Traveller's Guide: Maine

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With an extensive coastline, a dramatic interior and historic towns, this New England state has plenty to offer, says Aoife O'Riordain

The Maine attraction?

The "Pine Tree State", in the far north-east of the United States, offers pretty, laid-back seaside towns as well as spectacular scenery, superb seafood and a gentle pace of life. Maine is so relaxed that it feels more like Canada – with which it shares a much longer land border than with neighbouring New Hampshire.

Originally part of Massachusetts, Maine officially became a separate state in 1820. While part of New England – along with Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island – Maine is larger than all the rest combined. Indeed, it is the same size as Ireland, with a population of only 1.3 million people – which means there is plenty of scope for wilderness adventure.

Evidence suggests that the Vikings were regular visitors to Maine, paving the way for intrepid fishing fleets from Europe. Many subscribe to the theory that the state's official feline, the Maine Coon cat, is descended from domesticated Norse cats.

The names of many of Maine's towns and cities, such as Bangor, Belfast, York, Camden and Calais, bear witness to the European migrants who arrived on its shores around the 17th century. One of the first groups was that of Samuel de Champlain, a Frenchman who settled in Mount Desert Island in eastern Maine around 1604. Eight miles south of Calais, you can visit the International Historic Site of Saint Croix Island (001 207 454 3872; nps.gov/sacr ), which was one of the first places French explorers made landfall in Maine before heading south. You will need to hire a boat to get to the island, which opens from sunrise to sunset throughout the summer. Admission free.

Maine State Museum (001 207 287 2301; mainestatemuseum.org ) offers exhibits and artefacts chronicling Maine from pre-history to more recent times (Tuesday-Friday 9am-5pm, Saturdays 10am-4pm, closed Sundays and Mondays, admission $2/£1.30).

Where to start?

Maine's stunning 3,500-mile coastline, which stretches from the Piscataqua River on its border with New Hampshire right up to the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It is a fractured mosaic of craggy coves, rocky peninsulas, beaches and estuaries peppered with more than 2,000 islands. US Route 1, which runs the length of the Maine shore, and continues down the East Coast to Key West in Florida, is the perfect artery from which to explore.

Maine has a string of more than 60 lighthouses that protected ships from its picturesquely indented coastlines. Lighthouse fanatics can take Route 1 from the southern reaches of Maine, starting at Cape Neddick, and travel north as far as the Canadian border, to the candy-striped Quoddy Head lighthouse, which is also the easternmost point of the United States.

Just south of Portland on Cape Elizabeth is probably one of Maine's most photographed lighthouses. Sitting on a craggy outpost framed by the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the Portland Head Lighthouse, 1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth (001 207 799 2661; portlandheadlight.com ) is the oldest in Maine; it was commissioned by George Washington in 1790. Next door there's an informative museum housed in the former light keeper's quarters (10am-4pm daily, admission $2/£1.30).

Halfway along the coast, Camden is steeped in colonial history and one of Maine's most alluring seaside towns. A clapboard house-lined main street sweeps down to a picturesque harbour clogged with boats. Its prosperity was built on seafaring and shipbuilding in the early 19th century. Stay at the Camden Harbour Inn, 83 Bayview Street (001 207 236 4200; camdenharbourinn.com ), a pretty veranda-wrapped boutique inn perched on a hill at the edge of town with sweeping views of the bay; doubles from $175 (£117) including breakfast.

Another atmospheric inn is the Black Point Inn at Prouts Neck in Scarborough (001 207 883 2500; blackpointinn.com ), with views of the Atlantic on three sides and rooms in the style of old-school chintz. From the hotel you can amble around the Prouts Neck peninsula and soak up the inspiring scenery. Doubles from $420 (£280), including dinner and breakfast.

Retail therapy?

Maine may not immediately strike visitors as a bargain-hunter's dream destination, but it is. The southern coast plays host to both Kittery and Freeport, two large "outlet centres" that attract hordes of eager shoppers. Stranger still, Maine imposes a 5 per cent sales tax while neighbouring New Hampshire is tax-free.

A short detour off the I-95 freeway north of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you can find discounts at Kittery's numerous outlets, which include Nike, Banana Republic, Gap, Carhartt, Burberry, North Face and Patagonia. For more information see thekitteryoutlets.com.

Further up the coast, Freeport may have played an important role in Maine's colonial history, but it is probably best known as the home of outfitter LL Bean, 95 Main Street (0800 891 297; llbean.com ), which was founded here in 1917. The centre of town is home to its giant flagship store encompassing anything you might ever need for a visit to the great outdoors. Go for one of its classic canvas totes so beloved of preppy East Coasters, which can be monogrammed with your initials while you wait. There are plenty of other bargains to be had among Freeport's 200 or so other shops, like at the outlet store of fashionistas and First Lady favourite, J Crew. For more details see freeportusa.com. V Gourmet capital?

