Visiting Coastal Maine with Hilary Nangle

1. How would you describe Coastal Maine culture?

Cultural opportunities along Maine’s coastline vary greatly. Portland is Maine’s cultural center, with everything from ballet to opera, museums and historical sites. In general, the year-round communities, such as Brunswick, Rockland, Belfast, Ellsworth, and Bar Harbor, have the greatest concentration and variety, with concerts, dance, theater, film, and lectures widely available; museums and galleries open year round. That said, during the summer season and extending into the fall, even the smallest communities have fairs, festivals, concert series, and other cultural activities.

Although galleries might not be open year round in more seasonal towns, artists and artisans usually will open their studios to visitors if they’re around, which makes for a more intimate and personal experience. Summer in a seasonal community might mean weekly street dances, band concerts in the park, and fairs celebrating the local foods or heritage.

2. Where do locals go for lobster?

You mean besides cooking it at home? Most will head to a lobster shack, a no-frills waterfront joint. Shacks salt the coast, and the best ones keep the menu simple. Many allow diners to bring all the go-withs—appetizers, bread, wine, even flowers for the picnic table. But ask before bringing dessert as many serve to-die-for homemade pies.

3. What restaurants do you recommend making reservations for?

Reservations are a necessity at nicer restaurants in Portland as well as in smaller communities that are popular summer destinations, such as Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, Rockland, Camden, and Bar Harbor. For the nationally recognized restaurants, places such as Portland’s Fore Street, Hugo’s, Five Fifty-Five; Primo in Rockland; Kennebunkport’s White Barn Inn; and Arrows, in Ogunquit. Plan weeks, if not months, in advance.

4. What are three tips for families looking for lodging on a budget?

  1. Rent a cottage: This allows you to control meal costs and generally is far less expensive than nightly lodging.
  2. Camping and/or camping cabins: Tent camping is far less expensive than renting a room, and the nightly rate is usually per site, with children often included at no extra charge. If camping is a bit too primitive, look for campgrounds with camping cabins. While these are rarely fancy, they do usually have bunks (you may have to provide bedding). Some have primitive cooking facilities, but with most, you’ll share a bathhouse.
  3. Meal-inclusive plans, which include breakfast and dinner (called M.A.P.), sometimes lunch, and often activities in one rate. While such rates might appear high at first glance, when you consider everything that’s included, they often end up being a good deal. Families with older children should consider a Maine windjammer vacation; those with younger kids can look to places such as Sebasco Harbor Resort.

5. Which antique shops do you frequent?

I’m unable to drive by The Big Chicken, in Ellsworth, without stopping, and when passing through Wells, Wiscasset, and Searsport, I always need to allow myself time to mosey and browse the dozens of shops in each. Other must-stops include Liberty Tool, in Liberty, Brunswick’s Cabot Mill Antiques, Montsweag Flea Market in Wiscasset, and Nobleoro’s Antique Exchange. I’ve never been able to pass an antiquarian book store without picking up at least one or two treasures, and the Maine Coast is seeded with them. Just try to get out of Douglas N.Harding Rare Books, in Wells, without buying something.

6. Which artisan galleries should visitors not pass up?

Goodness, that’s a tough one. Maine is such a magnet for artisans. The Blue Hill/Deer Isle peninsula is especially rich in studios and galleries thanks to the presence of the Haystack Mountain School of Craft. Jud Hartmann and Works of the Hand, both in Blue Hill, are fabulous; Nervous Nellie’s, in Deer Isle, is a must for folk art fans; Greene-Ziner Gallery is a two-fold find, pottery and metalcraft; Blue Heron specializes in the work of Haystack faculty. The Schoodic Region is another artisan seedbed, with places such as Lee Art Glass, U.S. Bells Foundry, Hog Bay Pottery, and Lunaform. Eastport through Calais is also peppered with artisan studios and galleries. The Commons, in Eastport, is a fine place to see the work of many of them.

7. Where are visitors most likely to spot puffins?

Puffins nest on offshore islands, and excursion boats depart from Bar Harbor for Petit Manan and from Jonesport, and Cutler for Machias-Seal Island, site of the best known colony; some trips allow you to actually step on the island, not just view those clowns of the sea from the boat. The Puffin Project, on Main Street, in Rockland, is the best resource for all things puffin related, and it brings the puffins to you via a live web cam.

8. Tell us about some of the seasonal fairs and festivals along the coast.

Hardly a summer weekend goes by without a fair or festival somewhere along the coast. Some of the biggest and best known celebrate food, pairing meals with entertainment, art and craft shows, parades, children’s activities, and zany competitions. The Yarmouth Clam Festival, Rockland Lobster Festival, Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, and Eastport Salmon Festival are musts on many a Mainer’s summer calendar. But be on the lookout for the smaller food celebrations, the one-day events such as the Annual Strawberry Festival and Country Fair, in Wiscasset; Cushing’s annual Bean-Hole Supper; and lobster festivals both in Winter Harbor and on Frenchboro island.

Other festivals celebrate communities’ ethnic roots, such as La Kermesse, a Franco-American celebration in Biddeford, and Portland’s Greek Heritage Festival. At both, you can see and hear traditional entertainment and taste traditional foods. Basketmakers and other artisan from Maine’s four Native American tribes gather in Bar Harbor for the Native American Festival, which includes drumming, dancing, and food. And then there’s the Maine Highland Games, a celebration of everything Scottish, in Brunswick. Both the Fishermen’s Festival and the Boat Builder’s Festival honor the Boothbays’ roots as sea-faring communities, as does Camden’s Windjammer Weekend; like the major food festivals, both include a wide variety of activities and entertainment. Blue Hill’s annual Full Circle Fair reveals the communities progressive side, with worldly music and socially and environmentally progressive activities.

Of course, since Maine has been an artist magnet for centuries, arts festivals are plentiful. The Maine Crafts Guild has a series of festivals in coastal communities, and the Grand Lake Stream Folk Arts Festival is one of my all-time favorites, with juried exhibitors and knockout music, as well as barbecues and an evening contra dance. If you’re more of a blues fan, plan a visit around Rockland’s North Atlantic Blues Festival.

9. How do outdoor enthusiasts get their fix in this region?

So many possibilities; let’s start on the water: Maine’s peninsula fringed, island-dotted coastline is especially popular with boaters, and the Maine Island Trail network makes it easy for sea kayakers and other small craft to hopscotch along the coast and camp on islands. Penobscot Bay is renowned among sailors, and it’s also home base for the Maine Windjammer Association fleet, which take the semi-adventurous out for three- to six-day sails, a really fabulous vacation. You can join a lobster boat tour, a whale-watching excursion, a day sail, and guided nature cruises from seaports all along the coast.

Parks and preserves as well as rail trails and community trail networks provide plentiful options for walking, hiking, and mountain biking. Many state parks also have camping facilities, some with waterfront sites, and they also provide guided walks and talks. For campers who prefer more primitive sites, Maine’s Public Lands, such as the Donnell Park Reserve and the Cutler Coast reserve deliver those along with spectacular scenery.

Acadia National Park, of course, is the biggest magnet for outdoor lovers. Here you can do just about anything: take a horse-drawn carriage ride, walk, or pedal a bike along historic carriage roads; hike island peak’s for amazing views; scale seaside cliffs with a climbing guide; join a ranger on a guided walk or cruise; paddle the coastal nooks and crannies; and so much more. Birding, especially during the spring and fall migrations, is extremely popular all along the coast.

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