Best Things to Do on a Family Vacation to Maine’s Mid-Coast

 Posted by on October 6, 2013  Comments Off
Oct 062013
 
Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park is Maine's oldest lighthouse.

Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park is Maine’s oldest lighthouse.

Maine is a beautiful state and the mid-coast section between Portland and Bar Harbor has some of the best scenery, lighthouses and things to do with on a family vacation.  Unfortunately, many families drive right through without stopping in their rush to get to Acadia National Park.  Acadia is great, but, there is much more to Maine’s coast.  Whether its a long weekend getaway from Boston, Montreal or New York, or a stop along the way on a longer New England family vacation, here is our list of the best things to do on a family vacation on Maine’s mid-coast:

  1. Visit  the lighthouses.  Each lighthouse has its own story to tell and offers unique insights into Maine’s nautical past.  We enjoyed the historic grounds around Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park and the rocks and waves at Bristol’s Pemaquid Point.
  2. Go for a sail.  Based in Rockland, Camden and other nearby ports, the Maine windjammer fleet offers a rustic opportunity to enjoy the coast.  Other options to get on the water include lobster boat tours, fishing charters and ferries to outlying islands.  Kayak and canoe rentals are another option.  One way or another, a trip to Maine demands some kind of boat trip.
  3. Enjoy the sights and sounds of Rockland, Maine.  With a wide range of lodging options, restaurants, museums and shops downtown Rockland is a don’t miss destination.  The highlight of our visit was walking the almost mile-long breakwater out to Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in the middle of Rockland Harbor.
  4. Take a day trip to the tiny town of Owls Head, Maine.  Sample the burgers at the General Store, visit Owls Head Light and don’t miss the cool historic car collection at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.
  5. Follow the side roads and enjoy the parks, lighthouses and inns you find at the end of the road.  The beaches and boardwalks at Reid State Park in Georgetown are great finds for adventurous families.

Maine is the kind of place where packing a picnic lunch and being flexible with where you end up and how long you stay can result is some wonderful family memories.  Please feel free to share some of your favorite moments in the comments section.

More Hidden Gems Along Maine’s Mid-Coast

 Posted by on September 29, 2013  Comments Off
Sep 292013
 

Maine’s intricate coastline is filled with hundreds of small harbors, inlets, pocket beaches and rocky cliffs that were formed by powerful glacial activity at the end of the last ice age.  First, rising sea levels flooded the coastlands and carved out bays and islands where there were once valleys and mountain tops.  Following this period, the land mass rose slightly, resulting in today’s rocky, hard to navigate and wild coastline.  Today, the mid coast area between Portland and Bar Harbor, is home to a few major cities such as Freeport, Bath and Rockland but still houses many small villages and isolated landmarks.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol. ME

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol, ME

During our recent visit to Maine’s mid-coast we veered off Route 1 to explore Pemaquid Point in Bristol.  Just 20 minutes down Route 30 we found Bristol’s Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park, home to a 180 year old lighthouse that is still owned by the Coast Guard. The adjacent keeper’s home is used as a  volunteer-maintained Fisherman’s Museum.  We arrived as a an outdoor wedding ceremony was ending and one look at the amazing views of  pounding surf and surrounding rocky ledges told us why the bride and groom has selected this truly special location.  If you visit, plan to take the time to scamper down the rocks to the water’s edge.  The power of the surf is breathtaking.

Rocky ledge and surf at Pemaquid Point

Rocky ledge and surf at Pemaquid Point

From Bristol, we returned to Route 1 briefly before making another side trip to Reid State Park at the Southern tip of Georgetown Island.  The well maintained park provides access to two sandy beaches, rocky ledges, boardwalks  and protected inlets.  It is an expansive park with a bathhouse, lifeguards,  a snack bar, picnic tables and plenty of parking.  Of course, it is Maine, so don’t be surprised if the water temperatures barely make it above 60 degrees even in August!  Several miles of trails lead over the sand dunes and salt marshes on boardwalks and through the woods beyond the beach but be warned, as the sun goes down the flies come out and they are voracious!

Beach at Reid State Park

Beach at Reid State Park

Just down the road from Reid State Park we also discovered an idyllic country inn, the Grey Havens, that is perfect for a grown-ups getaway!  With a full dining room and bar and exquisite views from the rocking chairs on the front porch, mom and dad were sad that we only had one night the enjoy the inn’s hospitality.