C Maine's principal coastal town, Portland, has been quietly establishing itself as a bit of a gastro centre and lays claim to having more restaurants per capita than any other US city after San Francisco. Overlooking the scenic Casco Bay and with an ordered grid of charming, cobbled streets, quirky shops, a handful of micro breweries and a thriving fishing industry, it makes a perfect base for a couple of days.

Join the locals propping up the U-shaped bar in the pier side J's Oysters, 5 Portland Pier (001 207 772 4828; jsoyster.com ; open 11.30am-11.30pm, except Sundays, noon-10.30pm). It serves freshly shucked oysters and steaming bowls of chowder to a convivial mix of regulars and tourists.

Reservations are a must for one of the city's hottest tables: Fore Street at 28 Fore Street (001 207 775 2717; forestreet.biz ) – all exposed brick walls and wooden furniture, set in a former warehouse close to the seafront. It champions locally sourced ingredients and the menu changes daily, but the spit-roasted local pork and wood-fired oven-baked mussels are always on the menu.

Duck Fat at 43 Middle Street (001 207 774 8080; duckfat.com ; 11am-9pm daily, to 10pm Thursday-Saturday) is another foodie hotspot although as the name suggests, it's not the healthiest. It is most lauded for its Belgian frites double fried in artery clogging duck fat (the doughnuts are excellent, too).

Half-an-hour outside Portland you can get back to nature, or at least agriculture, at Pineland Farms at 15 Farm View Road, New Gloucester (001 207 668 4539; pinelandfarms.org ; 8am-6pm daily, until 7pm from 1 June to 6 September). This picture-postcard 5,000-acre working farm has an education centre, a creamery as well as various activities like hiking and, in winter, cross country skiing. There is also a market where you can stock up on vegetables, fruit and maple syrup; the Dish Creative Café serves local produce. Pineland Farms also offers several guesthouses to rent on its grounds that start at $400 (£266) per double.

Natural highs?

Inland Maine's natural attractions are varied and spectacular. It's a sparsely populated landscape of mountains, lakes and ponds, with more than 32,000 miles of rivers and streams, rolling farmland and dense forests worthy of a Stephen King novel. Covering the majority of Mount Desert Island in eastern Maine is Acadia National Park (001 207 288 3338; nps.gov/acad ), which President Obama is visiting this weekend. It is New England's only National Park and is, by US standards, tiny – only twice the size of Manhattan. A one-week pass costs $10 (£6.70) per vehicle between May and October.

Named by French settler Samuel de Champlain, Mount Desert Island is an interesting mix of Patagonia-wearing adventurers and twinset donning East Coast bluebloods. The latter have flocked to Bar Harbor since it became fashionable at the end of the 19th century as rustic getaway of choice for families such as the Astors, Pulitzers and Rockefellers.

Aside from its spectacular sea views, rolling hills, granite peaks and forests, Acadia's two stand-out geographical features are 1,528ft Cadillac Mountain and Somes Sound – a thin, fjord-like formation that almost cuts the island in two. There are over 120 miles of hiking trails or you can explore the park by bike along the 45 miles of carriage roads that were a gift from philanthropist John D Rockefeller Jr in the 1940s. Acadia Bike at Bar Harbor (001 800 526 8615; acadiabike.com ) offers bike rental from $20 (£13.30) a day.

The park has several campgrounds, or if you'd like something a little more genteel and comfortable check in to the Claremont Hotel, 22 Claremont Road, Southwest Harbor (001 800 244 5036; theclaremonthotel.com ). This family-owned Mount Desert Island fixture enjoys a place on the National Register of Historic Places: it opened in 1884 and offers seaside Americana in spades. Doubles from $148 (£99) including breakfast.

Take me to the river

To escape the crowds, aim for the 92-mile network of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams of the Allagash waterway in northern Maine. This forms part of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail ( northernforestcanoetrail.org ), which passes through a sizeable chunk of Maine and links it with the waterways of Québec, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

Only experienced paddlers should tackle the trails on their own, but keen novices can join a trip organised by Allagash Guide (001 207 634 3748; allagash-guide.com ). Itineraries vary in length, location and duration but cost around $600 (£400) per person for three to four days.

You can even take a Moose Safari by canoe. Young's Guide Service (001 207 695 2661; youngsguideservice.com ) offers four-hour canoe trips in the Moosehead Lakes region during the morning or evening (the best time to see them); $75 (£50) per person, based on a group of two – if you don't spy a moose they will take you out again free.

A good, long walk?

Baxter State Park at Millinocket (001 207 723 5140; baxterstateparkauthority.com ) is an ideal spot. Home to Maine's highest peak, Mount Katahdin, it offers several different campgrounds, lean-tos and cabins to rent dotted throughout its dramatic, rugged scenery; admission $14 (£9.30) per car.

More than 200 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the park. Baxter State Park is also the northern end of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail ( nps.gov/appa ), which starts on the slopes of Mount Katahdin and ends at Springer Mountain in Georgia, passing through 14 states.

