Where US Route 1 veers closer to the shoreline than any other major highway, it’s often referred to as the coastal road—or the scenic route. This most certainly applies to the iconic path’s position in Maine, as it travels from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to the first coastal town, Kittery and all the way up to Canada. It’s a charming, often winding, two lanes that pass from isolated stretches of nothingness into the Main Streets of small towns. And there’s plenty of allure to take it past the populous food haven that is Portland and into Midcoast Maine and ultimately Acadia afterward. Maine, after all, is known as Vacationland and regardless of the season or weather there’s plenty do. Travelers may immediately think of lobster or baked potatoes, blueberries or antiques, but these associations are merely a portion of Maine’s majesty. And the further north one ventures, the more distinct the state becomes, loosening its grip on the Victorian stylings of New England and embracing a remote elegance wrapped in evergreen wilderness. With a now Waze-equipped 2018 Lincoln Navigator, we ventured further and further north along coastal Maine and the breathtaking experiences included a cliff-hugging hike, a gourmet meal in one of the Pine Tree State’s best restaurants and a tchotchke-packed hotel bar in splendid isolation.
For anyone making the long trek via car from NYC, Kittery presents the first opportunity to set foot in Maine. And there’s no better introduction to all the state has to offer than Pepperrell Cove. It’s a multi-purpose stop that includes an outdoor restaurant and bar known as Frisbee’s Wharf, a shop called Provisions that stocks plenty of hyper-local product, an ice cream window serving Annabelle’s Ice Cream, and an event space known as The View with a panoramic vista of the cove itself. Another restaurant, Bistro 1828, and two accompanying bars (one with a second-floor balcony) are forthcoming. From the quality of the lobster roll to the respect it pays to the previous, historic establishment that once occupied the grounds (known as Cap’n Simeon’s), Pepperrell Cove declares Maine’s intentions: fresh food made with care and served with a view. Kittery used to be a passover town, known primarily to its locals and fishermen. Now, the secret’s out.
The beautiful beach town of Ogunquit is perhaps best known for its LGBTQ+ scene. There are numerous gay bars and plenty of establishments that declare acceptance and pride by flying the rainbow flag. As with other queer-friendly destinations (like Fire Island or Province Town), Ogunquit features extraordinary natural beauty, and the best place to witness this is the public beach. A small strip of land, this beach features three distinct areas. First, there’s an estuary-side swimming spot, where the water’s a bit warmer than expected. Second, there’s a long stretch of sandy beach running down toward the next town. Finally, there’s the estuary itself, separated by dunes and tall grass. The latter offers a quiet place to set up chairs or simply sit in the sand and relax. Hotels, and the classy well-located Ogunquit Beach Lobster House, can be found scattered between all three. It’s a convenient place to dip and dine, even if you aren’t staying in the town.
Grace White Barn Inn & Spa
No towns exemplify New England charm quite like Kennebunk and its neighbor, Kennebunkport. In the former sits the Grace White Barn Inn & Spa, once two barns from the 1820s now restored to grandeur along with several cottages and a guest house. There are only 26 rooms on site, a river runs along one side of the property, and it’s all located a 10-minute walk to the beach in one direction and less than that to downtown in the other. Beauty aside, hospitality reigns supreme here and attention to detail is second to none. Further, The White Barn Restaurant’s gourmet “fine dining experience” epitomizes the luxuriousness of Maine. Whether seeking a quaint, romantic hideaway or a meal that’s reliably divine, it can be found here—along with charming staff members who’ve worked at White Barn for up to 25 years.
A specific sensation accompanies walking across the small bridge from Kennebunk to downtown Kennebunkport. It’s only a few feet across, traversing the Kennebunk River. Both sides are picture-perfect (though, no photo can really capture them correctly) but the latter side seems to have preserved its history to great effect. From cafes to gift shops, views of docked boats and cyclists passing by, it’s an area alive with activity. From Dock Square to Maine Street (yes, Maine Street), visitors pass along restaurants to old mansions. It’s a history lesson taught visually and there’s so much to love.
