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The jagged, irregular shape of Maine's coast is what makes it both enchanting and delightfully time-consuming to fully explore. Although about 230 miles across as the crow flies, the shoreline actually extends for an astounding 3,478 miles if you count every inlet, island, and peninsula.
Bewitchingly beautiful and sometimes intensely crowded with tourists in summer - conveniently, leaf-peeping fall is also an ideal time to visit - coastal Maine is less about must-see attractions and more about leisurely exploring, whether on foot around dapper hamlets, by boat through yacht-filled harbors, or via car along winding country lanes. For many, the perfect day along Maine's coast consists simply of navigating from one ice-cream stand or lobster shack to the next, with perhaps a hike along a pebbly beach or a visit inside a maritime art gallery to break up the gluttony.
To cover the most popular span of coast, from the New Hampshire border to Bar Harbor, allow yourself at least three days and ideally a week or more.
5…See the outlets and inlets of the southern coast
Although it's the closest section of the coast to the densely populated Boston-New York corridor, the stretch of southwestern Maine towns from Kittery north to Kennebunk is, for the most part, surprisingly free of excessive development. As you venture north from the New Hampshire border town of Portsmouth, which is quite charming in its own right, Kittery is the one town with a commercial buzz, but this is good news for bargain-hunters: this is Maine's outlet-shopping mecca, with more than 120 retailers. Farther north, York abounds with fashionable summer homes and is also headquarters to the venerable gourmet-food company Stonewall Kitchen (2 Stonewall La., 207-351-3200, http://www.stonewallkitchen.com/Cafe) - here at the extensive company store, an airy café makes a great stop for breakfast or lunch.
Next you'll come to the decidedly bohemian enclave of Ogunquit, which is home to the superb Ogunquit Museum of American Art (543 Shore Rd., 207-646-4908, http://www.ogunquitmuseum.org), with its permanent collection with works by such Maine-associated notables as Marsden Hartley and George Bellows, and the well-respected Ogunquit Playhouse (10 Main St., 207-646-5511, http://www.ogunquitplayhouse.org), which stages five major Broadway hits between June and late October. It's a 10-mile drive north to Kennebunkport, where President George H.W. Bush summered famously at his familial compound during his White House years, hosting such dignitaries as Margaret Thatcher, Yitzhak Rabin, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
4…Get your urban fix
Maine's largest city, as well as its cultural hub, Portland offers travelers along the state's otherwise sparsely populated coast a vibrant dose of urbanity. With just more than 60,000 residents and a modest skyline, this historic port city surrounded by water on three sides ranks among the most livable on the East Coast, its well-kept, tree-shaded streets lined with dignified redbrick houses. The definitive neighborhood for an engaging stroll is Old Port, a bustling waterfront district of formerly dilapidated warehouses and fishing piers that underwent an ambitious, preservation-driven renaissance in the 1980s and '90s.
Rife with first-rate restaurants and distinctive shops, Old Port lends itself to serendipitous strolling-- Exchange, Market, and Fore streets are fine thoroughfares for this activity. For a dramatic view of the city and surrounding Casco Bay, book a cruise through Portland Schooner Co. (207-766-2500, $35, http://www.portlandschooner.com). These two-hour excursions aboard elegant wooden-hull windjammers leave from Maine State Pier. Upon your return, plan for dinner at one of Old Port's exemplary restaurants. The sophisticated Street and Co. (33 Wharf St., 207-775-0887, http://www.streetandcompany.net) scores high marks for its stellar seafood, including local scallops in pernod and cream. An intimate, relative newcomer serving beautifully crafted contemporary fare, Bresca (111 Middle St., 207-772-1004, http://www.restaurantbresca.com) uses local market ingredients to create the likes of honey-glazed duck with Chianti-poached nectarines, frisee, and soft mascarpone polenta.
