The famous lighthouses of the Maine coast punctuate this 400-mile driving tour, from the shipbuilding center of Bath to the beacon at West Quoddy Head, where dawn first touches the continental United States. Maine's summer is short and sweet, but daylight starts early and lingers late. That gives you ample time to hop from lighthouse to lighthouse, hike broad ledges above the ocean, explore fishing villages, and, of course, hunker down at a picnic table with a steamed lobster and an ear of corn. You could even add a few days offshore on painterly Monhegan Island or the wild headlands of Isle au Haut, each with its own beacon winking out to sea. Just keep heading for the lights.
Travel tip: If you're coming from a distance, fly into Portland, pick up a rental car, and follow I-95 north to 295 north to U.S. Route 1 in Bath, a major ship-repair port.
Food and travel writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon are coauthors of The Meaning of Food, the companion volume to the PBS series of the same name.
Day One: Coming into Lobster Land
Your first stop is the Maine Maritime Museum (243 Washington St., Bath; 207-443-1316, www.mainemaritimemuseum.org), which tells just enough about the art and science of boatbuilding to help you appreciate the variety of vessels in the harbors. You'll see how timbers are transformed into vessels of all types and learn to distinguish the lines of a humble peapod rowboat, a lobster boat, or a sleek racing sloop.
U.S. Route 1 is the main highway for this trip, with detours along the way that meander the peninsulas and lead to jumping-off points for islands dangling off the coast. For your first crustacean, follow U.S. Route 127 south to the wharf at Five Islands Lobster Company (1447 Five Islands Rd., Five Islands; 207-371-2990). As fishermen unload their catch at the dock, relish your lobster and contemplate Hendricks Head Light on the north end of the harbor. The next stop is the iconic white tower of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, two peninsulas north at the end of U.S. Route 130, where scrambling over the shore boulders will help work off lunch.
Rockland calls itself the lobster capital of Maine, and the Maine Lighthouse Museum (One Park Dr., Rockland; 207-594-3301), which opens this month, overlooks the harbor where the catch comes ashore. The highlight of its collection is a 10-foot-high, one-ton Fresnel lens from Petit Manan, which hosts the tallest of Maine's 65 lighthouses.
The Maine Lobster Festival takes over the waterfront on the first full weekend in August, but fabulous food is served May through January 1 at Primo (Two S. Main St., Rockland; 207-596-0770, www.primorestaurant.com). Whatever Chef Melissa Kelly doesn't grow in her organic gardens usually comes from local farms or fishermen.
Where to stay: The Limerock Inn (96 Limerock St., Rockland; 800-546-3762, www.limerockinn.com) recalls Rockland's 19th-century heyday in coastal shipping. Summer rates of $120 to $215 include breakfast.
Day Two: Marking the Beacons of the Mid-Coast
Some of Maine's most picturesque villages sit on the peninsula south of Rockland along U.S. Route 73. Owls Head State Park is home to the knobby, 13-foot Owls Head Light atop a rocky promontory. Climb the wooden stairs for a coastal panorama. Views at diminutive Marshall Point Light in Port Clyde are less sweeping, but the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum (207-372-6450, www.marshallpoint.org) in the keeper's house records local fishermen's hard-won battles with the sea.
If you have an extra day, hop a ferry (207-372-8848, www.monheganboat.com) from Port Clyde to overnight on Monhegan, possibly the most painted Maine island. The artists dutifully laboring in their weathered studios or scattered across the island with easels and brushes are often relieved to be interrupted by visitors. A short, steep hike leads to Monhegan Light.
Almost two-thirds of the island is a natural preserve, crisscrossed with walking trails. One hike takes you through Cathedral Woods, where, along the trail, tiny jewel box-sized "fairy houses" have been constructed by those who've come to adore the magic of the place.
Back on U.S. Route 1, the Lobster Pound Restaurant (207-789-5550) on Lincolnville Beach serves a delicious crabmeat roll. Sun-baked brown sand makes this the warmest swimming beach on the Maine coast―although even here most people find the water too brisk for all but brief excursions. The drive north features sweeping views of mountains above an island-dotted bay. In Belfast, fresh bread and local cheese star at the Tuesday and Friday farmers' market ( www.belfastfarmersmarket.org) on Main Street, near the docks.
The shipbuilding and China Trade past is palpable in Searsport, where several mansions once belonging to sea captains are now B&Bs. Searsport is the antiquing capital of the Maine coast, and diligent hunting in antiques shops just might yield China Trade treasures.
Where to stay: Captain John P. Nichols built the grand Homeport Inn (U.S. Route 1, Searsport; 800-742-5814, www.homeportbnb.com) around 1861, with lawns and gardens extending to the sea. The 10 rooms are $75 to $125, including breakfast.
