Rocky, rugged, and interrupted by few sandy beaches, Maine’s craggy midcoast is the legacy of long-gone glaciers. During the ice age, the earth’s crust here buckled under the unimaginable weight of the ice cap that once covered the region. When the ice melted, the sea rushed in, transforming valleys into coves and inlets, leaving its mountain ridges exposed as headlands and islands.
Fragrant mixed forests still march right down to seaside in some places, just as they did when Algonquian Indians were the sole inhabitants of this convoluted coast. But elsewhere the scenic grandeur is accented by quaint fishing villages, lonely lighthouses, and vacationers’ waterside retreats.
The story of Brunswick began in the 1600s, when explorers from Europe recognized its potential as a center for the fur trade and for lumbering. Mills were eventually built to harness the power of the Androscoggin River, and by the late 1700s the town had grown so prosperous that Bowdoin College, the first in Maine, was founded there. Summer music festivals are held on the idyllic, tree-lined campus, and the college’s art museum displays works by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, and other famous painters. Brunswick also functions as the commercial hub of this region, whose population mushrooms in summer. Explore the town and you will find a traditional village green, Federal-style mansions, seafood restaurants, and an array of antique shops and artists’ studios.
2. Bailey Island
Just east of Brunswick, Rte. 24 exits the sometimes traffic-choked Rte. 1 for small towns and natural splendors along a 16-mile run to Bailey Island. Among the cottages it passes is Pearl House, once the summer retreat of famous author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Slow down at the Cribstone Bridge, a 1,200-foot span linking Orrs and Bailey islands, to notice its unusual construction. Massive granite blocks are arranged in a honeycomb pattern, with gaps that allow the tides and the runoff from spring thaws to rush through without causing damage.
From the docks at Bailey Island, sportfishing excursions depart in search of bluefin tuna, some of which weigh 500 pounds or more. At the island’s far tip, a small beach nestles among granite boulders.
Located near the mouth of the Kennebec River, Bath has long been a boat-building center. Visit the Maine Maritime Museum to learn about the industry. More evidence of the city’s prosperous maritime past can be seen along Washington Street, where wealthy merchants and captains built their fine mansions.
Lying just before the Carleton Bridge is the sprawling Bath Iron Works, where ships continue to be built. (Traffic can be heavy here, particularly when the shipbuilders get off work in the afternoon.) While in Bath, stop by the revitalized business district, taking special note of the 19th-century storefronts, brick sidewalks, and lampposts along Front Street.
4. Popham Beach State Park
The Kennebec River empties into the sea here, some 150 miles from the source of its headwaters at Moosehead Lake. Sandbars, salt marshes, and a sandy beach are intermingled in this meeting place of fresh and salt water. Among the salt-tolerant vegetation that flourishes here is cordgrass, one of the plants characteristic of such salt marshes. Other hardy survivalists able to endure the alkaline conditions include seaside goldenrod, sea lavender, and beach pea, all of which can be seen along the paths that lead to the beach. At the end of a strip of land jutting into the sea, you can also visit never-completed Fort Popham.
5. Reid State Park
Passing through a landscape in which evergreen forest rims the ocean shore, Rte. 127 leads to Reid State Park, an attractive mix of rocky headland, marsh, and dunes. Piping plovers and least terns nest on the park’s long beaches, which are salted with grains of feldspar and schist. Among the other minerals found here — don’t be surprised if you come across a rock hound peering through a magnifying glass — are quartz, calcite, mica, garnet, and hornblende. Stroll along one of the many paths for an introduction to a rich blend of seaside vegetation, including blackberries, raspberries, meadowsweet, and be on the lookout for poison ivy.
In the early 1800s, Wiscasset was the home port for dozens of clipper ships that carried fish and lumber to distant lands. Today, though, with its picture-perfect setting of pretty homes on wooded slopes along the Sheepscot River, it seems hardly surprising that Wiscasset has become a haven for writers and artists.
Although traffic through the center of town can be heavy on summer weekends, the side streets are usually quiet. Among the delights to be sampled there are the old-time courthouse, clapboard mansions, bed-and-breakfast inns, and shops offering antiques, pottery, and artwork.
7. Boothbay Harbor
Once a little fishing village, Boothbay Harbor has evolved through the generations into a bustling summer resort. Windjammers and other craft set out from the quaint waterfront for sightseeing tours of lighthouses, seabirds, whales, seals, and offshore islands. Charter boats offer deep-sea fishing trips, search ing the waters for bluefish and tuna. Rte. 96, which heads down to Ocean Point, is a particularly scenic byway, with glimpses of foamy, seething surf and thick pine forests along the way.
The Indians who once farmed and fished here called the area Damariscotta (”meeting place of the alewives”). Every spring these small fish of the herring family swim up the Damariscotta River to spawn. To witness this yearly ritual, stop at the Damariscotta Reversing Falls — so named because the rush of incoming tides is sometimes strong enough to overcome the natural flow of the river.
Many species of birds also make annual migrations to this historic town, with the osprey being perhaps the most impressive. Usually arriving in mid-April and staying through September, these fish-eating hawks have wingspans of up to six feet. Thanks to excellent vision, they can spot prey from far above. The mighty predators then swoop down and plunge right into the water to snatch prey with their razor-sharp talons. 9. Pemaquid Point
Most visitors travel down Rte. 130 to Pemaquid Point for a glimpse of its famous lighthouse, a beacon to sailors since 1827. Also of interest here are the Fishermen’s Museum, the Pemaquid Art Gallery, and the surf-pounded rock formations washed by the Atlantic Ocean. Living in tide-swept crevices amidst the stones are green sea urchins and limpets, snail-like mollusks known for their ability to cling steadfastly to the rock even in the most punishing surf.
