Maine, a "Vacationland" of varied pleasures

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Foulds
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2003

KITTERY, ME. --Maine's coast, the longest in New England, is a jagged silhouette of pines, peninsulas, and beaches threaded by US Route 1. Most visitors go halfway and quit, but I aimed to see the whole thing -- all 290 miles of roadway -- from Kittery to the Canadian border.

I had four days. A friend and I set out, picking up Route 1 in Portsmouth, N.H. We wondered if we would know when we crossed the state line, but we need not have worried. Two colossal green bridges arched over the Piscataqua River as if delivering us ceremonially at the feet of New England's largest state. A sign made it official: We had entered "Vacationland."

A second sign got more specific: "Welcome to Maine — the way life should be." If that meant Kittery, we were in trouble. We had not come to shop, and the stores seemed to stretch for miles: Dexter's, Dockers, Dansk, ad infinitum. Eyes glued to the road, we pressed on.

Nearing York, the countryside took over. We continued through Ogunquit, passing rows of motels and gift shops still closed for the season. A cartoonlike mouse posed before a gigantic wheel of cheese, and banners hawked moccasins and souvenirs. For a split second we glimpsed blue, but it was deceptive. We were moving inland, away from the shore, and we would stay there until Portland.

Route 1 was a charm bracelet, blending old and new, frivolous and practical. Hardware stores linked with New Age bookshops, farmhouses with snack bars. Yet this was only one layer. In the distance, new mega-homes spanned the waterfront like yachts in port, separated from us by a wide salt marsh.

Wells was antique central. Along the roadside, shops overflowed with the historical reminders of the state's English roots.

We took Route 9 into Kennebunkport, weaving past a Franciscan monastery, a wildlife refuge, and secluded mansions. You could feel the financial temperature climb in the wording on the signs, such as "The Literary Bean: a coffeehouse."

And yes, Kennebunkport had class. Dock Square was rich in art galleries. Just beyond, we discovered a perfectly preserved neighborhood of exquisite Federal-style homesteads dating from the early 1800s. The centerpiece was the Captain Lord Mansion, where we stayed in a sumptuous three-story home with an octagonal cupola. Like its neighbors, it has been converted to a bed-and-breakfast. We spent hours soaking up the aura of patrician well-being: chandeliers, oil paintings, flowers, and a fire in the old brick hearth.

We awoke to the caw of seagulls. After breakfast, we made for Ocean Avenue, the splendid seaside drive that winds gracefully past shingled residences, gracious resorts, and Walker Point, the surf-beaten summer residence of one George Herbert Walker Bush, the former president.

Heading east, we passed through Biddeford and Saco, brick-faced mill towns connected by the Saco River. Ranks of factories girded the river like fortresses with watchtower smokestacks. Real vacationland, at least the blue-collar variety, lay just ahead in the most famous of Maine's beaches.

Old Orchard Beach, with its pizza stands, coin-operated laundries, and cheap motels, looked slightly hung over in the preseason sunshine, its gaudy amusement park rides dismantled on the ground. But the pinball arcades were open for business. We played a few rounds of Skee-ball, cashed in our winnings for bubble stuff and gold pirate earrings, and wandered the strip. A pier on wooden stilts extended almost a whole city block into the rasping surf. Surfers in wet suits and kite-flying teenagers populated the beach, while motorcyclists milled about looking for action. A wind buffeted the streets with the salty, rancid smell of decaying seaweed.

We returned to Route 1, winding past motels, mobile homes, and commercial theme parks. "Funtown" and "Splashtown," and then "Carpet Town": We were knee-deep in Middle Americana, although miles of straw-colored marsh lay beyond.

Before long we were fielding the moat of malls, chain stores, and Dairy Queens that edges Portland. Downtown, Park Avenue led us past an exhibition hall, a stadium, and a spacious park. For a city of 64,000, it had a truly urban feel: trompe l'oeil wall murals, a bronze statue of native son Henry Wadsworth Longfellow overlooking a tiny park, and blocks of modern office buildings. We drifted past the mansions on Western Promenade, the historic hill section, and worked our way down Danforth Street to the cobblestones of the Old Port, where stylish boutiques and bistros have replaced the thatched-roofed huts where Maine's earliest residents huddled for warmth.

We stayed that night at The Regency, a restored 1895 brick armory, and headed north the next morning. A smell of molasses filled the air, and a smokestack signaled its source: the B & M baked bean factory, which has flavored the city since 1867. Route 1 tunneled into a forest, then through Yarmouth, with "Eartha," the DeLorme Map Company's giant globe, peeking through its glass frame. In no time we were in Freeport, a town transformed by its home-grown business, L.L. Bean. It was Kittery all over again, except newer, a community of chain stores carved out of the woods.

