Maine. Quintessential New England.
Crisp blue skies, briny air.
I spent many of the summers of my youth vacationing in Maine so it holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been back many times as an adult and I always breathe a sigh of relief when I arrive to find my Maine mostly like it was back then…salty, simple. Mini-golf, ice cream cones, lobster cruises, tide pools, starfish, seagulls, chowdah.
My family adopted coastal Maine as our summer destination because everyone else from Massachusetts goes to Cape Cod. I’m glad we were different. To this day, I’ve never been to Cape Cod.
Below are links to the places I love. Places where families can create cocoa-butter scented memories, where lovers can hide away under blankets of snow and where a person can simply disappear for a while and just blend in with the landscape.
A place where lobster reigns supreme.
When To Go
For most people, summer is the preferred time to visit Maine. They have a short season – from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend – and during those months it is packed with summer tourists from Massachusetts, New York and Canada. The days are warm and breezy but the nights are still crisp.
I love Maine in winter for its silent and cold snowy nights and the crackle of a fireplace. Because many restaurants and attractions are closed for the season, you often feel like you have the place to yourself.
Whatever time of year you choose to go, plan well in advance to get the best accommodations. Maine is popular year round, and it adjusts its capacity accordingly.
There are 3 good options:
Fly into Boston’s Logan Airport (If you have time, I recommend spending 1 night in Boston on the way in and out. Trying to get back to Boston from Maine for a departing flight can be a struggle due to the unknowns of Boston traffic.) Rent a car and enjoy the short 1.5 hour drive north to Maine.
Fly into Manchester, New Hampshire and rent a car. It is a short 45 minute drive into Maine from there. This airport doesn’t have many direct flights, so it requires a connection depending on where you are coming from. That said, it’s a modest-sized airport so getting out is so much easier than Logan in Boston.
Fly into Portland, Maine and check out that culinary metropolis before starting your down-east vacation.
Click a destination to jump!
Ogunquit, York Beach, Wells & Kennebunport
Acadia National Park
The Down East Lobster Tour
Ogunquit…..Beautiful Place by the Sea
My absolute favorite coastal town. Ogunquit is just north of York, Maine on the southeast corner of the state and just above the border with New Hampshire. It is small and quaint, but a place where summer vacation memories are made.
There are plenty of accommodations to choose from and many retain the air of older days. I’ve probably stayed at nearly every hotel at some point and they are all perfectly adequate. I have 3 recommendations below that are my picks for best places to lay anchor.
York Beach is just south of Ogunquit and has many of my favorite attractions and restaurants. The two towns are separated by the scenic and winding Shore Road, a drive you’ll make several times during your stay in the area.
Things To Do
In the summer you’ll definitely want to spend some time on the beach. Because Maine is way up in the Northern Hemisphere, you can sit on the beach all day and not die of heat exhaustion. Yes, you need suncreen. The salty water amps up your tannability factor. But no matter how hot it gets you are just steps away from a cold plunge called the Atlantic Ocean. The water doesn’t get above the 70’s…that’s chilly! It takes a brave soul to wade all the way in. Eventually you get numb enough to stand it and can spend a few minutes jumping the waves before running back to your blanket to thaw.
Ogunquit Beach is accessible by foot, car or the precious town trolleys. Sure it gets crowded in summer, but who cares. It’s the beach. It has some sundry shops, hot dog and ice cream stands. My favorite beach-day lunch is the fried haddock sandwich.
Short Sands Beach in York is another option. The sand is gritty, broken up sea shells so a chair is better than a blanket here. This beach evokes the spirit of a time gone by. There is a bowling alley and an arcade right off the beach with all your favorites – a skeeball that pumps out tickets, photo booths, basketball toss, fortune telling machines, whac-a-mole and indoor mini-golf. It’s a must.
York’s Wild Kingdom
Lost in time, York’s Wild Kingdom is a combination amusement park and zoo at the far end of main street in York Beach. I can’t believe they remain open after all these years because it always feels on the verge of closure. Definitely worth a stroll through even if you don’t ride the rides. Might as well get some cotton candy and a funnel cake too.
Main Street, York Beach
A beach town isn’t a beach town without a cluster of t-shirt and souveneir shops. Find anything in the world made from seashells. Buy a wooden lobsterman statue. Just do it.
Goldenrod Kisses, York Beach
By far the most important place to visit in York Beach is the famous Goldenrod Kisses, an old-fashioned soda fountain and restaurant that also makes it’s on salt water taffy. There is a fabulous candy shop where you can sample the taffy, buy it, or ship it anywhere in the world. They have all the other chocolate dipped and nut covered goodies a good candy shop should have too.
I actually also love to eat in the restaurant here. It’s your basic “got all the standards” breakfast place or a simple no frills lunch. And the soda fountain makes perfect milkshakes and old-fashioned banana splits.
Nubble Lighthouse, York Beach
Take a winding drive through an exclusive cliffside neighborhood to arrive at Nubble Lighthouse. You can’t access the actual island, but you’ll get great photos from the parking lot. There is a little info center and gift shop too.
