MDW in Maine: Vacationland
When you're a New Yorker and it's Memorial Day weekend, you dream about a helicopter flying you over holiday traffic, landing you in the Hamptons. This time, I felt like doing something a bit different. Thinking of something a bit quiet, without traffic and promising amazing summer foods.
A one hour direct flight from NYC for about $100, with sunsets-to-die-for, lighthouses as a focal point and lobster rolls on every corner......SOLD!
So, I packed my carry-on bag and hopped onto a teeny, tiny commuter plane, accommodating about 20 people. After an hour long panic attack (perfectly timed to Beyoncé's Lemonade video), I landed in the beautiful city of Portland, Maine.
Where to stay: I wanted to stay at the Press Hotel, Autograph Collection because I'm a sucker for boutique hotels (then I found out this is actually owned by Marriott), the location is great (Old Port Neighborhood) and there's a rooftop. This hotel was once known as the Gannett Building and used to be the home of the Portland Press Herald. The price was on the high side but I ended up getting a pretty good last minute deal so I booked it. If you've rented a car or driven, they offer valet parking for $29 per night but street parking was a better option for us (it's free). The highlight of my stay was the fresh out of the oven Blueberry Muffins. Blueberries are a thing in Maine so consuming as many as possible unintentionally became a priority. The lowlight: learning that the rooftop is only accessible if you book the Penthouse Suite. If I could redo my trip, I'd save a bit of money and find a hotel that was closer to the water or book an Airbnb instead.
What to Do:
Kennebunkport: Less than an hour's drive from Portland. Head to Walker's Point for a great view of the Bush Compound, take a walk down Ocean Avenue, order a lobster roll from The Clam Shack (served on a round roll with both butter and mayo) or do some shopping while strolling through the streets of this quaint, little town. Save room for Rococo Artisan Ice Cream which is a little taste of Argentina with unique flavors packed into a sugar cone. You'll want to come back for more.
Old Orchard Beach: Maine has many beautiful beaches along the coast and the most popular is Old Orchard Beach. It is a 25 minute drive from Portland. Our weather was a bit bipolar - 85° one day, 60° the next (pack for both) so I missed out on beach time but I wasn't expecting much anyway. Old Orchard Beach is a great spot for kids to play games on the pier, catch fireworks or grab another lobster roll.
Botanical Gardens: The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are a little over an hour away from Portland and are well worth the visit. Admission is $18 per person (Maine residents enter for free) and you get to spend as much time as you want wandering through the winding paths surrounded by beautiful greenery. Since I visited in late spring, most of the tulips had already gone to flower heaven but the gardens were beautiful nonetheless. The children's garden was the highlight for me, equipped with a little playhouse, super-giant leaves and lily pads. There's also a cool zen garden where you can take your shoes off and walk over a path of small rocks for some natural reflexology.
"Wild" Animals: A 30 minute drive from Portland is the Maine Wildlife Park and for $7.50, you're guaranteed to see a moose. The moose may be behind a chain-link fence, but a moose is a moose and I wanted to see one in Maine. As an added bonus, they have small animals like deer, woodchucks, porcupines and raccoons as well as bigger-game animals like a black and brown bears, a lynx, cougar, a bob cat and a mountain lion. You're in and out in 45 minutes or less but it's totally worth it especially if you're with kids (or if you're just a big kid like me).
Acadia National Park: A short and scenic three hour drive and you're at one of the nation's most famous national parks. Break up the drive by stopping at an amazing little diner called Vittles in Pittsfield, ME. The breakfast, the homemade baked beans (did you know they're a thing in Maine?) and the ice cream is out of control. Continue on your drive and head to the Acadia Visitor Center to pick up your park pass. Hike up to Cadillac Mountain (about 10 miles/2-3 hrs each way) or if you're unambitious like me, drive to the top in like 5 minutes to snap a quick instagram photo and score bonus points if you ask a sweaty hiker to take it for you! The views are breathtaking and completely worth the drive from Portland. Next, check out Jordan Pond and Sand Beach, all accessible with the same park permit. If you're hungry, grab a quick bite at the Jordan Pond House before heading out to Bar Harbor.
Bar Harbor: While visiting Acadia, you'll want to stop at the cute little town at the base of the mountain called Bar Harbor. Book a room at the adorable Acacia House Inn and enjoy the homemade fresh blueberry breakfast the next morning. Maine Street comes to life in the summer months and is filled with cute little shops with all the Maine-themed apparel one could ask for. If you're hungry, which I always seemed to be in Maine, you must go to Side Street Cafe and have the best Lobster Mac n' cheese you'll ever have. Try the Bar Harbor Blueberry Beer or a Blueberry Mojito to wash it down.
Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse: It's about 25 minutes away from Bar Harbor in Tremont, ME. Maine has over 60 lighthouses along it's coast but this one is not to be missed. It's pretty much the most adventurous thing I did the entire trip. This particular lighthouse is located on a bit of a cliff and in order to get a good view of the front, you need to walk through a short trail, walk down some wooden steps and then traverse some serious rocks in order to get your money shot. If you're able-bodied, it's worth it and if your timing is good, a sunset shot is even better.
