“To be the inhabitant of such a forest as this!,” exclaimed Henry David Thoreau during one of his three explorations of the Maine woods between 1846 and 1857. His observations on the natural beauty and inhabitants of Maine became The Maine Woods, his best-selling book after Walden.
With its rocky, wave-pounded coastline, gleaming lakes, dense evergreens and the colorful buoys of lobster trap-filled fishing boats bobbing in its sheltered harbors, it’s no wonder Maine’s famous picture-book scenery left such a lasting impression on Thoreau and others who have traveled to the “Vacation State.”
Isolated by its long winters, short growing season, rocky soil and geography, Maine developed its own unique culture and character. Even after Maine became a state in 1820, its residents were known for their stalwart self-sufficiency in making a living from their native habitat, their distinctive dialect and dry humor. A chance meeting at Yale University in the 1950s led Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan to collect, swap and record Bert and I and Other Stories from Down East, a classic album of “Down East” storytelling told in Maine dialect, that made famous lines like “You can’t get there from here” and “Throw a blue tarp over it.”
There are thousands of islands off the coast of Maine that offer unique sights. The 1879 Cape Neddick lighthouse on Nubble Island, which you can view from Sohier Park. On Bailey Island, you’ll find the world’s only granite cribstone bridge. When it was constructed in 1927, large granite slabs were laid in a “crib” fashion, without using mortar, which allows the tide to pass through the bridge without damaging it.
Once so plentiful that they were used as crop fertilizer, fishing bait and sustenance for 19th-century prisoners and servants, Maine lobster has now become a delicacy that has to meet strict industry regulations to ensure its survival. Traditionally a one-person job, fishing for lobster requires as much patience and perseverance as waiting in long lines for luscious chunks of handpicked “selects,” piled on a top-split roll, that Red’s Eats in Wiscasset and other famous “shacks” along Route 1 serve with fries, coleslaw, blueberry soda, Poland Spring water and the official state dessert, wild Maine blueberry pie.
Maine is where you’ll find fine historic architectural landmarks, like the 1807 Federal-style Nickels-Sortwell House in Wiscasset, an elegant reminder of the time when the shipbuilding and maritime trades put coastal Maine villages on the map. The Fort Knox State Historic Site, one of the best-preserved and most accessible forts in the United States, is located on the western bank of the Penobscot River in the town of Prospect. The 19th-century granite fort never saw battle, but helped protect the valley, a major source of shipbuilding lumber, during times of war. It’s also the entry point for the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, the highest and one of only four bridge observatories in the world. Located 420 feet in the air, and stretching 2,120 feet from sore to shore, the local granite structure provides panoramic views and recalls the shape of the Washington Monument, which was partially built with local granite.
Artists have captured those surroundings in such convincing ways that others have wanted to see and experience Maine for themselves. Painting the surging spray, waves crashing on boulders, and brilliant sunsets of the Maine landscape, Winslow Homer produced some of his finest work just 75 feet from the ocean, in his Prout’s Neck studio, which you can tour. Rudolph Dirks, creator of the Katzenjammer Kids comics, was a leader of the Ogunquit Art Colony, a seaside summer getaway for urban artists in the late 19th century.
Designed to haul large cargoes of coal, lumber and granite from the East Coast with a small crew, schooners were developed in Maine. Take an exhilarating sail on the Bailey Louise Todd, a replica of one of these merchant sailing ships, in Frenchman’s Bay, while a National Park Service ranger describes historical, geographical and natural points of interest. Help hoist the schooner’s sails and you’ll think of “Blow the Man Down” and other sea shanties sailors sang as they worked.
Remember the Blucher moccasins, vinyl-coated raincoats, Boat and Tote bags and Norwegian sweaters that earned special mentions in Lisa Birnbaum’s The Official Preppy Handbook? If you’re a fan of these classic L.L. Bean products, make the pilgrimage to L.L. Bean’s Freeport store, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Fed up with getting cold, wet feet during hunting trips, 40-year-old outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean was determined to create comfortable footwear that would stand up to tramping around Maine’s rugged, boggy terrain. In 1911, he came up with his guaranteed, patented Maine hunting shoe that’s still made in Maine. Long-wearing yet lightweight, this footwear features a flexible leather top and sturdy, water-resistant rubber, with a flexible chain-tread outersole and a split backstay to prevent heel cord chafing. Within a decade, he had created a thriving mail-order business based on his Golden Rule: “Sell good merchandise at reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they’ll always come back for more.”
For more on Maine and its natural beauty, see Thoreau’s Maine Woods, with photography by Dan Tobyne; The Atlantic Coast: A Natural History, by Harry Thurston; “A Way of Life Called Maine,” by Ethel A. Starbird, in the June 1977 issue of National Geographic; The Coast of Maine, by Carl Heilman II; and A Maine Hamlet, by Lura Beam.
To recreate some of our aural experiences in Maine, check out Sea Shanties: The Men of the Robert Shaw Chorale; Bert and I and Other Stories from Down East, by Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan, and Tim Sample’s “Postcards from Maine” segments on CBS Sunday Morning. How to Talk Yankee, Sample and Bryan’s “Downeast foreign language course,” was featured in the L.L. Bean holiday gift catalog.
To prepare classic Maine recipes, try Maine Classics: More Than 150 Delicious Recipes from Down East, by Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier; Maine Home Cooking: 175 Recipes from Down East Kitchens, by Sandra L. Oliver; Dishing Up Maine: 165 Recipes That Capture Authentic Down East Flavors, by Brooke Dojny; The Maine Summers Cookbook and Recipes from a Very Small Island, both by Linda Greenlaw and Martha Greenlaw; and The Wild Blueberry Book, by Virginia M. Wright.
Devotees of L.L. Bean will appreciate these books on the favorite store: L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon and Guaranteed to Last: L.L. Bean’s Century of Outfitting America, both by Jim Gorman; My Story: The Autobiography of a Down-East Merchant, by L.L. Bean; L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon, by Leon Gorman, chairman, former president and grandson of L.L. Bean; and In Search of L.L. Bean, by M.R. Montgomery.
“The American Lobster: Delectable Cannibal,” by David Doubilet and Luis Marden, in the April 1973 issue of National Geographic; The Maine Lobster Industry: A History of Culture, Conservation and Commerce, by Cathy Billings; and The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, by Colin Woodard, offer insight into the importance of lobster to Maine. Linda Greenlaw has written four books about lobstering and working as a swordfish boat captain: The Hungry Ocean; All Fishermen Are Liars; The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island; and Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea.