By Jim Ferri
Few pleasures are as unique as an early summer drive on a Maine coastal road trip.
Here you’ll drive through scenery that continually morphs from forest to farmland and back to forest again. And walk along the granite-strewn coast of Maine watching waves crash ashore beneath postcard-worthy lighthouses. You’ll likely spend afternoons moseying about art shows and through antique stores in Maine’s coastal towns. And, of course, you’ll want to stop at a lobster shack or two along the way.
It’s an easy 1½-hour drive up I-95 from Boston to the Maine border, another half-hour to Portland if you want to stop there. But the real Maine road-trip fun starts on Maine’s Route 1 at Freeport where you’ll leave the Interstate behind. I didn’t include such southern Maine towns as Kennebunkport and Ogunquit since I wanted to focus more on rugged coastal Maine north of Portland.
Get on Route 1 there and let it take you northward along some of the prettiest coastline in the USA. If you love the ocean and its bays and islands you’ll be smitten by this part of the New England coast. With so many islands, nooks and crannies Maine’s coast is actually longer than California’s.
Route 1 Maine
I made the transition from city to country quickly on Maine’s Route 1. Almost immediately I saw cars with canoes and kayaks strapped to their tops, signs to watch for moose on the roadway, little piles of wood on people’s lawns with signs advertising “camp firewood.” It was almost as if I’d stepped into another country.
My first stop on Route 1 was at an old classic roadside burger shack in Freeport. I placed my order for a burger and fries (thick-cut Maine potatoes, skins and all) that soon arrived in a little takeaway carton. I then quickly headed next door for a real treat: an old-fashioned soft-serve custard.
Not too far down the road, I found the L.L. Bean campus, the mother ship of the popular outdoor apparel chain. After a short stroll about, I asked the clerk how long it would take to reach Camden on Penobscot Bay.
“It will only take you about an hour,” she told me. She then added, “the only problem you’ll have is near Wiscasset because Red’s Lobsters there serves the best lobster roll and there will be traffic.” I made a mental note to stop at Red’s.
Lobster Rolls in Wiscasset
Route 1 to Wiscasset is flush with wildflower fields and many antique, kayak and canoe stores. Wiscasset is an attractive little town complete with a welcome sign opining it’s “The Prettiest Village in Maine.” I soon found myself in a small antique store that had a bed-and-breakfast tucked in out back. I got to talking with the owners, a couple who also own an apartment in the South of France, where they find respite from the Maine winters.
When I left, I found Red’s Eats just down the road, where I enjoyed the first lobster roll of my life. (Many more were to follow: see 5 Delicious Places for Lobster Rolls in Maine).
I soon became engrossed in conversation with some folks at an adjoining picnic table. I then realized that’s the problem with driving in Maine: you can never make a quick stop for anything. You often start chitchatting with someone and get engrossed in conversation. Or while driving along something catches your attention and you detour to see it. A 15-minute stop quickly turns into an hour.
To my chagrin, I was only beginning my Maine coastal road trip, and was already running late. I made up my mind to stop with the stops and keep pushing northward.
Quintessential Coastal Maine
If you stick to Maine’s Route 1, with a turnoff here and there, you’ll see plenty of Maine’s coastal towns. Just don’t try to see all of it on the drive northward. At some point, you’ll probably need to turn back, and you’ll want to visit some towns on the southward journey. Keep in mind also that Route 1 can be bumper-to-bumper in the summer months. I avoided most of the traffic by taking my road trip in late June.
From Wiscasset I headed to pretty Rockport and Camden further north on the coast of Maine, saving Boothbay and Bath for the return drive. I found Rockport to be a pretty little town with beautiful old homes dotting the shoreline of a small scenic bay. In nearby Camden, I found more beautiful old homes plus inns and an occasional B&B. Geraniums cascade from lampposts here, providing a bright splash of color to old multi-colored buildings. Every once in a while I’d catch the sight of a windjammer sliding across Penobscot Bay.
When leaving Camden, keep heading north to Searsport, another of Maine’s coastal towns and the self-proclaimed “Antique Capital of Maine.” Aside from Antiques, here you’ll also find Penobscot Marine Museum, eight buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
North of Searsport, near Bucksport, turn right onto State Road 175 to the fishing village of Stonington on Deer Island. It’s worth a detour to the beautiful, quaint little town, the kind you find on Maine postcards. Even its small post office – Stonington, ME 04681– is postcard-worthy.
Beautiful Bar Harbor
Don’t miss Bar Harbor, only an hour or so north of Searsport, one of the most famous of Maine’s coastal towns. It’s an artsy little town with galleries vying for space with numerous restaurants, small shops, and cafés.
