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Coastal Maine is a breath of fresh sea air. Blue skies, storm-tossed waves, flashing lighthouses, and villages weathered to silvery gray—these are the stuff of painters and sea legends. There’s nothing headier than driving up the Maine coast, and nothing more unexpectedly varied. One moment you’re strolling wide sandy beaches or looking out to the sea from a rocky promontory…the next, you’re scooping up bargains along Casco Bay, in Freeport, a town synonymous with outlet shopping and Maine’s premiere sports outfitter, L.L. Bean.
The coastal road from Portland to Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, embraces every facet of Maine, from seaports to museums to culinary hot spots to landscapes that make the heart soar. It’s a treasure trove of experiences, as we meander along Route 1 to our final destination: Acadia’s 50,000 acres of breathtaking beauty. Talk about opposites—the island also shelters one of the liveliest towns around: pretty Bar Harbor. The coastal magic is real.
Meander up the Maine coast on Route 1, but be sure to slip away on side roads that lead to fishing villages and snug harbors—the detours will make it special! If you’re pressed for time, zip along inland on Route 95. A world of beauty awaits between Portland and Acadia. Dip your toes in. Here are some suggestions.
The Pretty Port
See: A study in brick and cobblestone, Portland is a gourmet destination tucked into the shores of picturesque Casco Bay. Old streets buckle and roll like waves in Maine’s largest city, its Old Port waterfront district lined with quaint shops and restaurants. Tour the Maine landscapes at the Portland Museum of Art and check out Winslow Homer’s studio on Prouts Neck. Or hop the Casco Bay Ferry Line for a 20-minute ride to cottage-speckled Peak’s Island where you can rent a bike and pedal the perimeter. Back on the mainland, hike up to the hipster Munjoy neighborhood (the Brooklyn of Portland) and take in the bay views from the Eastern Promenade, a 68-acre park that’s a haven for strollers, dogs, and dreamers. The state’s oldest, most-photographed lighthouse, Portland Head, marks the entrance to the bay.
Eat: It’s gastro-fantastic here: sample wood-roasted clams at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador; suckling pig and lobster toast at Central Provisions; buttermilk fried chicken and oysters at Eventide; poutine fries at Duckfat. Leave room for delicious oddities: mocktails (bitters, fruits, and fizz) at Vena’s Fizz House; crunchy Maine-potato donuts at Holy Donuts; smoked-bacon-wrapped hotdogs at Blue Rooster. And Fore Street is where it all started—putting Portland on the foodie map.
Spend the night: Best Western—Merry Manor Inn (South Portland)
Also along the way:
Best Western Plus—Freeport Inn (Freeport)
Best Western Plus—Brunswick Bath (Brunswick)
I-295 N, US-1 N (35 miles; 40 min)
See: A shopping mecca on the northern edges of Casco Bay, Freeport beckons to the bargain-lover in us all, with major outlets from Nike to North Face, as well as local shops selling crafts and candies. Maine’s famed outdoors outfitter L.L. Bean sits in the thick of the village, open 24 hours for that 2 a.m. shopping itch.
Brunswick, home to Bowdoin College, gives way to Bath, the “City of Ships,” where half of America’s sailing vessels were built and launched in the 19th century. The Maine Maritime Museum brings the town’s boatbuilding history to life with 21,000 artifacts, cruises up the Kennebec, and trolley tours of neighboring Bath Iron Works, where Navy vessels are still being built.
Eat: A short drive from L.L. Bean, Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co., in South Freeport, serves fresh lobster rolls, shrimp, scallops, and clams, plus grilled goodies and pie for the less sea-savvy.
Half-Hour Detour to Phippsburg: From Bath, follow Route 209 to splash on Popham Beach and decide for yourself: Is it the prettiest beach in Maine?
US-1 N (52 miles; 1 hr, 11 min)
Three Artful Beauties
See: Mid-coast Maine’s rocky shores are notched with picturesque coastal villages and harbors. Rockland’s mile-long granite pier juts into sparkling Penobscot Bay, all the way out to The Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The Maine Lighthouse Museum shines a light on the history of these sturdy beacons, while the Farnsworth Art Museum gathers three generations of Wyeths: N.C., Andrew, and Jamie. And the ferry whisks passengers out to Penobscot Bay’s iconic islands, including far-off Matinicus.
Further up the coast, artists have flocked to Rockport for years, and the village has even starred in films like the Academy Award-winning In the Bedroom. See why Forbes named it one of the prettiest towns in the U.S., and then press on to Camden—another film star on Penobscot Bay. For classic views of the harbor, climb up to the Public Library, where the bay spreads out below and sailboat masts bristle and bob.
Eat: Camden earns high marks on Maine’s foodie scene, with Comida Latin Kitchen, where Maine meets Spain, and tasty Asian fusion choices, with homemade noodles, at Long Grain.
US-1 N, ME-3 (76 miles; 1 hr, 44 min)
See: What makes Acadia National Park, in the far reaches of Maine, one of the most-visited parks in our National Park system? The 47,000-acre paradise on Mount Desert Island is a jumble of rocky shores, wild water, and dramatic skies, first created in 1919. Dominated by the 1,530-foot beauty of Cadillac Mountain, the expanse is crisscrossed by carriage trails added by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., that are still used today. From Cadillac’s peak, watch the sun rise before it strikes anywhere else in the U.S. Then bike the Park Loop Road or take a 2.5-hour narrated National Park bus tour, with stops on the mountaintop. The park covers much of the island, with a lesser-known section on the mainland, backing onto the “don’t-miss” fishing village of pretty Winter Harbor.
When you’re ready for nightlife, Bar Harbor’s bustling streets and restaurants offer a lively balance, with plenty of shops and activities to fill the days, too. Cruise Frenchman Bay on a schooner leaving from the Bar Harbor Inn Pier, or score island keepsakes from Bark Harbor (for furry friends) or Island Artisans, with crafts from all over Maine.
Eat: Voted “Best Breakfast with a View” by Yankee Magazine, the Looking Glass Restaurant overlooks Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay. Wood-fired pizza sizzles at Geddy’s, and for a new twist on Maine’s signature seafood, try Lobster Moqueca stew simmered in coconut broth at Havana.
Spend the night: Best Western—Acadia Park Inn (Bar Harbor)
ME-3, US-1 S, I-395 S, I-95 S, I-295 S (175 miles; 3 hrs)
For a speedy return to Portland, take the inland route.