Maine: The US State With 3,500 Miles of Coastline
The easternmost state in the contiguous US, Maine lures visitors to its rocky shores with the promise of fresh lobster, salty air, and classic New England charm. Its biggest city, Portland, is situated on a southern peninsula and contains 40% of the state’s total 1.3 million population. But outside of Portland’s Greater Metropolitan Area, Maine’s landscape is rugged, vast, and remote, averaging about 23 people per square mile.
Nicknamed “Vacationland,” the trappings of Maine draw more than 15 million visitors a year. Some gravitate to Portland, regaled for its amazing food and respected art scene. Others seek peaceful respites on islands, in coastal towns, or on the shores of the state’s numerous lakes and ponds (6,000 in total). The result is a destination that holds endless appeal, blending food, history, art, and the outdoors into one wicked good place to visit.
History around every corner
A drive up Maine’s Coastal Route 1 is a US history lesson. Learn about the life of famed Gettysburg hero and past Maine governor Joshua L. Chamberlain at his former home-turned-museum in Brunswick. Check out the big ships at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Veer off Route 1 and across Arrowsic Island to reach Squirrel Point Light, where you’ll discover an 18th-century graveyard and the final resting place of Revolutionary War hero Colonel Samuel McCobb. Then head back up the coastal highway toward Prospect to explore old granite tunnels at Fort Knox, established in 1844 along the Penobscot River to protect the area from British Canada naval invasion.
But of course, Maine’s history dates further back than the existence of the US, with the Wabanaki residing in the region for 11,000 years. To understand more about the “People of the Dawn,” there’s no better place than the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, open seasonally from May to October. The museum emphasizes Wabanaki perspectives while educating visitors on Indigenous stories, culture, and art, including a current collaboration with Maine Indian Education featuring pieces from Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Micmac students.
Maine ranks second in the US for most organic farms per capita (with about 37 farms per 100,000 people), and this abundance of farmland not only makes for a very bucolic setting, it means Mainers can opt to buy CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares through local farms, allowing access to organic and seasonal food year-round.
In the summer months, farmers’ markets are a shopping staple, with farmers selling seasonal produce such as wild blueberries and farm-fresh corn and locally produced cheese, jams, and pickles to consumers throughout the state.
The main celebration of Maine farm culture is the Common Ground Fair. Held annually on the third weekend after Labor Day, the agriculture fair features over 1,000 exhibits, vendors, and speakers related to sustainable living. From buying seed garlic to witnessing a sheepdog herding demonstration to partaking in a medicinal herb workshop, the fair is a comprehensive learning experience for the agri-curious.
As it gains increasing recognition as a foodie destination, Maine’s culinary scene continues to be lauded by eaters and critics. Case in point: The illustrious James Beard Foundation has consistently recognized chefs and restaurants from across the state, with 16 semifinalists in the past two years alone.
Named Bon Appétit’s 2018 Restaurant City of the Year, Portland has a particularly trendy food scene, with establishments such as Fore Street, Phở Công Tử Bột, Standard Baking Company, Allagash Brewing Company, and Norimoto Bakery earning consecutive James Beard nominations.
In more recent years, industry hotshots have flocked to the state’s largest city for its charms, low-key lifestyle, and access to farm-fresh food. A veteran of New York’s esteemed Eleven Madison Park, Executive Sous Chef Colin Wyatt moved to Portland during the pandemic to open Twelve, a high-end restaurant combining inventive dishes and local food, such as grilled scallops with green apple and lion’s mane mushroom with buckwheat porridge.
Meanwhile, transplants from the other Portland, Jake and Raquel Stevens, opened Italian-inspired Leeward in 2020, surviving the pandemic to become one of the peninsula city’s most sought-after eateries. Lines start out the door daily at 5pm to taste the restaurant’s seasonally-rotating dishes featuring handmade pasta and local produce, such as rigatoni bolognese with dandelion greens.
You can’t get there from here
Ask a Mainer for directions, and you might hear the common refrain: “You can’t get there from here.” Although the saying does have merit, it might be more accurate to say, “You can get there, but it will take a heck of a lot longer than it should.”
Given the state’s rural landscape (about 90% of the land is forested), much of Maine is traversed on winding, two-lane roads. This is primarily because Interstate I-95, Maine’s only major highway running 296 miles from Kittery to Houlton, provides access from north to south but not east to west. As a result, there often isn’t a direct route between destinations, making for longer driving times or more complicated routes.
And it gets worse when you visit Maine’s jutting shoreline. Take Acadia National Park, a 47,000-acre park that protects 64 miles of Maine’s gorgeous coast. As the crow flies, Acadia’s Mount Desert Island is only 7.4 miles from the Schoodic Peninsula, a lesser-known Acadia campground. But since both are primarily surrounded by water, one must drive 44 miles and over an hour to travel between the two destinations.
