Fall for autumn in the Northeast
Story by Glenda Winders
Many people say the best time to visit Maine is in the autumn. Summer visitors have gone home, the long winter has not yet begun, and the changing colors of the leaves are spectacular. The state has the distinction of being the largest in New England and the farthest north of the states on the East Coast. And yes, it’s the home of horror writer Stephen King and the setting of most of his deliciously creepy tales.
Maine offers lots of possibilities for exploration and fun, along the coast and inland.
“A getaway to Maine means encounters with wild natural beauty, delicious pleasures, small town friendliness and the inventive spirit of the people who call the state home,” says Jennifer Geiger, communications manager at the Maine Office of Tourism. “And autumn is an ideal time to tour our scenic byways, as Maine woodlands put on a brilliant show of fall colors reflected in the many inland lakes, rivers and coastal harbors.”
What to do
Located along Casco Bay, Portland is a good place to start your exploration of the coastal region. In fact, if you’re here for outdoor adventure, the Casco Bay Islands might be the best place to begin.
Take the Casco Bay Lines ferry to whichever island appeals to you most. Peaks Island, for example, is perfect for scenic bicycling. Bring your own bike on the ferry or rent one at Brad’s Island Bike Rental and Repairs. Long Island with its fishing community is also a great place for bicycling, but here you’ll for sure need to bring your own. Chebeague Island, the largest, offers golfers a chance to play nine holes at the Great Chebeague Golf Club. Casco Bay Lines also offers specialty cruises, which enable you to see those islands and others, as well as cruise at sunrise or sunset.
If you’d rather be in the water than on it, the city boasts eight beaches where you can swim, boat, kayak, paddleboard and kite surf. Days might turn chilly while you’re here, and that will give you the opportunity to walk on the sand and look for seashells and sea glass.
Don Littlefield, general manager of Maine Brews Cruise, suggests an offbeat way to explore his city. “We have created tours and experiences that are all focused on Maine’s amazing craft alcohol industry,” he says.
Its land-based tours by foot, bicycle or bus provide overviews of the history of the city while also showcasing specific neighborhoods that feature locally owned craft breweries, wineries and distilleries. Boat-based activities give travelers a different perspective on the city and underscore the way Casco Bay and access to the Atlantic Ocean have shaped the seaport community for nearly 400 years.
“Our guests say our tours allow them to quickly get familiar with Portland even if it’s their first time,” Littlefield says.
Historic landmarks to watch for are the Portland Observatory — the only remaining historic signal tower in the nation — and the Portland Head Light in nearby Cape Elizabeth.
Once you know your way around, head for the Portland Museum of Art with its collection of pieces by international artists (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Yasuo Kunioshi and the like) as well as American artists such as Jasper Johns and Winslow Homer. The city’s active cultural community also includes the University of New England Art Gallery, the Maine Jewish Museum, Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine, Museum of African Culture and the list goes on. Galleries, such as the Abacus Gallery, also abound. Lisa Marie’s Made in Maine offers pieces made by Maine artisans. Independently owned retail shops offer unusual gifts you’ll want to take home.
You might consider timing your visit to coincide with one of the city’s many cultural events. Join the First Friday Art Walk, see a performance at the State Theater or catch a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert or the Portland Ballet.
Where to eat
There’s a reason Bon Appetit magazine named Portland the Restaurant City of the Year in 2018. You’ll find a variety of choices from food trucks and bar food to ethnic establishments and high-end dining here. Chances are the first thing you want to do is sample some freshly caught seafood, and you can start your tasting with a brunch at The Sinful Kitchen that includes eggs Benedict with lobster or crab. Also here are Belgian waffles, huevos rancheros and vegan tofu scrambles.
For dinner, locals often recommend Docks. Choose from an extensive menu that includes sandwiches (lobster melt, haddock tacos, salmon burger), New England clam chowder, steamed clams, peel-and-eat shrimp and seafood alfredo. DiMillo’s on the Water might be a better choice if not everyone in your group enjoys seafood. Along with lobster served every way you can imagine, it also has steaks, chicken and pasta. Or try J’s Oyster, an unassuming spot on a pier that offers oysters and a whole lot more. If you don’t get your fill here, sign up for the Maine Oyster Trail with the option of visiting 75 restaurants, farms and boats (many in the Portland area) and munch to your heart’s delight.
To explore foods that represent Portland’s rich cultural mix, start at Emilitsa’s rustic Greek restaurant. Greek-style seafood tops the menu — grilled octopus, scallops in ouzo-tomato cream sauce — alongside grilled lamb, braised rabbit and chicken kebabs as well as such traditional favorites as spanakopita and souvlaki. Terlingua offers excellent Mexican food on small plates, such as adobo chicken taquitos and a tostada salad with lots of vegetables, and carnitas or smoked brisket added if you want them.
