Maine’s coast tends to confound hurry-up tourists—there are simply too many dead-end peninsulas to backtrack along, and too many inlets cleaving the coast; you must sometimes drive great distances to get from one rocky, wave-beaten point to the next. Finding a home base or two and fanning out from there is the best strategy.
Most of this route heads north along U.S. Route 1, which can be slow-pokey, at least in pockets, during high summer season. But take heart: You’ll have more time to soak up the views, which are pretty good for stretches, particularly once you get north of Bath. This route supposes you’re driving into Maine from the rest of America (there’s only one way in, and that’s from New Hampshire).
If you’re flying into Portland instead, consider making that town your home base for your first 4 days, exploring the southern coast on day trips—it’s only a 40-minute drive from Portland to York.
Day 1: York
Drive into Maine from the south on I-95, and head immediately for York Village. Spend some time snooping around the historic homes of the Old York Historical Society, and stretch your legs on a walk through town or the woods.
Drive northward through York Beach. Stock up on saltwater taffy at the Goldenrod; stay near the beach.
From York, drive 20 miles north on the Maine Turnpike (I-95) or U.S. Rte. 1 to find:
Day 2: The Kennebunks & Ogunquit
The Kennebunks are definitely worth a day if you enjoy blue-blood New England quaintness and luxury accommodations. There are some pretty fancy inns and bed-and-breakfast establishments in these parts. Kennebunk, the lesser-known of the twin towns (they’re separated by a slim tidal river), is a mixed bag of attractions, with the so-called Wedding Cake House, a very good public beach, a monastery (yes, really), and a natural-products factory store, among other things to see and do.
Across the river in Kennebunkport you can stroll the leafy town, gawk at George Bush the elder’s summer home (from a short distance away; those Secret Service guys mean business), and have a relaxed dinner at a fine restaurant. There is also a small shopping district and plenty of pleasure boats and yachts moored in the area.
While staying in the area, be sure to visit Ogunquit, a small town justly famous for its beaches, ocean views, and summery atmosphere. While there, stop in at the small but truly excellent Ogunquit Museum of American Art. If you’re so inclined, hit the antiques shops lined up along Route 1 as you head northward.
From the Kennebunks, drive 27 miles north either on the Maine Turnpike (I-95, exiting onto Rte. 295 and following signs) or U.S. Rte. 1 to the Greater Portland area.
Days 3, 4: Portland
Plan to stay in Portland or on a nearby beach for up to 3 days, enjoying its hot-as-can-be culinary scene; shopping along the cobblestone streets of the Old Port; taste-testing chowder recipes and microbrewed beers; and just generally soaking up the salty air and atmosphere. Don’t forget to take a walk along the Eastern Promenade or a day cruise on a local ferry.
From Portland, drive north 17 miles on I-295 or U.S. Rte. 1 to the Freeport area. There’s a Maine state tourist information facility on Rte. 1 just north of Yarmouth, stocked with brochures and staff (daytime hours).
Day 5: Freeport & Surrounding Areas
Head north early to beat the shopping crowds in the outlet haven of Freeport. (You can’t leave too early for L.L. Bean—it never closes!)
From Freeport, continue northward to Brunswick, home to Bowdoin College and its two small but excellent museums.
Then press a few miles farther north to atmospheric Bath, with plenty of ancient sea captains’ homes, a shipyard, and the Maine Maritime Museum & Shipyard. Stay in a B&B in any of the three towns.
From Freeport, it’s about 70 miles north on U.S. Rte. 1 to the Camden-Rockland-Rockport area; it can take up to 2 hrs in summer traffic congestion. Wiscasset (about halfway to Camden) and Damariscotta (off the highway, with a scenic river and a vibrant downtown) make nice stopping points along the way.
Days 6 & 7: Camden & Penobscot Bay
Heading north from the Bath-Brunswick area, detour down to Pemaquid Point for a late picnic and to watch the surf roll in. Then head back to Route 1 and set your sights on the Camden-Rockland area, the commercial heart of the Penobscot Bay region. Rockland, which comes first, is the more working-class half of the equation, though it’s increasingly evolving into an arts destination.
You’ll find funky cafes, an excellent museum, and good restaurants. Nearby Rockport is a tiny harbor town with superb views and an artsy main street.
Finally, head a few miles north to wander around downtown Camden, poking into shops and galleries, or hike up one of the impressive hills at Camden Hills State Park. Hop a ferry to an island (North Haven and Isleboro are both great for biking), sign up for a daylong sail on a windjammer, or just spend a long afternoon unwinding on the deck of a local restaurant.
