In what was undoubtedly a first for us, our recent trip to Maine started with a family outing to the local police station.
No one had lost anything, stolen anything, crashed into something, or behaved in a manner that might require an officer of the law to invite us in for some questioning. We weren’t there to turn someone in or bail someone out. Still, on a chilly December day, three cars full of law-abiding citizens pulled into the Bangor Police Department’s parking lot. We were there as tourists.The fact that the Bangor Police Department would show up on our travel radar at all is a great testament to what makes Maine special, and since I was very young Maine has been special to me. My mom was born in Maine, as were my grandparents and my great-grandparents. As a kid growing up near Boston, I was less a visitor to Maine than I was a part-time resident. During the summer, or even when school let out on Fridays, I would toss my backpack (L.L. Bean, of course!) into the backseat of my mom’s car for the drive north. I would stare intently out the window as our car passed through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, waiting for the green Piscataqua River Bridge to appear around the curve and under whose arch we would officially enter Vacationland. I spent my summers sitting outside of my family’s “camp” on top of a boulder overlooking Cobbossee Stream in Central Maine, reading or writing stories in the sunshine until my grandmother called me in for supper. These days, home is 500 miles from the state that hosted so many of my childhood adventures, but I welcome every chance I get to revisit some of my favorite places on earth.
In Maine, which really does boast the nickname “Vacationland,” there’s a well-used saying that you are either “from here” or “from away.” While any true “Mainah” would argue it’s better to be “from heah,” there’s a certain charm to being from away and experiencing Maine as a tourist. The state has a little bit of everything: woodsy escapes, picturesque coastlines, and the kind of charming New England towns that you suspect might be overstated until you walk down their streets yourself. If you are planning a visit to Maine, there are dozens of ways to experience the state. We’re excited to share some of our favorite spots with you, the places we love to include whenever we have the chance to visit Vacationland.
Things to Do in Maine: Attractions
► LL BeanThere’s a good chance you have heard of LL Bean. Maybe you have a pair of their famous Bean Boots, or perhaps like me you carted your books to and from school in a Bean backpack. These days it takes just a few moments to place an LL Bean online order, and cities we frequently like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh have brick and mortar locations, but there is nothing like experiencing the flagship store in Freeport. LL Bean opened its doors in 1917, and since 1951 the doors have been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
LL Bean is worth a visit any time of day, but some of my favorite memories were exploring the store at midnight in the weeks before school would start so I could get my latest backpack monogrammed without waiting in line. As an adult, the flagship store is still a favorite destination of mine; I smile every time I see the 16.5-foot tall boot outside its doors, and I am still captivated by the indoor fish pond. If your travel plans allow for it, visit the flagship store in the early morning hours if for no other reason than to experience the novelty of it; while the store won’t be crowded, you will certainly have company. And if you don’t have a pair of Bean Boots, they are worth the splurge—paired with Bean Boot socks, they kept my feet perfectly warm when we spent a snowy New Year’s Eve in frigid Reykjavik!
► Portland Head Light
Lighthouses are practically synonymous with Maine, and the romantic in me has always loved the image of boat captains using them to safely navigate the state’s rocky coastline. Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth is the oldest lighthouse in Maine; whale oil lamps first illuminated it in 1791. Located in Fort Williams State Park, the area offers an incredible backdrop for some great photos—in fact, Portland Head Light has the distinction of being the most photographed lighthouse in the USA. Take some time to experience the lighthouse’s museum, which charges just a couple of dollars to learn about its history, and explore the lighthouse’s exterior as well. A handful of signs unveil fun facts about Portland Head Light, including how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would walk along the shore to visit the lighthouse’s keepers.
Portland Head Light isn’t the only lighthouse you will find during your vacation in Maine; lighthouses pepper Maine’s coastline, and many of them have compelling historical ties. Seguin Island Light Station in Bath is a favorite of mine, and it was ordered by President George Washington himself in the late 1700s. Similarly, Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was ordered by President John Quincy Adams, and visitors can climb the tower to see the active tower as part of a visit.
More Information: PortlandHeadLight.com
► Bangor Police Department
Although it’s usually well-advised that you do your best to avoid run-ins with law enforcement when on vacation, make an exception and visit the Bangor Police Station. As we entered through the front door, my cousin Ross muttered how he made it a personal policy to never willingly walk into police stations; a few feet behind him, my Uncle Brian wondered aloud how many decades it had been since his last visit to the BPD. As we stood in the lobby—eight adults and two minors, some gleefully looking around while others did their best to melt into the walls and avoid eye contact lest their face match one on a wanted poster at the front desk, an officer’s voice addressed us from beyond our line of vision.