Is bar food more your style? If you still have room after the brews cruise you took earlier, join local fishermen at Andy’s Old Port Pub on the waterfront. The ambience alone is worth a visit, and some nights you can catch acoustic music, but the best part is the sensibility of the owners. Their comfort food menu (think meatloaf and macaroni and cheese) is locally sourced, and so are their beers. The vegetarian co-owner is always on the lookout for new ways to serve meatless options.
Want to sample several award-winning restaurants despite your limited amount of time in town? Check out Maine Foodie Tours and visit several. The same company offers a culinary tour that includes art and culture and history tours to help you learn more about this fascinating city.
Where to stay
It will be as difficult to choose your accommodation as it was deciding where to eat. It all depends on what tickles your fancy. Looking for character and charm? Portland’s many bed-and-breakfasts will delight you. Try the Percy Inn, an 1830s Federalist building smack in the middle of Longfellow Square, named for the poet. It is close to restaurants, the airport and the train station, and the innkeeper is a hotel critic who pays attention to every detail.
Tradition meets a sophisticated, hip vibe at the Blind Tiger, a boutique hotel named for secret watering holes during Prohibition. Rooms are impeccably decorated and adorned with modern art, and this boutique hotel is also in a historic building. The Inn at St. John is the city’s oldest continuously operating hotel. The Victorian lodging offers rooms of all types for romantic getaways, family vacations and extended stays, and in some you can bring your dog. The rooms at The Chadwick, located in a stately old home, are spacious and modern but decorated in a classic style. You might, however, want to come just for the food. Locally sourced breakfasts might include a garden-fresh omelet with paprika potatoes one morning, rosemary and thyme goat cheese quiche the next and strawberry shortcake pancakes on the third.
What to do
Just 35 minutes up the coast will bring you to Bath, a smaller (population: 8,319), quieter spot that provides yet another look into Maine’s varied opportunities for enjoyment.
“Bath is known as the ‘City of Ships,’” says Katie Spiridakis, marketing and communications manager at the Maine Maritime Museum. “The shipbuilding tradition continues today. That being the case, our museum is a fabulous place to start a tour of mid-coast Maine as many of the towns in this region were built on shipbuilding and seafaring.”
The museum is located on a historic 20-acre waterfront shipyard site, and the range of experiences you can expect here all celebrate Maine’s maritime culture: lighthouse cruises, traditional boatbuilding demonstrations, the only surviving wooden shipyard in the country, a working boat shop, a newly restored historic schooner, art exhibits and more.
Bath is flanked by two of Maine’s most beautiful beaches, Reid State Park and Popham Beach State Park. Another place to enjoy waterfront vistas —this time of the sprawling Kennebec River — is Linwood E. Temple Waterfront Park. Dogs are welcome, and plenty of benches offer places to stop for a rest. Or take a picnic to Library Park, where William Zorach’s sculpture, “Spirit of the Sea,” is the centerpiece. For a longer walk or hike, there’s scenic Thorne Head Preserve, part of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust.
The city is home to many historic mansions and stately homes that once housed the families of shipbuilders and owners. Take a guided walking tour or ride the local trolley to check them out. Then follow the red-brick, tree-lined sidewalks downtown to visit unusual shops of all kinds.
Your inner child will love Island Treasure Toys for puzzles, games and craft kits as well as Bath Sweet Shoppe for candy and gifts. There’s plenty for book lovers, too. Mockingbird Bookshop offers classics as well as new releases and local favorites, all while you enjoy a cup of tea. Open Door Books specializes in rare and out-of-print books.
Home cooks will want to stop in at Now You’re Cooking, which carries cookware, kitchen gadgets and wine. Halcyon Yarn is a utopia for knitters, crocheters and other fiber artists, and for the ultimate Maine shopping adventure, visit Reny’s department store, which calls itself “A Maine Adventure,” to discover things you didn’t even know you wanted.
Where to eat
Start with breakfast at Mae’s Café and Bakery, located in two historic homes. The inventive menu includes eggs Benedict made with several kinds of meat, seafood and vegetables alongside waffles, pancakes, wraps and salads. Enjoy your meal with a blackberry mimosa. For something quick and sweet there’s Centre Street Bakery.
The folks at Kennebec Tavern invite you to have a riverfront lunch of seafood, sandwiches or pasta. Plan for dinner at the elegant Winnegance Restaurant and Bakery, which features such entrees as veal Oscar, duck breast, beef tenderloin tips, panko-crusted pollock and stuffed halibut. Just in the mood for a snack? Pop into Bruno’s for a wood-fired pizza.
Where to stay
Wish you could be a guest at some of the stately homes you saw on your tour earlier? You can, because some of them are boutique hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. The Kennebec Inn is an Italianate home built by master mariner Capt. James B. Perkins in the 1850s. He later sold it to Capt. Samuel B. Reed, who was lost at sea. Enjoy morning coffee on the porch and then tuck into a breakfast that might include potato quiche, pear ginger tarts or praline French toast.