Christmas Cove, off to the west and reached via Rte. 129, was reportedly visited by Capt. John Smith on Christmas Day in 1614. With its well-protected harbor, this summer hamlet is a favored destination for the many sailboaters who cruise up and down the rugged coast.
Follow coast-hugging Rte. 32 up to charming Waldoboro, which was named for a wealthy Bostonian who tried to start a settlement here in 1748. Many hardships met the German immigrants who arrived with Samuel Waldo, and the community was soon dissolved.
Other adventurers eventually came ashore, however, and Waldoboro has been active in the shipbuilding business ever since. (It launched the world’s first five-masted schooner in 1884.) Some 10 miles to the south, the village of Friendship is renowned for the gaff-rigged sloops that bear the town’s name.
11. Port Clyde
The drive down the peninsula to Port Clyde passes tiny villages and peaceful, pristine wilds and sea-shore. Andrew Wyeth, the American painter, spent many boyhood summers here. To this day artists come from all over to find inspiration in the far-reaching vistas of islands, sea, and sky.
Some 12 miles offshore, appearing as little more than a speck in a lovely seascape, is Monhegan Island, which can be reached by ferry from Port Clyde. Although no cars are allowed on the remote and tranquil island, nature trails abound, winding through stands of red spruce and balsam fir to veritable gardens of wildflowers and the crests of wave-battered cliffs towering over the sea.
In addition to its picturesque harbor and interesting shops, Rockport offers a variety of cultural entertainments. Chamber music concerts are presented weekly in the opera house, and works by well-known local painters hang on the walls at the Maine Coast Artists Gallery. Pictures of a different sort can be viewed at the Maine Photographic Workshops, which also offers evening lectures.
13. Camden Hills State Park
Gray squirrels leaping through the treetops, woodpeckers hacking at the branches in search of insects, a harmless garter snake slithering for cover behind a rock — these are but a few of the animals found at Camden Hills State Park. Nature trails thread through the 5,000-acre refuge, and a toll road ascends Mt. Battie, where, at about 800 feet above the sea, an unobstructed view unfolds before your eye in every direction.
Below is the village of Camden, hugging the deepest part of a cove. Forests dotted with evergreens cloak the slopes that rise from the harbor’s edge. These evergreens make a special contribution to the setting, for here as elsewhere along the Maine coast, the fragrance of pine needles mixes with the salty air of the sea to create a memorable sensation.
Camden is also a good place to learn about the region’s settlers. The restored 18th-century Conway House, an early homestead complete with barn and blacksmith shop, is well worth a visit.
Farther up the coast — past the pleasant communities of Belfast, Searsport, and Bucksport on the shores of Penobscot Bay — follow Rtes. 175 and 166A to the historic village of Castine. This part of Maine, beginning with the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay and continuing to the Canadian border, is referred to by residents as the Downeast Coast. Here the signs of commercialism begin to thin out. The cottages, barns, meadows, and woodlands along Rte. 166A, for example, look much as they might have some 100 years or more ago.
Centuries-old homes, quiet inns, and grand elm trees line the streets of Castine. Spend some time sitting on the benches that overlook the town’s peaceful dock, or take a walking tour of the town to gain insights into the history of the homes and other points of architectural and historical interest.
15. Holbrook Island Sanctuary
Nearby, Rte. 176 passes through rugged, unspoiled countryside and leads to the turnoff for Holbrook Island Sanctuary. An ideal spot for picnics and nature walks, the seaside refuge has some 1,250 acres of varied terrain — from pebble beaches to seaside crests.
Farther south, Rte. 15 leaps across a narrow suspension bridge to Little Deer Isle, then continues on to land’s end in Stonington. In the late 1800s the area was a booming mining center. The distinctive pink granite quarried here can be found in famous structures up and down the East Coast. Today the quarries are active again, though on a much reduced scale.
Town life is now geared mostly toward the sea, as witnessed by a harbor full of trawlers and other fishing vessels. Lobster traps are stacked high on the docks, and canneries are ever ready to process the day’s catch. The shops along Main Street offer a variety of well-crafted wares, from pottery to clothing. For a glimpse of inland nature, head east on Indian Point Road to Ames Pond, where the water lilies bloom in pink and white from June to September.
Passing by charming villages, saltwater ponds, meadows, and forest, the coastal highways lead along the eastern shores of the Blue Hill Peninsula to Ellsworth, which is the commercial center for this portion of the Maine coast. The First Congregational Church, with its sky-piercing steeple, is among the town’s noteworthy buildings. Another example of outstanding architecture is the 1828 Colonel Black Mansion, which features antique furnishings appropriate to its age, and outstanding views of the Union River that flows alongside it.
Situated on the eastern side of the river is the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary, an animal refuge encompassing about 130 acres. The park is a peaceful place, lush with wildflowers, shrubbery, and a varied woodland. Viewing areas in key locations enable visitors to watch the many different species of birds that come to nest near and bathe in the sanctuary’s three ponds. The grounds also contain a wildlife recovery center where injured birds find solice and care, and the onetime home of Cordelia Stanwood, a pioneering ornithologist whose efforts at observation and conservation made her quiet refuge a sanctuary for avian visitors and those who love them. Length: About 300 miles.
Lodging: Reservations required during summer; many facilities close during winter.
Nearby attractions: L.L. Bean, Inc., retail store, Freeport. Penobscot Marine Park, Searsport.
Further information: Maine Office of Tourism, 109 Sewal St., State House Station 59, Augusta, ME 04333; tel. 888-956-2463, www.visitmaine.com.