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THE PERFECT ESCAPE: DRIVING THE MAINE COAST

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DRIVING THE MAINE COAST

One of my earliest childhood memories is trout fishing with my grandfather at Acadia National Park. A few decades later, my wife Gayle and I honeymooned on Deer Isle. In the years between, I’ve driven the "reaches," long, narrow peninsulas that stretch like fingers into a sea that is so deeply blue it nearly looks black. I’ve handled a sailboat off Schoodic Point and dug clams not far from Eastport. And I’ve eaten enough lobster rolls to know that the ratio of celery and mayonnaise to lobster is like that of vermouth to gin in a good martini — just enough to know it’s there.

Clearly, the rocky coast of Maine has played a central role in my life. With thousands of bays and reaches, it’s calculated to be 3,478 miles long, much longer in fact than the coastline of a far bigger state, California. The closest thing to a straight line around here is Route 1 but even that road meanders playfully along the coast, playing cat and mouse with sea views. It’s the detours off Route 1 that are by far the most compelling parts of this drive. So pack a good map and a fleece, because even in summer, it can be chilly when the fog rolls in.

The best coastal drive begins in Rockland, a fishing town overlooking Penobscot Bay. It’s about 82 miles up the coast via Interstate 95and Route 1 from the city of Portland.

In Rockland’s busy harbor, you’ll see working lobster boats and ferries scuttling off to Vinalhaven, North Haven, Monhegan and Matinicus Islands. And you’ll see tall masted schooners, for Rockland is known as the "Windjammer Capital of the World." Ships such as Victory Chimes, which I sailed on a few years ago, call this harbor home when they’re not taking guests out on voyages through the island-dotted waters of Penobscot Bay.

Monheganharbor Monhegan Island (Courtesy Maine Office of Tourism)

But in the last decade, Rockland has boomed, becoming a haven for artists, a reputation enhanced by the presence of the estimable Farnsworth Art Museum. More than 5,000 works can be found here, many by painters who called Maine home or summered here, including Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Winslow Homer. A separate building down the street, a converted church in fact, houses an extraordinary collection of three generations of the Wyeth family: N.C., Andrew and Jamie. The latter two, father and son, live not far from here. And if you’re around in August, you’ll be in time for the Annual Lobster Festival.

Now head north on Route 1 to Camden, a patrician town of sea captain’s houses with a cluster of pristine sailboats in the harbor. Carry on through Belfast and Searsport. In the latter, you’ll find the fine Penobscot Marine Museum, with a collection of small boats and marine art. Stay on Route 1 and head Downeast.

"’Downeast’ is a term that come from the old clipper ship days," explains Dick Cough, who runs Acadia National Park Tours in Bar Harbor. "To move along the coast of Maine, these ships had to travel downwind in an easterly direction."

Continue Downeast until you see a sign for Route 175 south around Orland. That’s right, due to the quirky coastline, you’re now heading south for 15 miles, to the town of Castine. This collection of stately Federal and Greek Revival houses is like a return to the 19th century. So is a common surrounded by elms, a tree that’s become a rare sight in many parts of the country. The oldest European settlement in North America, Castine has a handful of old hotels, a few shops and a serene beauty.

Now take out your map, because you’ll need it to take Route 166 out of Castine and drive 30 miles along Routes 199, 175, 176 and 15 to get to Deer Isle. It’s no longer an island, as you’ll see when you cross the bridge over Eggemoggin Reach, a watery thoroughfare that’s well-known to yachtsman.

"People come to Deer Isle because it’s drop dead beautiful," states Anne Beerits, co-owner of Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies on Deer Isle."There’s a ragged coastline lined with pink granite coves and inlets. I don’t think that there’s anywhere else that exemplifies the Maine coast better. And unlike Mount Desert and Acadia National Park, it isn’t crowded here. We’re an hour from Route 1and most people trying to ‘do Maine’ will drive right past us."

Stonington (Courtesy Maine Office of Tourism)

Stonington3

Follow Route 15 South to Stonington, a classic working fishing village. It’s picturesque without being grand, a jumble of houses and cottages pressed tightly together. In backyards are fishing shacks stuffed with lobster traps and on Main Street, a handful of artists studios. Like a scene from Robert McLoskey’s beloved "One Morning in Maine," which was set nearby, lobster boats putter around the harbor. The rare concession to the 21st century are a few kayakers setting off from the harbor for a day or week spent among the fir-clad islands offshore.

"Deer Isle has no franchises and is unlikely to ever have them," Beerits points out. "The nearest traffic light is almost 20 miles away and that’s a real novelty for most people. It’s the last part of the Eastern seaboard that remains untouched."

Lacking a kayak, you can take the mail boat from Stonington to Isle au Haut, seven miles out to sea. Two thirds of the island belongs to Acadia National Park but its remoteness means that it attracts less than one percent of the overall visitors to Acadia. But bring your hiking boots, because your car must remain in Stonington . It was on Isle au Haut that my wife Gayle and I embarked on an ambitious 14-mile hike on our honeymoon, an early test of our vows.

Spend the night in the area or carry on up Route 15 and make your way 24 miles northeast to Blue Hill, a town that rivals Castine for sheer perfection. Then it’s back to Route 1, via Route 172, past the strip malls of Ellsworth and down Route 3 and across the bridge to Mount Desert Island. You’re entering bustling Bar Harbor, the town that’s the gateway to Acadia National Park.

"We like to say that’s we’re the beginning of real Downeast Maine here," Dick Cough says. "But there’s a saying in Maine that you can’t really ever get Downeast. It’s always the next town up."

For many people, this is the real coast of Maine, though the plethora of ice cream shops, tour buses and crowds in Bar Harbor might make you think otherwise. The massive shingled summer "cottages" in the area have been home to Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts, and more recently, Martha Stewart. You might glimpse the cottages, but the real reason to come to Acadia, which protects two third of the island, is to see a truly stunning coastline with granite-topped mountains, deep woods and remarkably pristine lakes and ponds. And the smartest way to see the park is to get off the major roads that thread through it.

"People ask me for the quickest way to see the park," Cough says. "They’ll do the 20-mile loop and that’s it. But there’s 115 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads built by the Rockefeller’s that you can use for biking or hiking."

Harpswell Harpswell (Courtesy Maine Office of Tourism)

My favorite hike is to climb Acadia Mountain, where the reward is a staggering view down to Somes Sound, the only true fjord on the Atlantic coast. Ideally, you’ll luck out with a crystal clear day and just the slightest nip in the seabreeze. Spend some time on a shore walk and there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded with the sight of seals lounging on huge, wave-rounded boulders. And the sound of the ocean is sometimes punctuated with the chug of a lobster boat going from trap to trap. But do take your car on the short, steep drive up to the highest summit on the Atlantic coast 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain.

Backtrack to Bar Harbor and then carry on to Eastport, about 125 miles away, via Routes 1, 191, 86 and 190. This is Washington County, the least developed part of the Maine coast. You can do the drive in a couple of hours, but you could also take a few days, slipping down the reaches to visit the fishing villages of Jonesport and Beals, taking hikes along the coast in Cutler or pausing for the blueberry festival in Machias in August. Eastport is ostensibly the end of the line, but you should drive a few miles further on into Canada and visit Campobello, the handsome summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which is maintained jointly by the US and Canada.

By the time you depart, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a lobster trap strapped to the roof of your car, a fresh copy of McCloskey’s "Blueberries for Sal" in the backseat and a couple of lobster rolls wrapped up for a roadside picnic. They’re telling reminders that the Maine coast remains one of America’s great treasures.

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