A three-mile section of the trail covers one of the area's best day hikes, the Gulf Hagas – an impressive 400ft-deep canyon scattered with waterfalls and swimming holes that have been carved through the slate bedrock. For details see themainehighlands.com.

What's the attraction of winter in Maine?

The state's leading winter-sports centre is the 4,237ft Sugar Loaf Mountain ( sugarloaf.com ), in the west of the state near the New Hampshire border. It has a 2,820ft vertical drop and New England's only above-tree-line skiing.

Ski Safari (01273 224 060; skisafari.com ) offers ski holidays from the UK, while Directline Ski (020-8239 8400; directline-skiing.co.uk ) and W&O Travel (00845 277 3353; wandotravel.com ) offer packages to Maine's second ski resort, Sunday River, which straddles nine peaks and offers ideal beginner and intermediate slopes.

For something a little more off the beaten track, Maine Huts & Trails, Carrabassett Valley (001 877 634 8824; mainehuts.org ) offers huts set near Flagstaff Lake, linked by a series of trails popular for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing. Each of the lodges has nearby cabin-style accommodation and full facilities, with nightly rates starting at $65 (£43) per adult without breakfast.

Travel essentials: Maine

Getting there

* Boston's Logan airport is the leading gateway to Maine, and a 90-minute drive to the state's southern border. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic.com ) and American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk ) fly non-stop from Heathrow. For northern Maine, a more convenient approach is Halifax, Nova Scotia, while western Maine can also be reached from Montreal.

Getting around

* Public transport is largely restricted to the coast. From Boston airport and South Station, Concord Coachlines (001 603 228 3300; concordcoachlines.com ) offers services to 15 points in Maine. Amtrak (001 800 872 7245; amtrakdowneaster.com ) operates a daily Downeaster service between Boston North Station and Portland, which also stops at several points on the Maine coast including Wells, Saco and Old Orchard Beach. The full journey takes two hours 30 minutes and costs around $39 (£26) return although specials are often available.

Greyhound (001 800 231 2222; greyhound.com ) runs services to and within Maine. From Bangor there are connections to Caribou (Cyr Bus Lines, 001 800 244 2335) and north as far as St John in Canada (Acadian Lines, 001 506 859 5100).

Car rental is useful and inexpensive; Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.co.uk ) offers a week's car hire from around £160, picking up at Boston airport. When driving, beware of moose. The state has around 30,000, and many accidents are caused by moose wandering onto roads.

More information

* Discover New England (020 8237 7977, discovernewengland.org ). Visit Maine (001 888 624 6345; visitmaine.com ).

Fall foliage: Leaf peeping

Maine's fall foliage easily rivals any on offer further south in New England, and furthermore you can enjoy the colours without the crowds. At around six weeks from the first tinge of changing colours, Maine's season lasts the longest, too. This year, official fall foliage reports begin on 15 September. For details see mainefoliage.com.

Set deep in the interior in the Maine Highlands, Moosehead Lake ( mooseheadlake.org ) is a good place to observe the leaves turning shades of red, yellow, russet and orange. It is an area studded with lakes and dense forests. There are numerous ways to appreciate the views, with whitewater rafting, biking, hiking or scenic drives.

Moosehead Hills (001 207 695 2514; mooseheadhills.com ) offers a handful of rustic log cabins on Moosehead and neighbouring Loon Lake. A self-catering cabin, sleeping four, costs from $135 (£90).

Baxter State Park is another ideal spot; the park is ablaze with colour, particularly during the last week of September.

Culinary delights: The world is your lobster

Maine could easily be nicknamed "The Lobster State", such is the ubiquity of these crustacea – nine out of 10 lobsters consumed in the US are caught off Maine's coast. Locally, the speciality is a lobster roll: a slightly sweet bread roll that cradles about 1lb of lobster meat. Prices are based on market rates but expect to pay around $15-$20 (£10-£13).

Where you can find Maine's best lobster roll is a hotly debated topic. One obvious contender is The Clam Shack on Route 9 (at the bridge) in the town of Kennebunkport (001 207 967 3321; theclamshack.net ), which serves the roll along with your choice of calorific evil – either Clam Shack mayonnaise or melted butter. (Incidentally, Kennebunkport is the unofficial family summer HQ of former presidents George Bush and George W Bush. Another draw during the summer is a range of sandy beaches, such as the three-mile strand of Goose Rocks, north of town.)

Also vying for the lobster-roll crown is Red's Eats (001 207 882 6128) at 41 Water Street in the small mid-coast town of Wiscasset. It is easy to find – just look for the queues of people and lines of parked cars outside.

One of Maine's principal lobster fishing ports, Rockland, plays host to the annual Maine Lobster Fest from 4 to 8 August.

The festival is in its 63rd year. Next month's festival features a host of lobster-related events. For further information see mainelobsterfestival.com .

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