BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine -- There’s a persistent misconception, especially among novice Maine-iacs, that a real Down East vacation must be spent way down east, that is to say as far up the Maine coast as possible, and at the very least, Penobscot Bay. To be sure, there’s no place quite as dramatic as Mount Desert Island and few quite as scenic as Camden. But resorts like these are exceedingly popular (read: crowded) and commercially healthy (read: pricey). And they are way up there.
So for my time and money, there’s no reason to go any farther than what’s known as the southern Midcoast — the sequence of eight irregular-shaped peninsulas that jut out into the Atlantic between Casco and Muscongus Bays, roughly 40 to 70 miles north of Portland — for a classic Down East vacation.
It was here that I was introduced to “The Land of Remembered Vacations” in the summer of 1974. As camp counselors in neighboring New Hampshire, three of us were greeted at daybreak on our day off by a fog-enshrouded Boothbay Harbor, an image that fulfilled so many of my expectations at once that it has stayed with me ever since. And so it was hardly surprising that I brought my brother-in-law and his family from Coconut Creek here for their Maine initiation 30years later.
Indeed, if the people at Epcot ever decided to recreate a Maine coastal village, they would probably model it after Boothbay Harbor with its narrow, picturesque harbor (spanned by a 110-year-old wooden footbridge), full of both working fishing boats and pleasure craft, and its equally compact, turn-of-the-20th-century commercial center, full of restaurants, tourist shops, and a smattering of art galleries. And they would pipe in that evocative fog!
But as I would discover on subsequent trips, there’s more to the southern Midcoast than just Boothbay Harbor, which can itself become overrun with tourists during the summer months. Relief — and an abundance of other inimitable Maine attractions — are just a peninsula or two away. Getting there can truly be half the fun, provided you’re not in a rush, as the road wanders leisurely through birch and pine forests, past picturesque 19th century farming and fishing communities, and alongside scenic rivers and coves en route to the open Atlantic. You’ll be amazed at how low key and peaceful it is — nothing but you, the locals, and a succession of quietly spectacular water views.
But any trip to Maine’s southern Midcoast inevitably includes centrally-located Boothbay Harbor — a condensed collage of Down East images, everything from lobster boats to lighthouses — which the local chamber of commerce quite accurately promotes as “everything you love about Maine.”
You can spend hours wandering the streets and lanes of this still fashionable turn-of-the-century summer community (remnants include two summer stock theaters and an opera house for traveling headliners). But to fully appreciate Boothbay Harbor, you must see it from the water, either via a short harbor cruise or one of the longer wildlife viewing or lighthouse tours. Working lobster boats chug noisily off to work, while those returning are accompanied in by an even noisier swarm of expectant seagulls.
Once beyond the harbor, you will catch fleeting glimpses of numerous coves and marshy estuaries. Out towards the open Atlantic lie fir-girded islands and headlands, and the most well-known of Boothbay’s welcoming lighthouses, the Burnt Island Light, constructed in 1821, but now frozen in time in the 1950s as part of a state-sponsored living history exhibit.