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Planning to visit Maine? Read these tips from a top guidebook author

By Sean O'Neill
updated September 29, 2021
blog_hilarynangle_original.jpg
© Tom Nangle

It's leaf-peeping season!

We asked Moon Maine author Hilary Nangle how to make the most of a trip to Maine. (Moon is, of course, a wonderful guidebook series with a great emphasis on budget-minded travel.)

When should out-of-state folks visit Maine to see the fall foliage?

When you go will determine where you go. Maine's a huge state, and foliage usually peaks in the northern zones by the last week in September, while along the southern coast, peak is closer to mid October. A great planning tool is: http://www.state.me.us/doc/foliage/

Your biggest decision will be where to go. Among my favorite spots for foliage:

—Rangeley, which blends lakes and mountains;

—Greenville, a quiet end-of-the-paved-road town on the shores of Moosehead Lake and edged by wilderness. It's within striking distance of Baxter State Park, home to Mt. Katahdin, Maine's tallest peak and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail;

—Mt. Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park, for the combo of foliage and ocean. (See more on Acadia, below.)

—Bethel, on the Maine side of the White Mountains, a classic New England village, complete with ivy-covered prep school and white steepled churches, cradled by forested peaks.

It's often possible to find a last-minute reservation or accommodation, but don't count on it. Book in advance for lodging and any must-do dining or activities.

Sure you can drive by the foliage, but it's even better to get off the road and hike, bike, or paddle. That's especially easy in the Acadia National Park or Baxter State Park areas, but Maine has fabulous state parks that offer opportunities for hiking and paddling, as well as plentiful preserves.

What is your advice about what people can typically expect weather-wise in Sept. and in Oct. in Maine?

September through mid October is my favorite time of the year weather-wise in Maine. The weather remains mild—days are often warm, with temperatures in the 60s to low 70s, nights cool, dropping into the 40s or lower in the mountains or up north. That said, this is northern New England, so be prepared for anything, including rain, fog and, in the northern parts of the state or over the highest peaks, perhaps even snow. And truly, there's nothing prettier than a dusting of white atop a mountain in full fall color.

Any tips on planning a visit to Acadia National Park?

Acadia is spectacular in autumn with the color-dappled peaks reflecting in the lakes and ocean. It's a quieter time in the park, but not too quiet. Bar Harbor can be busy with cruise ship visitors, but it's easy to escape any crowds by stepping into the park for a walk or bike ride on the carriage roads or an invigorating hike.

A real plus is that The Island Explorer bus system runs through Columbus Day, so there's no need for a car. It circulates around most of the island, and even carries bicycles. Just be sure to purchase a park pass.

While the major resort hotels and the fancier B&Bs; tend be booked well in advance, smaller motels and less-fancy places as well as those outside of the Bar Harbor often not only have room, but are charging off-season rates. If you don't like to be in hub of the island hubbub, consider staying in either Southwest Harbor, a year-round community with a nice selection of lodgings and restaurants, or Northeast Harbor, which is primarily a peak summer resort community (note that it's downtown suffered a devastating fire this summer that burned three buildings). If you arrive without lodging reservations, stop at the Thompson Island Visitor Center, open through Columbus Day, which often knows where rooms are available. You can also buy your park pass here.

Visit the park's web site, download a copy of The Beaver Log, and use it to plan park activities. It lists walks, talks, hikes, boat cruises, and other activities within the park.

Must-dos for me include a sunrise drive along the Park Road, a walk or pedal on the carriage roads, tea and popovers on the lawn at the Jordan Pond House (weather permitting), an invigorating hike, a cone from Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream in Bar Harbor, visiting the Whale and Abbe Museums in Bar Harbor, the Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor and the Seal Cove Auto Museum, and, again weather permitting, a boating excursion.

What's new in Portland?

Portland has long been a foodie favorite, and it has a number of new restaurants that are well worth a visit.

—Evangeline, French

—Emelitsia, Greek,

—The Grill Room: Steaks and pizzas

—Green Elephant: Vegetarian and Vegan

And Stephen Lanzalotta, previously of Sophia's Bakery, has moved his baking talents to a new kitchen at Micucci's Market.

Keeping with the food theme, Oct. 23-25 is Harvest on the Harbor, a delicious celebration of local foods. This new event will bring more than 100 food experts to the city for talks, tastings, demonstrations, a marketplace, and meals.

Also new is the Ocean Gateway terminal, home to The Cat ferry to Nova Scotia and other large vessels visiting Portland.

Also worth noting is the reopening of the Inn by the Sea, in Cape Elizabeth, 15 minutes from downtown Portland. Renovations added a full service spa to this oceanfront inn that's always been ahead of the curve: It's certified green and pet friendly.

What's a best-of-coastal Maine trip look like, with perhaps a few highlights or a few suggestions of lesser known towns, restaurants, beaches, forests, or whatnot?

In my book, I outline a 10-day Icons-of-the-Maine-Coast tour, and that, as the name suggests, hits only the high points. I think any "Best-of" tour along the coast needs to hit those, but ideally also will hit some off the off-the-beaten-track gems, and those often require noodling down the fingers of land that reach seaward from Route 1, Maine's coastal artery, and also ferrying to some of the offshore islands.

