Maine: Nature in the north

This New England state lies at the extreme north-east of the US, and offers visitors a wealth of parks, mountains and crumpled coastline, says Cathy Packe

Great outdoors?

Yes, that is certainly what the state at the north-eastern extreme of the US offers. This area of New England shares borders with New Hampshire, plus the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. As the crow flies, the Canadian border at the eastern end of the state is some 230 miles from New Hampshire in the west, but the coastline is so crumpled that, if it could be straightened out, it would form a continuous line of 3,500 miles. Sheltering close to the coast are 4,600 islands; within the state boundaries there are 5,900 lakes or ponds and more than 5,000 rivers; and nearly 90 per cent of the land is covered in forests, which explains its nickname – the Pine Tree State.

Outdoor options include hiking and watersports in summer, and trips into the countryside to enjoy the glorious changing colours of fall. The good news for British travellers is that a new air link to Fredericton, nearby in New Brunswick, will make Maine easier to reach this summer. But at this time of year, the reason to come here is for winter sports.

Skiers and snowboarders have plenty of choice, although few of Maine's resorts are internationally known. The most notable location is Sunday River, a short drive from Bethel on the west side of the state. There, eight interconnected peaks offer slopes suitable for skiers of all levels, and this year a new "magic carpet lift" will help beginners to reach the slopes. Too far from any of the big cities to attract hordes of weekend visitors, Sunday River is rarely crowded, and conditions are reliable: even in the most disappointing of winters, its extensive snow-making facilities mean that a decent day's skiing can be guaranteed. One-day lift passes start at $69 (£36).

Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; www.ski-i.com) is among the UK operators who include Sunday River in their programmes. A one-week package, including BA flights to Boston, car hire and accommodation at the Grand Summit Resort Hotel, costs from £744 per person. Boston is a three-hour drive from Sunday River.

There are also opportunities for cross-country skiing in Sunday River – as there are throughout the state – with 25 miles of trails and a Nordic ski centre, which can provide equipment hire and lessons (001 207 824 2410; www.sundayriverinn.com).

The lesser-known ski areas in Maine are also worth exploring. Shawnee Peak in Brighton (001 207 647 8444; www.shawneepeak.com) has just opened for its 70th season, and here one-day lift passes are available from $34 (£18). Snowmobiling is another popular winter pastime in Maine, with 13,000 miles of groomed, and interconnected, trails covering most of the state. The Maine Snowmobile Association (www.mesnow.com) publishes a map of the trails, and snowmobiles are available to hire from sports shops throughout the state.

I'm looking forward to summer

So is the state's tourist industry. Much of coastal Maine comes to life only during a relatively short summer season, between Memorial Day, (last Monday in May) and Columbus Day (second Monday of October) – although the lack of crowds is part of the appeal at any time of year.

The main attraction – and only National Park in the state – is Acadia (001 207 288 3338; www.nps.gov/acad), which sprawls across 40,000 acres of Mount Desert Island, the southern part of Isle au Haut and the Schoodic Peninsula. At various times a hunting ground of Native Americans, a battlefield for English and French troops, and an inspiration to artists and writers, this varied terrain has been the focus of conservationists for more than a century. It is dominated by Cadillac Mountain, from which there are spectacular views; below are lakes and mountains, and a wealth of flora and fauna.

Drive around the Loop Road, a 27-mile route which sidles down Desert Island's eastern shore before heading north again beside Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake to the outskirts of the only settlement of any size on the island, Bar Harbor. This, along with the smaller Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor at opposite sides of Somes Sound fiord, is the best base for exploring Acadia. Marc Neidig has been a ranger for five years, and says that it is the park's diversity that makes him want to stay. "We have a little bit of everything here. There are 140 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of paved carriage roads that are ideal for biking and horse-riding, or you can sit on the beach or swim."

Acadia National Park is open all year, although some roads may be closed in poor weather – and most of the Loop Road is closed from 1 December until 14 April. An admission fee, valid for seven days, is payable from May to October: $10 (£5.50) for a vehicle from 1 May-22 June and in October; $20 (£11) during the remainder of the season. Pedestrians and cyclists must pay $5 (£2.75) for seven days' access to the park. Free buses (001 207 667-5796; www.exploreacadia.com), equipped with cycle racks, operate from 23 June until early October on eight different routes through the park.