Portland Head Lighthouse and Museum: If you google Maine, this is the most common image you'll see. This famous lighthouse is only 20 minutes from Portland in Cape Elizabeth and should be a mandatory stop during your trip. You can spend 5 minutes snapping the obligatory lighthouse pic or you can spend a few hours hiking the trails, visiting the museum and picnicking in the Fort Williams Park. As an added bonus, there's an amazing lobster truck located on site called Bite into Maine with yet another, awesome lobster roll and a blueberry soda from Maine Root Co.
L.L. Bean: A retail store open 24 hours a day is always a treat. Located 30 minutes outside of Portland, L.L. Bean's Original Duck Boot has been a best seller since 1921 and still sells out. For that reason alone, I made my way there to buy a pair as my Maine souvenir.
What to eat: I normally do a ton of planning before heading to a new city but this time I decided to mostly wing it. As a result, this trip quickly turned into the quest to find the best lobster roll (since every business claims to have the one and everyone you ask will name a different place as their favorite). Any internet search for "best Maine lobster roll" will return articles like "Maine's 17 best lobster rolls" or "15 essential Maine lobster rolls" so I knew 2-3 meals per day would be focused on testing out as many as humanly possible. I literally had to consume a full 1,000 calorie meal nearly every two hours (like body builders bulking up for competition only without the exercise).
Lizzy's overeating pro-tip: Take this enzyme right before you eat and avoid a food coma. I do this a lot. I'm not proud of it. They're like performance enhancers which is basically cheating, except eating is a hobby for me more so than a profession.
Red's Eats: I've officially crowned Red's as Lizzy's favorite lobster roll. Located in Wiscasset, ME and just 20 minutes from the Botanical Gardens, this picture-perfect little food shack was the highlight of my lobster roll quest and was worth the 30 person wait (it moves quickly). Red's simple take on the lobster roll includes a toasted bun, with a pile of buttery lobster chunks mixed with just a touch of mayo. They give you such an insanely generous amount of lobster that you'll have to grab a fork to eat the chunks that fall out. For dessert, order the blueberry cake with fresh whipped cream on top. As with most lobster shacks, it's cash only and seasonal so double check that they're open before you go out of your way.
Eventide Oyster Co: I had heard amazing things about Eventide so immediately after checking into our hotel, I walked right over and ordered a couple of amazing cocktails while waiting for a table. About 60 minutes later, I was seated at a window with our entire order already assembled in our brains. A dozen oysters, fried soft shell crab, tuna crudo, lobster stew, two brown butter lobster rolls and the last minute addition (thanks to the enthusiastic waitress) of the fish sandwich as a grand finale. The lobster roll is exceptional and unique at Eventide because it's basically a steamed bao bun with warm buttered lobster inside. It's small, but intensely flavorful. The fish sandwich surprisingly stole the show and also shouldn't be missed. Finish with an ice cream sandwich and try to tell me it wasn't your favorite meal of the trip.
Central Provisions: Two words: Suckling Pig. Walk the cobblestone on Fore Street and head to Central Provisions for a cocktail and some small plates. The lobster toast is a great option but the suckling pig stole the show for me.
Street & Co.: Make a reservation in advance or get there right when the doors open and cross your fingers for a last minute late night accommodation (like I did). I suggest trying the local Maine fiddleheads (it's a squiggly Dr. Seuss looking vegetable that is all the rage during it's short growth season) on the kale salad or over Polenta. The Lobster Diavolo (for two) is the must have dish at Street & Co. - a piping hot saucepan filled with lobster, mussels, octopus, squid all on top of a bed of perfectly cooked linguine in a spicy diavolo sauce.
The Holy Donut: A spiritual experience as advertised. I've had a lot of donuts in my day (my first job in high school was the 6am Saturday shift at Dunkin Donuts) but man oh man, this donut is, in fact, holy. These donuts are made from real Maine potatoes, mashed up to melt in your mouth with every bite. Perfection. I'm not much of a chocolate donut fan but the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt was insanely great and by far the best donut I've ever had.
Beer: Take a tour through the Allagash Brewery and sample some of their (often) brewery-only beers. The tour itself lasts about an hour and takes you through their brewhouse, fermentation area, bottling room and then the barreling room for the tasting of four different beers. If you're short on time, skip the tour and pop in for just a free tasting. They're more then happy to serve you and all tips are donated to charity. For more beer adventures, head to Freeport to The Maine Beer Company or snag a seat at the bar at Novare Res to sample some of their 25 taps or 500 bottles of beer.
Airport: If you're flying out of PWM (Portland International Jetport), no need to arrive 2 hours in advance. I've never seen an airport so empty or a security line so short (it took less than 30 seconds), even without using my TSA-Pre Check. There's a small little bar inside if you want to grab a quick drink before take-off but keep an eye on your boarding time. Everyone had checked into the flight early so they boarded and took off about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Nothing like a quick red-wine chugging contest right before boarding a flight to punctuate your Memorial Day trip with an exclamation point!
I hope Maine gets to meet you soon and you enjoy the experience, the beauty and excessive lobster like I did.