Hungry? You’re in luck. You are now walking distance to two of the best spots in town.
Fox’s Lobster House, York
The kids are gonna love this. So will the adults.
Step inside a typical Maine lobster pound, where your dinner is still swimming. Select your lobster, greet him and honor him. Then go sit down at a laquered wooden table, eat your chowdah, but your bib on and get ready to dribble butter all over the table.
Not in the mood for an indoor meal? That’s no problem. They have a take out window and picnic tables. Can you say Lobster Roll and french fries? Fried haddock sandwich? Clam roll? Yes, you can get a steamed lobster there too. They have ice cream…but hold on….
Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s)
Since 1967, Byron and Betty Brown have dished up Made in Maine ice cream at the Nubble Lighthouse. New name, same place. A short drive or walk from Nubble Lighthouse and Fox’s Lobster House, this is the perfect dessert spot. Cash only, be warned.
Scattered up and down Route 1 in Ogunquit and the neighboring town of Wells you will find a selection of “fancy” mini-golf courses. Ogunquit is a family beach scene, so not much of a nightlife. Putt a few holes after dinner. Every night. Then more ice cream because there always seems to be ice cream nearby.
Wells Reserve at laudholm
This is a good laid-back activity on an overcast day, or in the dead seasons. Located just a mile off Route 1 in Wells (just north of Ogunquit) this is an estuary conservation area offering hiking trails and various other biodiversity. I can’t do it justice so click on the photo to link to their website. They have concerts, events and art shows so check the event calendar. You can also rent kayaks, take workshops or attend lectures here.
Perkins Cove & Marginal Way
This is how Ogunquit came to be called “Beautiful Place by the Sea”. From Ogunquit Beach, follow the paved sidewalk up over the cliffs of the Atlantic and take in the views of the edge of the world. The Marginal Way is one spectacular sight after another, the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below and the songs of seagulls in the air.
There are benches dotted along the way, each one beckoning you to stop and take it all in. Do that.
Look down…if the tide is out, let the lure of exploring the tide pools capture the child within you. Watch your step on the rocks, and take your time. You never know what treasures might be waiting below the surface.
Keep walking and winding your way down and you’ll find yourself in Perkin’s Cove, one of the last truly protected harbors in Maine.
The Cove is a collection of artist’s galleries, quaint shops, my favorite penny-candy store and the ultimate harborside restaurant – Barnacle Billy’s. This is where you can sign up for a Lobster Cruise with Finestkind Cruises (a must do for all ages), but also the launch point for deep sea fishing charters and cocktail cruises that go down to Nubble Lighthouse in York Beach and back. You will find the single best deal on lobster here at Foot Bridge Lobster. I don’t know why, but they have the best prices and are usually a faster option if Billy’s is overrun. The Lobster Shack, it’s neighbor, is also a super deal (they might share the same kitchen). And they usually have Maine blueberry pie for dessert.
One of the best experiences you can do here though is a sailing trip on the Silver Lining. Let Captain Jack show you the glory of his 42′ Sparkman & Stephens sloop. Originally built in 1939, Captain Jack has lovingly restored it and it is a treasure that he shares. Limited seating, schedule in advance. A truly intimate experience.
Where To Stay
My top recommendation is The Beachmere Inn. Ideally located directly on Marginal Way and with sweeping views of both Ogunquit Beach and the wild Atlantic, you simply can’t beat it. They offer a variety of accommodations – standard hotel rooms almost all with a view up to private homes – but my favorite is to stay in the Victorian, a former private residence originally constructed in 1897. Each room is different and the website allows you to peruse them all and request the one you like best. My favorite is #24 for it’s corner location, breakfast nook and fireplace. There is a restaurant on site with really good food if you don’t feel like venturing out. They are also on the trolley line so leave your car in the parking lot.
If the Beachmere is booked up, you can check next door at Anchorage by the Sea, also on the Marginal Way and with clean, standard hotel rooms.
If you are on a budget, try the Meadowmere. This property is off Route 1 and does not have any views, but it was always a good choice when I was a kid because it had a heated indoor swimming pool. They are also on the trolley line for convenience.
Where Else to Eat
We’ve already covered the key places in Perkins Cove and York Beach. Here are my other favorites:
Fisherman’s Catch, Wells – For lunch or dinner, it’s a simple family-style place off Route 1. The kind of place where the papertowels are hanging from the ceiling. This is my favorite friend fish sandwich in Maine.
Congdon’s Donuts, Wells – Old school family breakfast place that packs ’em in every morning. Oh, and they make their own donuts. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a breakfast person unless it was Congdon’s chocolate chip pancakes and one of their chocolate cake donuts with chocolate frosting and chocolate sprinkles.
MC Perkins Cove – This is an upscale lunch or dinner spot in Perkins Cove. Food was very good. Since most restaurants in the area are the traditional New England fare, this is a nice option for something a little more special.