So, staring in Kittery, I'd mosey through the Yorks and Kennebunks, and up to Portland, always sticking to the roads closest to the coastline in order to visit beaches and see lighthouses and wander about the smaller villages. In Portland, I'd ferry out to one of the islands dotting Casco Bay, perhaps Eagle Island or Peaks, or book a trip aboard Lucky Catch Lobster Tours to learn everything there is to know about the tasty crustaceans. Must visits include the Portland Museum of Art and Victoria Mansion, and don't miss French fries and a shake at Duckfat, mmmmm.

Continue up through Freeport, home to L.L. Bean, and Brunswick (don't miss the Bowdoin College Museum of Art) and onto Bath, with a visit to the Maine Maritime Museum and a detour down to Phippsburg and Popham.

Continue north, passing through Wiscasset, then dropping down the Pemaquid Peninsula to see the lighthouse and Fort William Henry and stopping in Round Pond for lunch or dinner at one of two dueling, classic, no-frills lobster shacks on the postcard-perfect harbor.

Return to Route 1, then drop down the Port Clyde peninsula, and perhaps take a day trip (ideally an overnight) on Monhegan Island.

Rockland, home to the Farnsworth Museum of American Art, and Camden are Mid-coast icons, and Maine's windjammer fleet is based in this region. Most go out for sails of three to seven days, but there are day-sails, such as A Morning in Maine or Appledore.

For a quieter, quirkier taste of the mid coast, stop in Belfast and Searsport, and visit the Penobscot Marine Museum and BlueJacket ShipCrafters, which has an amazing display of model ships. If you're craving fried fish and good pie, you can't go wrong at either Angler's or Just Barb's.

In Stockton Springs, stop at Fort Knox and (if you're not afraid of heights) zip up the elevator to the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory, in the tower for spectacular views; on a clear day, they extend from Mt. Katahdin, Maine's tallest peak in Baxter State Park, to Cadillac on Mount Desert Island.

Noodle down the Blue Hill Peninsula and cross the bridge spanning Eggemoggin Reach to Deer Isle. This region is salted with artists and artisans, thanks to the presence of the renowned Haystack Mountain School of Craft, as well as with boat builders, thanks to the WoodenBoat, both the magazine and the school. If this is still a bit too crowded for you, ferry over to Isle au Haut to visit a remote section of Acadia National Park.

Back on Route 1, continue northeast, then drop down to Mt. Desert Island for a visit to Acadia National Park. Be sure to walk or pedal the carriage roads, and splurge on tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House. If you have kids, don't miss a boat trip with Diver Ed. Another unique way to view the park is on a bird-watching tour with Michael Good of Down East Nature Tours. Afterwards, chill with an ice cream from Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream. Be sure to loop around to Northeast Harbor—Redbird is a fabulous spot for lunch—and on to Southwest Harbor—sip on coffee or wine at Sips. From Bass Harbor, join Kim Strauss on a cruise to Frenchboro, for a taste of a real island.

Back on the mainland continue north on Route 1. If it's autumn, and the foliage is near peak, take Route 182 which loops inland through the rolling countryside and lakes of the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land, it's a gorgeous drive. Otherwise, scoot down the Schoodic Peninsula to the pink granite shores of the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park. If you're a bird watcher, be sure to visit the Petit Manan section of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Reserve, in Steuben.

In season, I'd dip down to Jonesport for a puffin-watching trip to Machias Seal Island, otherwise on to Lubec, if for no other reason to indulge in Bold Coast Smokhouse's salmon sticks and Monica's Chocolates. Walk off the ice cream on the trails near West Quoddy Head.

Finish up in Eastport, the first city in the country to see the sun's rays. Its fortunes vary from year to year, but it's always fun to poke around a bit.

Tell us about the guidebook Moon Maine.

Covering a state the size of Maine in the depth required for a detailed guide book is a difficult task in itself, given the travel required, but making it even more of a struggle is that shops, restaurants, and accommodations open, close, or change hands. I can visit a town, then find out two weeks later that a restaurant I loved has closed, an inn where I stayed has a new owner, or a shop has changed its inventory. It's an endless task, but one that I thrive upon. I have a good network of friends who keep me updated on changes, and that helps immensely. So does reader feedback, and my readers let me know when I'm right or when their experience hasn't matched mine. That's the primary reason I blog: to keep readers updated of changes that might affect their plans.

I think what makes Moon Maine and Moon Coastal Maine stand out is that I've lived in Maine since childhood, I'm not someone swooping in to write a guidebook, and because I live here, I'm privy to a lot of info that's not widely available.

I'm also a foodie, not in the fine dining sense (although I do enjoy that), but in that I seek out local finds: cheesemakers, chocolatiers, wineries, lobster shacks, fried seafood dives, fish smokers, hot dog havens (okay, that's really my husband's thing), farmers' markets, farm stands, homemade ice creams, and other places where one can get a real taste of Maine, perhaps piece together a picnic, or purchase delicious souvenirs.

Want to know more? Hilary has a blog. You can also buy her guidebook, Moon Maine, at Amazon.com.

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