3…Feast on local lobster
Comprising several hilly and mostly rural peninsulas that jut irregularly into the ocean like shark's teeth, the Mid-Coast extends from north of Portland to Penobscot Bay and forms one of Maine's most picturesque regions. Boothbay Harbor, although unabashedly touristy, contains dozens of inns, hotels, and cottage compounds and makes an excellent regional base. From here you can also take the 2½-hour boat ride on Balmy Day Cruises (207-633-2284, $32, http://www.monhegandaytrip.com) out to secluded Monhegan Island, a sanctuary of sea and birdlife with miles of hiking trails and a small museum set in an 1820s lighthouse.
This part of the state is one of the best for satisfying your lobster fix. In Boothbay Harbor itself, there's the Lobster Dock (49 Atlantic Ave., 207-633-7120, http://www.thelobsterdock.com), which faces the harbor and serves fresh steamed lobsters (the heftiest weighing more than 3½ pounds). About 15 miles north, along the banks of the Sheepscot River in the almost absurdly quaint village of Wiscasset, a bare-bones seafood shack called Red's Eats (41 Water St., 207-882-6128) has gained a devoted following for its ethereal lobster rolls (and pretty terrific crab rolls, too). This is an old-style "in the rough" establishment, where you order at the window and devour your prize either at one of the few outdoor tables or by picnicking on the riverfront a block away.
2…Explore two jewels of Penobscot Bay
Separated by less than 10 miles of verdant shoreline along Penobscot Bay, the towns of Camden and Rockland were for decades divided by more considerable gulfs of prosperity and social status. Set against a backdrop of leafy hills and hugging a handsome harbor, compact Camden has long been the quintessence of coastal Maine quaintness. Rockland was for years a workaday mill and shipbuilding town of limited interest to tourists. But both of these communities now thrive, Camden still a jewel-like village of tony shops, sophisticated inns, fine restaurants, and a colorful fleet of windjammer schooners.
Rockland has reinvigorated itself by embracing the arts, both in the form of summertime festivals and with one of coastal New England's seminal cultural draws, the acclaimed Farnsworth Art Museum (16 Museum St., 207-596-6457, http://www.farnsworthmuseum.org) and its sister facility, the Wyeth Center, which is devoted to the three generations of one of America's most vaunted art families, the Wyeths (N.C., Andrew, and Jamie). Within a few blocks of these downtown museums, you'll also discover a bevy of first-rate restaurants-- pop inside Rock City Books & Coffee (328 Main St., 207-594-4123, http://www.rockcitycoffee.com) for perfectly brewed espresso. Sweetly unpretentious Lily Bistro (421 Main St., 207-594-4141, http://www.lilybistromaine.com) serves exquisitely simple and flavorful French country food, from a goat-cheese tart with roasted beets, watercress, and almond-oil to local halibut with peas, chorizo, and steamer clams.
1…Ascend to Maine's highest coastal point
The largest town on fabled Mt. Desert Island, Bar Harbor is also the gateway to 30,000-acre Acadia National Park (off Hwy. 3 just north of Bar Harbor, 207-288-3338, $20 for 7-day vehicle permit in summer, $10 for 7-day vehicle permit in spring and fall, www.nps.gov/acad), a rugged tract of windswept beaches, granite ledges, century-old carriage roads, and craggy peaks -- including the Eastern Seaboard's highest natural point, 1,528-foot Cadillac Mountain. Both the town and the park make a popular beginning or end to a tour of Maine's coast, although more ardent travelers might wish to carry on farther "down east" through Machias and Lubec, for another 100 miles to the Canadian border.
Wealthy industrialists and noted landscape painters turned sleepy Bar Harbor into a see-and-be-seen summer yachting enclave during the late 19th century, and the town has retained a preppy, blue-blooded reputation ever since. The compact downtown is a veritable survey of Victorian residential architecture, and shops selling blueberry ice cream and moose souvenirs compete with respected galleries and high-end clothiers and home-decor stores. One of the most respected outfitters in New England, Bar Harbor Whale Watching Tours (207-288-2386, $52-$56, www.barharborwhales.com) offers naturalist-led excursions through prolific habitats for Minke, finback, and humpback whales, as well as North Atlantic puffin colonies.
Photos by the author