From Camden, drive U.S. Rte. 1 40 miles north to state Rte. 15, turn south, and drive 12 more miles to:
Day 8: Blue Hill & Deer Isle
Have dinner and find accommodations in scenic Blue Hill, an appealing mixture of a Maine fishing town with bookshops and restaurants is quite appealing. Also take a spin around the peninsula to even smaller towns such as Blue Hill Falls and Brooklin, where you’ll see boatyards, old-fashioned general stores, and Maine ingenuity holding it all together. This is the real Maine.
Continue 18 miles south on Route 15 to Deer Isle. The roads here are great for aimless drives, but aim anyway for Stonington at the far end of the peninsula. If distant Isle au Haut, visible from the town docks, makes you pine for an offshore adventure, plan a boat trip for early the next morning; secure lodging in Deer Isle; and adjust your schedule accordingly. Otherwise, explore the area by car or sign up for a kayak tour with Old Quarry Charters.
From Stonington, backtrack 18 miles on Rte. 15 to Blue Hill, then follow Rte. 172 north 14 miles to U.S. Rte. 1. Follow Rte. 1 a short distance before bearing right onto Rte. 3 (follow signs to Acadia National Park). Continue 6 miles to the bridge to Mount Desert Island. Cross the bridge and follow Rte. 3 about 10 more miles to Bar Harbor.
Days 9, 10 & 11: Bar Harbor & Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor is the most convenient base for exploring Mount Desert Island, which is well worth at least 4 days on any Maine itinerary. Bar Harbor provides comforts and services such as a movie theater, souvenir shops, bike and kayak rentals, free shuttle buses fanning out all over the island, and numerous kinds of restaurants that other island towns don’t have. Yes, it’s a lot more developed (perhaps too much so) than the rest of the island, but think of it as a supply depot.
Hike, bike, boat, or do whatever you have to do to explore the island and this national park—in my humble opinion, one of America’s finest. What it lacks in “bigness,” it more than makes up for with intimate contact with nature.
Options include taking a beginner’s kayak trip down the eastern shore, a hike out to Bar Island, or a mountain bike trip along the scenic carriage roads built by the Rockefeller family: Only bicycles and horses are allowed on these roads, making them a good respite from the island’s main roads, which—almost unbelievably—do get crowded in summer.
The scenic Park Loop Road offers a good introduction to what’s in store for you later (crashing waves, big mountains, drop-dead-gorgeous views). Make sure to buy a park pass that lasts more than 1 day.
While exploring the rest of the island, hit some of the towns off the beaten track, too.
The fishing villages of Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor have been transformed by tourism into small centers of art, music, and shopping, but they still have local grocery stores where fishermen slush in to shop for slickers and Wonder Bread.
On your last day, cap off your visit with a cold-water dip at Sand Beach and tea and popovers at Jordan Pond House. Maybe watch a sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain, take a quick last hike up The Bubbles, or paddle a canoe on Long Pond. Or just enjoy one last lobster from atop a wooden pier before setting off back south.
From Bar Harbor, backtrack 20 miles to Rte. 1 on the mainland, then follow it up the coast about 17 miles to Rte. 186, a detour loop through the Schoodic Peninsula. (That drive will take you an hour, plus stops to look around or hike.) From Schoodic, it’s another 65 miles to Lubec or 85 to Eastport.
Day 12 & 13: The Downeast Coast
Take a full day to work your way Downeast towards Eastport and Lubec. (Tell your motel or inn that you’ll be arriving late.) Stretch your legs on the Schoodic Peninsula, at Tunk Mountain, or along the Cutler Coast Trail. On your second day, explore the rough-and-tumble towns at the tip of the Northeast, making time for West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec and the Tides Institute & Museum of Art in Eastport. And maybe for one last lobster.
From either Eastport or Lubec, head inland towards Bangor on Rte. 9, the winding, woodsy, lonely road that Mainers call “the Airline.” It’s just over 2 hours to Bangor, without much reason to stop.
Day 14: Bangor & Home
Once you’ve reached the inland city of Bangor, it’s worth grabbing lunch and strolling downtown a while. (It’s doubly worth it you’re a fan of horror writer Stephen King—his house is pretty obvious once you get downtown.) There are several museums in and around the city; it’s the only place that passes for a cultural center in the vastly empty spaces of inland northern Maine, so stock up (and fuel up) while you’ve got the chance.
If you’re lucky enough to have more than 2 weeks to spend wandering Maine, hang a right at Bangor instead of a left and head into the “other Maine” of the north woods
From Bangor, take the Maine Turnpike (I-95) south 180 miles to the state line at Kittery. With no stops, it takes less than 3 hours..
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.