Maine is full of life. For starters, its beauty is hard for any state to compete with, let alone its New England peers. Nestled in the furthest reaches of the Northeastern United States, the aptly-nicknamed Pine Tree State juts up between the French-Canadian province of Quebec and the remainder of the Maritime provinces – basking in the untamed wilderness of the North. On the other end, the entirety of its Southern border stares down the equally wild and enthralling Atlantic Ocean. But the main reason to visit Maine is the collection of vibrant towns that have sprouted across the land. Let’s look at seven such must-see communities in this neck of the Eastern Seaboard.
Situated on the Penobscot River (an area dubbed “the narrows”) and staggered just slightly off the base of Penobscot Bay, Bucksport enjoys a refreshing natural setting. The cool blue of the East Coast waters merges with the deep greens of the fluffy shoreline forests, with the town’s bright white architecture acting as a mediator. This Hancock County community maintains a mile-long waterfront walkway from which pedestrians can rub shoulders with the river and take in the views of Fort Knox (a 19th-century granite compound) and the elegant Penobscot Narrows Bridge. Complete the stroll with a visit to the Bucksport Historical Society to learn about the War of 1812 or the Lighthouse Arts Center to see the works of 100+ talented artists. If you time your visit accordingly, then you will also get to enjoy the zesty Bucksport Bay Festival in July or the Maritime Film Festival in November.
Still within Hancock County, but this time on the Southern portion of Deer Isle, Stonington is a gateway to the Merchant’s Row archipelago (one of the nation’s largest island clusters) and a destination unto itself. This active fishing town is also an art colony and a magnet for nature lovers. Here, 19th-century homes line the slim and snaking downtown streets while stimulating hiking trails skirt along the coast, as well as deeper into the island’s interior. Stonington also offers daily boat services across Jericho Bay to Acadia National Park (one of the most visited national parks in the United States) – a two-for-one day trip extravaganza. After working up an appetite, treat yourself to some freshly caught seafood at the collection of harborfront restaurants.
Another vibrant harbor town awaits on the coast of West Penobscot Bay (i.e midcoast Maine), just 40 miles Southwest of Bucksport. Camden, aka the “Jewel of the Maine Coast,” is a classic summer getaway town whose population usually triples when boating weather sinks in. Visitors can enjoy the beautiful waterfront, but they also have access to Barrett’s Cove Public Beach, right behind the town, and the nature trails and energizing vistas of Camden Hills State Park, beginning at the Northeast limits. Yes, Camden knows how to have a wet and wild summer, but it is also captivating in the fall when the mosaic of colorful leaves envelopes the area, and come wintertime, it boasts the only ocean-view ski area on the Eastern Seaboard (where the National Toboggan Championships are held).
Ogunquit keeps the ocean theme going, but this time with a delightful twist. Tucked in Maine’s Southeast corner, this York County resort town enjoys a long, thin, coast-paralleling peninsula that hosts three and a half miles of sandy beaches. Not only is this stretch perfect for sunbathing and sandcastle building, but the backdrop dunes support wild grasses and roses. No wonder this beach is consistently ranked among the best in the nation. During the peak season (May through October) lighthouse and whale watching cruises regularly run. But if you are nursing a sunburn, or are looking for things to do in the off-season, check out some of Ogunquit’s expressive indoor offerings, such as the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, the Ogunquit Heritage Museum, the Ogunquit Playhouse, and the collection of local art galleries.
Immediately South of Ogunquit, and still within York County (obviously), the moderately-sized town of York is another beach-lover’s paradise. Settled in 1624, and incorporated less than 30 years later, York is one the oldest towns in the United States. It therefore has many layers of heritage and beauty, which can be divided into four main sections: York Beach, York Village, York Harbor, and Cape Neddick. As far as upbeat vibes are concerned, York Beach is the primary draw. The multi-mile strip of undeveloped sand is suitable for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing, but also sports appealing shops and restaurants (be sure to hit The Goldenrod – a 128-year-old candy store/ice cream shop). If you’re looking to burn off some of those indulgent calories, head slightly inland to the Mount Agamenticus region, where you’ll find a 10,000-acre nature preserve and over 40 miles of scenic undulating trails.
One could simply skip from town to town along the coast and never get bored, but let us now look inward, and see what else Maine has to offer. Augusta may be the state capital, but this administrative city has the look and feel, and population (18,899 as of 2020), of a quaint town. Here, the wide Kennebec River stands in for the Atlantic to provide the now-expected aqua aesthetic. This bisecting waterway is overseen by the copper-domed capitol building and rows of Victorian-era architecture. This part of Augusta is actually a nationally-designated Main Street community, meaning it is dedicated to preserving its historic downtown. Case in point, the riverfront Old Fort Western (built in 1754) is the state’s oldest surviving wooden fort (and it’s open to the public). For a thorough and invigorating overview of the area, try hiking or cycling the 6.5-mile Kennebec River Rail Trail, which begins at Waterfront Park and extends down into Gardiner.
Deep within the mountains of Maine, Millinocket is the ideal basecamp from which to explore Baxter State Park. “Maine’s Biggest Small Town” sits just East of the 200,000-acre wilderness that fosters everything from dog sledding to whitewater rafting, and ATVing to skydiving. But the star attraction is Mount Katahdin – the highest point in the state, the Northern terminus of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, and one of the most breathtaking hikes in the country. To compliment the unlimited natural attractions, Millinocket hosts a weeklong Winterfest in mid-late February, the Trails End Festival, which celebrates the aforementioned long-haul trek with great music, food, and fun activities, a rockin’ Independence Day Festival, and the Millinocket Marathon (which is free to enter!).
The Pine Tree State is elegant and serene, but it is also social and enthusiastic. These seven small towns show that Maine is worth a visit anytime of year. With endless stretches of attractive coastlines, the summertime is a hit for good reason. But the changing seasons bring new color palettes, a fresh slate of outdoor activities, and an excuse to delve into the cultural and historical attractions that this colonial hub has to offer. If you’ve been meaning to visit this corner of America, then kick things off with one (or all) of these vibrant places.