License plates might identify Maine as Vacationland, but the appeal can be a little lost on those of us who reside here year-round. It’s not a total misnomer — and hey, it’s better than some of the other state-sponsored marketing campaigns out there (see Oklahoma’s “Visit” and South Carolina’s “The Iodine State”) — but the fact is that Maine, especially in the summer, can often feel more like someone else’s idea of an idyllic vacation spot.
Yeah, we’ve got the natural beauty thing on lock, but even that can get a little old, and leave even the most flannel-forward longing for a different take on the concept of vacation.
Here lies the problem, though. If you’ve braved it through yet another Maine winter with toes and sanity both intact, it seems downright foolish to hit the road once the weather starts to improve.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of Maine stand-ins for famous summer vacation spots across the country. Can’t make it to Arizona or really just don’t like donkeys? Try Gulf Hagas. Do you like your beaches raucous and gritty but not, like, hypodermic-needles-in-the-surf gritty? Welcome to Old Orchard. Maine can be anything you want it to be — so long as you have the ability to ignore temperature and overwhelming ethnic homogeneity.
As the least urbanized state in the country, we basically already all live in the middle of the woods — at least from the view of our fellow Americans. While this won’t ring true for those along the coast, or in the bustling metropoles of Bangor and Lewiston, those from away think of our state as a quaint, rustic backwater primarily intended as a place to break in one’s new Bean boots or introduce children to the horrors of camping.
They have no idea.
AKA Old Orchard Beach
The Jersey Shore is one of America’s few public zoos focused entirely on the human animal. Watch as they achieve a deep bronze color in order to attract a mate, observe the rigid pecking order determined entirely by bicep definition, or order a Red Bull and vodka to try feeding them by hand. While these types of party-centric beach towns exists across the country, Maine has been able to stave off the spread … with one notable exception: Old Orchard Beach.
Rich in beachfront bars, airbrushed apparel, and bickering sunburnt families, Old Orchard Beach does not feel like any other place in Maine. Between the weekly brawls in front of the arcade, the novelty Cat in the Hat–inspired shirts reading “Drunk No. 1 & 2,” and the glut of establishments hawking Jell-O shots, one thing is for sure: the type of tourists who visit Old Orchard are almost the exact antithesis of your average Maine tourists.
Of course, this can be a welcome respite from the retail-outlet mavens, rugged outdoorsmen, and insufferable yuppies, and a good chance to meet a wide range of colorful (and occasionally detestable) characters from neighboring states and Canadians who’ve been heard to — tragically — refer to Maine as “Canada’s Florida.”
AKA Gulf Hagas
Nothing can really match the scale of the Grand Canyon. That’s sort of the whole point. A hole in the ground is a hole in the ground — but the largest hole in the ground? That’s something to build a tourism sector around!
For those looking to avoid the 2,800-mile journey to the country’s greatest natural wonder, Gulf Hagas has you covered (though it’s still almost four hours from Portland). Located in Piscataquis County, the 3-mile gorge includes 130-foot walls and several waterfalls and swimming holes. It is one of Maine’s 14 National Natural Landmarks and is part of the Appalachian Trail corridor.
Largely created by the Pleasant River cutting through the region’s slate gorges, Gulf Hagas had a little help from loggers who blasted sections of the gorge with dynamite in order to break up logjams. The area is a popular destination for expert whitewater kayakers, who consider it to be the best creek run in the state.
Screw Auger Falls is the crown jewel of Gulf Hagas. Located along Gulf Hagas Brook, the falls drop some 25 feet into a punchbowl formation below, and is just one of four waterfalls located along the 8-mile (or 4-mile with a cutoff) hiking trail. Be careful when jumping off rocks of any kind and remember that emergency response crews might take a while to reach a waterfall located in a sparsely populated region (technically named Bowdoin College Grant East Township). Another waterfall of the same name is located on the western border of Maine in Grafton Notch State Park — make sure you and Google are on the same page with that one.
A former logging outpost turned tourist destination, Rangeley is complete with both a large freshwater lake and a ski resort, making it the Lake Tahoe of Maine. With a population of 1,175, the charming town in the western mountains has been in flux recently, as the area’s largest ski resort, Saddleback Mountain, attempts to get the lifts running again after a yearlong hiatus. The result is a Main Street stuck somewhere between nondescript rural Maine town (gas station, general store, diner, repeat) and Park City, Utah, in the early days of Sundance (fine dining, upscale bowling alley, art galleries, dudes who look like Robert Redford).
Both Rangeley and Lake Tahoe lie along major mountain ranges (Sierra Nevada and Appalachian) and offer the best of what each state has to offer in terms of big mountain skiing. Tahoe boasts the 3,812-foot, 97-trail Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort, while Rangeley’s Saddleback is a more modest peak at just 2,448 feet.
