Midcoast Maine – shine or rain
Vail, CO, Colorado
HARPSWELL, Maine ” “Vacationland” has 228 miles of coastline. That’s not even counting the countless miles of inlets and islands that make up much of the state’s border with the Atlantic, but it’s not necessarily a destination for sun seekers and beach bums.
While there were a few beautiful days during my six-day stay, the low water temperature alone is enough to confine all but the hardiest bathers to the beach.
But the Midcoast region of the Pine Tree State has as many offerings ” rain or shine ” for sightseers, history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers as the Colorado High Country, only with a different dominant geological feature ” and don’t forget the fresh seafood.
If your weakness is Colorado’s Gold Medal fly-fishing waters, a kayak fishing trip might be right up your alley. Word from local anglers is that the best way to reel in stripers is to catch or buy mackerels and use the heads as bait. But even if you’re into whitewater more than fishing, rent a sea kayak and venture as far into the open water as you dare. It might not provide the same adrenaline rush as running the rapids, but it is physically challenging and fun nonetheless, not to mention a great way to get out and see the area. Unlike whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking is simple, and boaters can easily and cheaply rent all of the equipment and get out on the water in a few minutes ” no need for a roll class or any training beforehand.
For those who would rather enjoy the ocean from more solid ground, a hike might be preferable. If you can stomach a ferry ride, a good way to fit in a hike with some sightseeing is to visit Monhegan Island, a 11⁄2-hour trip (one way) from Boothbay Harbor, which at the tip of one of the many “fingers” of islands and peninsulas that make up the region’s jagged coastline.
The island has many artists, most painting plein air, and, while small, has enough hiking trails to keep anyone wandering for at least a day. The paths crisscross and circle the island, climbing cliffs overlooking the sea and winding through forests that weren’t as bug-filled as I had imagined.
Of course, if it gets hot enough, the Midcoast region has its share of sand beaches, although none equivalent to a strip of sand like Waikiki or Miami Beach.
And while my trip via plane didn’t allow for me to bring a bike, I did see a nice path for pedestrians or pedalers that wound near the Brunswick Naval Air Station, and Portland was biker-friendly. But don’t count on a bike as transportation. None of the outlying roads had bike lanes, and the winding, shoulderless, curving country roads looked like death traps to me.
Marine wildlife tours also are abundant, although the only porpoises or puffins I saw were on the ferry to Monhegan Island (and the captain did stop to point out any animals she saw).
I’ll be fair. Maine is no rainier than where I’m from, the Midwest, but going on five years of 300-plus days of sunshine, I’ve been spoiled. So I want something relatively dry to do without pausing my vacation or staying shut up in the house.
A trip to the last active Shaker settlement, located at Sabbathday Lake, requires some jaunts between buildings, but most of the tour takes place in historic buildings, and the guide even had extra umbrellas ” just in case (it was gray but only sprinkled while we were there).
Although the Shakers built communities from Maine to Florida, the four remaining practitioners all live at Sabbathday Lake, a short trip inland from the coast. Our guide at the village explained the three C’s that make up the foundation of the Shaker religion: chastity, confession and communal living. Because of the whole chastity thing, the only way to bring members into the church was to recruit. Hence the dwindling numbers. Interestingly enough, the group gained a 20-something recruit not long ago ” the other three members are all older than 40.
The quirkiness of the group and its history are interesting enough, but the historic buildings and antiques are an added reason to see the village. Many of the structures, tools and artifacts at the settlement are from the group’s pre-Civil War heyday. Because the community still is active, exploring the village outside of the tour is strongly discouraged.
Another good trip for a rainy day is a visit to the original L.L. Bean store in Freeport. The flagship store has attracted a slew of other outlet stores of all brand names, but beware ” on a rainy day, tourist minds think alike. The streets of downtown Freeport were clogged with what seemed like thousands of shoppers, and the stores were similarly crowded. If you don’t like being one of the masses, it might be a good idea to take advantage of the Freeport L.L. Bean complex’s 24-hour schedule and visit during off-peak hours.
Portland offers another destination for a day whether you’re ducking raindrops or slathering on sunscreen. With the same quirky atmosphere as Boulder, the port city has an old section of town with cobbled streets and has gone through a rebirth over the past decade or so. Many of the old, brick buildings have been refurbished, not demolished, so the city retains its old-world charm despite its youthful vibe. The downtown area also is small enough to get from one end to the other on foot and hosts festivals like July’s boat-building competition.
Like visiting Portland, touring a lighthouse also can provide shelter on a dreary day but is a good time regardless of the weather. I visited the lighthouse on Pemaquid Point, the one featured on the Maine state quarter. Visitors are able to climb the narrowing and steepening steps to the light, and there’s a museum attached, but the tower itself was wrapped in scaffolding when I was there.
One of my worries about Maine (having lived in Colorado for four years) was a constant blanket of suffocating humidity. It turned out to be mostly unfounded. On the days it was humid, the air seemed pretty cool, probably from rain, and on the hotter days, the humidity felt lower. The moisture even provided a memorable scene when the morning fog poured into the rental house through an open door like steam pouring out of the bathroom door after a hot shower.
Of course, the seafood is wonderful, whether steamer clams, lobster or local fish. And while a lobster dinner at one of the many seafood shacks still will cost you market price (we paid about $25 to $30 for a 11⁄4-to 11⁄2-pound crustacean at a restaurant), a sea bug of the same size is about half the price if you buy it live and cook it yourself. And preparing lobster is easier than eating it ” just steam it for seven minutes and melt some butter.
There’s more to Maine than the Midcoast (including skiing and Acadia National Park), but a week was barely enough time to fit in what we did, much less explore the rest of the state, aptly dubbed “Vacationland.”
Joel Hunt is a copy editor at the Vail Daily