by Aaron Feigenbaum.
Tucked in the northeast corner of America, Maine may seem remote and inaccessible. However, once you’re there you’ll realize that you’ve arrived at New England’s crown jewel. With thousands of miles of rugged coastline, iconic lighthouses, picturesque fishing villages, unrivaled autumn foliage, and vast swathes of pristine pine forest, Maine is one of America’s best outdoors and small-town destinations. Whether you’re snapping a postcard-perfect ocean shot atop the rocky peaks of Acadia National Park, strolling along the cobblestone streets that wind their way through Portland’s colonial red-brick buildings, or experiencing far northern Aroostook County’s unique French culture, Maine offers a vast world of excitement and adventure that’s second to none.
Before European colonization, Maine was inhabited by Algonquin-speaking peoples such as the Abenaki and Maliseet. The first Europeans, led by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, arrived in 1604 at the now uninhabited island of Saint Croix and established a colony there. King Henry IV of France named the region l’Acadie or Acadia. An English attempt at settlement in 1607 ended in failure, leaving France as the dominant political and economic power in Maine. Trade and missionization drove French explorers inland to establish new settlements such as Castine and Penobscot Bay. However, it wasn’t long until the English returned and set up permanent colonies in southern Maine, later to be absorbed by the colony of Massachusetts in 1640.
Maine soon became the site of an all-out, decades-long conflict between New France and New England. Allied with native tribes, each side conducted kidnapping raids against the other in bloody wars such as King William’s War of 1690, in which the entire Androscoggin tribe were driven north to Canada, and Dummer’s War of 1725. Finally, the French were defeated in Acadia in 1740 and the British incorporated Maine into the Province of Nova Scotia where it was joined with New Brunswick. After losing the territory to the newly independent America, Britain schemed to take it back and call it “New Ireland.” This plan never came to fruition, and Maine now became part of the state of Massachusetts.
The War of 1812 brought British forces down from Canada to occupy large portions of the eastern coast and effectively halt shipping. The fact that neither the state militia nor the Massachusetts government were willing to stop the British led many in Maine to seek statehood. Massachusetts agreed to allow a vote on Maine’s secession, thus Maine became America’s 23rd state in 1820.
Maine in the mid 1800‘s was boosted by an extremely fast-growing logging industry, which resulted in the state’s famed shipbuilding industry. Bangor became, for a time, the world’s largest lumber port. Cotton, paper mills, and railroads also contributed to the state’s economic development.
Maine in the Civil War was an ardent supporter of the Union and an even more ardent opponent of slavery. In proportion to its population, Maine sent the largest number of troops to the front than any other state.
Maine today prides itself on its values of diversity and tolerance. It is home to a vast number of different ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. It’s also home to many celebrities such as former president George H.W. Bush and horror author Stephen King.
See and Do:
Portland: Sitting snugly in Casco Bay, this bustling seaport is Maine’s largest city and is one of the coolest small cities in America. The historic Old Port district is the main attraction for tourists, who will enjoy seeing its quaint shops, European cobblestone streets, and restored colonial buildings. Next up is the Portland Museum of Art. Housed in a building that’s an interesting blend of Georgian and modernist architecture, this art gallery houses over 17,000 pieces of decorative and fine arts from such figures as Monet, Picasso, and Rodin. Then head to the opulent Victoria Mansion, located right near the art museum. Belonging to a wealthy 19th-century hotelier, this is considered to be one of the best examples of an Italian-style villa mansion in the country. The interior’s lavish furniture, wall frescoes, and beautifully exotic carpets are truly a visual feast.
Portland Head Light is not only a symbol of Maine; it’s also the most photographed lighthouse in North America. Located in Fort Williams Park just outside Portland, the Head Light overlooks Cape Elizabeth and the ocean beyond. The lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington in 1791 and was staffed until 1989 when it was automated. However, the lighthouse keeper’s house has been preserved and is now a museum that serves to educate visitors about the military and maritime history of Portland. Just behind the lighthouse is Fort Williams Park, home to WWII-era artillery guns and bunkers. Local harbor defense units once scanned for German U-boats from this location.
Another place for scenic views in Portland is the Portland Observatory. Built in 1807, it’s the very last maritime signal tower left in America. The tower relied on a telescope and signal flags to communicate with vessels although it ceased operation in 1923 when radio technology made it obsolete.
