Plan a trip to coastal Maine: A MidCoast Maine travel planner
Explore MidCoast Maine on a coastal Maine road trip. Sit in a classic Adirondack chair and enjoy coastal breezes, eat fresh lobster while taking in ocean views, visit with local craftsmen, and explore back roads winding through quaint Maine towns. Our MidCoast Maine travel planner will help you organize your vacation.
When I started to plan a trip to Maine – one of the few states I had not been to – I had nearly two weeks there. I knew I’d be in MidCoast Maine, but did I want to go farther north, stay south, or linger in one spot and rely on day trips? Tough question, indeed, for a coastal Maine road trip since there is surprisingly so much to see: dozens of lighthouses, quaint villages, Norman Rockwell-esque towns, photogenic rocky coastlines, lobster shacks and wharfs, and relaxing ocean vistas. Plus, country roads that will lead you to tiny hamlets and tidal ponds that beg to be explored.
Maine may not be the largest or most populated state in the United States, and the coastal Maine area and its islands may seem pretty compact. But don’t be mistaken: Planning a trip to coastal Maine – even a Maine road trip of one or two weeks — doesn’t mean you’ll have to time to check off everything in the MidCoast area or its islands.
Not only does the MidCoast Maine region stretch from the cities of Brunswick, up the coast to Belfast and beyond, and inland to the towns of Liberty, Freedom and Unity (I can’t make up those names). It also extends into the Atlantic to some 4,600 islands. One thing to always keep in mind when you plan a trip to coastal Maine: There are a lot of little peninsulas the jut into the Atlantic Ocean. Maine’s point-to-point shoreline only extends about 230 miles – but it’s actual “tidal” coastline with all the ins and outs is closer to a whopping 3,500 miles, third in length in the United States only behind Louisiana and the Florida Gulf coast!
- First tip: A little homework is a must when you plan to trip to coastal Maine and islands to help you decide what you have time to do and see.
- Second tip: Plan for more time than you think you need. Or, to put it the other way, plan less to do so you can allow yourself time to discover treasures on tiny back roads or coastlines. (I needed an “I brake for cemeteries” bumper sticker; there are nearly 7,000, according to the Maine Old Cemetery Association, many looking like Halloween backdrops.)
- Third tip: It will always take longer to get somewhere than you think it will, be it from distractions and attractions, or just because of that jagged coastline.
Planning your trip to coastal Maine – questions to ask
Like with any trip, you should start by asking yourself a few questions, as I did:
- What is your goal on your trip to coastal Maine and the Atlantic islands?
- Do you want to hang out in one place and relax with day trips, or race up and down the coast of Maine to see as many lighthouses or eat as much lobster as possible?
- Do you want to hop ferries to islands, or explore inland waterways and visit nature preserves for leisurely hikes?
- Is fine dining on your agenda along with first-class luxury hotels (Kennebunkport, Boothbay Harbor, Camden…), or are you looking for a local experience in classic, historic Maine inns (where “historic” may mean smaller rooms and creaky floors)?
- And, the biggest question for planning a trip to MidCoast Maine: How much time do you have?
I was in just part of the coastal Maine region for a little less than two weeks, and I felt a bit breathless trying to find time to see so many things, eat great lobster and seafood (of course!), and find a little time for walks and just relaxing, too. Plus, being a curious sort, every turn in the road on my own Maine road trip seemed to make my head swivel: “What’s that?!” I’d find myself thinking as I flipped a U-turn to go back and see, camera in hand.
In the end, I personally chose to linger in the Bristol and Pemaquid areas, with great south-central MidCoast Maine access for day excursions. I then wandered up the coast to the central Port Clyde and St. George areas, from there making my way on a day outing up to Camden, too, for a more north-central look. I finished my trip with a couple of days in Boothbay Harbor to the south – wishing I’d had more time in that region. That was frankly a lot for one trip to coastal Maine, but I used each place as a “base camp” for side trips to other places nearby, rather than moving constantly.
Two regrets (and I’m already planning my return road trip to coastal Maine): I did not get to any islands, and I did not spend any significant time in the farther north-central or northern reaches of MidCoast Maine. Wait, three regrets: I drove past innumerable preserves that begged to be explored on hikes and walks in MidCoast Maine, but time did not allow it, darn, darn, triple darn.
Map your trip to MidCoast Maine
Do yourself a favor and turn to your favorite online mapping site to calculate a few point-to-point distances (add time to every estimate to allow for stops along your MidCoast Maine drives … because you will stop!). Just shooting up the main artery of Highway 1 will make for quicker drives. But only remaining along the Highway 1 corridor means you experience less of the rugged beauty and coastal shorelines, not to mention you’ll likely be spending your time with a lot more people since Highway 1 is the throughway along coastal Maine.
For example, Brunswick to Belfast is about 90 minutes without stops. Add a side trip to Pemaquid Point Lighthouse (a must!), and you add a full hour. Add a side trip to Port Clyde (great area to meander) and you’ve likely added close to another hour. Now you are up to nearly 3 ½ hours of just drive time. We have not added time for stops for lunch, photos, shopping, museums (Owls Head Transportation Museum or Maine Lighthouse Museum, for example) or, lighthouse tours (Marshall Point can’t be beat), or just enjoying the coastal Maine beauty (Clark Island at Spruce Head). If you are there in the summer, another must-do is a boat excursion to see the Atlantic Puffins, for example with Hardy Boat Cruises!