The town also features one of Maine’s premier pseudoscience destinations in the Wilhelm Reich Museum (also known as Orgonon), the mountaintop home, lab, and research center of the famed-if-misguided Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich. Reich spent much of his career attempting to prove the existence of a hypothetical universal life force called the “orgone,” building a cabinet-like “orgone accumulator” that he claimed could, among other things, improve “orgastic potency.” While the FDA eventually barred Reich from distributing orgone-related materials, examples of his work and equipment, including the orgasm-boosting cabinet, can still be seen at the museum.
Like Tahoe, Rangeley features a large alpine lake that, given its elevation and size, never rises to the level of what one would call “warm.” Rocky and windy, the lake does not feature any natural sandy beaches, and works best when used for a brief, post-hike cool-down. Speaking of “Cold as Ice,” the town’s indecently scenic Health and Wellness Center will once again play host to the rock stars of yesteryear with a summer concert that brings Foreigner to Rangeley on July 30.
AKA Peaks Island
Maybe it’s the fresh sea air, gently swaying boats, or the abundance of polo shirts, but there’s something about island life that just makes you feel better than other people. Capture that false sense of superiority with a trip to Peaks Island, Maine’s own version of storied New England summer island destinations like Martha’s Vineyard that have built a brand of the back of the bon vivant lifestyle.
Known as “the Coney Island of Maine” since back in the late 1800s, Peaks once attracted as many as 10,000 visitors during the busy summer months, who came to enjoy the island’s hotels, theaters, and amusement parks. Today, those numbers are down and the carnival atmosphere is gone as hotels and amusement parks are replaced with $1,000-a-week cottage rentals.
Peaks only has a year-round population of around 1,000, but is packed during the summer months as nearly four times that figure cram onto the island, located three miles off Portland. This helps prevent an overt “locals only” vibe as a majority of residents are seasonal, but if you want to get to know the natives, Peaks’ American Legion Hall is the sleeper pick for best bar on the island. A popular destination for weddings, Peaks has managed to retain a few colorful attractions outside of the tired souvenir shop, including an abandoned World War II artillery battery and, for some reason, an Umbrella Cover Museum.
Outside of the summer months, the comparison thankfully doesn’t hold up. As the host to an annual underground arts festival and the destination for many a day trip, psychedelic or otherwise, Peaks retains some cred among the freaks and stands as the easiest way to feel like you’ve escaped the city without ever actually leaving it.
AKA Blue Hill
Located along the coast and just west of Mount Desert Island, Blue Hill is a quiet town of fewer than a thousand in rural Hancock County. With a reputation as a hippie haven and a historic literary scene, the town is comparable to Big Sur in both spirit and size.
The California region has long attracted artists and writers, including Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac, and is still considered a destination for the tie-dye set. The area was host to a major folk festival for much of the ’60s that drew acts like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Blue Hill was home to one of the state’s first food co-ops in 1974, and boasts an outsized art scene that includes the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School and Festival and numerous galleries. With most tourists passing over the quaint hamlet in favor of nearby Acadia National Park, Blue Hill has managed to largely stay true to its hippie roots, though a significant portion of the town budget is probably dedicated to fortifying the town’s strategic patchouli reserves.
While the rich and famous have long chosen to get their Maine summer fix at nearby Mount Desert Island, writers, artists, and creatives of all types have been visiting and buying summer homes in Blue Hill for decades. Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White was among the first to see the appeal, and has since been joined by the likes of major American writers, including Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Edmund White. Lethem is co-owner of a bookstore in Blue Hill, and is said to host a monthly poker game, giving visitors the rare chance to mug a real New Yorker on their own turf.
While Detroit might not make the typical list of top summer tourist destinations, the city is an interesting case study of a once troubled city on the rise.
Sound familiar? Maine’s riverfront mill towns have long been the target of ridicule, but now provide a temporary respite from the rapidly rising cost of living in some of the state’s larger cities. Cities like Biddeford have made a comeback in recent years as developers and business owners turn to the city’s ample stock of disused mill buildings, which are now home to the likes of breweries and yoga studios.
But if you’re looking for that particular mix of urban decay, renewal, and cultural diversity, Lewiston is the place to be.
The same white, middle-class flight (and concomitant racism) that characterized Detroit’s fallout has seen Lewiston’s Lisbon Street cycle from a bustling, walkable shopping district to abandoned corridor and back again over the last hundred years, and is now a novel amalgam of high-end eateries and specialty olive oil purveyors alongside pawn shops and halal markets. High-end beer fans can take a tour or try limited-run brews at Baxter Brewing in the Bates Mill, while those looking for a more authentic Lewiston experience can elbow in between the Bates kids and gruff locals at legendary dive bar Blue Goose Tavern. If you’re looking to raise an ice-cream float to the car-centric Motor City itself, head to Val’s Drive-In at 925 Sabattus Street.
Breakfast in the twin cities of Lewiston-Auburn is a whitebread delight of affordable options. Georgio’s Pizza & Donut Shop (740 Minot Ave.) offers a $5 breakfast sandwich with hash browns and a lo-fi take on the maple-bacon donut that might actually feature Bacon Bits. Remember to set realistic expectations about quality, and never ask what the cretons is made of.