The well-worn joke about the climate in coastal Maine is that it has just two seasons: winter and August. There's a kernel of truth in this, but it's also probably a ploy to keep outsiders from moving here. In fact, the ever-shifting seasons make Maine distinctive, and with one exception, the seasons are well defined.
SUMMER: The peak summer season runs from July 4th to Labor Day (although increasingly, businesses report that summer traffic lasts solidly until the end of September). Vast crowds surge up the Maine coast during and between the two holiday weekends, swelling traffic on the turnpike and Route 1, and causing countless motels and inns to hang “No Vacancy” signs. Expect to pay premium prices at hotels and restaurants along the coast in midseason. This should be no surprise: Summers are exquisite, in spite of the occasional stretches of fog or rain. (In Portland it tops 90°F/32°C only 4 or 5 days a year, on average.)
Maine's coastal weather is largely determined by whatever breezes are prevailing. Southerly winds bring haze, heat, humidity, fog (thick fogs occasionally linger for days), and even thunderstorms. Northwesterly winds bring cool weather and knife-sharp vistas. (Northeasters bring wind and storms, though these are rare in summer.) These systems tend to alternate during summer, with the heat arriving stealthily and slowly, then getting exiled by stiff, cool winds a few days later.
Along the immediate coast it's often warmest in the late morning; sea breezes typically kick up around lunchtime, pushing temperatures back down for the rest of the afternoons. Rain is rarely far away—some days it's an afternoon thunderstorm, sometimes it's a steady drizzle that brings a 4-day soaking. On average, about 1 day in 3 will bring at least a little rain. Travelers should come prepared for some.
Also be aware that early summer brings out black flies and mosquitoes in multitudes, a state of affairs that has ruined many a camping and hiking trip. While this is especially true inland, it applies along the coastline and on islands as well. Outdoors enthusiasts are best advised to wait until July 4 or later for long camping-out adventures unless they want to end up resembling human pincushions.
AUTUMN: Fall is to Maine what the Grand Canyon is to the Southwest: It's one of the great natural spectacles of the place. The rolling hills become saturated in brilliant reds and stunning oranges (every year's foliage is different); the season is almost garish. Even hardened locals still get dewy-eyed at the sight of the annual colors year after year.
Don't be surprised if you sense fall approaching as early as mid-August, when a first few leaves turn orange on the maples at the edges of wetlands. Fall comes early to Maine, puts its feet up on the couch, and hangs around for some time. The foliage season begins in earnest in the northern part of the region by the third week in September; in the south, it reaches its peak around mid-October.
Happily, thanks to Maine's low elevation and the moderating influences of ocean temperatures along the coast, foliage season tends to run longer along the coast than it does inland; sometimes the tart colors even linger into the first few days of November.
Keep in mind that this is also a hugely popular time of year for other travelers, however—bus tours flock like migrating geese to all parts of New England in early October. As a result, hotels are often booked solid, and advance reservations are essential. Don't be surprised if you're assessed a foliage surcharge of $10 to $50 per night at some inns. Pay it and be glad you're here.
Maine maintains a recorded foliage hot line and website to let you know where and when the leaves are at their brightest peaks. Call tel. 888/624-6345 for the latest updates, or log onto the state's foliage website at www.mainefoliage.com.
WINTER: Maine winters are like wine; some years are good, some are lousy. During a good season, mounds of light, fluffy snow blanket the deep woods and fill the ski slopes. The muffling qualities of fresh snow bring a great silence to the region, and the hiss and pop of a wood fire at a country inn can sound like a heavenly symphony. During these winters, exploring the powdery forest floors on snowshoes or cross-country skis is an experience bordering on the magical.
During those other winters, though (the lousy ones), the weather gods bring a nasty melange of rain, freezing rain, and sleet. The woods become filled with dirty crusty snow; the sky seems perpetually cottony and bleak. In 1998, a destructive ice storm wreaked so much havoc on the woods that you can still see evidence (fallen trees) today. During times like this, even the stoutest residents wish they'd been born in the Caribbean.
Beach towns such as York Beach and Ogunquit and tourist destinations such as Boothbay Harbor shut down almost entirely and become almost depressing in winter. Skip those. Winter visitors are better off heading for places with more substantial year-round communities and a good selection of year-round lodging and cultural attractions, such as the Kennebunks, Portland, and Bar Harbor. (A foray inland to Baxter State Park is also a fine idea in a cold clear winter).
SPRING: Maine's spring seemingly lasts only a weekend or so, often around mid-May but sometimes as late as June. One day the ground is muddy, the trees barren, and gritty snow is still collected in shady hollows. The next day it's in the 70s or 80s, trees are blooming, and kids are jumping off docks into the ocean.
Travelers need to be alert if they want to experience spring in Maine; it's also known as "mud season" in these parts, and many innkeepers and restaurateurs actually close up shop for a few weeks for repairs or to venture someplace a lot more cheery. Yet April and May can offer superb days when a blue sky arches overhead and it's warm in the sun.
This might be the most peaceful time of year—a good time for taking solitary walks on the beach or sitting on rocky promontories with only seagulls for company. And here's another secret: Maine hotel rooms are never cheaper than they are in springtime. Just be aware that as soon as that sun slips behind a cloud, it'll feel like winter again; don't leave the parka or gloves far behind.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.