To date, we only once visited Maine on what amounted to a nearly-5-days itinerary between York and Mount Desert Island and back. Covid-19 restrictions eliminated practically every single museum-like destination from our plans. The brevity of our tour meant that we spent a fairly short time in each place. So these notes, while not bereft of recommendations, are more of an outline than a detailed guide.
Things to See
Mount Desert Island ♥♥♥ kept our attention for an entire day. It is home to the Acadia National Park ♥♥♥, which offers innumerable hiking trails and picturesque views; avid hikers can easily spend a week here. We are not really hikers, so we drove the Park Loop Road, stopping by key rocky points (Sand Beach Overlook ♥, Thunder Hole ♥, Otter Cliffs Overlook ♥, Otter Point ♥, etc.) – all fun, even when there are many people around. Capped the drive with Cadillac Mountain ♥♥♥ – breathtaking views.
It should be noted that parking close to viewpoints may be challenging at times; spots can always be found somewhere, just not necessarily close by (and I suspect that it is much worse in summer). Entrance to the park costs $30 per vehicle, and at certain times advance reservations are required to get to the most popular spots, which include everything that I recounted in the paragraph above, so be sure to check the park website accordingly. Entirely accidentally, we planned our visit for September 26th – which is one of the few days a year that the access to the park is entirely free (it’s the National National Parks Day; other free days are major national holidays).
Wild Gardens of Acadia is a moderately interesting botanical garden, located outside of the park “paid” perimeter. In line with the name, the gardens have the wild-growth feel, but are informative in describing the flora of the park. Far from a must. There are two other gardens on the fringes of Acadia that were tentatively in our plans – Thuya Garden and Asticou Azalea Garden – but we did not manage the time appropriately for a visit.
There are a few other places on MDI that are worth exploring beyond Acadia. First and foremost is Bar Harbor ♥♥ – a very picturesque and attractive town, if a tad too touristy. There are many eye-catching buildings in the center, a nice Village Green, and a park above the marina.
On the opposite side of the island, at its southernmost point, Bass Harbor Head Light ♥♥ somewhat confusingly often features as the headline picture for the Acadia Park. The parking lot here cannot accommodate all comers, so you may have to wait a bit for someone else to depart. The lighthouse is not awfully impressive close by, but you should go down to the rocks from the opposite corner of the parking lot for much better iconic perspectives. The rocks here are somewhat more dangerous than elsewhere but still climbable.
Castine did not impress us much with its tiny historic center, but we arrived too late in the evening and spent very little time there. Gallery B, which had some nice pieces, was the only open establishment. We also saw the State of Maine ship – the training vessel for the Maine Marine Academy that is headquartered here.
Camden ♥ is a happening town, with a busy waterfront district. The village green offers the best views of the marina. From here, we took a two-hour sunset cruise ♥♥ on Appledore II Windjammer. Just sailing, no commentary beyond the initial introduction, beverages (including beer, wine, and liquors) served on board for an additional price. It was a bit on the cold side in late September, but still, a pleasant way to spend the evening and make new friends.
Mount Battie supposedly offers excellent views over the Camden coast, but it was too foggy in the morning that we thought of driving to the top. It sits in a state park accessible for a fee, so we took the ranger’s on duty advice and turned around.
Rockland’s ♥♥ central district deserves its “Maine capital of arts” designation. There are tons of seemingly interesting galleries around the supposedly excellent Farnsworth Art Museum. Most were closed on Sunday morning when we stopped in town for a couple of hours, so we could only window-shop, but one gallery – the Painted Pirate ♥ – allowed us in to check out its nice collection of paintings and crafts.
Owls Head Lighthouse ♥♥, not far from Rockland has a bit of a fairy-tale feel, since you have to walk along a forest path closed to traffic to get to it. The fog added to the impression. Wooden stairs take you all the way to the lighthouse; at the foot of the stairs, there is a tiny museum ♥ and a gift shop, well worth a few minutes of stopping by. Rustic picnic area by the parking lot.
Marshall Point Lighthouse ♥♥ in Port Clyde sits out on the rocks connected to the land by a narrow wooden walkway. Very picturesque, and the ability to go on the rocks is appreciated by the children. Museum was not open, but probably similar to what we saw at Pemaquid and at Owls Head. Picnic tables all around.
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse ♥♥ is part of a state park that costs $3 per person to enter (children are not charged). Beautiful lighthouse, picturesque rocky surroundings which are possible to go on in good weather, several picnic spots. A small but fairly interesting Fisherman’s Museum ♥ is located on-premises, and there is also the Pemaquid Art Gallery accessible from the site that was not open when we visited.