Grey Havens, Georgetown ME

Grey Havens, Georgetown ME

The Grey Havens is about as romantic a destination as you will find along Maine’s quiet mid-coast and we highly recommend it if parents are looking to rekindle the romance without kids in tow.  The views from the turret rooms and the front porch are worth the trip all on their own. (Note we paid for our stay out of pocket and the owners didn’t know we’d give them a mention here!)

View of the sunset from rocking chair porch at Grey Havens

View of the sunset from the rocking chairs on the porch at Grey Havens

Maine’s mid-coast is home to many other quiet and romantic inlets, inns and lighthouses, we just wish we had been able to take the time to explore them all.  If you know of a special place to visit on the coast of Maine, leave a comment and let us know about it.


Best Things to do in Owls Head, Maine – Rain or Shine!

 Posted by on September 8, 2013  Comments Off
Sep 082013
 

With a population of just over 1,500,  tiny Owls Head  is a must see destination on any family vacation to Maine’s Mid-Coast.  Just 2 miles south of Rockland, ME, via Route 73,  Owls Head is home to the Owls Head Transportation Museum, a thriving non-profit educational organization founded in 1974. The museum is active in the collection and preservation of many early-era aircraft, cars, bikes, and trucks.  Many of the 150 plus items in the collection are operational.  The expansive indoor space makes the Museum a great rainy day destination.

Check out the classic cars at the Owls Head Transportation Museum

Check out the classic cars at the Owls Head Transportation Museum

The Aircraft Collection contains replicas and originals representing the first century of flight. The auto exhibits span the late 19th Century and early 20th century including a recently refurbished 1908 Stanley K Semi-Racer and a 1935 Stout Scarab, one of only six ever made.   We particularly enjoyed the MGs and Microcars special exhibit.  The Museum also holds classic car auctions and a series of special family-friendly events during the summer.

Lobster Traps at Owls Head Harbor

Lobster Traps at Owls Head Harbor

After visiting the Museum, be sure to take the time to visit the town’s often painted harbor as well as the quaint Post Office and the Owls Head General Store , which was voted Maine’s Best Burger by the Food Network and Best of the Best Burger by Village Soup, and the readers of Down East Magazine for two years in a row!

Owls Head Post Office is a Maine classic

Owls Head Post Office is a Maine classic

Also be sure to stop by Owls Head Light and the surrounding Owls Head State Park.  The  30-foot tall lighthouse is managed by the Friends of Rockland Harbor, but owned by the Coast Guard.  It is not usually open to the public, although the day we visited the steep steps leading up to the lighthouse were open and provided access to a beautiful view from 100 feet above West Penobscot Bay, near the mouth of Rockland Harbor.  The former lighthouse keeper’s house is used as a gift store and educational center.

Owls Head Light

Owls Head Light

The lighthouse is rumored to be haunted and many have reported seeing unexpected footprints after rain or snow – we didn’t see any on our visit although it had rained earlier in the day.

The rocky beach at Owls Head State Park

The rocky beach at Owls Head State Park

The land surrounding the Owls Head Light is protected as part of Owls Head State Park which also includes a small classic rocky Maine beach, a  short walking trail, and picnic tables near the beach.

Plan the better part of a day to see everything Owls Head has to offer.  This is a great destination for family vacations with kids of all ages since there is something for everyone in this delightful small town hidden away on Maine’s Mid-Coast.


Fun Things to Do on a Vacation Visit to Rockland, Maine

 Posted by on August 29, 2013  Comments Off
Aug 292013
 

Rockland, Maine is a delightful vacation destination on Maine’s mid-coast that is the process of being transformed from a fishing and shipbuilding hub to a family friendly tourist hot spot.  Just a block away from the waterfront, warehouses and commercial buildings are being turned into boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.  The highly regarded Farnsworth Art Museum occupies several buildings in the downtown.  The Museum features American art and is home to the one of the country’s  largest collections of the paintings of the Wyeth family.  Daily ferries run to Vinalhaven and to North Haven from the Maine State Ferry Terminal located on the Rockland waterfront.

Grey seals and lobster boats are common sights in Rockland Harbor

Grey seals and lobster boats are common sights in Rockland Harbor

We were in town to take a windjammer cruise aboard the Schooner Isaac Evans, but arrived a day early to check out the scene.  We were delighted by the quality of accommodations, food and things to do.  The high point of our land-based explorations was taking a walk on the 8/10th of a mile long Rockland Harbor Breakwater that connects the mainland and Rockland Harbor Breakwater Light.

