An Abbreviated Guide to the Holiday Coast of Maine
(In our first thrilling installment, we took a family vacation to Maine. Today we look at popular vacation spots along the state’s coast, from north to south.)
Where: In what Maine folks call “Down East” (which is actually up, toward Canada). Bar Harbor lies on Mount Desert Island (actually, linked to the mainland by road) and is the gateway to Acadia National Park. (www.barharborinfo.com)
Who: 19th-century visitors came to see the gorgeous maritime scenery depicted by artists of the Hudson River School. As a Gilded Age summer resort, “Bah Habah” drew Astors, Vanderbilts, and other wealthy families who built palatial “cottages.” Sixty-seven summer houses on Millionaires’ Row were destroyed by a fire in 1947; town buildings that survived are now often shops.
To do: My wife, Merry, and I walked Main Street, where the summer crowds rivaled those at Disneyland. Shops sold souvenirs (no shortage of lobster motifs) and tasty local ice cream. At Agamont Park, a green square overlooking a harbor of yachts and lobster boats, we people-watched: a busker singing, hardy New Englanders striding by with shocks of white hair and hiking boots from L.L. Bean. (The company founder’s full name was “Leon Leonwood Bean” – you see why he abbreviated.).
Travel tip: To avoid crowds in a tourist town, do things the locals do. We attended a library talk by best-selling Maine author Douglas Preston, whose new book, The Lost City of the Monkey God, tells about an expedition to a remote Honduran jungle where he had to deal with poisonous snakes so fierce that one kept trying to bite and spew venom even after its head was cut off. After the talk, he signed books. (Facing long winters, folks in Maine love reading.)
Maine attraction: America’s first national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia has 47,000 acres of woodlands, lakes, beaches, and glacier-cut peaks. A 27-mile loop road begins at Bar Harbor. One morning, we drove into the park – at least, I think we were in the park. It was so foggy and drizzly, we couldn’t see a thing. Trees faded into the mist like ghosts. At Jordan Pond, a lake with a perimeter trail, hikers set off through the rain wearing only shorts and sweatshirts. (Those hardy New Englanders again!)
We drove to the granite summit of Cadillac Mountain. At the visitor center, Merry sat in the car while I intrepidly hiked to the gift shop for trail mix. At just 1,530 feet, the peak is the highest point on the East Coast. With its elevation and eastern location, it is one of the first places in the U.S. to see sunrise – a popular time to go.
A park highlight was the lovely (if not originally named) Sand Beach. Two rocky points framed green waves breaking on shore. About 70 percent of the sand was made up of crushed shells: mussels, sea urchins, periwinkles.
Caution: Maine is tick territory (often found in tall grass). We met numerous local residents whose friends and relatives suffer from tick-borne Lyme Disease.
Where to stay: Located away from the hubbub, the Bluenose Inn was a welcome retreat. Our room had a fireplace and balcony. The Looking Glass restaurant offers dramatic hilltop views of the water, a deck, and a menu that includes lobster variations (from excellent bisque to won-tons). Rates from $119 to $859; (207)-288-2665, www.barharborhotel.com.
Where: On the quieter side of Mount Desert Island. (www.acadiachamber.com)
To do: We popped into the Wendell Gilley Museum, which is devoted to wooden bird carvings. Director Sean Charette pointed out paper flamingos made by local children for the next day’s annual Flamingo Festival.
In the morning, we were on Main Street early for the parade – flatbed trucks overflowing with kids and adults in pink flamingo hats, men walking in fluorescent grass skirts, and of course, Sean from the museum and his contingent of flapping flamingos. We waved to each other like old friends, a warm bonus of visiting a small town.
But why flamingos in New England? Here’s jewelry shop owner Peter Aylen, a former San Francisco cable car conductor with the gift of gab: “I used to tell tourists that in the past, flamingos flew this far north and landed only in Southwest Harbor. When that stopped, people put pink plastic flamingos on their lawns to lure them back … so far with no success.” We all had a chortle over that one. (In truth, the designer of the iconic kitsch bird, the aptly named Don Featherstone, once lived in this area.)
Joining a small-town celebration is a fine way to learn about a place, a good idea for travelers anywhere.
Where to stay: The Harbour Cottage Inn bed-and-breakfast offers 11 rooms and suites in an impeccably decorated 1870 “cottage” with a gracious lawn and gardens. Delicious full breakfast. Rates from $169 to $279; (207) 244-5738, www.harbourcottageinn.com.
Where: In southern Maine, one mile up the Kennebunkport River from the ocean. (www.visitthekennebunks.com)
What: In the 19th century, boatyards built grand sailing ships here – one-third of the U.S. maritime fleet. Later, prosperous businessmen created a summer colony of fine houses and hotels. Kennebunkport is still a wealthy enclave, known as the Hamptons of Maine and summer home to former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. (They sometimes come to town for dinner and last year dropped by a biker bar.)
To do: To glimpse the Bush compound on Walker’s Point, we drove out Ocean Avenue, which is lined with huge white New England houses. The Bush family retreat stood on a peninsula, shingled and handsome, but not showy. At this summer White House, President Bush hosted Margaret Thatcher and other dignitaries.
We also swung by the beach, a huge horseshoe of sand; the waves actually break in a curve. There were three separately named sections – Mother’s, Middle, and Gooch’s – with surfers riding gentle waves straight in, reminding me of Waikiki. Gulls flapped above colorful umbrellas – a classic summer scene.
The town itself centers on Dock Square, where shops occupy a 200-year-old rum warehouse and other historic buildings. The nearby Greek Revival house named White Columns was built by a trader in the 1800s. With its original furnishings and hand-painted French wallpaper, it operates as a house museum. Docent guide Larry Ryan showed us around and told lively tales of local history – a part of which we were about to spend the night in:
Where to stay: We stayed at the handsome Kennebunkport Inn, formerly the 1890s mansion of a tea merchant, on Dock Square. White clapboard with a broad porch, it has 33 rooms in the main building and adjacent Riverhouse. We had the spacious corner Thompson Suite, with a fireplace and a sitting area decorated in a sophisticated blend of antiques and contemporary white and nautical blue. The excellent Burleigh restaurant serves fresh Maine seafood (I had lobster mac ‘n’ cheese with green chili and corn) and imaginative American fare (bourbon-roasted half chicken). The patio bar has live music. Rates from $99 to $409; (207) 967-2621, www.kennebunkportinn.com; sister properties at www.kennebunkportresortcollection.com.