Boothbay Harbor ♥♥ is very nice and quaint, headlined by the Harbor Footbridge ♥. Maine State Aquarium and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are in the vicinity, worth considering in the future.
Wiscasset ♥ is also picturesque enough, with the only big drawback that of the main street being the major traffic artery. There are several interesting shops and galleries, including the tucked away Butterstamp Workshop ♥, and the prominent Wiscasset Bay Gallery ♥. Points of interest include Nickels-Sortwell House, 1790 Tiny House, and Castle Tucker, all seen from the exterior only. Waterfront is a bit dull.
The town of Bath is nice enough and moderately picturesque, with a pleasant waterfront, but probably can be passed through in favor of other destinations. Maine Maritime Museum is a POI that we left for a future return.
The largest town on our route, Portland ♥♥ is reasonably lively with a lot of interesting architectural features throughout its center. Commercial Street in the Old Port part and the surrounding sometimes pedestrian-only street cluster is the hub of activity, with many restaurants and shops; wharves offer additional leisure walks. Quiet Park Street at the edge of the central area probably took the first prize for the quaint and colorful building structures (including Victoria Mansion and the nearby “painted ladies”). Among museums and POIs that warrant consideration for a future visit is the Portland Museum of Art, Wadsworth-Longfellow House, Maine Jewish Museum, Portland Observatory.
There are three major lighthouse landmarks in the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth area. Portland Head Light ♥♥ is inside Fort Williams Park ♥. The park itself could be easily a half-day outing with a cliff walk, picnic areas with barbecue tables, and a historic fort remains that we did not spend time to see. There is an excellent food-truck option (see the “Eat” section) and a gelato/coffee stand; paid parking in the park. The lighthouse is very photogenic; no interior access and no museum hours when we visited, but a very nice place to linger. Surrounding rocks are technically out-of-bounds, but that stops few people.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse ♥♥♥ is probably the most visually impressive of all lighthouses that we have seen on the trip. It sits out on the water, connected to the shore by a causeway made out of huge boulders, surrounded by the marina, several islands, and open water. An old fort in front of the causeway – called Preble – offers great vantage points.
Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse (also known as “Two Lights”) is disappointing since it sits on private land and can only be viewed from a distance. Not really worth the effort to drive up.
Kennebunkport ♥♥♥ is probably our favorite of all the towns we visited, with a compact picturesque center full of nice and quirky shops, galleries, and restaurants – plus a proper coffee house (always a bonus in my book) and nice river views. We especially liked the pottery shop The Good Earth ♥♥, children’s shop The Knotty Elephant ♥♥, and jewelry/craft store Abacus ♥. Very much recommended.
Ogunquit ♥ has a very resort-town feel, what with one of the largest beaches in Maine. Its center, though, is quite nice, not as picturesque Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor, but nonetheless boasts a few good shops, eateries, and galleries. The main feature of the town is the Marginal Way ♥♥ – a nice walking path along the coast, with a few climbable rocky outcroppings. One museum to consider for a future visit, Ogunquit Museum of American Art, is nearby.
York is fairly nondescript, although in better times it may compensate for that with its several historic sights. In the harbor, Wiggly Bridge ♥ is a mild attraction, and Steedman Woods beyond the bridge offer reputedly exceptional birdwatching opportunities.
Nubble Lighthouse, which sits on an island in front of a small park, was hidden by the fog on the morning of our visit. It was the only “must” of our trip that did not work out.
As the final sightseeing note, it should be mentioned that many towns along the coast offer signposted walking sightseeing circuits called “Museum in the Streets”. We did not attempt to follow any of them fully but stopped by to read some of the signs. You can pick up a map to follow the circuit or download an app. Whenever you are spending enough time in a given town, it looks like an interesting opportunity to learn about the local history while seeing the key landmarks.
Places to Eat
Dining out is never cheap in Maine, especially when you go for lobster meat – even the smallest of rolls is likely to set you back around $18. Nonetheless, here are the places we ate at in September 2020 (all visits for 3 adults and a child).
For full-service dining, Via Vecchia ♥♥, on Dana Street in Portland was probably our favorite. Not too extensive a menu but all very well prepared and presented. We tried two appetizers (polpetto – meatballs, and the cheese and meat board), two pasta dishes (angolotti and rigatoni), and the sirloin steak. Portions are not overwhelming; pasta can be ordered in small and large sizes – and we were satisfied with the small. We called ahead with a special order for a picky child, which was very properly fulfilled. Damage: $200 with a bottle of wine and tips.
Also in Portland, Becky’s Diner ♥♥ on Commercial Street is an excellent breakfast choice; no reservations, but the wait was not long. Damage: $42 with tips.