The Rockland Breakwater extends 4,300 feet into the harbor

The Rockland Breakwater extends 4,300 feet into the harbor

The Rockland Breakwater was built with over 700,000 tons of granite at a cost of $750,000 and took 18 years to complete between 1881-1899.  It was built because  several nor’easter storms in the 1850s caused a great deal  of damage to the inner parts of Rockland Harbor and the city needed to offer a more sheltered environment to encourage growth of its fishing and shipping businesses.  The breakwater is made of enormous granite blocks that were cut precisely to fit and were placed end-to-end in water up to 70 feet deep. Depending on the tide and weather the waves may be washing over the breakwater, or lapping placidly at the sides 20 feet below the top.

Watch your step when hiking the Rockland Breakwater

Watch your step when hiking the Rockland Breakwater

It took us about 25 minutes each way as the gaps between the granite blocks are wide enough that it is wise to pay attention where you are walking to avoid tripping.  For kids, tweens and teens it offers a fun activity and a good way to burn off some energy.  If they go faster than mom and dad they can chill on the rocks that surround the lighthouse before heading back.  We are told it is also a good place to fish although we didn’t see anyone catch anything the day we were there.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse seen from the water

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse seen from the water

We stayed one night at the Ledges by the Bay motel, which is located in the town of Rockport just over the border from Rockland — about a 5 minute drive to downtown.  It was clean and our oceanfront facing room had a lovely view.  Each room has a fridge and the motel offers a free continental breakfast.   Upscale travelers and golfers might enjoy the Samoset Resort in Rockland, the expansive grounds looked very inviting.  We also had time to enjoy a couple of meals in town.  We particularly enjoyed the Fog Bar and Café for dinner.  It offers very creative and tasty American cuisine.   For breakfast don’t miss the Home Kitchen Café .  The ice cream and gelato at Lulu’s are amazing.

Don't miss the ice cream and gelato's at Lulu's in Rockland, Maine

Don’t miss the ice cream and gelato’s at Lulu’s in Rockland, Maine

Rockland and nearby Owls Head were fun stops on our mid-coast tour, we could definitely have stayed longer.  We paid our own way and none of the businesses list above knew they would get mentioned here.  If you visit let us know what you think.


Aug 222013
 

With roughly 3,500 miles of tidal coastline, Maine has long been home to large fishing and commercial shipping fleets.  The Bath Ironworks , founded in 1884, continues to build some of the world’s most advanced naval vessels.   In today’s harbors, pleasure craft dock side by side with windjammers and lobster boats.  The state’s dozens of harbors have long been guarded by scores of lighthouses since Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park was activated in 1791 on the orders of George Washington.  Today, 63 lighthouses survive.  Some have been decommissioned and the rest have been automated with the keeper’s houses and grounds often donated or leased to local governments or non-profits.

Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park is Maine's oldest lighthouse.

Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park is Maine’s oldest lighthouse.

During our recent visit to Maine’s mid-coast we had the opportunity to visit four of these beautiful buildings, and appreciated how much comfort they must have brought to mariners seeing their lights shining out to sea on rainy and foggy nights.  Each lighthouse has its own history and story.  If you plan a family vacation with kids, teens or tweens be sure to plan in visits to one or more of these living pieces of history.   Portland Head Light is an easy daytrip from Boston or a nice stop to break up a ride north.  The grounds are expansive with plenty of picnic tables but bring your own lunch as there is no snack bar.  History buffs will enjoy visiting the historic fort and naval defense fortifications that were active until 1963.

Further North, Pemaquid Point Lighthouse erected in 1835 and the keeper’s house built in 1937, overlook  a spectacular rocky shoreline that is open to the public and maintained as part of the Town of Bristol’s Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park.  While the lighthouse itself is still owned by the Coast Guard, the keeper’s house now houses the fascinating volunteer-run Fishermen’s Museum.  When the lighthouse is open there is often a line to walk the stairs to the top of the tower.  Be sure to spend some time scrambling on the rocks as well.

Pemaquid Point Light House

Pemaquid Point Light House

Farther north the towns of Owls Head and Rockland offer more lighthouse viewing activities.  The Owls Head light is maintained by the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights which leases it from the US Coast Guard.   The  surrounding land, including a classic rocky pocket beach, is open to the public as part of Owls Head State Park.   Built in 1825 it guards the entrance of Rockland Harbor on Western Penobscot Bay.    This lighthouse holds many stories — there are rumored to be not one, but two resident ghosts.  Many tales have been told about mysterious footprints appearing after rain or snow.  We didn’t see any during our visit however, although it had rained earlier in the day.