The Benjamin F. Packard House Bed and Breakfast is named for a shipwright partner in one of the foremost ship-building companies in the world in the 18th century as well as a ship he built by the same name. Accommodations include a Garden Suite with sitting room and the Packard Room with views of the patio and gardens. The Pryor House Bed and Breakfast is in an 1820 Federalist-style home that overlooks the Kennebec River. The Captain’s Room features a four-poster bed and a view of the river, the Elizabeth Room has a Victorian feel, and the Tall Chimney Room is outfitted with a Jacuzzi. Breakfast here might include a bacon-onion quiche or blueberry French toast.
What to do
The inland Maine Highlands present yet another facet of this diverse state. Greenville is known for its proximity to Moosehead Lake (Maine’s largest lake at 40 miles long and 20 miles wide), so outdoor recreation is plentiful. The lake, aptly named for its moose-head shape, is an excellent spot to fish for landlocked salmon, brook trout and togue. If you’re here in the winter when the lake freezes, give ice-fishing a try with a registered Maine guide — a badge of honor awarded only to those who have demonstrated a thorough knowledge of outdoor Maine. Or explore the lake on the last remaining steamboat in Maine, The Katahdin (circa 1914) and learn more fascinating history at its companion Moosehead Marine Museum.
At the center of the lake is Mount Kineo, with steep cliffs formed by a mile-deep ice sheet that passed through the area between 12,000 and 18,000 years ago. It contains the largest known deposit of rhyolite, an igneous rock that was attractive to Native Americans for making arrowheads. The unusual spot later lured Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Roosevelt to visit.
You’ll get here on a shuttle unless you have your own boat; then climb to the summit on easy to moderate trails. At the top enjoy 360-degree views made possible by an old fire tower that has been converted into a viewing platform. Back at the bottom plan for a round of golf at the Mount Kineo Golf Course.
On the lake’s waterfront is Lily Bay State Park, with activities such as hiking, canoeing, swimming, fishing, wildlife-watching and a playground.
Shopping here isn’t anything like you saw in Portland and Bath, but what you’ll uncover will be an unusual memento of your trip. At Northern Maine Minerals you’ll find pieces of history in the form of rocks, gems and fossils. Some are just as you’d find them in nature; others have been crafted into jewelry and other objects. Northwoods Outfitters can rent or sell you anything you need for outdoor adventuring — be it whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking or fishing — and it can also set you up with a day or overnight tour. Stop for a cup of coffee at the Hard Drive Café inside the establishment and meet with others who share your interests. Indian Hill Trading Post offers sporting equipment, boots, clothing and food, and Kamp Kamp Moosehead Lake Indian Store has everything. Furniture? Clothing? Dishes? Books? Your own moose head to take home? It’s all here.
Where to eat
After a day on the lake or hiking, unwind at the Stress Free Moose Pub & Café with live music, pub fare and a relaxed atmosphere. Snack on spicy pickle fries or steamed mussels, have a light supper of flatbread pizza or shrimp tacos or tuck into a full meal: lobster macaroni and cheese, braised short ribs or dry-rubbed barbecued ribs. At Kelly’s Landing select from among such entrees as a prime rib grilled cheese sandwich, seafood casserole or classic shepherd’s pie and enjoy the lake view while you dine. The restaurant is open all day, so keep it in mind for breakfast, too, and start the next day with quesadillas, omelets or waffles, or perhaps create a build-your-own pancake.
Where to stay
If you’re a camper, this is the place to do it. Campgrounds abound, with one right at Lily Bay State Park that has 90 campsites, a sandy swimming beach, playground and shoreline walking trail. Some campgrounds are so secluded you must get to them by seaplane.
Prefer some creature comforts but in a casual setting? One possibility is Kineo View Motor Lodge, where every room comes with a deck and a view. Moose Mountain Inn is another good choice. Both hotels provide a refrigerator and microwave so that you can make your own meals if you wish, and they’re both just minutes from hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country trails as well as Big Squaw Mountain for downhill skiing.
If a luxurious getaway is what you’re after, check in at The Lodge at Moosehead Lake, one of Maine’s AAA 4-Diamond accommodations. Lodge rooms and carriage-house suites are rustically outfitted, some with fireplaces and/or views. Enjoy a gourmet meal prepared under the direction of chef Curtis “Bear” Hillard or have a Charcuterie Sunset Platter and a bottle of your favorite wine sent to your room for an intimate feast on your deck. Blair Hill Inn is a Relais & Chateaux property and a north woods oasis. Rooms are luxuriously appointed and have outstanding views, and you’ll find a massage or facial at the spa will get you right back on your game after a day of outdoor adventure. Try breakfast the next morning on its café porch. The menu varies, but you can expect choices that range from French toast with caramelized bananas and toasted coconut to cornmeal pancakes with lemon-sage brown butter, frothy fruit smoothies to a poached pear stuffed with mascarpone and drizzled with raspberry coulis. Enjoy every bite, and then head out for your next Maine adventure.