A few years back, I had my first experience as a solo traveler. After deciding to make a career switch, I was in need of a new adventure—and a new place in which to find some inspiration. Enter midcoast Maine, the rocky stretch of coastline between Brunswick, the home of Bowdoin College, and the quaint towns of Rockland, Camden, Belfast, and Bucksport, all scenically situated on the banks of Penobscot Bay. With my surroundings as my only travel companion, it didn’t take long to fall in love with the midcoast’s picturesque villages, beautiful harbors, and secluded coastal trails. And thus, every autumn, I make the pilgrimage back to this special piece of coastline north of Portland, eager to soak up the views along Route One and eat some of the best farm-to-table cuisine on the east coast.
Plant your weekend roots near Camden, a small harbor town home to some of Maine’s most beautiful bed & breakfasts. A shining star among them is the Whitehall Inn, an impossibly charming (and surprisingly affordable) 45-room inn that has been welcoming guests since 1901. From there, you’ll be a stone’s throw from downtown Camden—and only a beautiful, relaxing drive from dozens of Maine’s most unforgettable vistas.
So if you’re in the mood for some R&R on the shores of Penobscot Bay, here are some of my favorite ways to spend three days.
A Reiding Rainbow
Begin your visit to the midcoast in Bath, a gem of 19th century architecture on the banks of the Kennebec River. Although summer visitors flock to this picturesque town to explore its shops and galleries, it’s the shipbuilding giant Bath Iron Works that has been the beating heart of this region since 1884. The famed shipyard has built and designed battleships, frigates, cruisers, and destroyers, and during peak production in World War II launched a new destroyer every 17 days.
But your morning destination lies 15 miles south of Bath on Route 127, at Reid State Park, Maine’s first state-owned saltwater beach. While the warmer months attract beach-goers to Mile and Half Mile Beaches, autumn is a wonderful time to take in views of nesting shorebirds and the lighthouses on Seguin Island, The Cuckolds, and Hendricks Head.
The Hunt For Red’s October
Tumbling down a hillside on the banks of the Sheepscot River, the small town of Wiscasset was once the busiest seaport north of Boston, until the embargo of 1807 cut off much of its lumber, fishing, and shipbuilding commerce. Today, Wiscasset boasts only a few thousand residents, but it seems that a few hundred can be found each day braving the lunch line at Red’s Eats, a renowned seafood shack that has been perched on Main Street since 1954. Enjoy some fresh fried clams and one of Maine’s favorite lobster rolls, best eaten with a riverfront view at the picnic tables out back (41 Water Street).
Rock And Roast
Let Route One guide you 33 miles eastward to Rockland, the midcoast’s commercial center and the first of several gateways to Penobscot Bay. With a rich history of shipbuilding and lime production, Rockland these days is known for its art galleries, locally-sourced restaurants, sailing opportunities—and for being the home of the Maine Lobster Festival, which celebrates the town’s primary export every August.
As you stretch your legs along Main Street, coffee lovers should take note of Rock City Coffee Roasters, the small-batch roastery that has been producing some of Maine’s highest quality beans since 1999 (252 Main Street). Get the low-down on your local, sustainable caffeine fix inside the roastery, or opt to relax at the accompanying Rock City Café just down the street (316 Main Street).
Give Me A Break
Coffee beans in hand, spend the late afternoon exploring one of the busiest, and loveliest, 19th century seaports. And there’s no better place to take in Rockland Harbor than from the nearly mile-long granite breakwater that guards the city from Penobscot Bay. Perched at the breakwater’s end, 65 feet above the harbor floor, the Rockland Breakwater Light has been in service since 1902 (Jameson Point, south of Samoset Golf Course).
As evening falls and the bay breeze sweeps down Main Street, join the sea of locals gathering in the cozy dining room at In Good Company, chef-owner Melody Wolfertz’s tribute to relaxed fine dining. With an extensive wine list and simple, elegant plates—think baked garlic with molten goat cheese—In Good Company encourages its guests to savor the shared experience of dining. Bringing the good company is up to you (415 Main Street).
Good Day Sunshine
Rise and shine in downtown Camden, the historic bayside retreat a mere eight miles north of Rockland. Get an early start and join the crowd jamming the doorway of Boynton-McKay Food Co., an old time drug store and apothecary-turned-everybody’s favorite breakfast joint. As you mingle with locals over decadent French toast or one of the famous skillet scrambles, you’ll suddenly be feeling right at home (30 Main Street).