Big mountain calling
After walking over 2,000 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Monson, Maine, on the Appalachian Trail (AT), hikers must confront the 100 Mile Wilderness. As one of the most arduous sections of the AT, the 100 Mile Wilderness spreads over—you guessed it—100 miles of mountains, ponds, and dense forestland. It also leads hikers to another formidable challenge: Mount Katahdin. Translating to “Greatest Mountain” in Penobscot, Katahdin is one of the most respected summits in the northeast—the 5,269-foot peak has an elevation gain of 4,000 feet, features precipitous cliffs, and is infamous for its unpredictable weather patterns.
Climbing Katahdin, located four hours north of Portland inside Baxter State Park, is not for the faint of heart. In its entirety, the 9.7-mile circuitous route from Roaring Brook Campground requires 8-12 hours (roundtrip) of hiking, often on steep, rocky, and wet trails, including a vertiginous path known as the “Knife’s Edge,” which features sheer cliffs and a mile drop-off.
If death-defying journeys aren’t on your to-do list, there’s plenty else to do in the 209,644-acre state park. Camping, hiking, and canoeing are all up for the offering at Baxter, although its popularity amongst locals means plans should be booked well in advance.
Registered Maine Guides are certified by the state to run guided wilderness trips like private camping or fishing tours. The guides handle everything, including transport, food, and accommodations.
Lovers of the arts
Whether it’s the spectacular scenery or long winter days indoors, Maine seems to attract the creative type. This reputation dates back to the famed American painter Winslow Homer, who moved to Maine in 1884 and lived there until his death in 1910. Living on the coast of Maine changed Homer’s artwork drastically, as he learned to capture the raw power of the sea in his realism landscape paintings. Today, the studio where he lived and died can be visited on the rocky shores of Prout’s Neck, about 12 miles south of Portland.
Since Homer’s heyday, Maine has continued to draw a diverse array of talented artists. The Portland Museum of Art in downtown Portland houses incredible pieces from Black painter and seasonal Maine resident the late David Driskell, whose celebrated career spanned decades and includes awards from the National Humanities Medal and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The museum also features LGBTQIA+ artists, such as abstract painter Katherine Bradford, who began painting when she lived in Maine during the 1970s.
The state also breeds prolific authors, with heavy hitters such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stephen King, E.B. White, and Elizabeth Strout hailing from its shores. The Midcoast town of Belfast hosts an annual Poetry Festival, while Print (a bookstore owned by the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo) proudly supports local and independently published Maine authors.
The islands have it
With 3,500 miles of extraordinary coastline ranging from rocky cliffs to slabs of pink granite to the occasional sandy beach, Maine is most often recognized as a seaside destination. But beyond the summer beachgoers and the surfers drawn to the winter swell, there are 1,322 Maine islands beckoning the seafaring adventurer. There’s even a Maine Island Trail—a 375-mile water trail that connects the entire Maine coast.
One theory for how Maine got its name is that the term Maine, a shortened version of “mainland,” was used to differentiate the shoreline from the state’s many offshore islands, which make up 11% of the state’s landmass. Today, island hopping remains a Maine summer pastime, with islands up and down the coast accessible by kayak, boat, or ferry.
In southern Maine, Peaks Island is a 17-minute ferry ride from Portland with a 4-mile bike trail that circumnavigates the island. On the Midcoast, Monhegan is a serene artist haven with a hotel for overnight stays. And Deer Isle, an island with 3,000 seasonal residents and a strong lobstering industry, is connected to the mainland via a causeway, allowing visitors to easily access the island’s campgrounds, art galleries, and restaurants.
Slow your (lobster) roll
With more than 100 million pounds of lobster harvested annually, Maine lobster has a reputation for being the best. And the rumors are true—the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine result in a sweeter taste and more tender meat. If you’re not interested in cracking claws, lobster rolls are sold almost everywhere along the coast, with establishments like McLoons Lobster Shack serving up mouth-watering rolls dripping in butter.
In addition to lobster, Maine produces several other types of delectable seafood. Oysters, in particular, are a local favorite, especially in winter when the extra-cold water makes them briny and sweet. Stop by Harbor Fish Market in Portland (open seven days a week, year-round) to choose from a dozen available varieties or go straight to the source at Glidden Point Oyster Farm, which offers farm tours from May to October, a temporary pop-up mobile sauna (sign up with Cedar Grove Sauna for email alerts), and a take-out window for oysters on the go.
If clams are on the menu, it’s best to head Downeast (translation: up the coast) to Cobscook Bay State Park. The northern park averages an impressive 24-foot tidal range (the difference in height between high and low tide), providing an ideal habitat for soft-shell clams. During low tide, Cobscook provides direct access to the ocean’s muddy floors, making clams easy for the picking. Armed with a bucket and a four-pronged clam fork, campers are permitted to clam for a peck (12 pounds) of clams per day.
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Published October 30, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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