During a three-day road trip up the coast of Maine, from Penobscot Bay to Bar Harbor, our writer and New England native, Maggie Wallace, attempts to show her “from-away” friend that there’s more to this state than just lobster. In the process, she receives some schooling of her own.
“Wow, lobster is good,” reports my friend Shaughn Dugan after taking his first few bites of the buttery toasted roll that’s stuffed with shredded lobster and just the tiniest bit of mayo and lemon. After swallowing his third bite, he pauses, then nods knowingly. “Okay. I see why people come to Maine.”
I snort. We’re not even in Maine yet, but to Shaughn, who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, it might as well be. Like many of those “from away,” whose understanding of New England was shaped by sports teams and middle school geography, Shaughn frequently confuses New Hampshire with Vermont and has a fuzzy and wholly inaccurate image in his head of how Maine looks: just another triangular state beneath French Canada, I suppose. I, myself – who grew up in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and have hiked all over New England – know a little bit better. Still, I should cut him some slack. Because the fact of the matter is, from where we are sitting on a balcony off our guest room in this restored grand hotel in New Castle, New Hampshire, Maine’s border is actually no more than a mile away, just over the Piscataqua River. And this is just evening one of our three-day, 220-mile road trip in late August of 2019, up the coast of Maine. Tonight, we are staying at Wentworth by the Sea, which serves as an easy (and luxurious) overnight stop for travelers coming from Massachusetts (Boston is just an hour south of where we are relaxing right now). But, tomorrow, we will be off to Midcoast Maine, then the next day, headed to Bar Harbor in the “Down East” region (I decide to wait until day two to explain to Shaughn about how we’re going Down East, despite driving north). Our task: To cram in as many coastal Maine towns and attractions as we can while indulging in some R&R at the two Opal resorts where we will be staying each night. My personal goal: show Shaughn that there is more to coastal Maine than lobster.
The next morning, after breakfast in Latitudes, one of Wentworth’s two award-winning restaurants, we were ready to officially head north. We enter Maine mid-morning, making a couple of essential stops in Portland – the state’s must-visit foodie city, with a farm-to-fork philosophy that’s the envy of New England – to grab some famous potato donuts and visit a nanobrewery. Then, it’s time to leave the city (and I-95) behind and head toward Samoset Resort, by way of U.S. Route 1, the country’s very first interstate highway. Locals often refer to it as Coastal Route 1, and once we hit Thomaston, we really begin to see why. Don’t get me wrong, the 45-mile stretch between Bath and Thomaston was beautiful with its historic cities, craggy little coves, quintessential lobster shacks, and antique emporiums, but the Midcoast stretch, overlooking the wide expanse of sparkling Penobscot Bay studded with boats, is something else. When we arrive at Samoset Resort, which sits on a sprawling green peninsula on the bay, three miles north of Rockport’s bohemian downtown, it’s about 5 p.m. Dinner comes in the form of poached lobster (of course) at La Bella Vita, the on-site Italian restaurant, where, from the outdoor terrace, we marvel at the Rockland Breakwater: a stunning jetty constructed from massive blocks of granite to shield the bay from ravaging storms in the late 1800s. After Shaughn puts down the last of his lobster, we decide to go explore this sinuous gray line, stretching southward into the ocean like a massive, stony reef. Walking toward the lighthouse at the end of it, we puzzle over the perfect flatness of the structure; each stone was cut to fit into place. The breakwater extends nearly a full mile, making the walk feel like an endless skim over ocean. By the time we reach the lighthouse, the rosy sunset has faded and we are flanked by the lights of Rockland, the distant landmass of islands North Haven and Vinalhaven, and the diamond-strewn sky above. And for a moment, we are wordless, staring up at the brilliant stars.
Sunrise brings a gentle morning mist to the bucolic scenery surrounding the resort on our second morning. The resort is known for some of the best golfing in New England, but I didn’t understand just how integral the sport was until I looked down from my balcony to see the eighth hole. The golf course isn’t just alongside the resort; it fully encompasses it. Leaving our secluded and stand-alone ocean-view cottage in the morning light, we are immersed in the verdant fairways and accompanied by the satisfying thwack of golf balls as they arc toward the putting green. We have a full itinerary planned for the next 10 hours – including art galleries, wineries, and even a short hike – but Shaughn isn’t going anywhere until he gets his “recommended daily lobster,” he jokes. “Lobster benedict it is,” he devises while looking over the menu in the lobby. We reluctantly leave Samoset Resort around 9 a.m. en route to our first stop, the Farnsworth Art Museum, located at the corner of Rockland’s Main Street and the eponymous Museum Street. A stylish woman behind the desk eyes us and our hiking clothes. “Two adults?” she asks. “I’d like to think so,” I try. She laughs and hands us guides, and then we’re on our own to discover the immensity of the 20,000-square-foot museum. Inside, we find a papier-mâché spider made by local schoolchildren, an intricate spirograph of fishing line patterning a domed ceiling, and a whole exhibit devoted to Jamie Wyeth’s heart-wrenching paintings of his wife and muse, Phyllis Wyeth, after her car accident. As we go to leave, another docent stops us.
