Maine enjoys its reputation of being somewhat different from the rest of the country, even from other New England states. Formerly part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, residents couldn't abide being governed from distant Boston, so broke away to become a state in its own right in 1820 -- and the people up here have been a little ornery ever since. That includes nice ornery, too, as witnessed by a newspaper report from last September that a Portland gentleman returned a forgotten library book after 60 years and insisted on paying the overdue charges, calculated at two cents a day, or $440.16.
Some of Maine's differences are no doubt due to being a seafaring state, by and large, with the humor and crankiness you get spending long days alone at sea, cold, wet and miserable. But everyone with a liking for poetry, words, seascapes and huge skies loves a coastline, which Maine has plenty of.
Maine's Maritime Heritage Trail
Think of Maine and you have to think of the sea, whether it's Winslow Homer paintings or steamed lobster that comes to mind. To help visitors discover Maine's glorious coastline, the tourist people have come up with the Maine Maritime Heritage Trail (www.maritimemaine.org). If you hanker to get going, though, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you were able to follow the coastline inch by inch from top to bottom of the state, you'd be covering around 5,000 miles -- but who travels like that? The good news is that as the crow flies, it's only 293 miles from, say, Kittery in the south to Lubec in the north.
Among many events held along the trail, these annual events stand out. In order of occurrence, they are:
- Fisherman's Festival, Boothbay Harbor (tel. 207/633-2353; www.boothbayharbor.org). April 27-29, 2007.
- Windjammer Days, Boothbay Harbor (see above). June 26 & 27.
- Great Schooner Race, Penobscot Bay (tel. 207/374-2993; www.visitmaine.com), first week in July.
- Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland (tel. 800/562-2529; www.mainelobsterfestival.com). August 1-15.
- Camden Windjammer Weekend, Camden (tel. 207/236-4404; www.windjammerweekend.com). August 31-September 2.
- Eastport Salmon Festival, Eastport (tel. 207/853-4644). September 8 & 9.
- Wooden Boat Sail-In, Brooklin (tel. 207/374-2993; www.maineschooners.com). September 11.
Highlights Along the Trail
The Maritime Heritage Trail includes 29 features, but three are more important than others.
Top honors should go to the Maine Maritime Museum (243 Washington Street; tel. 207/443-1316; www.mainemaritimemuseum.org), built on the site of a former shipbuilding yard and next door to one of the nation's biggest remaining ones, the Bath Iron Works (see below). Located in several buildings, five of which are originals from the days of constructing 4-, 5- and 6-masted schooners between 1896 to 1920, the museum offers outdoor tours April through October (or you can self-guide throughout the year). You can sign up for tours of visiting vessels in summer and for tours on Lighthouse or Sunset cruises as well. A giant full-scale sculpture the size of the largest schooner ever built, the Wyoming, is under construction on the grounds. The museum is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's when it's closed. Admission is $10, kids and seniors less.
The Penobscot Maritime Museum in Searsport (40 E. Main Street; tel. 207/548-2529; www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org) runs a close second. It focuses on the Penobscot Bay merchant captains who sailed out to Asia and Europe in pursuit of trade. The museum consists of 13 separate buildings, eight of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. I especially liked the Old Town Hall for its many great ship models and the Merithew House, for its collection of marine paintings. Three boat barns are full of old boats, from canoes to lobster craft, and the gift shop is one of the best on the coast. Admission is $8 for adults.
In Bath, the Bath Iron Works (www.gdbiw.com) is one of the nation's biggest shipbuilding and repair yards, having built and commissioned an Aegis-class destroyer just this autumn. It's on the banks of the Kennebec River, close by the Maine Maritime Museum. The Iron Works are Maine's biggest employer, it is said, and the city has a long history of shipbuilding, launching more than 3,000 ships over the last 300 years from riverside shipyards. The museum operates occasional tours of the Bath Iron Works, so be sure to ask about them (Tuesdays at 1 and Saturdays at 10:30, costing $25, late May through early October).
I would add to the trail's list of attractions the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse (www.westquoddy.com) up near Lubec, where the nation first sees the sun each morning (East Quoddy Head is in Canada, by the way).
The Maine Architecture Trail
With nearly 400 years of European-influenced history, New England is blessed with a wide variety of architectural styles. Tourism officials have organized a trail for those interested in building patterns, dividing them up into such categories as "connected farm buildings and covered bridges;" "ice towns;" "river towns;" and the usualcategories of federal, colonial, Victorian, and the like. They have a brochure on this (curiously lacking a map), available through the official tourism website (www.visitmaine.com) and from the Maine Historic Preservation Committee (tel. 207/287-2132; www.state.me.us/mhpc).
