There's more to Maine than just lobsters and lighthouses - as any experienced Maine-iac will attest. Though New England's largest state is mostly mountains, lakes, rivers and pristine wilderness, the biggest draw for summer visitors is its stunningly picturesque coastline. First-time visitors would be cheating themselves if they didn't test the tourism waters where, indeed, there are plenty of iconic lobsters and lighthouses.
WHEN TO GO
The sometimes-rugged and sometimes-gentle beauty of the Maine coast is no state secret. Prime season runs mid-June through September, and that means the double-whammy of crowds and higher prices - though the recession is expected to take some of the sting out of both this year. But whether you are coming for several weeks or just the weekend, make your lodging reservations in advance or be prepared to scramble to find any storm shelter in the port.
WHERE TO GO
Here we offer seven of Maine's premier coastal destinations, each of which offers something unique for the first-time or long-time-no-see visitor. Each provides a good base from which to explore off-the-beaten-path areas. String several together, and you've got yourself a genuine Down East vacation.
BEST FOR Harbor enthusiasts and water excursionists
WHY GO Primarily a tourist town, greater Boothbay, which boasts four lighthouses, a working fishing fleet and its trademark footbridge, still retains enough of its maritime character and purpose to enthrall visitors. And the overall effect is even more evocative in foggy weather.
TO DO Get out on the water with 2- to 3-hour cruises to Burnt Island Lighthouse to watch whales and puffins or an all-day excursion to rustic Monhegan Island; visit the Marine Resources Aquarium and Boothbay Railway Village.
STAY While there are plenty of B and Bs and motels ($85-$265) to choose from, larger inns overlooking the harbor are the best option ($89-$235), not only for their location, but because they solve Boothbay's prodigious parking problem.
SEAFOOD You can't beat the Cabbage Island Clambake (Pier 6, 207-633-7200), a 31/2-hour dining excursion that includes chowder, lobster, clams, corn, dessert, and a scenic harbor cruise For romantic, sunset views over the water, head to the Ocean Point Inn (Shore Road, East Boothbay, 207-633-4200).
INFO 207-633-2353, boothbayharbor.com
Camden / Rockport
BEST FOR The artistically and aesthetically inclined, leisure travelers who enjoy doing nothing in particular
WHY GO Arguably Maine's most picturesque towns, Camden and Rockport are at the base of 1,380-foot Mount Battie on the western shore of expansive Penobscot Bay. Home to generations of genteel summer residents, Camden and Rockport are picture-postcard towns, their downtowns lined with charming, tidy shops, their harbors full of twinkling sails, and the immaculate gardens of their summer residents full of multicolored flowers.
TO DO See the view from Mount Battie (accessible by car); visit the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center; take a day sail (usually 2-3 hours); drive and hike out to gloriously understated Owls Head Light.
STAY Upscale Victorian inns and B and Bs constitute the "standard" fare - the most desirable are in the residential district ($125-$299).
SEAFOOD It doesn't get any more Maine-line than the always crowded but highly efficient Lobster Pound Restaurant (US 1, Lincolnville Beach, 207-789-5550). For a real splurge, make reservations (mandatory) for the five-course, prix-fixe extravaganza ($45) at chef Michael Salmon's Hartstone Inn (421 Elm St., Camden, 207-236-4259).
INFO 207-236-4404, camdenme.org
BEST FOR Cultural enthusiasts and night owls
WHY GO For decades, Portland was just another past-its-prime, industrial New England city. But, thanks to the revitalization of its 19th century Old Port, Portland is now routinely touted as the new Boston. Maine's largest city (with a metro area population of 230,000) is also its only true metropolis, thus the only place to find abundant culture, fine dining and entertainment. It's also the easiest place to fly into, enhancing its allure as a quick getaway.
TO DO Take a walking tour of the Old Port district; see Portland Head Light (1791), one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world; visit the Portland Museum of Art and the quirky but visually fascinating Victoria Mansion; take advantage of Portland's lively music and entertainment scene.
STAY You name it, Portland's got it, including a hostel. If you don't want to stay downtown ($85-$379), there are plenty of less-expensive chain options across the Fore River in South Portland ($69-$209).
SEAFOOD Street and Co. (33 Wharf St., 207-775-0887), a Portland institution featuring Mediterranean influences in the Old Port district. Also nearby: Gritty McDuff's Brewpub (396 Fore St., 207-772-2739), Maine's first and most extensive brewpub.
INFO 207-772-5800, visitportland.com
BEST FOR Compulsive shoppers and inveterate bargain hunters
WHY GO Twenty minutes north of Portland, Freeport is Maine's oldest town. Back in the 1820s, it was a mackerel-catching and -processing port; today, its mainstay is shoppers - some 3.5 million of them a year - who migrate north to shop at New England's premiere outlet center (more than 120 retailers).