Finally, if you’re traveling with kids, be sure to check out the Children’s Museum of Maine. Kids can haul traps aboard a fake fishing boat, milk a fake cow on a replica farm, and do indoor rock-climbing.
Augusta: This is Maine’s state capital and while it’s not as exciting as Portland, this riverside town has is beautiful and offers a very relaxed atmosphere. The Maine State Museum tells the state’s natural and cultural history alongside exhibits on Maine’s prehistory, native people, colonial and industrial era, and its natural resources. A highlight is the two-story replica woodworking mill.
The Maine State Capital building looks much like other state capital buildings, but it’s worth a visit and tours are free.
Perhaps the most interesting attraction in Augusta is Fort Western, the oldest surviving wooden fort in New England. It was originally built by British colonists to defend against French and native attacks. In 1775, it was the starting point for the Continental Army’s expedition to Quebec, led by the future traitor Benedict Arnold. Today it’s a museum and shop.
Bangor: This is the center of inland Maine’s commerce and culture. It’s much quieter and much less visited than the heavily touristed Portland. Main Street is dotted with lots of quaint antique shops. Elegant Victorian mansions can be found throughout the city, a testament to Bangor’s former lumber wealth. The Bangor Museum and Center for History has an impressive collection of Civil War artifacts and vintage clothing as well as thousands of photos. The Cole Land Transportation Museum preserves the history of Maine’s transportation equipment with a collection of snow plows, logging vehicles, fire trucks and more. Perhaps the single biggest reason why people come to Bangor is to see Stephen King’s iconic red Victorian mansion. You can’t go inside, but the exterior is a must-see for anyone visiting.
Acadia National Park/Mount Desert Island: Located about an hour’s drive from Bangor, this is New England’s only national park and one of the best in the country. The most popular destination in the park is Mount Desert Island, Maine’s largest island. It’s visited by an estimated 2.5 million tourists a year, and its history goes back thousands of years. Museums are plentiful on the island, with a whale skeleton display and the region’s natural history being some of the highlights. Shopping and cozy bed-and-breakfasts are in no short supply throughout the island’s small towns. For outdoors activities, there are many hiking trails, most of which give you excellent views of the island and Bar Harbor on the mainland. There’s also swimming, kayaking, camping and tidepool exploring. Celebrities including Susan Sarandon and Martha Stewart have made Mount Desert Island their summer home. Transportation around the island is free.
Aroostook County: For something off the beaten path, Aroostook County at the northern edge of Maine is one of America’s most unique cultural and recreational destinations. Most residents here are bilingual in English and French, and are proud of their Acadian roots. Aroostook’s connection with neighboring New Brunswick is so strong that the state legislature once considered transferring the county to Canada. The county’s largest city is Presque Isle. Attractions there include a historical museum, science museum, air museum, and Aroostook State Park, which has scenic hiking trails, and cross-country ski trails in wintertime. The city of Caribou is the northeasternmost city in the U.S. and is located just 10 minutes from the Canadian border. In Caribou, you can participate in the time-honored tradition of berry-picking at Goughan’s Farm, fish and kayak on the Aroostook River, and have a taste of old-world Europe at the nearby Swedish Colony. With thousands of lakes and rivers, amazing wildlife such as moose and black bears, and some of Maine’s best scenery, Aroostook is one of the most wild and unforgettable parts of Maine. It’s out of the way for most travelers, but once you’ve visited you likely won’t regret it.
Daven and Eat:
Chabad of Maine is in Portland at 101 Craigie Street (207-871-8947/chabadofmaine.com)
A Modern Orthodox shul called Shaarey Tephiloh Congregation is located at 76 Noyes Street
in Portland (207-773-0693/mainesynagogue.org)
If you’re heading to Bangor, check out Beth Abraham Orthodox Synagogue at 145 York Street
According to the Chabad of Maine website, there are no kosher restaurants in Maine. Kosher food can be purchased in grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Shaw’s, and Hannaford.
Portland is serviced by Portland International Jetport. A flight to there from LAX currently runs at about $400 per person round trip. A flight to Augusta is around $450, while a flight to Bangor is about $600. Driving from L.A. to Portland is about 3,100 miles and takes 4 or 5 days.