There’s a persistent misconception, especially among novice Maine-iacs, that a real Down East vacation must be spent way down east, that is to say as far up the Maine coast as possible, and at the very least, Penobscot Bay. To be sure, there’s no place quite as dramatic as Mount Desert Island and few quite as scenic – in a “Town & County” way — as Camden. But resorts like these are both exceedingly popular (read: crowded) and commercially healthy (read: pricey). And they ARE way up there.
So for my time and money, there’s no reason to go any farther than what’s known as the southern Midcoast – the sequence of eight irregular-shaped peninsulas that jut out into the Atlantic between Casco and Muscongus Bays (roughly 40-70 miles north of Portland) – for a classic Down East vacation. It was here that I had been introduced to “The Land of Remembered Vacations” in the summer of 1974, when as a camp counselor in neighboring New Hampshire, three of us had arrived in the wee hours of the morning on our day off to be greeted at daybreak by a fog-enshrouded Boothbay Harbor, an image that fulfilled so many of my expectations at once that it has stayed with me ever since. And so it was hardly surprising that I brought my brother-in-law and his family from Coconut Creek here for their Maine initiation thirty years later.
Indeed, if the people at Epcot ever decided to recreate a Maine coastal village, they would probably model it after Boothbay Harbor with its narrow, picturesque harbor (spanned by a 110 year-old wooden footbridge), full of both working fishing boats and pleasure craft, and its equally compact, turn-of-the 20th-century commercial center, full of restaurants, tourist shops, and a smattering of art galleries. And they would pipe it that evocative fog!
But as I would discover on subsequent trips, there’s more to the southern Midcoast than just Boothbay Harbor, which can itself become overrun with tourists during the summer months. Relief – and an abundance of other inimitable Maine attractions – are just a peninsula or two away, and getting there can truly be half the fun, provided you’re not in a rush, as the road wanders leisurely through birch and pine forests, past picturesque 19th-century farming and fishing communities, and alongside scenic rivers and coves en route to the open Atlantic. You’ll be positively amazed at how low key and peaceful it is – nothing but you, the locals, and a succession of quietly spectacular water views.
But any trip to Maine’s southern Midcoast inevitably includes centrally-located Boothbay Harbor — a condensed collage of Down East icons and images, everything from lobster boats to lighthouses — which the local chamber of commerce quite accurately promotes as “everything you love about Maine.”
You can spend hours wandering the streets and lanes of this still fashionable turn-of-the-century summer community (remnants include two summer stock theaters and an opera house for traveling headliners), but to fully appreciate Boothbay Harbor, you must see it from the water, either via a short harbor cruise or one of the longer wildlife viewing or lighthouse tours. Working lobster boats chug noisily off to work, while those whose day is done are accompanied in by an even noisier swarm of expectant seagulls. Once beyond the harbor, you will catch fleeting glimpses of numerous coves and marshy estuaries, into which the calm, dark sea stealthily disappears. Out towards the open Atlantic, lie fir-girded islands and headlands, and the most well-known of Boothbay’s welcoming lighthouses, the Burnt Island Light, constructed in 1821, but now frozen in time in the 1950s as part of a state-sponsored living history exhibit.
For something more terrestrial in nature – and of much more recent vintage – there’s the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which opened to the public and widespread acclaim in 2007. Encompassing nearly 250 waterfront acres (thus making it the largest botanical garden in New England) are some 350 native species growing in both traditional and novel congregations such as a kitchen garden, a meditation garden, and a Garden of the Five Senses.
Invariably, however, it will be the sea that you want to see more of, and that means tony Ocean Point. To get there, just take Route 96 though the quiet residential village of East Boothbay, itself worth a stop with its white clapboard or cedar-shingle houses. Once you find a parking spot, be prepared to spend hours at Ocean Point, mesmerized by the waves churning in over acres of exposed, kelp-covered headlands. With low-slung Ram Island and its squat, 1883 pylon lighthouse providing a classic Maine backdrop, this is an ideal spot for a picnic.
Picnicking reaches its pinnacle, however, at literally iconic (it’s the one on the Maine state quarter) Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, perched dramatically atop equally mesmerizing “waves” of granite schist on the peninsula immediately to Boothbay’s east across the Damariscotta River. (To get there, you must drive up to the charming old shipbuilding town of Damariscotta, and then down the other side of the river.) But there’s more to do here than just take in the view: 38-foot tall Pemaquid Light, built in 1827, is one of the few lighthouses in the state whose lantern room you can access, while the former keeper’s house has been converted into a Fisherman’s Museum. Even my four year-olds had to be coaxed back into the car after spending more than two hours here.
Located only a few miles away on the other side of the same peninsula is Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site, the site of an English settlement that dates all the way back to the 1620s. Only the foundations of the village remain, but they have rebuilt the massive 17th-century stone fort that formerly stood here overlooking the mouth of the Damariscotta River, and restored the 18th– century fort house, which now serves as the museum.
Three years ago, we forsook the beaten track completely by making our way through the quintessentially quadrangled and tree-lined campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, home to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (both free), and the Maine State Music Theatre, all the way out to Bailey Island, itself linked to Orr Island by a unique cobwork (uncemented granite blocks) bridge. There, even in the middle of July, we were pleasantly surprised to pretty much have the place to ourselves. Before settling down to a traditional lobster dinner, my wife and I were perfectly content watching the sunset over Casco Bay. But the kids grew a bit restless.
No kid of any age, however, can get restless at Popham Beach State Park, a mile-long series of scalloped-shaped coves at the tip of the Phippsburg Peninsula, overlooking both the mouth of the Kennebec River and Sequin Island Lighthouse, which at 58 feet, is the state’s tallest. One of the few wide and sandy beaches north of Portland, Popham will tire any beach rat out, though Floridians are likely to find the 60-degree water a bit brisk.
Not surprisingly, my wife and I have no plans to take her mother swimming when she flies up from Coral Springs later this month for her first trip to Maine – and to celebrate her 80th birthday. While we haven’t completely figured out what we will be doing – there is so much to see and do, and we only have three days — there’s no doubt where we’ll be taking her. If she’s really lucky, it will even be foggy when we arrive.