LYNCHVILLE, Maine -- It is as much a part of Maine as Stephen King, lobster, mountains, and moose. Yet it is tucked away on a small town corner. For out-of-towners who see it, it might as well be a stop sign because stop they do.
They stand before it and think about Scandinavia, Central America, the Orient, or Europe. The sign points to Poland, Paris, Naples, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Mexico, Peru, and China.
All those places are towns in Maine.
The idea was to promote tourism in the state. The first sign was erected in the 1930s. Thieves took a liking to it -- and to subsequent replacements. The latest one, about 15 feet high, is fortified with steel and probably won't go anywhere.
At the junction of Routes 5 and 35 here in southwest Maine, not far from the New Hampshire border, the sign is a jumping-off place to see the state without a passport. It steers visitors along the Androscoggin River and across the Kennebec. It leads over swells of big hills and through thick woods. It points the way past rural poverty, salvage yards, glorious vistas, hillside resorts, and summer cottages in western and central Maine.
Doing a worldwide tour of Maine is a lesson in logistics and map reading. That New England adage, ''You can't get there from here," is put to the test. Bumpy backroads and fast-paced interstate are all sampled, from the rolling Oxford Hills to the shores of China Lake.
Water put Poland on the map at Poland Spring and made the Ricker family empire. The hillside retreat had the first resort golf course, and in its early 20th-century heyday entertained the rich and famous, from Babe Ruth to the Kennedys. Today, visitors can learn about the bottled water through displays and a video, see the water's source, and walk the trails of the Poland Spring Preservation Park. The octagon-shaped Maine State Building, once the resort's library, was part of the state pavilion for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It was dismantled and transported to Maine in 16 railroad cars. Today, it houses resort memorabilia such as a green-carpeted golf room.
There's no Eiffel Tower in Paris, but the vistas from Paris Hill are noteworthy. Not too many libraries have barred windows and a steel door, but Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum does. The library and museum occupy what was once the county jail and now holds memorabilia from Hannibal Hamlin-- native son, US senator, and vice president in President Lincoln's first term.
Down in South Paris are the paths and gardens of McLaughlin Gardens. In the barn, pick up a sheet that identifies the irises, hostas, and day lilies and stroll down stone-walled Wildflower Lane. Rock hounds know about Perham's of West Paris. Shop, look around the small museum, or get information on the nearby quarries for some collecting.
Naples comes alive in summer on the causeway where visitors can choose from boat cruises on Sebago Lake, seaplane rides, mini-golf, ice cream, fried food, and T-shirt shops.
Songo Lock links Sebago and Long lakes. One way to see it is aboard the Songo River Queen II, an old-time riverboat complete with paddlewheel. There's the hour-long swing on Long Lake (sunset's nice) or the 2 1/2-hour cruise that includes going through the hand-operated lock.
The midnight sun doesn't exist in Maine's Scandinavia, but plenty of lakes and hearty rolling hills do. Sweden is a fine place to live if quiet and country are the objectives. Sweden, not to be confused with New Sweden in northern Maine, has an 1827 white meetinghouse on Route 93, a war memorial, church, and new town offices for selectmen. The old offices were in a former brick schoolhouse dating to 1827. Next door is the Sweden Historical Society, which houses items like farm tools and furniture. Waterford Road leads to McSherry Orchards, where in fall the apples are ripe for picking.
Norway is a good place for a breather. West of Main Street is a place to ponder, looking out upon the waters: Big Pennesseewassee Rest Area, by the lake of the same name (pronounced (pen-uh-see-WAH-see). Distant hills rim the horizon. Covered picnic tables are lunch spots and there's a hand pump for water.
Main Street is a few blocks long. Pine Tree State artists are on display at the Matolcsy Art Center, the Norway Historical Society houses memorabilia from snowshoes to minerals, running gear is for sale at the New Balance Factory Outlet, Woodman's Sporting Goods can help out-of-town anglers and hunters, and the Fare Share Market natural foods cooperative has everything from homemade soup to nuts. Norway is also the birthplace of Tubbs Snowshoes, founded in 1906 by Walter F. Tubbs.
Civil War General Rufus Ingalls lived in Denmark, and the family's 1794 home is still there by the war memorial across from The Italian Moose, a rustic place for pizzas and subs, just down the street from Jimbob's Variety.The Denmark Arts Center features summer programs. Four ponds and a campground are off Bush Row Road, which can be explored with kayaks and canoes from Complete Paddler. The Saco River flows through Denmark, as does that waterway less paddled, the Brownfield Bog.
For skiers and riders heading up to Sugarloaf in winter, getting to Mexico is a signal that progress has been made on the long haul -- and the Chicken Coop is a reason to stop. You can't miss the Route 2 sign. Open since 1946, it is deliciously kitschy on the inside. The dining room is like a log cabin complete with a string of white Christmas lights, while the diner has booths, Elvis on the wall, and juke boxes. Comfort food rules.
Across the Androscoggin is Peru, where summer residents come to stay in the cottages and second homes ringing Worthley Pond, south of Route 108. Swim, boat, and listen for loons. The Honey Run Campground on the south end of the pond has a grassy camping area and a handful of cabins by a babbling brook. The beach is across the road.
China, about 10 miles outside the state capital of Augusta, is all about China Lake. There is a Peking Street in tiny China Village with its library, general store, and post office and a true find is the grassy, tiny China Baptist Church park with stone steps leading to the water. Causeway Street is where the fishermen ply for bass, brown trout, and perch in the 3,832-acre lake. The corners of Causeway and Routes 202/9 are taken up by the Lakeside Country Store and The Landing, a place to stroll up to the window, order fried seafood, and sit at a picnic table at the head of the lake.
It's all a long way from that sign in Lynchville, which doesn't tell all. Maine has many other foreign places to visit like Moscow, Lisbon, Rome, and Belfast. But leave your passport behind.
Contact Marty Basch, a writer in New Hampshire, through www.martybasch.com.