Maine — Foliage without hype or crowds

by Hilary Nangle on September 30, 2008

Vermont gets all the press — but it also gets gazillions of leaf peepers. If you want to enjoy the colors with fewer crowds, and perhaps get the bonus of those brilliant colors reflected in shimmering ocean waters, scoot up to Maine. But first, check the foliage report, then plan accordingly.

Okay, I’m biased, but I’ve traveled the traffic-choked roads lacing through mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, and I’ve tried to park in those oh-so-quaint villages. Really, give me Bethel or Rangeley or Greenville any day. Or, on the coast, oh-so-lovely Castine, sigh. Now there are other towns that cater to tourists who require fancy-pants amenities, but those tend to have bigger marketing budgets, thus are better known and usually more crowded.

Bethel is just over the New Hampshire border. It’s a classic New England village with an ivy-covered prep school, white-steepled churches, a village green surrounded by historic and historical homes and a baby grand hotel, dozens of B&Bs, and a main street that still supports an IGA, not a gussied up gourmet specialties market. It’s real, and it shares a location in the White Mountains, which when blessed by an early autumn snow, deliver a wallop of color fringed with white. For even better leaf-peeping, take a drive up into Grafton Notch. My pick: The Bethel Inn and Country Club, that baby grand downtown, do opt for one of the recently renovated rooms; Crocker Pond House, a B&B in a modern, shingle-style home amidst the woods.

Rangeley edges Rangeley Lake, one of many lakes linked in the Rangeley Lakes chain. It caters to anglers, with a main street delivering just enough interest to pass an hour or so of browsing. Maybe. What are of more interest are the mountains that surround the lake, with their vibrant foliage shimmering in the waters. This is not the place to go seeking creature comforts, although there are a handful of nice inns and B&Bs and a few restaurants with fantabulous views of the lake; hint: go early and catch sunset, perhaps with Mount Washington visible in the distance. Rangeley is the ideal place to hike, fish, paddle a canoe, or just amble byways. My top picks: Pleasant Street Inn B&B, an unfussy yet amenity rich B&B that’s within walking distance of downtown; Grant’s Kennebago Camps, a traditional Maine sporting camp–private rustic cabins, all meals included and served in the main lodge–on a renowned fly-fishing river, pets accepted; Country Club Inn, a 50s-ish retro lodge adjacent to a golf course and set atop a hill, but with lake and mountain views that make up for the simple accommodations.

Greenville is even more remote. It edges Moosehead Lake, that 40-mile-long blue Rorschach blot in the wilds of northern Maine. It’s the frontier town before tar gives way to dirt, civilization to wilderness. The half-dozen or so shops sell all manor of moosey merchandise and lodging runs from sporting camps to lakefront motels to elegant inns set high on hillsides with jaw-dropping views over the lake and color-dappled woods. This is God’s Country, and if you don’t believe me, mosey up to Kokadjo (population, not many) where a giant sign proclaims just that (but keep an eye out for moose en route). My top picks: Blair Hill Inn, a gorgeous Victorian mansion with eye-popping views down Moosehead Lake; Chalet Moosehead, a few-frills motel that’s practically in the lake.

Finally, there’s Castine, a serene, well off the beaten path New England coastal village with a tumultuous past. It tips a strategically sited cape jutting into Penobscot Bay at the mouth of the Penobscot River. No surprise, the Brits, Spanish, French, and Dutch fought over it for centuries. When the U.S. borders were finally set, some Loyalists actually floated their homes north to St. Andrews, Canada. Signs throughout this National Historic Register enclave recount the various battles, making strolling here a delight. The town is both an architectural and a historical treasure (and I would love to have the white paint franchise here), as well as home to the Maine Maritime Academy. Truthfully, not a heck of a lot to do but enjoy the setting and the low-tech comforts of one of its three traditional inns. The adjacent Blue Hill and Deer Isle area offer plentiful artists’ and artisans’ studios and back roads that noodle through colorful forests and small villages and by lakes, rivers and ocean. My pick: Pentagoet Inn (above left), a downtown Queen Anne with lacey curtains, a wrap-around porch, intriguing curiosities, an excellent dining room, and old-fashioned bikes for pedaling around town; or the Shore Oaks Inn, a beautifully renovated Arts & Crafts style waterfront B&B on the premises of the Oakland House Seaside Resort, at the tip of the Blue Hill peninsula, also with an excellent restaurant, The Rusticator (right).

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Hilary Nangle is USA’s Maine expert. She lives, shops and drives the back roads there and has written about the state for decades, including three guidebooks — Moon Coastal Maine, Moon Acadia National Park, and Moon Maine.
Visit her Web site and read her blog for more insights about Maine.

Photos (top to bottom):
Bethel, Maine — Biking through foliage

Rangeley, Maine, colors

Inn on the Harbor — View from a room at the Inn on the Harbor, Stonington, Maine. Hilary Nangle photo.

Moosehead Lake — Drive up the Kokadjo road for fabulous sunset views over Moosehead Lake. Hilary Nangle photo.

Pentagoet — The Queen Anne-style Penatogoet is one of the few buildings in Castine not painted white. Tom Nangle photo

Oakland House — The Rusticator Restaurant, at the Oakland House Seaside Resort, dates back to the mid 1700s.

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