The Press Hotel + UNION Restaurant
As Maine’s most populous city, the Portland of the East offers everything one needs to accommodate all types of person—and hospitality is cutting edge. With The Press Hotel, Maine has their first-ever boutique, design-driven establishment. The former headquarters of the “Portland Press Herald,” the 110-room brick building has been reimagined by Stonehill and Taylor. A font theme runs throughout the institution and it’s executed perfectly. Staff members are friendly and helpful—and quick to talk about the structure’s past and the hotel’s present and future. On site, Chef Josh Berry truly impresses with UNION—a restaurant that brightly explores the potential of local and hyper-local foods. The explosiveness of Berry’s imagination is paralleled only by the tastes drawn from fresh, well-paired ingredients. Portland has several famous restaurants—including Duckfat, Eventide Oyster Co, Central Provisions and Fore Street—UNION should stand among them.
Blyth & Burrows
Along with the riveting food scene, Portland’s bar culture extends beyond brews and bay breezes. Blyth & Burrows owns the signature cocktail category with a menu that represents everything from navy strength sippers to tipples inspire by the Americas. From homemade strawberry Campari ice to house-made black lime cordial, the team at Blyth & Burrows do not settle for anything short of their complete vision—and it’s a delectable one.
Town after town, Midcoast Maine provides opportunities to stop and experience something unique, preserved or simply authentic. Many of these towns have been written about thoroughly—from Boothbay to Friendship and Rockport to Camden. In any of them you can stop and capture a beautiful photo and eat an inexpensive, just-caught meal. Towns like Damariscotta and Waldoboro offer this, as well, but feel less traversed at times. None, however, offer what Belfast does with its vivid arts scene. Evidence of this is Waterfall Arts, an organization dedicated to local arts experiences for people of all ages. A walk through downtown Belfast reveals several galleries, as well. Further, there’s a funkiness to the town that just feels different. And it’s great. And if someone is in need of a break, there’s Dave’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain, a ’50s soda fountain with candies from across Maine.
The Pentagoet Inn
The drive to Castine emphasizes Maine’s remoteness, as the road extends toward the state’s fjord-like broken coast. When one reaches the picturesque and well organized town, it doesn’t quite feel like anywhere else in the world. It’s the extra effort that allows access to a place of such splendor. In the city’s heart rises The Pentagoet Inn. A Victorian home converted into a bed and breakfast, there’s uninterrupted charm and a dash of eccentricity. Where perhaps the home once held a family room there’s now a rich red bar that’s design cannot be pinned to any one decade. The walls are covered with framed images, and knick-knacks can be found in every corner. It opens later in the evening and provides a wonderful nightcap before heading up to the rooms, which feel less like those of a hotel and more like those found in the home of a loving aunt. In the morning, the hotel offers a complimentary breakfast that’s cooked fresh.
When asked which seafood has been caught locally, the staff at Dennett’s Wharf answer “all of it.” This is then supported by trying anything from the haddock to the clams. As the name implies, the restaurant stretches out along a wharf and there’s seating both indoors and out. A beer list—featuring many tasty local brews—compliments the menu delightfully. The restaurant is a quick walk through town from any of the guesthouses. The town pub, Danny Murphy’s, is only a few feet away.
West Street Hotel
Bar Harbor may represent the opposite of relaxing: it’s very family-friendly and cruise ships come and go during the month of August. Fortunately, the West Street Hotel allows everyone to access the city. From the adults-only rooftop infinity pool to spacious balconies that allow guests to experience the city from above, West Street draws guests who need privacy. It’s also design-forward and filled with many modern conveniences. A well-stocked “pantry” on every floor lets guests grab water, coffee, tea, fruit and cookies 24 hours a day. When it’s time to venture out for food, Poor Boy’s Gourmet sits at the opposite end of town, requiring a stroll along Main Street. And it’s worth it—both the food and the walk.
Acadia National Park
Twisting, tightly-knit evergreens and rocky shoreline cliffs compose Acadia National Park‘s landscape. Hiking trails weave their way through it all. One of which, the Beehive Trail offers a challenge for those capable of hugging stone crags, scrambling up rocks and gripping metal-assisted stretches. It’s marked “challenging” and not recommended for those with a fear of heights, but the summit is something to behold. Much like the more popular Cadillac Mountain hike, it does get crowded, so either plan on going early or be prepared to pause and take in the dramatic views. Acadia can also be enjoyed as a scenic drive alone (though, let’s be honest, everyone ultimately wants to get out and experience it) through the one-way Park Loop Road. If one chooses to hike the Beehive Trail but doesn’t want to miss Cadillac Mountain, this is one of the drives to get there, and it’s a moving picture of Maine’s majesty.
Kittery, Ogunquit and Belfast images by David Graver, hero image and rooftop pool image courtesy of the West Street Hotel, all other images courtesy of respective venues