Travel blog on 6 days spent in the most north easterly US state, Maine in April 2013. Trip included a drive up the coast from Boston, including stops in Portland, Freeport, Camden, Bar Harbor and Auburn. If you like to explore the great outdoors, Maine is for you!
Maine is known as the pine tree state, and it definitely is an underrated or relatively unknown among Irish travellers. Which is strange, given the proximity to both Boston and Ireland itself. Maine was one of the first areas settled by the British colonisers, so there’s plenty of Irish people who ended up there.
I spent a week there with family recently, after completing the Boston Marathon in April. It was pretty quiet in many towns, as the season doesn’t really kick off until June. The weather was nice for spring, with sunny days and a little chill in the air at night.
Our first stop was Portland, about 2.5 hours north of Boston. It’s the biggest city in Maine (Augusta is the state capital), and is well worth a few days visit. It’s got lots of history, as an old port city. There’s a thriving pub and restaurant scene, and lots of nice bookshops and cafes. We stayed in the Holiday Inn by the Bay, which was really excellent, with a nice gym/pool and only 10 min walk to most things.
We had plenty of tips from our cousin John, who owns an apartment in Portland, so knows the lie of the land. He recommended some great pubs and diners, such as Bintliff’s for breakfast. We also had a lovely lobster dinner on a boat (DiMillos) – with full bibs around our necks to keep us clean “if you’re not making a mess, you’re not doing it right” was the warning on the bib!)
There’s a great pub and beer scene in Portland. We could find live music each night, which was nice. The choice of beers was excellent, with Shipyard being the main local brewery. Lots of IPAs and red ales, with some interesting stouts too.
Heading north, my dad wanted to stop at LL Beans, which is a famous outdoors store, located in Freeport. It has legendary status for its unique outdoor boots, which did look quite comfy. Everything from fishing tackle to camp gear to hunting clothes are available, as well as a choice of hundreds of rifles and guns if that tickles your fancy. It was well worth a visit.
We spent a few days driving up the coast, to our ultimate destination of Acadia National Park, which is on Mount Desert Island. This is picture postcard stuff, with wild seas crashing on sandy beaches and thick forests in the background. “Where the forests meet the sea” is the tagline.
Along the way we stopped in really nice towns, such as Camden, which is a really picturesque seaside town. Thanks to Tripadvisor, we’d a great steak meal in Peter Ott’s restaurant. Top notch food and service. Plus the Camden Riverhouse Hotel had a great breakfast and pool. Camden had some cute little stores, with great names such as “The Smiling Cow” – incidentally this gift store sold some amazing t-shirts. My favourite featuring this prophetic thought: “If a man speaks at sea where no woman can hear, is he still wrong?”
Other highlights included Fort Knox, which was a huge promontory fort built by the Americans in the 18th century overlooking a strategic bend in the river. This fort was designed to protect against the British forces, but never came into use due to technological shifts. The large cannons were made redundant, as ships became faster, meaning the British ships could evade a hit as the cannons could not be aimed, locked and fired at a fast enough pace.
Acadia National Park
The jewel in the crown of Maine is Acadia. It’s a national park located on Mount Desert Island and is a stunning natural landscape with great forest trails for walking or lots of breath-taking views from the coast, beaches and mountains. We stayed in Bar Harbor, the largest town, but still nice and small. One hundred years ago this was the playground of the rich, with families like the Rockefellers building huge houses and owning large parts of the island. Indeed, these families built many of the scenic roads and then donated the land to the state to form the national park.
We stayed in the historic Bar Harbor Inn, an impressive period hotel built over 100 years ago. American presidents have stayed here (Taft). It was started as a “reading club” during prohibition and grew from there. We ate well, again thanks to Tripadvisor, having some great fish and lobster stew in Side Street Cafe. It was a pity the Criterion cinema was closed, as John had recommended it, since you could bring beer and food to your seat!
Exploring the island is easy on foot, bike or car. I had an amazing hike/run up Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the island. The trails were marked, so it sounded like a nice run. But I got a bit confused and ended up taking a steep trail up the path of a stream, scrambling over limestone rocks through a beautiful forest. Passing icy patches on the way reminded me winter hadn’t left yet! A 45 min run turned into a 2 hour hiking adventure. Well worth it though, as the 360 degree views of sea, mountain and coast were break taking. Incidentally, I learned that the mountain is named after Monsieur Cadillac, a Frenchman who passed through here once upon a time, then made his way onwards to Detroit, where he settled and became successful. So that’s why the car brand is named thus!
A few things really made a good impression and surprised me. Booklovers will love Maine – it was so nice to browse through bookshelves in independent bookstores in each town. No chains, just really unique and friendly bookstores with a great mix of bestsellers, local interest and second hand books. Portland had lots. My favourite was Book & Bar, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s all in the name! What a great idea to have a bar in a bookshop. Ok, we arrived at 11am so it felt a bit early. There were so many interesting books, including an amazing photo book on the history of Waterford Crystal. In the corner a happy young group started reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Right wing conservative radio: you just don’t get to listen to those whacky views in Ireland. It was refreshing and interesting to hear alternatives to the left/democratic/Obama loving we get in Ireland. While I don’t agree with many of the US Republican or rights views, it gave a different insight into the handling of the Boston Marathon bombings. Hearing guys like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Graham rant against Pres. Obama, Gov. Patrick and Mayor “mumbles” Menino was always insightful if sometimes off the wall. Limbaugh referring to the Suspect #1 (the older brother who died in the shootout) as “speedbump” cracked me up whilst we were in the car on the highway.
Other things I’ll never forget: my dad explaining his past life’s expertise in selling typewriters while passing this store was hilarious. Also, quirky store names like Book & Bar; The Thirsty Pig; The Dog & Pony Tavern; The Smiling Cow gave me a kick.
Food & Drink
New England is famous for chowdah & lobstah! We really enjoyed trying lobster, both as a main, in lobster stew and as ice cream! However the chowder was a disappointment. I expected it to be better than what we get in Ireland, but Irish chowder wins hands down. The portions were surprisingly small and while they were creamy and fresh, at times they lacked a good mix of seafood or kick!
Breakfasts were great, especially if you like eggs. We’d some great omelettes with lots of juice, fresh coffee and oatmeal. The lack of fruit was annoying. You can skip lunch, as breakfast keeps you going til dinner.
The pub scene was good, especially in Portland, although you could easily get nice local beer and decent food in many bars. Gritty McDuff’s is a pub chain, but I’d recommend it. Shipyard is the main brewery, and Shipyard Export was a nice beer. Sam Adams also has lots of seasonal beer (including 26.2 a special Boston Marathon beer!). My favourite bar in Portland was The Thirsty Pig, which had knowledgeable friendly staff, great beers plus a happy hour! Btw, we’d no problems with ID – I can’t remember being asked for my passport during the week which was good.