The flat topography started to roll. When we passed the "Maine Idyll" motor court, a row of antiquated tourist cabins, I started to think about it. What is Maine's most idyllic spot? Towns like Kennebunkport, with their romantic sea captains' homes? The endlessly sandy beaches? Or was the best still to come? Towns were getting scarcer, and increasingly, we were seeing snapshots of ocean between the trees. The road widened near Bath, a historic shipbuilding community, so we detoured in for a look.

The town was laid out over the Kennebec River, an industrial wharf at its feet. Climbing to its center, we were greeted by the Hershey-colored steeples of the Chocolate Church, which looked good enough to eat. A few blocks away were two white ones, both beauties. But the homes along Washington Street, the main thoroughfare, were show-stoppers: gorgeous 18th- and 19th-century mansions that paraded the town's shipbuilding fortunes.

Wiscasset was another eye-pleaser. As we entered, a sign proclaimed it "the prettiest village in Maine," although Bath was tough to beat.

In Waldoboro we stopped for a lobster roll at Moody's Diner, whose rooftop "EAT" sign beckoned like a lighthouse. The countertop formica was worn away where countless arms had leaned over meatloaf. The booths were full of locals whose suppressed R's made us feel truly Down East, meaning downwind, by sailboat, from Boston.

Outside, fishermen in bruised buses were selling lobsters, scallops, and shrimp. Then, in Rockland, the sea opened before us for the first time and stayed visible most of the way to Camden, where we had to stop.

Something about the town enchanted us, perhaps its cozy, vibrant downtown, or its mountain backdrop. Main Street was awash in lovely historic inns, but one stood out: a great Gothic castle by the sea, the Norumbega. We learned later that author Stephen King had considered buying it, and we could see why.

We were its sole guests, apart from a bashful couple, and felt free to roam its wood-carved interiors. By bedtime we could imagine what a millionaire's existence must have been like circa 1886.

The next day we navigated miles of evergreens. Route 1 took us past piers, pottery shops, lobster pounds, and ever broader swaths of uncluttered sea. Motel chains crowded Belfast's sandy beaches, but Searsport seemed truly nautical with its ship model factory and oceangoing vessels.

Continuing north, the dizzying Waldo-Hancock suspension bridge dropped us into Bucksport, a modest town with a spooky 1836 fort overlooking the Penobscot River. We drove on, noticing fire-blackened fields, and the film of ice that had formed over the surface of passing ponds.

By Ellsworth, we were halfway there. The downtown was a frenzy of malls and fast-food chains, a last hurrah before the turnoff to Acadia National Park. We went with the flow, following the traffic south for a quick look at Bar Harbor, with its engaging shops and stylish cottages, but backtracked to Route 1, and from there on out, we had it to ourselves.

Sullivan, with its weathered homes, was the picture of serenity. Logging roads snaked into spruce forests, and we passed meadows of fuchsia-colored moss, what we later learned were low-growing blueberry bushes. A patch of snow had begun to escort us, and approaching Machias, the landscape looked remote, almost desolate.

It felt like the edge of the universe. Machias's hot spots were McDonald's and the Shop & Save, which exuded an unspoken cry: provisions! Solitary houses stood vigil on lonely hilltops.

At Whiting we left Route 1. Eleven miles ahead lay Lubec, the most easterly point in the continental United States. It emerged at the top of a pinnacle, a fishing village with spectacular views. Wooden houses spilled down to the sea from white-steepled churches. The sea lapped at a vintage stone pier, and the border crossing to New Brunswick -- and another time zone -- was only a block away.

With daylight fading, we retreated to the Home Port Inn. From our room we could see Eastport shimmering over the water. Night fell, and orange lights blinked among the salmon pens. The eastern horizon emitted an ivory glow, and the silence was total.

We bemoaned having to depart the following day. True, we had missed the extraordinary scenery of Schoodic Point and Mount Desert Island. And true, the beaches, the seafood, the lovely towns, and the sea captains' homes had all been a delight. But here we were, in the closest there was to a perfect Maine idyll, and we couldn't stay.

The next morning, the windows were a wall of white. Fog had moved in overnight, obliterating the view. I was almost grateful. Leaving wouldn't be so painful. There was nothing to see.

Diane Foulds is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington, Vt.

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