After breakfast, hit the quaint streets of Camden, which have been attracting well-to-do New Englanders for nearly two centuries. Following a great fire that destroyed much of the business district in 1892, a collection of wealthy families joined forces to rebuild Camden’s public library, classical amphitheatre, opera house, and harbor park. Today, that very same harbor still ranks among the most beautiful in New England.
The Camden Hills Are Alive
In an effort to assist Depression Era farmers whose lands were no longer productive, the federal government purchased tracts of land in 24 states—land that would eventually become public parks. Camden Hills State Park has since been transferred back to the state of Maine, but today, it still boasts 5,700 acres, 30 miles of trails, and access to the two mountains that dominate Camden’s landscape. Spend the afternoon ascending Mount Megunticook, the highest mainland mountain on the Atlantic coast at 1,385 feet. The short, uphill trail begins under a rainbow canopy of fall leaves, but within a few miles, you’ll be treated to sweeping views of Camden, the midcoast, Penobscot Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean (280 Belfast Road).
Allow your legs to recuperate with a late afternoon drive through the surrounding countryside. Take in panoramic views from the summit of Mount Battie (accessible via auto road), and explore the secluded banks of Megunticook Lake along Route 52. But most importantly, take a few minutes to confirm this evening’s dinner reservation.
Farm-to-table cuisine is a phrase thrown about frequently these days, but few do it as masterfully as James Beard Award winner Melissa Kelly, the chef and co-owner of Primo. With animals raised on the property and acres of produce harvested out back each day, Kelly has created in Primo a celebration of fresh, creatively-used local ingredients. The menu changes constantly, always highlighting the best that the day has to offer, from honey-basted wood grilled duck breast to seared local bluefin tuna. Opt for the cozy formality of the downstairs dining rooms, or grab a seat in the humming upstairs bistro— either way, it will be a splurge you won’t soon forget (2 South Main Street, Rockland).
Home Is Whenever I’m With You
There’s one more stop to make on Rockland’s Main Street—one that promises outstanding breakfast, a bustling, friendly atmosphere, and some of the most sinful pastries in Maine. This is Home Kitchen Café, serving Rockland’s favorite breakfast and lunch dishes since 2009. Try one of the specialty “homelets,” but make sure you leave room for the cinnamon rolls and pecan sticky buns, made fresh daily by chef James Hatch’s father (650 Main Street).
And truth be told, you may want to accept the inevitable and head back to Home Kitchen Café for lunch—the lobster tacos are well worth the humiliation of eating there twice in one day.
I’m On A Boat
With the coastline at your fingertips, make the most of your proximity to Penobscot Bay by renting a kayak at Maine Sport Outfitters, conveniently located in both Camden and neighboring Rockport. Choose from one of the guided kayak excursions of Camden Harbor, or blaze a water trail of your own. Whether you push off from the quiet banks of Megunticook Lake, or observe seals and seabirds as you glide between the scenic harbors of Camden and Rockport, the possibilities are endless (24 Main Street, Camden, or 115 Commercial Street, Rockport).
Spend the afternoon exploring the midcoast’s northern stretches, following Route One through Lincolnville, Belfast, and Searsport. But your destination is the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, a stunning cable-stayed bridge that opened in 2006, spanning the width of the Penobscot River near Bucksport. A one-minute elevator ride to the top of the northern pylon will provide you with a 360-degree view of Mount Desert Island, the midcoast, and Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak at 5,268 feet.
The Good Shepherd
Bring the weekend to a close at the James Beard-nominated Shepherd’s Pie, a local treasure overlooking Rockport’s beautiful harbor (18 Central Street). With an outstanding view and a lively pub ambience, Shepherd’s Pie has become a Rockport mainstay thanks to delicious small plates sourced by local farms. Menu standouts include spicy crab ceviche, wood roast oysters with garlic butter, and organic French fries, so be prepared to have a hard time narrowing down your choices. But really, aren’t there worse problems to have at the end of a long weekend?
A Few Notes
To see the midcoast at its best, try to time your visit for late summer or early autumn. Visitors who come to the region after mid-October risk colder temperatures, fallen leaves, and Red’s Eats being closed for the season. In other words, disaster.
TITLE: Camden, from Mt. Megunticook | FRIDAY: The rocky coastline near Portland; the lobster roll at Red’s Eats; the Rockland harbor | SATURDAY: Camden Hills State Park; Camden, from Mt. Megunticook; West Penobscot Bay, from Mt. Megunticook; the country road near Camden and Megunticook Lake; fall leaves in Lincolnville | SUNDAY: The Rockport harbor.