Islands are a huge part of MidCoast Maine’s beauty, but do you have a day or more to take the ferry to one with enough time to enjoy it once there? Monhegan, Orr, Matinucus, Vinalhaven, and North Haven are just five possibilities for islands to visit in MidCoast Maine. Perhaps what you really want to do is feel the ocean breeze standing on a ferry and spend all or much of your trip in MidCoast Maine on a quaint island. Take a look at websites to find out more about ferry transportation to many of the popular islands to determine your Maine trip planning. And you will definitely need a few days to visit an island.
MidCoast Maine towns, villages, and lighthouses
No wonder New Englanders head to Maine for vacations, both summer and winter, not to mention to see leaves changing color in the fall. The quaint towns and villages have so much history, dating back to the Pilgrims. Church steeples dapple cityscapes, old-fashioned neon lights decorate storefronts, and in the summer visitors and residents alike sit along sidewalk benches on warm evenings near a town’s ice cream hangout licking cones dripping down their hands. Much of it can seem like you just stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting.
Along Highway 1 are the picturesque villages of Bath, Newcastle, Damariscotta, Waldoboro, Camden, or Belfast. Each one begging you to hang out for an afternoon, stroll the streets, and enjoy a meal.
Of course, there are the beautiful, ever-popular lighthouses (65 total today) – are lighthouse photographs on your list for a trip to coastal Maine? That will take a bit of planning too since you’ll either want to be there during the day when their visitor centers are open or wander out at night to enjoy a Milky Way backdrop with the silence broken only by splashing waves. Among MidCoast Maine lighthouses, consider Pemaquid, Marshall Point, Owl’s Head, and Rockland Breakwater, or smaller ones you may admire from afar such as Ram Island, Hendricks Head, and Cuckold.
Find a base camp for your Maine coast trip … or?
There are three ways to approach a trip to MidCoast Maine depending on how long your trip is:
>> You can hop, skip and jump up the coast, changing your inn and town every night as you move along the MidCoast Maine area. This method can be more tiresome with the constant packing and unpacking, but you will likely see a lot. This is not my personal choice.
>> You could select two or three regional hubs, choose lodging in that area, and create a mini base camp for several days, heading out on day trips but returning to the same hotel or inn each night, before moving on to your next hub where you repeat the plan. This is a bit more relaxing since you aren’t packing up every day, and frankly once you find a base for your trip in coastal Maine there will be so much to see and do within 30 minutes or an hour for your Maine road trip. This is what I did, and I quite enjoyed its variety.
>> You could also of course pick one place to stay and only do what you can accomplish on day trips from that area. Meaning you will likely get addicted with so much to see and do you’ll be planning your return trip before you leave, just as I was. A fine option, if you just want to linger.
I also chose locally owned and family-run historic inns, such as Craignair Inn in the St. George/Spruce Head area, Bradley Inn in Bristol/New Harbor, and Topside Inn in Boothbay Harbor. Inns are a classic part of the rich coastal Maine road trip experience. Usually, the innkeepers are there because they love the coast and islands of Maine – and they will be quite eager to share tips. In fact, they may be able to arrange some special tours, too, so just ask what they suggest and tell them what your interests are. I found a favorite place in the Back Cove area of New Harbor Maine when I talked to my innkeepers are the Bradley Inn about small fishing areas for photography. (Where, with camera over my shoulder, a local wanted to know if I was “a pictuh-takuh” – gotta love that Maine accent.)
I stop for blueberries. And beer. And art. And honey…
Don’t forget to leave enough time when you plan your trip to coastal Maine to stop in shops or at roadside stands specializing in products Made in Maine. In the summer, all those hand-printed “blueberries for sale” signs are seductive. In the winter, you will find some farmers’ markets open, too. You can’t leave Maine without tasting its local bounty. The state is also a haven for artists and other craftspeople, from weaving to woodworking. Be sure to look for the Maine Made emblem.
Me, indeed, I’m already planning my return road trip to coastal Maine. Every local I chatted with seemed to have suggestions for “must-see” places that are rarely written up in most guidebooks. Of course, with the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, some places were also closed or had very limited hours during my road trip.
Meaning my list is growing ever longer as I plan my next trip to coastal Maine. My bet is, once you discover the wealth of sights along the narrow byways of MidCoast Maine, you too will find one visit to Maine’s MidCoast and islands just isn’t enough.
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In Maine, you are not too far away from the Adirondacks in New York state. The Adirondacks are incredibly beautiful. Start your visit in Albany and be sure to read 24 hours in Albany – fascinating walk through time. And then head north along the shore of Lake Champlain. Read our story The best of the Adirondack Coast – top things to do in the Adirondacks. Just to the south of MidCoast Maine you’ll find Marblehead … another amazing New England village to visit. Read Top things to do in historic Marblehead + where to stay & eat.
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