The best way to see this area—the only way, really—is to simply drive along U.S. Route 1 and a few associated back roads and shortcuts north from Ellsworth all the way to the Canadian border . . . and beyond, if you brought your passport. The driving time direct from Ellsworth to Lubec via routes 1 and 189 is about 2 hours with no stops. Allow considerably more time for visiting the sites detailed below, and for just plain snooping around.
Set on Route 1, inland from Mount Desert Island, the friendly, artsy town of Ellsworth (27 miles southeast of Bangor) is our starting point. You’ll swing east through the quiet fishing village of Sullivan, overlooking Frenchman Bay, then through Gouldsboro, which is actually a series of five villages. From here you may want to detour south off Route 1 down Route 186 to drive through Winter Harbor, Prospect Harbor, and Corea—don’t expect anything fancy here—to Schoodic Peninsula, a bonus sliver of Acadia National Park.
From Gouldsboro, Route 1 angles northeast 10 more miles to Milbridge, jumping-off point for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. From Milbridge, there’s a handy shortcut northeast along Route 1A, but if you have time, stay on Route 1 to visit quaint Cherryfield. Northeast of Cherryfield, you’ll roll through tiny Columbia Falls; from here, you can either detour south on Route 187 to Jonesport and the Great Wass Island Wildlife Refuge, or stay east on Route 1 for Jonesboro, from where you can detour down Great Cove Road to scenic Roque Bluffs State Park.
From Jonesboro, it’s only another 7.5 miles on Route 1 to the trim market town of Machias. You have two great options from here: East of town, detour southeast on Route 191 to the former shipbuilding village of Cutler, a prime place to shove off on a whale-watching cruise; or stay on Route 1 another 17 miles from Machias to find Whiting—nondescript in its own right, but a fine entry point to Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, the easternmost national wildlife refuge on the Atlantic migration corridor.
From Whiting, you have 2 options: Shoot east on Route 189 to visit scenic Lubec, the northeasternmost town in the United States, connected by bridge to Canada; or follow Route 1 north to cross Cobscook Bay at Pembroke, where you’ll find an unusual reversing falls (the direction of the falls reverses twice each day, depending on prevailing tides). Six miles past Pembroke, at Perry, you have two choices: Angle southeast down Route 190 to charming Eastport, or head another 20 miles or so along the St. Croix River to French-inflected Calais (pronounced just like callous, unfortunately), connected by bridge to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada.
Ellsworth doesn’t get much due from travelers hell-bent on making it to Mount Desert Island before dinner, but those in the know stop here to sample the town’s growing cultural offerings, capitalizing on a concentration of artists and musicians. Though parts overdeveloped and commercialized—you’ll pass through a stretch of Route 1 dominated by big box stores—the downtown is vibrant and pedestrian-friendly.
The town was first settled by Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes; later, French woodsmen explored the area, and the British inevitably followed with bridges, sawmills, and ships on the Union River. By the late 19th century, Ellsworth had become a significant port of departure for lumber cut from the big Maine woods, as well as an important shipbuilding center. After those industries faded, Ellsworth reinvented itself as a tourist jumping-off point—playing off its proximity to Mount Desert Island—and arts center.
32 miles E of Ellsworth on Rte. 1
The former shipbuilding town of Milbridge is a handy base for exploring the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The town has its own charms as well, celebrated in the town history museum; as recently as 1983 a boat was built and launched here.
Maine Coastal Islands Wildlife Refuge
Stringing along the length of the Maine coast, this complex of several refuges protects a collection of uninhabited islands and parcels of land, habitat for nesting seabirds and birds of prey. The entire refuge now includes about 50 islands, three onshore areas, and more than 8,000 acres in all. It’s home to terns, plovers, bald eagles, puffins, razorbills, storm petrels, and eiders, among other birds.
About 2.5 miles west of Milbridge, turn down Pigeon Hill Road and drive south 5.5 miles to the Petit Manan Point Refuge, which has a couple of excellent walking trails—the 1.5-mile Hollingsworth Loop and the 4-mile Birch Point Trail. Please respect the rules protecting these delicate ecosystems. Tread lightly, and light no open fires or unleash any dogs.
Another excellent way to explore the refuge is by boat. Two excellent charter boat operators, both sailing out of Bar Harbor, run personalized tours to various islands of the refuge: Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. (www.whalesrus.com; tel. 888/942-5374 or 207/288-2386), or, for groups of up to 6, captain Winston Shaw’s Sea Venture (www.svboattours.com; tel. 207/288-3355). (Captain Shaw ties up at the Atlantic Oceanside Motel, on Route 3 just north of downtown Bar Harbor.) From Cutler, a few miles up the coast, the popular Bold Coast Charter Company also runs trips out to the refuge’s Seal Island.
For more information on the refuge, go to www.mainecoastislands.org.
Cherryfield & Columbia Falls
Cherryfield is 6 miles N of Milbridge on Rte. 1. Columbia Falls is 11 miles E of Cherryfield on Rte. 1.
North of Milbridge on Route 1, you’ll pass through lovely little Cherryfield, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World, and Columbia Falls, with a town center that has retained its longtime charm thanks to the good fortune of having been bypassed by Route 1.
From Columbia Falls, detour south along Route 187 (which makes a complete loop of its peninsula) to Jonesport, a photogenic, lost-in-time fishing village dominated by lobstermen and boat work. Jonesport is the jumping-off point for the nature preserve on Great Wass Island. Or stay on Route 1 to Jonesboro and detour 6 miles on Great Cove Road to Rogue Bluffs State Park.
16 miles NE of Columbia Falls on Rte. 1
The trim market town of Machias (pronounced Ma-chai-us) is the county seat of, and by far the biggest community in, Washington County—though it’s not very big at all. Its year-round population of 2,400 seems positively Manhattan-esque in these parts by comparison to the rest of the towns, and a University of Maine satellite campus has attracted a welcome clutch of coffee shops, galleries, and other trappings of culture. The town’s name is a native word translating approximately to “Bad Little Falls,” a tribute to the rough rapids and waterfalls formed where river and coast meet here; the town was originally settled by Native Americans, who used it as a fishing camp.
Early explorers used the same river mouth as a trade port, although true colonial settlement of the town waited until the mid–18th century. This river even became the site of the Revolutionary War’s first naval battle on June 12, 1775, when locals turned back the British gunboat the Margaretta, a story that’s told and retold for visitors at the Burnham Tavern.
Downtown Machias still has a surprising number of historic structures. The George Foster House and Andrew Gilson House on North Street both display distinctive mansards, while Court Street is packed with historic structures. Machias’s town offices are housed inside an Italianate former schoolhouse, the Clark Perry House has peaked lintels, and the granite Porter Memorial Library incorporates ballast and andirons from the Margaretta (talk about taking a war trophy). The Carrie Albee House at the corner of West and Court streets is a Victorian home dating from 1900.
13 miles SE of East Machias via Rte. 191
The coastal scenery northeast of Cutler, known as the Bold Coast, makes for an impressive drive or hike.
Cutler is more than a fishing village: It was once an important navy communications outpost, its proximity to Europe and northerly location making it ideal for communicating with submarines plying European waters.
Those two dozen or so big antennas poking up above the coast? They’re said to make up the most powerful VLF transmitter in the world, as this quiet headland was for years considered a very high-risk target in the event of war. If you’re an aficionado of things military, be sure to have a look. However, you should also know that the base’s usefulness has greatly diminished in modern times, and the equipment is now operated by civilian personnel; most of the navy property, located on a scenic peninsula, is now being redeveloped.
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.