Off the beaten track?

Head north. The North Woods area is wild and remote, ideal territory for anyone looking for a real outdoor adventure. Access is limited: cars are allowed in, but not bicycles or camper vans, so many people choose to explore on foot,u o by seaplane, or by taking a raft or canoe trip. Two towns just south of the Woods area make good bases for exploration: Rockwood, on the west side of Moosehead Lake, and Greenville, at the southern tip of the lake. Here, at 5 Lily Bay Road, is Northwoods Outfitters (001 207 695 3288; www.maineoutfitter.com), which has been providing supplies and guides for trips into the Woods for more than a century: expeditions by canoe and kayak, guided hiking, moose safaris and fishing trips.

North of Moosehead Lake are Baxter State Park, a mountainous area around Katahdin, the highest mountain in the state at 5,267ft, and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway – in fact, interconnecting lakes and rivers that continue up to Allagash town, just below the Canadian border.

Is water the Maine attraction?

Yes. With such a long coastline, there are plenty of beaches and coastal resorts to choose from. Among the best known are the Kennebunks – Kennebunk itself and Kennebunkport, where the former US president George Bush Snr has a holiday compound. All around are fine stretches of sand: Mother's and Gooch's beaches south of the Kennebunk river mouth. Further north, Goose Rocks is, despite its name, a gorgeous, unspoilt expanse of sand that is ideal for a family outing or a long coastal walk.

Further north, the jagged coastline of mid-Maine is better suited to messing about in boats than to wandering barefoot in the sand. Much of the activity centres on the Boothbay peninsula, especially Boothbay Harbor – the departure point for sea cruises, mackerel-fishing trips or outings to see how lobsters are caught. The largest operator at Boothbay Harbor is Cap'* Fish's, whose boats depart from Pier 1 (001 207 633 3244; www.mainewhales.com). The choice of trips can be daunting, but for anyone who wants a scenic cruise, John Taylor, who captains one of Cap'* Fish's boats, recommends the trip on the Kennebec River: "It's 44 miles long and you will see seven lighthouses," he says. The boat stays close to the shore, so you can also see bald eagles, ospreys, terns and lots of gulls. This trip takes three hours, and operates every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer season. This year's prices have yet to be announced, but in 2007, the trip cost $30 (£16).

One of the highlights of the mid-coast area is Monhegan Island, 12 miles out to sea and accessible during the summer on the ferries that operate from Boothbay Harbor, Port Clyde and New Harbor, from where Hardy Boat Cruises runs a twice-daily service in summer (001 207 677 2026; www.hardyboat.com). The island is home to a tiny human community, mainly lobstermen and their families, and a large colony of seabirds. It is unspoiled by modern tourism; visitors come for the opportunity to hike, swim or picnic well away from the beaten track.

Anything cultural?

Maine's largest conurbation, Portland, is an attractive small town set on a boomerang-shaped peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Maine and is protected from the ocean by a flotilla of small islands. The old port area has been renovated, creating an attractive warren of cobbled streets, shops and restaurants. Much of the city's Federal-style architecture, with its elegant arches and symmetrical façades, has been preserved. The striking modern addition on Congress Square is the extension to the Portland Museum of Art, Maine's principal art gallery (001 207 775 6148; www.portlandmuseum.org).

The museum's permanent collection consists of American and European paintings and decorative art from the 18th century to the present day, and includes works by local artists. These include the 19th-century painter Winslow Homer, who spent much of his life in Maine. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily (Fridays to 9pm), though it closes on Mondays from mid-October to late May. Admission is $10 (£5.50).

Some 40 miles south of Portland, York was one of the oldest colonial settlements in New England. A number of its buildings – and some moved from other parts of Maine – have been preserved in Old York (001 207 363 4974; www.oldyork.org), a heritage centre containing homes, a prison and a schoolhouse, all built in the 18th century and furnished in period style. Like many of Maine's attractions, the season at Old York is short: it opens 10am-5pm daily except Sunday, from the first Saturday in June until Columbus Day weekend (this year, 11-13 October). Tickets are available from Jefferds Tavern, a reconstructed inn that is part of the site, and admission costs $10 (£5.50), with tickets valid for two consecutive days.