Owls Head Light

Owls Head Light

On the other side of Rockland Harbor, an almost mile long breakwater extends into the Harbor.  Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse sits at the end of the breakwater.  The light is still active and maintained by the US Coast Guard, however, the keeper’s house is boarded up and looks pretty forlorn.  We enjoyed the hiking the breakwater and then got views from the water from aboard the Schooner Isaac Evans during our windjammer.  The Friends of Rockland Lights have an ongoing fundraising and renovation program underway to restore the site to its former glory.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse seen from the water

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse seen from the water

No trip to Maine is really complete without visiting a lighthouse.  We encourage your family to visit as many as you can!


Aug 182013
 

Maine’s historic windjammer fleet offers adventurous families a rustic but affordable unplugged outdoor summer vacation.  Most ships and schooners in the fleet offer overnight trips lasting from one to seven nights.  These trips feature majestic views of Maine’s coastline, unexpected interactions with seals and dolphins, and introduction to life at sea with limited modern conveniences or personal space.  Each trip is different depending on the boat, the weather and the duration of the voyage.  Passengers are often asked to help out with important tasks like raising and lowering the sails and anchor, but the crew takes care of the cooking and cleaning.

Two masted schooners and other windjammers are a common sight along the mid-coast of Maine, this one was seen from the deck of the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Two masted schooners and other windjammers are a common sight along the mid-coast of Maine, this one was seen from the deck of the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Our recent overnight sail aboard the 127 year old  Schooner Isaac H Evans, based in Rockland, ME, offered an 18-hour view of life aboard these beautiful vessels.   Our Friday afternoon departure in the pouring rain underscored the fact that these ships sail in all weather – no refunds offered if you don’t like the conditions.   Because of the truly dreadful weather the first evening we sailed just a short distance out of Rockland Harbor to a protected inlet off the coast of nearby Rockport, ME.  After weighing anchor and dropping the sails our intrepid crew raised a tarp that provided some protection from the elements and provided a semi-dry spot for a delightful onboard lobster and champagne dinner party.   We particularly enjoyed the unlimited soft shell lobster and the easy clean-up — just throw the used up shells overboard!

Cooking Lobster on the Schooner Isaac E Evans

Cooking Lobster on the Schooner Isaac E Evans

The next morning, in typical New England fashion, the skies had totally cleared and breakfast was served on deck (as are all the meals) – cooked over the ship’s wood stove which seemed to be in constant use, whether it was perking coffee, baking muffins or preparing eggs, bacon and hash browns.  Our morning sail across the Bay on our return to Rockland was very pleasant in the sunshine.

Tarps helped to provide a dry spot during our rainy sail aboard Maine windjammer Schooner Isaac H Evans

Tarps helped to provide a dry spot during our rainy sail aboard Maine windjammer Schooner Isaac H Evans

We enjoyed meeting our 20 fellow travelers from New York, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington DC.  Our passenger list included about a half dozen kids and younger tweens ages 6 to 12, but no teenagers.  Given the weather, during the first hours of the trip many of the adults retreated to the very limited space below decks while the kids seems happy watching the action in the rain.  Unfortunately, since the Schooner is the real deal, originally built for hauling oysters along the New Jersey and Delaware shoreline, it tended to leak in the rain – resulting in a couple of the very small sleeping rooms getting fairly wet.  This in turn made for less than perfect sleeping conditions since the ship doesn’t carry extra bedding.  Once  you leave dock, whatever is on board is all you have to work with.  Leaks got plugged with disposable diapers and duct tape!

Raising the sails on the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Raising the sails on the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Each sleeping room consisted of either a small double mattress platform bed, or two small bunks plus a tiny sink and about 4 square feet of floor space.  There is basically no storage room except for small spaces next to the bed.  While it was damp but usable for a single overnight our advice to anyone going for multiple nights it to back as lightly as possible.  The two heads (aka bathrooms) consist of marine flush toilets that are only accessible via the main deck so bring a flashlight if you might need to visit them at night.  One of the heads is also equipped with a hand shower. The crew kept them very clean.  There are lights and electricity onboard, including small reading lights in each cabin.