TO DO Shop until you drop, because in Freeport many of the stores stay open 24 hours a day (you can't miss the giant Maine hunting boot outside L.L. Bean). Other attractions: The living sand dune at Desert of Maine, and the "locals" at the Maine Wildlife Park in relatively nearby Gray.
STAY The round-the-clock retail frenzy undermines Freeport's charm as an overnight destination, but choices range from standard motel options off Interstate 295 ($79-$169) to the upscale Harraseeket Inn downtown ($195-$295, 162 Main St., 207-865-9377).
SEAFOOD The Lobster Cooker Restaurant (39 Main St., 207-865-4349), a casual, quick-service eatery set in a converted barn, is ideal for busy bargain hunters. Steaks and vegetarian entrees complement the seafood at historic (1779) Jameson Tavern (115 Main St., 207-865-4196), where Maine was conceived as a state.
INFO 207-865-1212, freeportusa.com
BEST FOR Those with deep pockets, Bush family fanatics.
WHY GO Founded as the year-round home of prosperous shipbuilders and ship owners in the mid 1700s, Kennebunkport became the summer home of affluent New Englanders beginning in the late 1800s. The election of George H.W. Bush in 1988 put perennially fashionable, but otherwise laid-back, Kennebunkport on the national tourist map, drawing thousands of day trippers eager to peer into the private lives of the rich and sometimes famous.
TO DO Explore Dock Square and Walker Point; drive by the Bush family compound; see the Wedding Cake House (from the outside); stroll the 2.4-mile Parson's Way Shore Walk from Dock Square to Spouting Rock and Blowing Cave; take a vintage trolley ride at the Seaside Trolley Museum; browse trendy, upscale boutiques.
STAY Befitting its affluent neighbors, Kennebunkport is home to several top-drawer established resorts, most notably the Colony Hotel ($199-$500, 140 Ocean Ave., 207-967-3331) and the Cape Arundel Inn ($285-$365, 208 Ocean Ave., 207-967-2125). Smaller portfolios will have to "settle" for one of the numerous historic inns and B and Bs in town ($130-$395).
SEAFOOD If you make it out to Walker's Point, hit Mabel's Lobster Claw (Ocean Avenue, 207-967-2562), a fashionable eatery frequented by the Bushes. Dine overlooking all of Kennebunkport at Windows on the Water (12 Chase Hill Rd., 207-967-3313), and check out the daily five-course lunch and three-course dinner specials.
INFO 207-967-0857, visitthekennebunks.com
Old Orchard Beach
BEST FOR Kids, beach-seekers
WHY GO Old Orchard Beach prides itself on being "Maine's Premier Family Beach Resort." Children of all ages will love the amusement parks, arcades and carnival-like ambience, while beach bums will savor the 7-mile sandy beach. Only the thickest-skinned land lobsters, however, will find the water inviting (average mid-August high is a brisk 64 degrees).
TO DO See the arcade-lined Pier; ride off into the sunset (and well into the night) at Palace Playground, New England's only beachfront amusement park. An even larger one, Funtown/Splashtown USA, and the Aquaboggan Water Park are in nearby Saco.
STAY No-frills motels catering to families ($59-$200) predominate here with a handful of Victorian inns, B and Bs, and resorts offering less hectic and generally upgraded options ($75-$200).
SEAFOOD Joseph's-by-the-Sea (555 W. Grand Ave., 207-934-5044) is an oasis of calm amid all the carnival chaos. To recapture the Victorian ambience of the Old Orchard Beach that was, try the ornate Landmark (28 E. Grand Ave., 207-934-0156).
INFO 800-365-9386, oldorchardbeachmaine.com
BEST FOR Resort aficionados, nature lovers
Located on incredibly scenic Mount Desert Island, which it shares with Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor was the summer resort of America's leisure class at the end of the 19th century. A colossal fire in October of 1947 allowed the town to effectively start over. The "new" Bar Harbor caters to those who prefer rusticating in luxury, but also meets the needs of those on a budget.
TO DO Visit Acadia National Park, especially via 27-mile Park Loop Road and from the top of Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet); the charming "harbor" villages: Seal Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor; check out the lobster hatchery at the Oceanarium.
STAY Bar Harbor runs the gamut from super-deluxe, all-amenity grand resorts ($99-$480) to cozy B and Bs ($75-$425) to back-street motels ($89-$245). Economize by stopping before you get into town at one of the dozen or so motels along Route 3 ($69-$185).
SEAFOOD Take a rewarding detour from otherwise pricey Bar Harbor fare at The Lobster Claw (54 West St., 207-288-4489), a takeout shack specializing in lobster rolls and lobsta-ka-bobsta (grilled lobster on a stick).
INFO 800-345-4617, barharborinfo.com