“You must be here to see the Duck.”
He was right; we were, indeed, there to see The Duck. The Duck of Justice, or the DOJ to those in the know, is the station’s surprising mascot, a stuffed duck rescued from the district attorney’s trash can several years ago. Today, the Duck holds court in the station’s small but informative museum, where it’s worth your time to learn about police history as told through the photos and artifacts that line the walls. Although we were mostly there for the selfies—and, yes, we took more than our share as the DOJ stared down his bill at the latest crop of tourists to darken his doorstep—we left feeling more educated about the vital role police play in our society.
Like most tourists that seek out the Bangor Police Station, I have been an avid reader of their “marginally famous” Facebook page and its administrator Lieutenant Tim Cotton, or TC, for several years. TC has done a masterful job of humanizing police work through his witty, descriptive writing that more often than not makes readers laugh out loud at the situations Bangor residents find themselves in.Although we didn’t get to meet TC while we were in Bangor, we were thrilled to spend some time with him when he and the DOJ’s worldly colleague the Traveling Duck of Justice visited us in Washington, DC for the 2019 Travel & Adventure Show. Both TC and the TDOJ were kind enough to pose for a few pictures with us (probably because my No Duck, No Justice sweatshirt identified me as a friend), and combined with a chance to meet fellow Mainahs Jen (who helped us add a catamaran tour to our next Maine itinerary!) and Kerrie (from the Greater Bangor Convention & Visitors Bureau) it was one of our favorite stops of the day.
If you are planning a trip to Maine, follow their Facebook page for a daily reminder of why the Bangor Police Department is worth adding to your itinerary and for TC’s meaningful reminder: keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.
More Information: Facebook.com/BangorMainePolice
► Acadia National Park
Close to Bar Harbor, Maine, Acadia National Park attracts more than three million visitors each year who seek to explore the trails, peaks, and wildlife that make the park one-of-a-kind. Primarily situated on a collection of islands including Mt. Desert Island, Acadia is popular year-round for dozens of outdoor activities. While camping and hiking are big draws for visitors during the summer months, it’s also a great place for bird watching.
More Information: NPS.gov/acad
This video shares some stunning footage and great facts about Acadia National Park.
Adam and I love globes (years of international travel just might be to blame!), and one of our favorites quietly spins in Yarmouth, Maine. Eartha is the world’s largest revolving globe, and since 1998 it has been a mainstay visible from I-295. Eartha stands at more than 40 feet tall, and visitors are often impressed that the globe was not only constructed to scale but it also tilts at the same angle as our own planet does. Eartha boasts two separate motors that are responsible for rotating the globe along an axis and revolving from where it is attached to the ground, which allows the globe to simulate the same 24-hour and 365-day cycles that give us days and years. Although it is easy to spot Eartha within the glass atrium that houses it, stopping in allows you to see the globe up close (you’ll need to climb stairs or take an elevator to see the northern hemisphere). Although the building that houses Eartha is no longer open to the public (it was formerly DeLorme Headquarters, a map store that was later sold to Garmin), it is still possible to enter the building thanks to an agreement that keeps Eartha happily in place.
► Stephen King’s HouseChances are you have heard about the King of Horror, Stephen King. You may have read his books (under the covers by flashlight was my favorite way to absorb his blood-curdling tales), or you may have seen his movies (new adaptions of his classics are regularly released to new generations of scary movie fans). What you may not know is that Stephen King is a Maine native who calls Bangor home. Just outside of downtown Bangor it is hard to miss the King mansion. It’s large and impressive, which might immediately catch your attention, but you know you have found the right home when you notice the front gate. The gate’s doors feature two large spiders on an iron web flanked by two large bats, a nod to the genre that brought its owner fame. Under gray skies it could easily be mistaken as the setting for one of his novels.
While stopping by for a few photos is a must-do item for fans of his work, don’t linger in the neighborhood too long; the King mansion is a private residence on a street where many other people live, and out of respect for the King family and their neighbors we recommend limiting your time there so as not to disturb those who live there.
► Paul Bunyan Statue
Looming more than 30 feet over Bangor, a striking man with a storied past provides a fun stop for tourists crafting their Maine itineraries. Many children grow up with the tale of Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack sometimes credited with creating natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. His birthplace is Bangor, and today an enormous replica stands to welcome visitors to the town. When visiting, you might gaze up at Paul and wonder why he sounds familiar; in Stephen King’s It, the Paul Bunyan statue is referenced when it is possessed by an evil spirit. Don’t worry about surprise animations these days—well, unless you see a red balloon floating around.
