Boiled down to its simplest facts, the Maine coast basically consists of two regions: southern Maine—“down there,” also sometimes referred to as “Vacationland” or “not Maine”—and Downeast—“up there” or “the real Maine.” The truth is, it’s all “real Maine,” although the two regions can seem as different as night and day. Broadly speaking, as you head north, the gourmet cuisine, fine cars, and luxury inns of the southern coast gradually give way to cottages, used cars tacked together with duct tape, and fried fish.
Maine’s legendary aloofness is important to keep in mind when visiting the area, because getting to know the region requires equal amounts of patience and persistence. New England doesn’t wear its attractions on its sleeve. It keeps its best destinations hidden in valleys and on the side streets of small villages. Your most memorable experience might be cracking open a boiled lobster at a roadside lobster pound marked by a scrawled paper sign, or exploring a cobblestoned alley that’s not even on Google Maps. There’s no Disneyland or Eiffel Tower here. This coast is the sum of dozens of smaller attractions; it resists being defined by a few big ones.
Of course, the natural elements here—the wind, the soft hazy light, the shining or roiling seas—always seem to have the greatest draw on the traveler. Rejuvenating as these elements are, they are also capricious. You’re as likely to get a blue-sky day when the islands sparkle like coins in the harbor as you are 3 days of fog and spitting rain or snow. Maybe both in the same week. Attempting to understand this weather—just like trying to explore the coast as a regular tourist, hitting attraction after attraction—is pointless. It’s better to just let the mood of each day catch you, cycling or driving a back road in search of something you’ve never seen before (a byway, an old house, a handmade sign advertising PIES). Or, if the weather’s really nasty, stay inside and do crossword puzzles; paint a watercolor; listen to the Red Sox on the local radio station. Now you’re getting the real Maine.
Some writers believe Maine’s character is still heavily influenced by Calvinism, by such ideas as nothing can change my fate and hard work is the only virtue. It’s hard not to agree, but Mainers aren’t completely stone-faced—there are wonderful characters, smiles, and stories to be had in abundance here. You don’t need to expect rock-hard mattresses and tasteless meals, either; as these pages demonstrate, spas, luxurious country inns, and restaurants serving London-class meals have arrived on the coastal Maine scene, displacing some of the boardinghouses and chowder houses of old. Be sure to visit these upscale places, but also set aside time to spend rocking in a chair on a simple inn porch, or wandering a rocky beach path unhurriedly. You’ll be glad you did.