We’re deep into February, and the weather outside is just starting to turn towards spring. It’s that time of year when I start itching to go somewhere—anywhere!—to break out of that waiting-for-winter-to-end feeling.
But with stir-fries to write about and vegan cooking to demystify in my free time, it can be tough to make time for a vacation so, I’m throwing it back to last fall, when we had cool temperatures, sunny days, and crisp, colorful leaves, and I made a break from tri-state existence to VACATIONLAND: aka Maine!
In this post, I’ll share my guide for what to do in Maine: what to do, where to hike, what to eat, and some tips from along the way!
The Best Vacation Destination?
I’m convinced that Maine may just be one of the best vacation destinations possibly EVER. There’s forest, coastline and beaches, metropolitan cities, and quiet towns, all a couple hours’ drive away from each other.
When I found out that Mainers fondly refer to their home state as “Vacationland,” I was ready to cross state lines. What’s more, it’s one of the best places to enjoy fall—which is, in my opinion, the best season.
The Best Time in Maine for Fall Leaves
As I was planning this trip, there was a point at which I very obsessively tracked the Maine state government foliage tracker.
My conclusion and pro-tip? Later in October is generally better for destinations in southern and coastal Maine (the grainy photo above was taken sadly on one of our last days in Maine, with leaves still showing as low/moderate). Maine autumns are becoming increasingly mild (as is the case with many places where strange weather patterns that are becoming increasingly commonplace), and it’s taking longer for the leaves to turn those signature red and orange hues.
As we hiked through Acadia National Park, we saw lots of signs asking folks to send in their photos of the fall foliage so research teams could track patterns and progress!
We went the last week of September and first week of October, which was too early for really strong foliage, so I would recommend mid-to-late October. Of course, there’s always a natural risk of a frost or storm coming in and wiping out leaves, which we heard had happened in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a stop we made on this trip. A fellow hiker mentioned that we were about a week too late for peak New Hampshire foliage! But the equivalent time for Maine was too early. What can ya do, right?
Another bonus of going in mid-to-late October is that Maine is PACKED in summertime. Many people we encountered on our trip noted the summertime mobs had cleared out, making our travels much easier and more enjoyable.
Planning What to Do in Maine
I went on this trip with my good friend Niki (Everyone say, “Hi, Niki!” for her official Woks of Life debut!), and as we planned the trip, we realized Maine is a deceptively large state, with lots of ground to cover. It was a bit challenging to navigate the different pockets of nature and cute towns to isolate the best plan—plus, the best spots to eat all the lobster—and the most efficient route.
But after all was said and done, I think this trip was an excellent route, with a great balance of sand, city and forest.
Here was the rough itinerary coming from good ol’ (non-Vacationland) New Jersey:
- Head north, north, north until you hit Kennebunkport and pause for a reprieve from driving which took us about 5 hours.
- From there, stop by the iconic L.L. Bean mega-town in Freeport.
- Then keep going north for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park—this is the farthest north you’ll go.
- After that, mosey back on south, in the general direction of home, to Portland.
- In a wild card move, with Portland as a home base, cut across state lines and head into New Hampshire for the day.
- Return home, driving south—and maybe stop through Connecticut for lunch.
In addition to this post, head to our Instagram and check out our Maine story highlight!
Stop #1: Kennebunkport
After about five hours of very early morning driving, Kennebunkport made for the absolute perfect stop to do a little shopping, have lunch and stretch our legs.
Right before we hit the main town, we stumbled upon Snug Harbor Farm which was the most idyllic and charming gift shop, plant nursery, and farm rolled into one.
The pictures speak for themselves. This was our “WE’RE ON VACATION!!!!!!” moment.
From there, we headed into Dock Square and ate at the iconic Clam Shack, our first chance to have a delicious lobster roll and THE BEST *HOMEMADE* fried clam strips I have ever had. The line was long but moved quickly.
The lobster was tender and sweet with a combo of butter and mayo (you can also get either butter or mayo, but we ain’t countin’ calories…) on a perfect potato roll.
PLUS, I cannot remember a time when I have had homemade clam strips. I’m suspicious that they all generally come from the same factory, and while I normally love those, these were on another level. As you can see, maybe I enjoyed the clam strips a bit more than the lobster roll. Just beware the local warnings of ravenous seagulls as you dine shoreside under the umbrellas!
From there, we walked around to take in the town, shop, and grab some ice cream around the corner. Parking was a bit challenging, and it did cut our wandering short, so keep that in mind when you go!