“Don’t forget to go to the second building,” he hollers. “There’s more?!” asks an incredulous Shaughn, who just got lost while looking for the bathroom. “Go out to the right and look for Andy Warhol staring down at you from the steeple. You can’t miss it.” Sure enough, we turn the corner to see exactly what was described to us: a 30-foot-high visage of Andy Warhol against a white church spire, gazing open-mouthed as though he is surprised that we stopped by. “That is hard to miss,” says Shaughn
By mid-morning, we’re on our way out of Rockland and heading north on Route 1 again, up through the sibling towns of Rockport and Camden. While I know Camden offers a quaint downtown home to eighteenth-century buildings and boutique shopping galore, Shaughn and I both have our sights set on the neighboring Camden Hills State Park, a 5,500-acre park offering hiking trails and sweeping views of Penobscot Bay. The park ranger with an Appalachian Trail tattoo (which I took as a telltale sign that she had hoofed the 2,200-mile route) hands us a map, then points us in the direction of the Mount Battie Trail. A short hike up the half-mile trail to the 800-foot peak gives us an appreciation for the park ranger’s monumental feat and delivers us to a stone tower that overlooks Camden Harbor, teeming with sun-bleached sailboats.
Shortly after noon, we’re back in the car. But rather than continuing along Coastal Route 1, we turn inland toward Lincolnville, heading through farm country to Cellardoor Winery. Just as we pull up and get out, a sudden summer rain begins to pour down on us, so it isn’t until we run into the tasting room and sit down that we notice the sprawling vineyard, blanketed with a layered mist from the pop-up storm and catching glints of the reemerging sun. It’s over samples of their 20 wines made largely from imported grapes (with the exception of their ice wine), when Shaughn finally confesses, “I may have had too much lobster.”
After an intentionally lobster-less late lunch in the revitalized downtown of Belfast, home to redbrick Victorian-era buildings and sea captains’ mansions perched on a hill overlooking Penobscot Bay, we realize gray clouds are rolling in. This puts a bit of a damper on our next stop: the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory. The tallest bridge observatory in the world at 447 feet, Penobscot Narrows offers 360-degree views extending to Mt. Desert Island and Acadia on a clear day. But today is not clear.
No bother: Our guide at the top of the elevator, Terry, gives us a local lesson anyway. She’s from Prospect, the town at the foot of the landmark that witnessed both the closing of the old bridge when rust was discovered deep in the cable system and the advent of the 2003 bridge with its unique observatory that has drawn people from all over the world. “We call this the ‘toll bridge,’” explains Terry, meaning that tourism actually paid for the bridge to be built over time.
Back on U.S. Route 1, subdued by the weather, we cross over the sparse farmlands and land bridges of Maine’s craggy coast in a comfortable silence. The landscape from Penobscot Narrows to Mt. Desert Island is stark but beautiful, with long stretches of marshes and fields dotted by small fishing villages. And before we know it, we’re there, crossing the land bridge onto Mt. Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. We weave our way along the coast until brightly colored seafood shacks give way to hotels and motels and we know we are approaching Bar Harbor, which sits in the shadow of the park.
Compared to the last hour among stark farms and marshes, the tiny downtown of Bar Harbor feels like a heavily concentrated dose of Maine. Hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops decorated with colorful buoys stand shoulder to shoulder on the brightly lit streets. West Street abruptly ends at the ocean, where whale watching tour boats sit at the ready. A stream of poncho-clad people pass us, chatting enthusiastically. I’m eager to explore the downtown before sundown, so I rush Shaughn to check into our final Opal Collection resort for the night, West Street Hotel, where, tucked into the heart of all the activity, we have an amazing view of the bustling street from our balcony, not to mention Frenchman Bay’s neighboring Porcupine Islands.
As the sun begins to set, we weave through the lit shops. I expected that – with the touristy atmosphere – to mostly find tchotchkes and trinkets, but I am surprised to discover largely artisan crafts: Local leather working, pottery, and jewelry line the shelves and make the storefronts of Cottage and Main Streets feel less commercial and more cozy (I am unable, though, to convince Shaughn to buy a lobster keychain). After about an hour of perusing, we hear live fiddle music pouring out of Paddy’s Irish Pub & Restaurant as we re-enter West Street. It adds to the ebullient environment of the little sea-facing buildings on their tall piers. Naturally, we put in our name for the restaurant to a chorus of fans clapping along with the Celtic band.
“This is really cool. This is a real place,” Shaughn says as we’re seated, and I think about how places that are touristy sometimes get the reputation of being commodified locations, the same everywhere you go, but Maine has always struck me as outside of that cycle. From the unpredictable weather to the locals who both work and live here, Maine is its own experience.
Shaughn seems to echo my thoughts: “It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been…” he trails off as he looks out at the bay where, earlier today, sea kayakers had followed the same currents that commercial fishing boats have followed for centuries. And for a moment, I find myself looking at this place through his eyes – as a community that fosters tourism by amplifying, rather than silencing, the echo of history.
I know he gets it, but I still can’t help but laugh when Shaughn, clutching his menu, spots a specific dish and his eyes go wide.
“Let’s get Irish lobster!”
**Please confirm details with business/attractions prior to visiting due to possible restrictions.
Where to Stay
NEW CASTLE, NH Wentworth by the Sea
ROCKLAND, ME Samoset Resort
Other Articles in This Series
- A Tale of Two Coasts: Sampling Both Sides of Florida on an Open Stretch of Road
- Coastal Distancing on Cruise Control: Clearwater Beach to Sarasota
- Two Road Trips & Two Lakes in the New York Adirondacks