► Mount BattieAdd Camden Hills State Park to your Maine itinerary and spend some time at Mount Battie. Rising high above the coastline, Mount Battie provides some spectacular panoramic views from several vantage points. Hikers looking for a great workout or a challenge can start from the trailhead in Camden, which involves rock scrambles. Plenty of visitors prefer to drive to the summit, where it is easy to walk on some well-maintained terrain and enjoy the same views. Don’t miss the Mount Battie War Memorial, a 26-foot tall stone tower dedicated to Camden residents who fought in World War I. Mount Battie is a popular destination during the summer, but as long as the roads are clear it’s a worthwhile stop no matter what time of year you find yourself in Maine.
► Old Town Hallowell
If you are looking for a beautiful, historic New England town to explore, Old Town Hallowell is a great place to spend a day. Full of restaurants, pubs, shopping, and history, the town has a lot to offer and is certainly more of an off-the-beaten-path destination than towns closer to Portland. Just south of Maine’s capital of Augusta, Hallowell’s Water Street served as the backdrop to a robust trading and shipbuilding culture in the 1700s. Today, walking along Water Street connects you to historic architecture and beautiful views of the Kennebec River. Antique shopping and specialty stores can be found around every corner, and on weekends the bar scene comes alive until the early morning hours.
Things to Do in Maine: Museums and Historical Sites
► Kennebunkport First Families Museum
New England has a rich tradition of sending native sons to Washington, DC as presidents, and the First Families Museum in Kennebunkport pays homage to a family with strong Maine roots. The USA’s 41st president, George H. W. Bush, was born in Massachusetts, but the Bush family called Kennebunkport their summer home for decades and have been a respected part of the Kennebunkport community for just as long. The First Families Museum focuses on the Bush family, sharing plenty of pictures and stories about the Bush’s life in Maine. House tours of the mid-19th century Greek Revival home are worthwhile, too. It’s a great way for US history fans to learn something new while visiting Maine.
More Information: KennebunkportHistoricalSociety.com
► Maine Maritime Museum
Bath, Maine is known as the “City of Ships,” and the Maine Maritime Museum offers an engaging education that starts from the earliest shipbuilding days. Visitors have a chance to see historic boats, learn about the role maritime activities have in Maine’s economy, and experience the art of boatbuilding firsthand. A great exhibit dedicated to Bath Iron Works shows how the local company takes a leadership role in shipbuilding for the US Navy. With more than 3,500 miles of coastline, the ocean has always played a big role in the lives of Maine residents, and the Maine Maritime Museum is a great place to understand some of the many ways the water provides and protects.
More Information: MaineMaritimeMuseum.org
► Cryptozoology MuseumIf you love to watch TV shows documenting the search for creatures like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, Portland’s Cryptozoology Museum is a fun stop to make while visiting Maine. Your admission fee provides access to two floors of souvenirs, collectors’ items, and representations of some of the most storied figures in international folklore. You don’t need to believe in the existence of any creature to enjoy your time there; we liked reading about familiar stories and learning new ones, and it was fun to see how various tales are told around the world. Don’t expect to uncover any definitive proof that yetis roam the earth, though; a lot of the items on display do nothing more than stoke your imagination, yet we found the earnest attempt at preserving and promoting cryptozoology in modern society to be charming.
More Information: CryptozoologyMuseum.com
► Victoria Mansion
Close to Portland’s Old Port, the Victoria Mansion transports guests back in time to explore beautiful architecture combined with some surprising advancements for a house of that age. Built between 1858 and 1860, expensive finishes drip from the house’s interior and exterior. The home’s original owner, Ruggles Sylvester Morse, operated luxury hotels and incorporated some of the design choices his properties featured into his own home. The Victoria Mansion is recognized as a well-preserved example of Italian villa-style architecture, but what is even more impressive are the enhancements that were entirely uncommon for residential homes during that time. Strategically located near gas and sewer lines, the mansion featured central heating, hot and cold running water, and flush toilets. Today, the home is beautifully preserved and largely restored to its original splendor, and it is designated as a National Historic Landmark.
More Information: VictoriaMansion.org
► Wadsworth-Longfellow House
Growing up outside of Boston, I knew of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through his ties to Cambridge, but he was born and educated in Maine. Today, his home remains in Portland and is maintained by the Maine Historical Society. Both guided and self-guided tours connect you to Longfellow’s life and work, making it a terrific stop for fans of his literary contributions. Most of the home’s furnishings are original, which adds authenticity to the experience. During warmer months, the adjacent gardens are worth a visit as well.