Fresh&Co ♥♥ in Camden’s waterfront district – great food, pretty good service, we liked everything we ordered. Mussels with string fries went especially well, and the local dayboat white fish (stew) was fantastic, but also Maine lobster ravioli and aromatic carrot curry (vegan) dishes were very good. Another place that graciously fulfilled our advanced order for a picky child. Damage: $196 with several individual drinks and tips.
Angelina’s ♥ in Ogunquit on Rte 1 is in the fine-dining expensive category. Great Italian menu, extensive wine list, a very nice service. Fish soup and potato cakes with sour cream for appetizers were excellent, everything else was good without being exceptional (bruschetta, fritti misti, risotto, fetuccine carbonara, swordfish, tiramisu). Big portions. Damage: $244 with a bottle of wine and tips.
Ocean’s Edge next to the Fireside Inn on Rte 1 in Belfast was selected for proximity to our lodging on the night. A safe and not especially exciting choice if you are in the area. The ambiance is that of a community center, a few local staples on the menu, very few people in the dining hall – we closed the place by at least half an hour. Good appetizers – fried mushrooms, scallops with bacon. The two-lobsters special was well received as well. Damage: $150 with a bottle of wine and tips, our cheapest outcome for a full dinner.
Cafe This Way ♥♥ near the village Green in Bar Harbor offered only outdoor dining for breakfast. There was a bit of a wait to get seated, but nothing too terrible. Excellent menu choices in Kit’s Burrito, Monte Cristo, and various omelets. The coffee was pretty dismal and spoiled the effect a bit, but the ambiance and the rest won out. Damage: $65 with tips.
In Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Beal’s Lobster Pier ♥♥ feels very authentic in part because the harbor does not appear touristy at all, being the location of the Coast Guard base. The place is well-known; we talked to people who specifically come here to eat. Nice food, including lobster rolls, whole lobsters, soups, and many other staples. Damage: $90 with tips.
Shannon’s Unshelled ♥♥ right by the marina at Boothbay Harbor is also rather popular. Great selection, great ambiance, and very good food. Shannon, the owner, is an additional highlight, helping guests and making small jokes. Damage: $74 with tips.
The best lobster rolls that we had on this trip were at the Bite into Maine ♥♥ food shack in Fort Williams Park south of Portland. The rolls were bigger and of more variety than we found at other places. Damage: $65 with tips.
Other places that are habitually mentioned as musts for lobster rolls did not fit into our itinerary. We were twice by the Red’s Eats shack in Wiscasset, and both times the line was too long for our patience. The Traveling Lobster on Mount Desert Island also sported a long line but we also were driving not too long after that lunch at Beal’s Lobster Pier.
Fisherman’s Dock ♥ on Rte 1 in York is also among the top recommendations. Its biggest drawback is the location, by the side of a really busy stretch of the highway. The food is nice and varied within the simple boundaries – soups, rolls, etc. Damage: $90 with tips.
One truly arbitrarily lunch stop was at Delano Fish Market ♥ on Rte 1 in Waldoboro. The menu here is also varied, with all common staples. We accidentally found ourselves in a fun environment, full of old-timer locals driving colorful vintage cars, who congregated here for a live music show (keyboard and guitar) by too similarly old-timers. The woman played recognizable tunes during tune-up and then songs that we did not know during the actual show, but it was a pleasant diversion overall, even though the food was probably no more than ok. Damage: $90 with tips.
None of the lodgings that we stayed at during the trip in September of 2020 merits a significant recommendation, but they are all not without some merit.
Hilton Garden Inn ♥ on Commercial Street in Portland is what you’d expect from a large chain – nice amenities, good spacious rooms with extra seating that could be used as a bed, microwave/fridge/coffee machine in the room. The central location is a plus. During COVID times, the only parking option was the valet at an extra $25/night.
Yankee Clipper Motel in Belfast is clean, nicely appointed, updated. We were checking in after-hours and the front desk did everything to make it seamless and contactless. But while right on Rte 1, it is some distance from both Camden and Mount Desert Island – it does not work too well for anyone who wants to spend the night in town. (Belfast, whose center is a 5-minute drive away, never featured on our itinerary and appeared pretty sleepy and unexciting when we drove through.)
Gorges Grant Hotel in Ogunquit is well-appointed, with all necessary amenities, and also both located on Rte 1 and requires a car trip if you want to get to a lively part of town. IMHO, it is a bit overpriced, especially if you consider the low quality of sleep. Sound-proofing in the rooms is terrible – you can hear loud conversations, bathroom actions, everything in the hallway, everything above you. At the checkout, we overheard that the door gap that allows all of the hallway sounds in is the standard safety feature. On the positive side, the hotel offers full-service breakfast in its Raspberri’s Cafe, with nice food and efficient service (damage: $60 with tips).