer points.
Back in Scarborourrrrrrrr we spent some evenings down on the beach, which had a few surfing visitors but otherwise seemed to have been sculpted purely for our pleasure, I’ve seldom seen such a nice beach so empty, and the sunrises and sunsets on the beach were absolutely stunning.
Eventually it came time to say a sad goodbye to the Higgins Beach Inn, and we made our way north, making a cheeky little stop en route.
Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens
An hour or so north of Portland comes the phenomenal Maine coastal botanical gardens. It’s advertised as being huge, one of Maine’s top attractions, I wouldn’t go that far, the actual area of planned, sculpted gardens is fairly small. It took us perhaps just over an hour to stroll all the various mini gardens, but they are very well put together. The October period obviously doesn’t lend itself well to blooming flowers, but we did see plenty, and the varieties were extremely unique at times. The kids area is definitely for big kids too, and when you’re done, you can head into their quaint cafe for tea and lobster. I had my first lobster roll here, and ooh was it a goodie. I’m now a fan for life.
Arriving in Rockland is like starting a book you’ve been told is great, but a chapter in you’re still not sure about it. The streets at its western edge as you come in feel a little grimy and empty of life, we drove through thinking this doesn’t look like the hipsterville town the guide books seemed to suggest. Then you hit the main street by the waterfront and things alter. By chapter three you’re starting to get into it, and there are some particularly great paragraphs. The Lindsey Hotel, which is a standout feature of the town in itself, was to be our basecamp for exploring.
I can not put into words how fascinating a stay at this quaint Inn is. Run by the phenomenal Joanna LaBounty, an ex personal chef and events planner, she has essentially taken the hotel experience to a whole new level. Every inch of the Inn feels like a nautical museum, the stairs are lined with rope, the lights look like they were made from old boats, the art is mesmerizing and you end up finding it difficult to leave and actually go exploring! We marveled for a good while at how long it must have taken to get the place as perfect and detailed as it is now.
Joanna is a whirlwind of energy, creating a totally new breakfast everyday, apparently never making the same thing twice. Her favorite is a weekly ‘dueling toast’ experience, where she has two slices of toast covered with totally contrasting dishes. On our second morning we had a mushroom and cream covered slice, and a banana and chocolate delight on the other, so unique and oddly delicious!
Rockland is as advertised. The town is small, it won’t take you long to see it all, maybe an hour or two. The local brewery ‘Rock Harbor Brewing Company’ does great craft beer brewed daily, and decent burgers. The trick here though is to venture out and about.
Two lighthouses are located nearby, including one of the more unusual of the 60 something that line the Maine coast. Breakwater lighthouse is a small lighthouse which is made unique due to it being half a mile out to sea and yet walkable. The walkway is a essentially a pier made of boulders. It’s great fun just walking out, and makes for a great view back at the harbor when you do finally reach it.
South of the town is Owls Head Lighthouse, more scenic, this one is in a state park and though we enjoyed the lighthouse itself, we took even more pleasure climbing down to the rocks and wandering around on the beach and exploring the rock pools! One morning I got here at 6am to watch the sun come up and man it blew me away, the sun hits the orange leaves of the sea front trees above the classic Maine rocky cliffs, and they just light up.
Just a few minutes up the road is the town of Camden. Lets stop for a minute and just say it, Camden is our favorite town in Maine. It’s everything you envisage when you consider a trip to this state. I don’t wish to take anything from the other towns; Portland has a good vibe and good seafood, Rockland has great lighthouses and funky restaurants, Bar harbor is bordering great outdoor areas, but Camden has all of these things, while somehow remaining one of the most beautiful towns in the USA.
If we came back to the Maine coast again, this would be my first stop. We arranged to stay at the very modern and funky Whitehall Inn for our first night on the north end of town, a great hotel that combines a modern edge with the classic Maine themes. Our room, up in ‘the tower’ was superb and gave us some wonderful views.
Camden’s harbor area is a photogenic, serene waterfront. A painter’s paradise, you could just sit here and stare at the water all day. We wanted a bit more adventure though, so we booked onto one of the boats to go out and tour the bay and learn about the major local occupation, catching lobsters. The Camden Harbor Cruises tour on the ‘Lively Lady’ took us out on a beautifully warm sunny morning, and Capt. Dom gave us a bunch of fun facts bout the thriving local industry, informing us of the varying price changes of lobsters, the sustainable way they are caught nowadays and the anatomy of the creatures themselves. With the catch we made being mostly underweight, Steph had the pleasure of handling a few and throwing the pincer primed crustaceans back to their watery residence.
Later that evening we headed up into Camden Hills state park, a forested park which climbs quickly to Mount Battie, which from the summit, has without question, one of the most epic views you will get anywhere in Maine. The vistas sweep the length of the coast, allowing you to see as far north as Acadia and Cadillac Mountain, and south back to Rockland. Down below, Camden sat looking gorgeous, and its harbor glistened in the evening sunlight. It was so great we kept going back, and the view was even better at sunrise, really, even if you’re warm and comfy in a cosy inn, force yourself from bed and drive up. We sat with a couple of coffees and took it in for some time.