It’s also a great town to wander about. While here be sure to take the fun (and highly rated) Lulu Lobster Boat tour. Aboard with Captain John, you’ll learn a lot about marine life about you.
He regaled us about lobsters, birds and sea mammals, even teaching us how to sex a crab. He ended the tour pulling some of his traps from the water to give us a first-hand look at the catch.
Bar Harbor is also the gateway to Acadia National Park, one of the famous national parks in the Eastern USA. Drive by the smorgasbord of restaurants and hotels on its periphery and spend the day wandering about this natural treasure.
Don’t miss the drive up to the top of Arcadia’s Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain in the Eastern U.S. There you’ll enjoy an incredible view out over the islands off the coast of Maine and the vast forests about you.
South On Route 1 to the Lighthouse Museum
Leaving Bar Harbor, you have a choice: continue northward on Maine’s Route 1 to the Canadian border and Campobello International Park (a 2½-hour drive) or continue your road trip by heading back south visiting those towns you skipped along the Maine coast. Campobello was the summer retreat of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Although in Canada, it is an actual international park that’s jointly administered, staffed, and funded by Canada and the United States.
Lacking time to see Campobello I headed back south down towards Rockland to visit more of Maine’s coastal towns. Along the way, I saw more antique shops than I could count, as well as many signs for homemade pies, fresh strawberries, and camp firewood.
I was interested in visiting the small Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. Lighthouses are a part of Maine history, and the museum is dedicated to everything having to do with them.
For those of us who only view lighthouses as tall structures, this small museum is an eye-opener. It shows just what was required 100 years ago to keep lighthouses operating to ensure the safety of mariners. The museum not only covers lighthouses and lifesaving services in the U.S. but in several foreign countries, as well.
A Quick Sidetrip to a Jewel of Coastal Maine
Leaving the museum, I decided to see the real thing: the famous Pemaquid Lighthouse near Bristol, about an hour south. (Take Route 1 to Route 130 south of Nobelboro and continue on to Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park.)
It was well worth the drive to see this historic lighthouse on the Maine coast. At Pemaquid Light, there’s a Fishermen’s Museum and a pretty little park around it, all sitting atop a rugged coastline of granite dropping off into the Atlantic. It was quietly beautiful and dramatic at the same time. And although it delayed me in getting to Boothbay Harbor when I wanted to, I left wishing I had come earlier and brought a picnic lunch along.
On to Boothbay
I continued my Maine road trip to Boothbay Harbor, which like Bar Harbor, I found to be another artsy town. (To get there take Route 1 south; just east of Wiscasset turn on to Route 27 south to Boothbay). Adding even more pizazz to the weekend, I was there was the Windjammer Day Festival. It’s the one time during the year when all of Maine’s windjammers come into port for the Windjammer Parade.
From the deck outside my hotel room, I realized I would have a fantastic view of the parade. But I was a day early, and since I was only staying overnight, I wasn’t going to be there for the show. I decided instead to take a walk about Boothbay. With the region’s pretty wooded rolling hills and the charm of the town I quickly got a sense why so many people enjoy summering in the region.
A Preeminent Maine Coastal Town: “The City of Ships”
Leaving Boothbay Harbor the next morning, I headed to Bath, a charming city that calls itself “The City of Ships.” Visit the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, and you’ll quickly learn why.
The museum is a fascinating place with interesting exhibits, some in outbuildings, all brought together in a century-old shipyard. On an adjoining green is the actual way where many old ships were constructed.
As I walked out of the museum’s main building onto the lawn, I was astounded by what I saw. In front of me was a true-to-size reconstruction of the bow, main mast, and stern of the Wyoming, the largest of seven schooners built in the yard. For a minute or so I just stood staring at it, shocked by its size.
Also immensely enjoyable was a tour of the nearby Bath Iron Works, included with your admission to the Museum. The Bath Iron Works is the renowned yard where many great modern ships have been built. Today, however, the Iron Works only constructs destroyers for the U.S. Navy.
In your tour of the yard, you’re required to stay inside a trolley-style bus and not allowed to bring any cameras or cell phones on the tour for obvious security reasons. Our guide, a recently retired employee, gave us a fascinating description of how the large ships are put together. Since 1884, the Works has built more than 425 ships for the world’s naval and commercial fleets.
From Bath it’s only a 45-minute drive back to Portland on Maine’s Route 1 and Interstate 295. Instead of ending your Maine road trip there, however, you could continue on to visit Kennebunkport and Ogunquit. Do that and you’ll have visited the majority of the most popular Maine coastal towns.