More Information: HWLongfellow.org
► Desert of MaineMaine tends to elicit images of tall pine trees, rugged coastlines, and rocky mountain peaks, which is exactly why the Desert of Maine offers a great contrasting stop to make when putting together your Maine itinerary.
Close to Freeport, the desert isn’t technically a desert at all. In the late 1700s, a local family’s attempt at converting their property into farmland failed miserably when a series of mistakes led to soil erosion that exposed glacial silt. Glacial silt looks a lot like sand, and by the time the damage was done the silt covered 40 acres of land. Today, a small museum and gift shop have elevated the land to tourist attraction-status, but it’s a unique spot within the state and a fun way to claim your Maine vacation took you all the way to the desert—and a desert surrounded by pine trees at that! Just don’t expect this desert to offer camel rides and dune camping—you’ll want to look across the Atlantic Ocean toward Morocco for that kind of experience!
More Information: DesertOfMaine.com
► Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
When the weather is nice, a stroll through the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is an unbeatable way to spend an afternoon. Showcasing hundreds of blooming flowers as the spring, summer, and fall seasons progress, the gardens are nestled into a natural landscape that extends along the coastline. In the winter, the gardens transform during the Gardens Aglow exhibit that illuminates the area with more than 650,000 lights. Guided tours are offered daily, and many visitors seek out the butterfly house to watch the delicate insects flutter about in close proximity. Botanicals gardens offer a great retreat during any vacation (as we discovered during our time in Richmond), and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are perfect for relaxing afternoons.
More Information: MaineGardens.org
► Johnson HallIn 1864, stable owner Benjamin Johnson converted his property into a performing arts space with a vision of promoting events of all types in the town of Gardiner, Maine. These days, Johnson’s vision is still fulfilled through Johnson Hall, a historic space dedicated to the promotion, creation, and inspiration of artistic excellence. The property is undergoing an extensive renovation process that will elevate it to a state-of-the-art performance space; staff-led tours provide an in-depth look at the triumphs and tribulations that paved the road from its earliest days to its current glory.
The event calendar features a wide range of performances from classic concerts to experimental performances to comedy shows, which means there is a good chance you’ll find something of interest and a chance to experience Johnson Hall for yourself!
More Information: JohnsonHall.org
Things to Do in Maine: Food and Drink
► Robert’s Maine GrillWhen you think of Maine food, we know it’s lobster that comes to mind. Ask any “Mainah” where to go for the best, most authentic lobster roll in the state and you’ll rarely hear the same answer twice—not a surprise given how popular and widely available lobster rolls are. Our favorite comes from Robert’s Maine Grill, a restaurant in Kittery that is popular with locals and tourists alike. With a commitment to serve local food—from the seafood to the beer—with an emphasis on quality, we have come to specifically build our Maine itinerary around a visit to Robert’s. Start with an order of perfectly fried onion rings before moving on to the main (Maine?) event: rolls stuffed full of sweet, chewy lobster meat. Robert’s offers lobster smothered in warm butter, but don’t order yours that way: the traditional New England lobster roll is cold and tossed lightly in mayo. For an extra few dollars you can upgrade your roll to the “big” size, which is a must. If you aren’t looking for lobster, the New England-style clam chowder is delicious, and Maine pot roast served with classic root vegetables is another local staple.
More Information: RobertsMaineGrill.com
► Slab Sicilian Street Food
Portland is often recognized for its creative cuisine, and Slab Sicilian Street Food serves some of the best pizza we have had. Served just as it sounds, a slab of pizza fresh from the oven is a filling snack or a complete meal depending on how hungry you are. A single slab weighs a full pound and can be served with gourmet toppings or enjoyed with simple tomato sauce and cheese. Paired with a cold beer, it’s one of our favorite places to stop for lunch when visiting Maine.
More Information: SlabPortland.com
► A1 DinerI am partial to the A1 Diner in Gardiner, not only because of their diverse menus and invariable quality but because my family is part of the diner’s history. The A1 Diner first opened its doors in 1946 as Heald’s Diner, but it was in 1952 that its second owner took the helm. Maurice Wakefield—my great-uncle—renamed the diner Wakefield’s and operated it until 1979, when it was sold to the Giberson family and given the name A1. The unique, classic diner car has been serving Gardiner’s hungry residents for almost a century, although it came into the spotlight when it was featured by Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in 2007. That may be a reason why it gained well-deserved fame, but the A1 Diner enjoys a much more important reputation for delicious, globally-inspired cuisine. The menu changes regularly, but in addition to classics like burgers and sandwiches, don’t be surprised to find items like tandoori chicken and chorizo tacos tempting your taste buds. Whatever you do, leave room for dessert: the A1 Diner creates mouthwatering cakes and pies that rival any dessert we have had during our travels!