I can’t finish talking about Camden without blabbering about the second best IPA I’ve ever had, and maybe the best craft brewery ever. Seadog Brewing is a phenomenon. The pub itself is rustic and inviting with puppies on the wall, and wooden beams everywhere you glance, but more than just being a nice place, its beer selection is tremendous! The Deep Stowage IPA is a wonder of the world, and Steph lost her mind over the fruit infused options, including her personal favorite, the Blueberry Wheat, which has real local blueberries floating in it! Does it get better? No. No it does not.
On our second night in Camden we stayed at Glenmoor by the Sea and wow, what an amazing way to enjoy some R&R. We stopped in a cabin which was just 30ft from the beach, and with floor to ceiling windows we woke up to the most ridiculous sunrise we’ve ever seen while lying in bed!
The owners, a lovely couple who recently moved from Rhode Island to take it over have poured the hearts into running what is a series of cabins, plus a hotel which is further back from the water. We both agreed when it came to move on, we could’ve stayed here for a few more days to soak in the calm serenity it oozes.
Prior reading will suggest to you that Belfast is a working town with little to see, but thats not the case at all. We made it a point to go and explore this town, after all we were close by, being only twenty or so minutes from Camden. Belfast is great, it’s definitely its own entity, a town which would function just fine without any tourism, but at the same time is a richer tourist experience for it. There are more things to do in the day here than in Rockland or Rockport, the shops are varied, with everything from garden decor, hand craft goods to clothes and gifts. The little harbor is cute and the Three Tides waterfront restaurant and craft brewery is delightful, with great simple food and some fantastic beers. We spent a good part of the day wandering around and I’d advise anyone who drives near to call in and enjoy it.
Arcadia National Park & Bar Harbor
An Unearthed World road trip just isn’t complete without a National Park, and with the recent news of price increases for entry, we want to get in as many as we can. Alas! Acadia is not only Maine’s only National Park, it’s the only one in all of New England, but don’t worry, it’s a goodie.
Covering a large portion of Mt Desert Island (which we thought looked strangely like a lobster claw), and a number of the smaller islands too, the park is as varied as they come. It boasts areas you have to sail out to, has inland forest trails, mountains and of course the rugged cliffs for which it’s famed.
The forests were particularly showing off when we visited, with the leaves in full fall display. We drove the loop road and made stops on the first day to Sand Beach, a unique crescent beach on the west side of the park, Thunder Hole, a cliff feature where powerful waves explode through a rocky amplifier, then Cadillac Mountain, a wonderful viewing point over both Bar Harbor and huge areas of the Acadia.
The weather, which had been uncharacteristically sublime all week continued its strange behavior, giving us a day that had us in t-shirts, certainly not characteristic of Maine in October. We used it to our advantage, and spent the morning hiking around Jordan Pond, a beautiful lake which is accompanied by a teahouse! You can imagine Steph’s excitement! After our hike we had some delicious tea along with some popovers, a quirky take on the English Yorkshire pudding (if you don’t know what these are, google them and you’re about to have your life changed forever).
In the evening we made a drive to the mainland to meet the guys at Scenic Flights of Acadia. This tiny organization takes people to the best viewpoint of the National Park, up above it. We met our pilot who explained that business had been booming much later than usual this year thanks to the weather. We were the only people booked onto the seven seater plane and were grinning ear to ear as we hopped onboard and took to the skies.
We were trying to time it so we had the sunset just as we came around to land so we took off at about 5.15pm. The pilot was amazing, taking us over the bay, past Bar Harbor and a couple of lighthouses. He knew so much about the area having lived there a good while, filling us in on the difference in demographics living in the various towns, the crazy mansions which dot the islands and the history of the park. He knew I wanted to get some great shots of the park and trees which beamed with color beneath us, so he made a few sharp turns in order to let me shoot directly down and capture a few nice images. As we flew peacefully over the islands the sun dipped below the horizon and we landed under a vibrant purple sky. It was a wonderful way to finish the park experience.
Bar Harbor is without a doubt the busiest and most tourist filled town we’d seen all state. Being on the entrance to the park its bound to bring in huge numbers. Several cruise ships were moored on our last day so despite the end of season it was teaming with troops of gift shop visitors. Even so, the town is undeniably fun. Stores are plentiful and varied, coffee shops are ample and the restaurants line the streets. After hours of walking and a few cheeky purchases we finished the day at Geddy’s, a fun pub with a nice family feel, which sold my new favorite beer (Seadogs Deep Stowage) and Steph’s (the Blueberry Wheat) and allowed us to indulge in our last fish and chips of the week.
So how does a Maine road trip stack up in comparison to all our others? Very well. If you’re to camp it, I’d make sure it was mid summer and I would no doubt love every moment of it, but fall is Maine at its best, so get in the car, explore the towns and sleep soundly in the cosy inns which dot this wonderful rugged coast.
Rich & Steph