Retail therapy?

The best shopping is in Kittery, the first town you reach in Maine when driving north-east along the I-95 highway from Boston. Strung out along Route 1 North, which is clearly signposted from the highway, is a mile-long strip of factory shops and outlet malls full of designer bargains. All the well-known American names are here, from Banana Republic and Brookstone to Ralph Lauren Polo. Store hours vary, but most are open 10am-6pm daily, with extended opening to 8pm on Friday and Saturday.

Further north is Freeport, a coastal town that was once the centre of the mackerel industry but is now a shopper's paradise, with outlets spread along the length of Main Street. This is the home of LL Bean, the outdoor-clothing and sports-equipment supplier that was founded here in 1917. Its flagship store still operates from 95 Main Street (001 207 552 7772; www.llbean.com), and is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The 150 other shops here sell everything from fashion to local crafts.

How do I get there?

Bangor airport used to be a refuelling stop for transatlantic flights from Britain, but is now used only by planes diverting because of air-rage or terrorism scares. Instead, the most obvious US gateway is Boston, an hour's easy drive from the border between Massachusetts and Maine. You can fly from Heathrow to Boston on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com); and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines. co.uk). Virgin Holidays (0871 222 5825; www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers trips to Maine: flights combined with bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or fly-drive packages starting at £395 per person.

An excellent alternative, if you are planning a summer visit and want to explore the northern part of the state, is to fly to Fredericton in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and to drive from there. Canadian Affair (020-7616 9185; www.canadianaffair.com) is operating flights from Gatwick to Fredericton (with a stop in Halifax Nova Scotia) every Tuesday from 6 May until the end of October. Return flights are available from £198, and car hire can also be booked through Canadian Affair.

Where should I stay?

One of the delights of a trip to Maine is staying in the atmospheric inns that can be found across the state, often in scenic waterfront locations. These usually offer spacious, en-suite accommodation, sometimes with a log fire in the bedroom, an imaginative home-cooked breakfast, and a well-equipped communal sitting room, where complimentary afternoon tea and evening drinks are likely to be on offer.

Typical of the breed is the Five Gables Inn (001 207 633 4551; www.fivegablesinn.com) on Murray Hill Road in East Boothbay, run by Mike and De Kennedy, who, on 23 May, will be opening for their 13th season. Breakfast at Five Gables, served outside on the terrace, is a highlight. Guests who are keen to make homemade granola or breakfast burritos with crabmeat when they return home can buy De and Mike's book of recipes as a souvenir.

Traditional B&B accommodation can be slightly less opulent than staying at an inn, but a few nights' B&B can be an opportunity to meet local people. The Maine Tourism Association (www.mainetourism.com) publishes an extensive list of accommodation on its website, and many places can be booked online. For those after the outdoor life, there are sporting camps, where accommodation can be anything from a self-catering log cabin to a more sophisticated set-up with meals provided. All are situated away from towns and villages, and most have canoes and motorboats for hire. A list is available from the Maine Sporting Camps Association (www.mainesportingcamps.com).

Animal attractions

During the summer, it is possible to sight humpback, finback and minke whales along the whole of the Maine coast, but the centre for boat excursions is Bar Harbor. A number of companies operate from here, including the Bar Harbor Whale-Watching Company, which is based at 1 West Street (001 207 288 2386; www.whalesrus.com). This year's schedules have yet to be published, but, based on last year's programme, there will be one or more whale-watching excursions daily from mid-June until the end of October; trips last year cost $49 (£26), and lasted around three hours.

This company, along with many others, offers a variety of other wildlife cruises, with the opportunity to observe seals, puffins and countless other species of seabird.

Maine meal

Eating with the locals in Maine means locally caught lobster, served up in more ways than even most chefs could imagine. Eating lobster isn't reserved for special occasions in Maine, and a fresh lobster roll – succulent flesh served in a burger-style bun – is a real treat. Whether you go for hard- or soft-shell, steamed or boiled, tail or claws is a matter of preference. Even the smallest of coastal towns is likely to have a lobster shack: nothing fancy, it should be as close as possible to the water, with a window where you order and pick up your meal. The cutlery is more likely to consist of nutcrackers than a knife and fork.

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