Windswept coast near Rockland ME seen from the deck of the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Windswept coast near Rockland ME seen from the deck of the Schooner Isaac H Evans

Our trip lasted just one night, and obviously the conditions were not perfect.  The Captain and her crew worked hard to make everyone as comfortable as possible and maintained a positive attitude.  For families that  like the outdoors, enjoy sharing small spaces with a few dozen “new friends”, and have well behaved kids who can easily entertain themselves, this kind of trip could be relaxing and relatively affordable since almost everything is included except expenses for stops ashore on the longer trips.  For others, this kind of vacation might quickly become boring once the novelty wears off or the weather turns cloudy.  If you go, definitely bring rain gear, suntan lotion, sunglasses, a hat, a sense of humor and a willingness to be flexible.

In the final analysis, the crew was great and the ship was authentic while the weather and scenery were pure New England.  However, we decided we are really landlubbers who enjoy vacations featuring a lot more room and creature comforts than a 19th century sailing vessel can provide.

Disclosure: We paid for this trip ourselves and the crew did not know we would be doing a review


Historic Salem, MA: Where Witches Meet the China Trade

 Posted by on August 6, 2013  Comments Off
Aug 062013
 

Salem, Massachusetts is filled with centuries of history and merits a well planned stop on family vacations that include exploring the beaches and towns north of Boston.  The historic city was founded in 1626 and was a major maritime center for centuries,  The city was also the site of the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692 that resulted in more than 150 men and women  being accused of selling their souls to the devil and 20 being put to death for their crimes.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Salem grew to be the sixth largest city in the country, and the richest per capita by 1790, due in large part to its highly successful maritime trade with Europe, the West Indies, China, Africa and Russia.  Many fine buildings remain from this era overlooking the seaport.

The Salem Maritime National Historic site is home to the Friendship of Salem

The Salem Maritime National Historic site is home to the Friendship of Salem

Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the son of a sea captain, was born on July 4th, 1804.  While working in the Custom House overlooking the port, he  wrote his novel The Scarlet Letter.  The nearby House of the Seven Gables Settlement site includes Hawthorne’s birthplace and is open to the public.   Although a major fire destroyed hundreds of buildings in 1914, enough historic buildings survive to provide a sense of Salem in its seafaring heyday.

The Custom House where Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter overlooks historic Salem harbor

The Custom House where Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter overlooks historic Salem harbor

Simultaneous with efforts to preserve its past, Salem has invested in its downtown and wharf areas to create a pedestrian friendly retail area anchored by a world class museum and Pickering Wharf, home to some of the city’s best seafood restaurants.  The 9 acre Salem Maritime National Historic Site preserves some of the original buildings and wharves and is home to the 1797 Friendship of Salem, a full size replica of  a three-masted, square-rigged, 342-ton vessel known as a “East Indiaman,” that was used extensively in the China Trade.

Historic masthead  on display at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum

Historic masthead on display at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum

Many artifacts brought home by the sea captains are on display at the city’s state of the art Peabody Essex Museum.    This city’s darker past is also well remembered by the worthwhile Salem Witch Trials Memorial and a seemingly endless array of witch museums, stores, and shows – most of which come off as decidedly campy tourist traps that we generally try to avoid.   The city’s fascination with the supernatural is evidenced by the number of citizens and visitors who are seriously committed to the study and practice of  witchcraft including the Witches League for Public Awareness which has the goal of dispelling  misconceptions surrounding Witchcraft and Wicca by working with schools, government agencies, and the media.

The streets of downtown Salem are line with witchcraft related shops

The streets of downtown Salem are line with witchcraft related shops

If your family is interested in maritime history be sure to plan ahead to make sure the sights you want to explore are open and make reservations for tours of the Friendship and some of the historic buildings.  Government funding cutbacks have shortened some viewing hours and curtailed some activities. Sites like the Custom House and the Friendship are only open to scheduled tours which we unfortunately missed.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon but started with the exhibits at the Peabody Essex only to find that by the time we made it over to the maritime site most everything was closed.  The museum is undergoing renovations so not all of its collection is on exhibit at present.  The Chinese House is worth the extra admission fee for an up close view of how traditional Chinese families lived.  Your Museum ticket also provides entry to several historic homes located near the main museum building.

Watch out for ghouls on the prowl in Salem!

Watch out for ghouls on the prowl in Salem!

Beyond the history, you will usually find modern day witches and ghouls on the streets encouraging you to browse in a myriad of shops related to witchcraft.  The people watching is always fun in this eclectic city.  We ate dinner at family friendly  Finz at Pickering Wharf and enjoyed the helpful service, the great seafood and the wharf-side views before heading home.  It was a fun day but would have been a little better if we had done our research ahead of time instead of winging it at the last minute.  If you visit Salem, let us know what you think.