Stop #2: L.L. Bean Town in Freeport
You can’t go to Maine without stopping into an L.L. Bean. I had gone with the family when we were younger, and the giant moose diorama features extremely prominently in my memories of Maine. I might go so far as to say I don’t remember much else!
The L.L. Bean isn’t just one store, but a mega complex of hunting, fishing, camping, and boating, equipment, plus clothes and home goods. I picked up a warm fleece and windbreaker, which ended up being a godsend later in the trip (low to mid 50s in Maine is MUCH colder than it sounds!), and in general frolicked in the craziness of it all.
There’s also a bunch of outlet stores in the vicinity if that’s your cuppa tea, with a heavy emphasis on outdoor clothing brands.
This was day 1 in Maine, and we left Freeport to drive the final 2-hour leg to Bar Harbor, landing late at our Airbnb.
Stop #3: Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park
Bar Harbor is the main town outside of Acadia National Park. The town has all the cute, small coastal town boutiques you could possibly imagine (e.g., do towns like these ALWAYS have an olive oil store?), which was a great way to wind down the day after tackling morning hikes in Acadia.
Here’s a wooden wares store that had a giant rocking horse. Why? Who cares! You’re on vacation!!!!!
Here’s what we did:
Acadia National Park
One of the biggest challenges of Acadia National Park was figuring out the best mix of easy/moderate/intermediate hikes that didn’t progress into more advanced treks or take 10 miles to complete—Acadia is a great park with lots of really rewarding rocky and coastal hikes for those looking for a challenge! This was an incredibly helpful website, but share your favorite Acadia hikes in the comments if you’ve been, as I’ll definitely be going back!
But we ultimately landed on:
Jordan Pond Path
The Jordan Pond Path hike included a finished path made of wood slats that circled around Jordan Pond. It was completely flat and makes for a good activity to kill time if you’re looking to have lunch at Jordan Pond House. Pro-tip: make a reservation to have their excellent popovers, which are legend! We didn’t have the wherewithal to plan that far ahead, but about five people told me that the popovers were a must-have.
This hike had incredible views and was a moderate climb to a great view of the valley below with surrounding foliage. It was a satisfying trek, and just the right amount of exertion to be challenging for Niki as a national parks first-timer.
This is a loop, but if you don’t want to do the full loop or don’t have time, you can climb to a lookout point on the cliffs for beautiful, unobstructed coastal sunrise (or sunset) views! We woke up so early that it was almost completely dark outside when we arrived at the parking lot, and had to wait for enough sunlight to peek over the horizon to start the hike.
And with a 4:30 AM wake-up call by the time we got to the mid-way lookout we had timed sunrise perfectly and were ready to head back down to town for pancakes!
There is a stretch that’s more strenuous / uphill, but it quickly levels out when you get to the lookout, and you can either turn around or continue on where it gets more moderate-level difficulty.
The best part? We were completely alone when the sun came up (though it did make capturing the picture below a bit tricky—our photographer was a rock and an auto-timer and some very crafty advanced focusing on my iPhone). Cadillac Mountain is the most popular sunrise destination in Acadia, but because it’s accessible by car, you go through a fairly lengthy hike and then end at a very crowded lookout spot that’s congested with cars. A friendly ranger tipped us off to this, and we couldn’t have been happier that we went with the Gorham Mountain Trail.
When we parked at the Gorham Mountain Trail head, we noticed a clear path that ran along the road more at sea level. This was Ocean Path, which is a fairly easy walking path that also offered coastal views, following the Great Head Trail via Sand Beach.
Of course, these were just the hikes we picked. If you go, be sure to chat with a park ranger to get their tips and the latest information on the weather conditions and trail closures! An important omission here is the Beehive Trail, on which my mom took a nasty tumble last summer, and expressly forbid me from attempting.
But in another world, I definitely would have checked it out. It’s a bit dangerous, as the craggy “beehive” boulders are easy to lose your balance on, but it’s one of the most popular hikes in the whole park! As I say with any hike, no lazy steps!
A note on tide pools: As a tide pool lover, I spent much of the trip chasing excellent tide pools, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the tide pools that were easily accessible in Acadia and Bar Harbor. However, after asking around a bit, I discovered that much of the excellent tide pool spots had actually been closed off to visitors and removed from maps and park guides to help the natural flora and fauna recover. So while I am usually first in line for a good tide pool, it’s important to remember the importance of preservation! I’ll have to stop through aquariums in the future to get my fix of kelp, sea urchins, and crabs instead.