More Information: Facebook.com/A1Diner
Believe it or not, a Bangor truck stop is a favorite dining destination for Maine locals, and one look at the menu might escalate it to the top of your list, too! Dysart’s offers a little bit of everything: it’s a truck stop, a service station, and a restaurant. It offers event space as well as catering. And on weekend mornings, expect a wait: it seems to feed breakfast to everyone within a 50-mile radius. Our huge group sampled just about everything on the menu; omelets and egg skillets were popular, as were fluffy blueberry pancakes the size of dinner plates. I loved the banana bread French toast with sliced bananas on the side, and Adam’s egg skillet with Polish Kielbasa was another favorite.
More Information: Dysarts.com
► Cabbage Island Clambakes
When I was a little girl, no summer was complete until I had been to Cabbage Island for a clambake. My immediate family would join our neighbors—who have always been more like family to us—for an afternoon that incorporated delicious local food with perfect Maine weather. The Cabbage Island team has been shuttling hungry visitors and locals from the shore to their island on their boat, the Bennie Alice, for more than 60 years. The boat ride is a terrific way to see the Maine coastline, but as we neared the island our dear friend Scott would sacrifice his time on the deck to position himself by the boat’s exit; when we docked, he would sprint off to claim the table we knew had the best view. When lunch was served, we would collect trays brimming with Maine classics: two huge lobsters, a big bucket of clams, fish chowder, steamed corn on the cob, potatoes, onions, and an enormous slice of blueberry cake for dessert.
Cabbage Island Clambakes offer a really special experience; clambakes are part of Maine’s unique fabric, and spending a day in the sun eating fresh seafood with friends and family is one of the most Maine activities you can add to your itinerary. Be sure to call ahead to make a reservation; clambakes are popular and often sell out in advance!
More Information: CabbageIslandClambake.com
► Portland’s Beer Scene
Although Adam’s Portland (in Oregon) is famous for its beer scene, the East Coast’s Portland should not be overlooked if you are interested in great brews. From well-known breweries like Allagash to craft breweries that are popping up regularly, putting together a Portland beer tour is easy to do and a fun way to spend a day. If visiting breweries isn’t part of your itinerary, most restaurants offer local beers, and it’s worthwhile to ask about local selections on tap whenever possible.
► Wicked WhoopiesWhoopie pies are a classic Maine dessert (although Pennsylvania has tried to claim them as their own—true New Englanders know they were first baked in Maine!). Two circular chocolate cake rounds surround a mound of fluffy, white frosting to form a delicious treat, and in recent years their popularity has swept the nation.
Wicked Whoopies was started in Gardiner by Amy Bouchard, a home cook who baked and distributed her treats when she needed to support her young children Isabella and Maxx. Under the moniker Isamax—named for her children—the whoopie pies were eventually sold from a Gardiner storefront. These days, Wicked Whoopies can be found in Farmingdale, Freeport, and Boothbay Harbor as well as online, and they come in dozens of flavors. You can order them online, but treat yourself to a freshly baked whoopie pie purchased in-store and paired with a cup of coffee. My favorites are black forest whoopie pies—chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and sweet cherry filling—but the delightful whoop-de-doos that cover mini classic whoopie pies in a coating of fudge are a must-buy purchase for me!
More Information: WickedWhoopies.com
Where to Stay in Maine
Maine is a big state. It’s more than southern Maine, and a well-rounded Maine itinerary will likely take you north of Portland and into charming spots in central and northern Maine. We always book hotels through Booking.com, and this tool might be useful to you as you identify the cities you will visit and search for hotels that will provide the perfect resting place during your vacation.
There’s a reason Maine is called Vacationland. Spending time surrounded by the glorious natural landscapes found throughout the state will help to ease you into relaxation. Hiking or snowshoeing will get your heart racing, and boating and camping under the stars will lull you back into peacefulness. Maine offers something for everyone: something new to learn, to do, and to experience. Though you might come from “away,” it doesn’t take long before you forget that you do. Family ties are strong in New England and in Maine especially, and Maine has a way of making you feel like you are “from heah” even if your home is hundreds of miles away. A vacation spent in Maine is a wonderful way to put your paid time off to good use.
It’s rare that we can say this, but from the tops of the mountains to the inside of the Bangor Police Station, there is a lot to love about the state of Maine. We just hope your time spent with law enforcement is limited to an audience with the Duck of Justice—enjoy those local beers responsibly!
Would you like to see more interesting places to visit in the United States? Check out these articles for inspiration!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we mention multiple locations in Maine, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.