On a map, rocky 'fingers' claw at Penobscot Bay, each peninsula clad in ancient forests, studded with lonely, windswept fishing villages and fog-wreathed paths through the woods. This is midcoast Maine. But it's also resort towns that cater to wealthy vacationers from the northeast and Canada, cheap lobster rolls, organic farm-to-table restaurants, writing retreats and tall masts creaking in harbors icebound in winter, and sun-kissed in summer. Imagine Maine, a hybrid of mountains, ocean, forests and villages, and this, too, is the midcoast.
The English first settled this region in 1607, which coincided with the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Unlike their southerly compatriots, though, these early settlers returned to England within a year. British colonization resumed in 1620. After suffering through the long years of the French and Indian War, the area became home to a thriving shipbuilding industry, which continues today.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Midcoast Maine.
There's a palpable mix of reflective nostalgia and horizon-scanning adventure at this wonderful museum, which preserves the Kennebec's long shipbuilding tradition with paintings, models and hands-on exhibits that tell the tale of 400 years of seafaring. The on-site 19th-century Percy & Small Shipyard, preserved by the museum, is a working wooden-boat shipyard, and there's no shortage of enthusiasts on hand to answer questions on such craft.
These magnificent gardens are one of the state's most popular attractions. The verdant waterfront kingdom has 270 acres, with groomed trails winding through forest, meadows and ornamental gardens blooming with both native and exotic plant species. The storybook-themed children's garden offers interactive fun, and visitors with kids in tow shouldn't miss the daily story time, puppet theater or chicken-feeding (daily from mid-June to early September).
Tackle the rugged stone breakwater that stretches almost 1 mile into Rockland Harbor from Jameson Point at the harbor's northern shore. Made of granite blocks, this 'walkway', which took 18 years to build, ends at the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, a sweet light sitting atop a brick house, with a sweeping view of town. While on the breakwater, watch for slippery rocks and ankle-twisting gaps between stones. Bring a sweater, and don't hike if a storm is on the horizon.
One of the country's best small regional museums, the Farnsworth houses a collection spanning 200 years of American art. Artists who have lived or worked in Maine are the museum's definite strength – look for works by the Wyeth family (Andrew, NC and Jamie), Edward Hopper, Louise Nevelson, Rockwell Kent and Robert Indiana. Exhibits on the Wyeth family continue in the Wyeth Center, in a renovated church across the garden from the main museum (open in summer).
This forested nature reserve is pretty compact, but within its confines there are 2.5 miles of trails and some 3600ft of shoreline. This waterfront is particularly arresting, all slabbed teeth of layered rock jawing into the waves of the Atlantic; a little way inland, those rocks are studded with small opalescent tide pools.
Some 500 acres of land, once managed as a tree farm, now constitute a lovely slice of preserved red pine woods and breezy riparian shorescapes. Four easy trails web throughout the reserve, taking visitors past pebbly river shores, old stone walls, still ponds, curious raccoons and the occasional fox (and even moose!).
Bowdoin, established in 1794, is one of the oldest colleges in the US and the alma mater of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and US president Franklin Pierce. For a tour of the handsome campus, follow the signs from Maine St to Moulton Union. Smith Union is the student center; there's an information desk on the mezzanine, as well as a cafe, pub, lounge and small art gallery.
This 6-mile-long sandy stretch is one of the prettiest in the state, with views of offshore islands and the Kennebec and Morse Rivers framing either end. Lifeguards are on hand in July and August, but be aware that the surf is strong, with undertows and riptides. It's located off ME 209, about 14 miles south of Bath.
With more than 30 miles of trails, this densely forested park is a choice place to take in the midcoast's magic. A favorite hike is the 45-minute (half-mile) climb up 780ft Mt Battie, which offers exquisite views over island-dotted Penobscot Bay. Short on time or energy? You can also drive to the summit via the Mt Battie Auto Road.