A few of our days in Bar Harbor were overcast and rainy, which made it tough to take on more hikes in Acadia. As it turns out though, one of the best parts of this vacation was being forced to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
Earlier in our drive, we had stopped through an antique mall, where I had picked up a hodgepodge bag of paintbrushes. A quick stop in a craft store to grab watercolor supplies afforded a zen afternoon of painting and sipping horchata in a local cafe.
Because we spent a handful of days in town, a lot of our shopping and relaxing was interspersed with the hikes I mentioned above, but here are some of the places we recommend checking out:
Breakfast at Two Cats
We had a delicious spread of Maine blueberry pancakes and a delicious smoked haddock and horseradish omelette with home fries and a biscuit. Endless coffee was perfect after waking up at 4:30am to catch sunrise on Gorham Mountain.
Bar Island at Low Tide
When low tide hits, you can walk from the main street of Bar Harbor right across the inlet to Bar Island. It’s a fun way to check out some tidepools and stretch your legs in the morning. Just be careful not to get stuck by the tide!!!
From Bar Island, we wound our way through Agamont Park, taking some of the walking paths on the Bar Harbor side of the inlet to check out shops tucked around and behind the main drag.
Dinner at Cafe This Way
This was a cute spot tucked away on a side street serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had some great small plates and an improbably delicious lobster curry. While I normally steer clear of eating too much shellfish, my eating philosophy in Maine was to eat lobster whenever I wanted and in whatever I wanted. It did not disappoint—from lobster rolls to lobster curry to lobster linguine! Yum.
Where else to get lobster:
Some other popular lobster spots that we didn’t hit are Thurston’s Lobster Pound, the Happy Clam Shack (a bit of a drive outside of Bar Harbor, but very no-frills, straight from the ocean), and Mama Dimatteo’s for Italian (lobster mac n’ cheese, anyone?).
Stop #4: Portland
By the time we got to Portland, we had relaxed HARD in Bar Harbor—maybe too hard, given that we got rained out of more hiking and spent half the time staying in a very grandma-vibes inn with flowery wallpaper and velvet pincushion chairs. Getting to Portland was a welcome change of scenery!
There are tons of great restaurants in Portland, with many calling it one of the hottest food scenes in the country. I wish we’d had had more meals during our stay! Here are some of the places we went to, and other recommendations I received from friends:
We were able to score a table at Eventide for clean and briny oysters on the half shell, a kelp salad, and of course, a Maine classic: whoopie pies! It’s normally crazy busy in the summer, but we were able to get a seat right away for an early-ish dinner time!
Holy Donut for breakfast and coffee was an excellent stop, and some of the best donuts I’ve had. They’re made with sweet potatoes, yielding an incredibly moist, cakey donut with a dense but also light crumb. There are tons of flavors, and the 194 Park Ave. location is usually a lot less crowded than the downtown spot!
Street and Co. is a lowkey standby of the Portland food scene. Other trendy places we stopped into were packed with diners who’d managed to score hard-to-get reservations, but Street and Co. keeps ⅓ of tables open for walk-ins, and we quickly got seats at the bar. The staff was incredibly friendly, and the restaurant was cozy and not too loud. We had a great whole branzino with wild rice and saw lots of folks eating their classic breaded, fried, and buttered filet of sole with potatoes. If I lived in Portland, I’d definitely be a regular!
Some other restaurant recommendations we got include:
- Boda for Thai food
- Minato for Japanese food
- Tandem Cafe
- Central Provisions
- Silly’s for brunch
- Hut Suppah for brunch
- Bayside Bowl
- Fisherman’s Catch (which is about a half hour outside of Portland, but boasts the best lobster rolls in the area)
- Treehouse for American / seafood
There’s also a vibrant brewery scene with plenty of choices for beer lovers.
In terms of things to do, we stopped by the Fort William Lighthouse, which was a beautiful spot with lots of plaques with free information, accessible without tickets.
We also spent lots of time in the downtown area, pausing in antique and thrift shops like Flea For All.
We also spent an afternoon at the Portland Museum of Art, which had a beautiful exhibit on works from the local Wyeth family. If you want a bigger hit of American art, you could plan for the Farnsworth Art Museum, which is in Rockland, Maine.
Stop #5: New Hampshire: White Mountains National Forest
Portland is Maine’s most up-and-coming city and food scene, but it’s actually pretty small! This made it a perfect home base for a day trip into New Hampshire to check out White Mountain National Forest, which we did on our second day in Portland.
We woke up early and set out on a 2.5 hour drive across state lines for a day of hiking. As with Acadia National Park, White Mountain National Forest is LARGE and for ardent and experienced hikers.
That said, it was a bit tougher to find trails that weren’t advanced and wouldn’t take a whole day. I decided to go out on a limb and picked two hikes that ended up taking up most of our day, going at a pretty good clip. They were almost an hour’s drive apart, but I can say after having spent the day there, I wouldn’t have changed anything we did.
Is it weird that one of my favorite Maine days was in New Hampshire?
So first things first, White Mountain National Forest is REMOTE. So when you hit the small town on the drive in, make sure to get supplies for the day ahead. We stopped by the last restaurant before entering the forest.
It happened to be a bagel shop called Bagels Plus on White Mountain Highway. We grabbed a couple of bagels apiece—one for breakfast and some hearty bagel sandwiches for later in the day. And as a bonafide Jersey bagel snob, I can say these bagels were excellent!
The shop-owners checked if we were headed into the mountains, and packed pickles on the side to avoid soggy sandwiches. If that’s not a winning bagel shop, I don’t know what is.
We also ran our hiking plan by them to make sure we wouldn’t end up as that evening’s news headline (“2 hapless New York girls air-lifted out of the White Mountains at significant local headache and expense!”).
On the way to the trail, we stopped by the Crawford Notch State Park visitor’s center alongside the Saco River to check out some of the local literature.
From there, our first hike was the Mount Willard Trail Head, a great warm-up with a truly incredible payoff view. At about 3.2 miles, it’s considered a moderate hike and took about 3-4 hours to complete.
There were a few steep portions, but the trail was easy to follow, and the final lookout point was truly amazing with panoramic views of Crawford Notch. Plus, we actually saw some of our best fall foliage at the lookout and at the foot of the mountains.
When we came back down, we paused for lunch at the train station where the trail began.
Roast beef with horseradish on an oatmeal bagel? Yes, please.
From there, we headed to the next trail, Welch-Dickey Loop Trail. This hike was rated as Moderate/Difficult, with an elevation change of 2650 feet. It took about 3-4 hours to finish, but promised great views of the southern White Mountains and Mad River Valley. There were lots of contradictory descriptions of this hike: “family-friendly,” “out in the open,” “a joy to walk,” but also “it’s not easy” with “rock scrambling and ledges.”
In short, all of the above ended up being true. This is why, looking back, I describe Mount Willard as a “warm up.” Welch-Dickey Loop was probably one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done (and that includes some of the doozies from Yellowstone, Zion, and other national parks we’ve visited!), but it was truly incredible, and the rock scrambling was fun, as long as we were able to find the trail markers.
Niki and I nearly had tandem heart-attacks when I thought I found the bright yellow trail marker, and it ended up being a yellow leaf clinging to rock!
At points, the trail was incredibly narrow, or would give way to a vertical rock scramble, and a pretty sheer uphill climb on smooth granite, eliciting lots of, “This can’t be the trail! CAN IT?!!!”
The climb made it challenging at points to track down the trail markers, but cooler heads prevailed, and we were able to find our way through with minimal backtracking.
All in all, the views were spectacular, and we had the trail to ourselves. My word of caution would be to watch the weather radars closely, especially if you are visiting in the fall. We finished just in the nick of time to avoid a light rain. Getting caught on those slick rocks in the rain would have been a recipe for disaster, and we picked up our pace towards the end to make it back safely.
New Hampshire was an incredible highlight of the trip and a great way to kill two birds with one stone without needing to shuffle accommodations too much.
Stop #6: Indian food in Connecticut
As our days wound down in Portland we packed up the car and headed back home, and timing-wise, we ended up in Connecticut just in time for lunch. We paused for a quick bite of Indian buffet at Coromandel, a great restaurant where my aunt and uncle used to take us when they lived in the area.
I could argue that me and Niki work so well as friends simply because we are both always down to eat Indian food. And she’ll let me drag her up and down a mountain with a rainstorm chasing our tails…
But all kidding aside, I truly loved Maine. I’m already planning on a retirement cottage there—emphasis on ALL KIDDING ASIDE.
Vacationland, I <3 you!