Day Three: Rambling the Peninsulas
U.S. Route 1 crosses the Penobscot River on the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, where Down East Maine officially begins, and sailors speed up the coast with the aid of prevailing winds. The second turn onto U.S. Route 15 leads to Blue Hill, an idyllic community filled with artisans, writers, and musicians. At family-owned Rackliffe Pottery (132 Ellsworth Rd., Blue Hill; 888-631-3321, www.rackliffepottery.com), three generations hand-throw and glaze handsome dinnerware and serving pieces. Artists, fishermen, and visitors alike stop for healthy soups and sandwiches at the Blue Hill Co-op Café (Greene's Hill Place; 207-374-2165).
There's no prettier coastal drive than U.S. Route 175 as it follows Blue Hill Bay south and loops west along the shore of the Eggemoggin Reach. At Sargentville, rejoin U.S. Route 15 south to cross the Deer Isle Bridge, and continue south to Stonington, the sheltered harbor where a mail boat ferry (207-367-6516, www.isleauhaut.com) makes frequent trips to Isle au Haut. Hiking trails, a good bicycling road, and granite bluffs and ledges are the main attractions of this least-traveled slice of Acadia National Park. As the boat enters the harbor, you'll see a classic small lighthouse on Robinson Point. The adjoining home is the Keeper's House Inn.
If you don't overnight on the island, plan on dinner at the Castine Inn (33 Main St., Castine; 207-326-4365), where celebrated Chef Tom Gutow gives new meaning to "local food" by buying most of the ingredients for his seven-course fixed-price menu within a 50-mile radius.
Where to stay: The Castine Inn (33 Main St., Castine; 207-326-4365, www.castineinn.com) is a homey Victorian in a Federal town. Front-porch rockers spy on Main Street's foot traffic, but the restaurant is the biggest draw. The 19 rooms range from $90 to $245, including breakfast.
Day Four: Down East All the Way
Get an early start east on U.S. Route 1 and south on U.S. Route 3 to Mt. Desert Island's Park Loop Road, where you can sample the heart of Acadia National Park with an easy four-mile, round-trip walk along the Ocean Trail. The path edges along Otter Cliffs above the sea and rocky shore around Sand Beach, where heads bobbing in the icy water are likely to be seals. The booms at Thunder Hole, caused by the sea rushing into a fissure between ledges, are most dramatic on an incoming tide with rough seas. Catch a quick lunch of Maine crab cakes on the porch of the Jordan Pond House (Park Loop Road; 207-276-3316), best known for afternoon tea and popovers on the lawn.
You'll have to drive Down East on U.S. Route 1 through rolling blueberry barrens for dessert: fresh-baked pie at Wild Blueberry Land (U.S. Route 1, Columbia Falls; 207-483-2583). The berry-shaped building marks the turn from U.S. Route 1 to the west end of the U.S. Route 187 loop through Jonesport, which returns to U.S. Route 1 at Jonesboro. The World's Fastest Lobster Boat Race takes place here on the Fourth of July. Norton of Jonesport (118 Main St., Jonesport; 207-497-5933, www.machiassealisland.com) runs ecotours to the puffin colony on Machias Seal Island, one of the rookeries where the seabirds have come back from near extinction.
Back on U.S. Route 1, follow the signs for U.S. Route 189 to Lubec and Quoddy Head State Park, where the barber pole striped West Quoddy Head Light marks the east end of the continental United States. Views over the water reveal Canada just offshore. For dinner, head to the Home Port Inn (45 Main St., Lubec; 207-733-2077), where the locals' favorite is fresh wild Atlantic salmon baked with dill, lemon, capers, and shallots. Plan to make it an early night so you can be at the lighthouse to see morning arrive in America.
Where to stay: The 1880s country Home Port Inn (45 Main St., Lubec; 800-457-2077, www.homeportinn.com) looks out on Cobscook Bay. Its cozy seven rooms, all with private baths, are $90 to $105, including breakfast.
Optional Island Overnights
The Island Inn (Monhegan Island; 207-596-0371, www.islandinnmonhegan.com) juts out like a broad chin from the hill above the ferry landing. Built mostly in 1907, its 32 rooms and suites have a mix of shared and private baths. In-season rates start at $125, including breakfast.
The Keeper's House Inn (Isle au Haut; 207-460-0257, www.keepershouse.com) offers a rare opportunity to experience the remote life at an offshore lighthouse. There's no phone or electricity (beyond battery power), but candlelight, gaslights, and kerosene lamps give evenings a period ambience. Rates of $300 to $375 per day include all meals.
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