Among highlights on this trail along the coast are the Bath City Hall (early 20th century), the Pumpkin Island Lighthouse (1854), Ellsworth's Woodlawn Museum (1824), and Machias' Burnham Tavern (1770), to mention only four. They caution that you should call ahead before starting your tour, as many sites are open seasonally and have special hours. "In addition, some sites are private property and are not open to the public."
Downtown Bath has several Greek Revival storefronts -- especially Merchants Row on Front Street -- and some Italianate buildings like the Customs House (1852), Bank Block and Church Block. Be sure to check out two churches on Washington Street, the "Chocolate Church" (so named because of its color) from 1846 and the more elegant 1843 Winter Street Church.
Don't miss a visit to Front Street in Bath, especially for its many antique stores (there were at least seven by my count), all open year round. Each has a wide variety of items, but I especially liked Pollyanna's (182 Front St.; tel. 207/443-4909; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), which was a perfect mess of stuff -- possibly junk, possibly treasures. (I inquired about a "stuffed" beagle sleeping on a loveseat, only to have it open a curious eye when I reached to touch it.) The store's immediate neighbor is an inviting-looking Open Door Bookshop, by the way.
Gentrification has hit Bath, so that alongside the wonderfully old-fashioned Renys department store (orange stocking caps for hunting season at just $1, visit www.renys.com), you have classrooms for yoga and Pilates, trendy restaurants and rising real estate prices. Though Maine has plenty of wide open space, most of that is in the hinterlands, so water-view property remains expensive. Around Bath, realtors' window signs hawked rural riverfront land at about $7,400 an acre, three-bedroom outlying waterfront homes at about $450,000.
Lodging and Dining Out
The Inn at Bath (969 Washington St.; tel. 800/423-0964 or 207/443-4294; www.innatbath.com) is a splendidly comfortable place, with an outstanding reputation for good breakfasts and friendly atmosphere offered courtesy of innkeeper Elizabeth Knowlton. In an 1810 Greek Revival home, there are eight rooms and suites (each with private bath), e-mail access, garden and more. About a ten-minute walk to Bath's historic district center, the inn offers a handicapped-accessible room as well as some with wood burning fireplaces and two-person heated Jacuzzi tubs. Rates for two range from $140 to $185..
For a location near the edge of town, consider the Holiday Inn (139 Richardson St.; tel. 800/465-4329 or 207/9741; www.holidayinn.com/bathme). The property offers 141 rooms, outdoor pool, sauna, fitness room, restaurant and more. Rates begin at $119 per night.
What may be the best restaurant in Bath is the Solo Bistro (128 Front St.; tel. 207/443-3373; www.solobistro.com) with trendy dishes in a minimalist setting. There's a cozy bar downstairs featuring live music some nights. I enjoyed their potato gnocchi at $9 and lamb chops at $28.
"The Prettiest Village in Maine"
Wiscasset, up Highway 1 from Bath, calls itself "the prettiest village in Maine," and it may just be that. In addition to taking in the sight of dozens of neat, white houses, you might enjoy stopping in at the 1797 Old General Store (49 Water St.; tel. 207/882-6622) to visit their old fashioned ice cream parlor or to shop on the three floors for all sorts of things. Also of interest: tours of the 1825 Musical Wonder House on High Street, the Old Lincoln County Jail & Museum on Federal Street and the 1807 Castle Tucker House.
A few miles north of Wiscasset is Alna, home of the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum (97 Cross Rd.; tel. 207/882-4193; www.wwfry.org) with a four-mile roundtrip train ride as the center of attraction. Open on Saturdays year round, Sundays in summer, in an all-volunteer effort. The narrow gauge (two-foot wide tracks) trains ran regularly from the late 1890s to 1933, restoration beginning about a half century later. Museum and shop admissions are free, but train rides are $5.
A bigger railroad is the Maine Eastern (tel. 866/637-2457; www.maineasternrailroad.com), which operates scheduled passenger trains along the coast between Brunswick and Rockland, with stops in Bath and Wiscasset. This is a great way to see the coast, better than you can while driving a car. The trains operate Wednesdays through Sundays, July through October, taking two hours to complete the trip each way, with two trains on weekdays and Saturdays, one train on Sundays in each direction. They say they will operate some special trains in December, too. Fares are between $10 and $25 one-way, $15 to $40 round-trip, less for seniors, children and groups.
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