About a 30 minute drive north of Ogunquit is another sweet harbor town called Kennebunkport. Made famous by it’s famous family (George and Barbara Bush have a home here and sponsor the annual 4th of July fireworks), Kennebunkport is a great place to spend an afternoon. They have nice quality galleries and shops clustered around a town center. There are several restaurants , from the typical family fare to much more upscale options. This might be a preferable anchor point for couples that want to be away from hectic pace of York or Ogunquit. There is not as much for kids to do which is why it draws a more adult crowd.
Acadia National Park
Considering I lived in Massachusetts for years and spent many summers in Maine, I have only been to Acadia National Park once.
Centered on and around Cadillac Mountain, Acadia is on the northeastern tip of Maine which means long cold winters and a short hiking season. The tourists pack in to the normal home base of Bar Harbor which, like many national park base towns, has very limited accommodations and they are pretty dated. But alas if you go with kids, this is where you will want to stay as it has a small town with the conveniences of grocery, restaurants and shops as well as tour companies.
No kids? Lucky you. Try staying instead in Southwest Harbor, a short drive away and much smaller. There were some great restaurants and really cool lobster pounds so no need to go anywhere near Bar Harbor. I did several hikes in this area too..not everything is on the mountain.
I’m not an expert on the park having only been once but it is stunning. Cadillac Mountain is a huge island, so you have dramatic views of the Atlantic from almost every trail. I accidentally hiked the Precipice, considered the most risky and aggressive trail in the park. I am not sure how I made it to the top, but I know I cried when I got there. Blessedly there was a wide-open expanse of flat rock which allowed me to collect myself before figuring out how to get back down. A top experience of my lifetime for sure. But I’m never doing that again. Next time I’ll hire a guide and stick to something a bit more tame.
Tips: Stop at the ranger station and get a good trail map. Ask about the best hikes for your ability and preference.
Get up early. Families with kids don’t hit the trails til 10ish, so a 7am start means you’re finishing your first trail before they even start. As with most national parks, there isn’t much nightlife so early to bed, early to rise.
The main road circling Cadillac Mountain is one-way. That means if you miss the turn off for your trail, you gotta drive all the way around. Like 20 miles. Take time to plan.
The weather can change on a dime in Acadia. It can change dramatically from the base of a hike to the summit. Sunny one minute, fog as thick as pea soup the next. Calm and breezy then sleeting. Make a plan for different hikes based on weather conditions. There are lots of “woodsy” hikes where it isn’t so much about the view as the immersion in nature. Those are perfect for overcast days. Dress in layers so you can adapt.
One of the attractions to check out is the Jordan Pond house. It’s a large restaurant famous for serving tea and popovers. They have lots of outdoor picnic tables and a huge lawn so it’s the kind of place you want to hang out at for a while. I rented a bike one day and rode the trails around Eagle Lake, then picnicked on the lawn. IMO, skip the popovers.
I also recommend getting up before dawn and heading in for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (drive up). I hiked South Bubble after that and was back at my inn for breakfast at 8am.
Met a friend and did an excursion on the Windjammer “Margaret Todd” and sailed to the Porcupine Islands – that was pretty cool and a way to get out on the water. There are lots of whale watching (and puffing watching) tours, but they are massive boats with hundreds of people. Not for me. See my “Down East Lobster Tour” section below for a better way to see puffins in Maine.
I can’t wait to hit the trails here again someday. I left feeling like I had barely scratched the surface.
Where I Stayed
I chose the Harbour Cottage Inn (Southwest Harbor) and stayed in the Carriage House. Everything was perfect – clean, cozy rooms, fabulous breakfasts and warm fires to come back to every night.
Where To Eat – Southwest Harbor
Thurston’s – What a lobster shack should be. First, it’s really a shack. They have rules, and a strict process to order. Really cool outdoor steamer set up. Pitchers of beer. Cheapest lobster I had on the whole trip.
Jordan Pond House – I expected this to be low quality because it is a tourist trap but ended up having a really nice dinner here. Again, skip the popover and go for the blueberry cobbler instead.
Beal’s Lobster Pier – another quality shack
Stewman’s Lobster Pound (Bar Harbor) – good lunch spot while checking out the town.
The Down East Lobster Tour
If you have the time, consider this itinerary which I’ve dubbed the “Down East Lobster Tour”.
Start in Portland and take the scenic route up to Acadia…it will take much longer, and that’s the point. I’ll give you some ideas or you can find your own way…do the same route on the way back and you’ll find a whole new set of surprises. I stayed in Boothbay Harbor on the way up and Camden on the way back…perfect.
Each little tiny town along the way has its own charms, its own treasures waiting to be found. Here are some of the ones I’ve uncovered.
Lobstah. The Final Word.
Some feel compelled to always get the steamed lobster, but what I really love the most is the lobster roll. While it does vary slightly from place to place (with or without melted butter), there are some key components that should not be altered: the perfectly toasted split-top bun, identifiable claw and tail meat, light mayo, and maybe sprinkle of paprika or old bay.
But it’s your trip, so you decide. And don’t forget the oyster crackers with the chowdah.