This guest post is from Ella Buchan, a travel writer of 12 years who is often found seeking out local dining spots and drinking wine around the world. Her time in Maine, USA was part of the #DriveUS1 campaign which saw her road-tripping all the way down the historic US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. This post is sponsored by Visit Maine, who can help you follow in Ella’s tracks when planning a trip to the state – road trip or otherwise.
Scenic roads that loop through history. A culinary scene flavoured by centuries of tradition and a coastline whose serene beauty belies a tumultuous past.
The northern state of Maine is known for lighthouses, lobster and luminous fall colours, but its beguiling landscapes also offer fascinating glimpses into some of the earliest European settlements on US land.
The history lesson started at breakfast. As I browsed the buffet of cereals, fruit and muffins, a waitress popped up behind the bar.
“Would you like a ployes?” she offered.
Pronounced ‘ploy’, I wondered if I’d interrupted a murder mystery game. In fact this was my first introduction to Acadian food in this part of northern Maine, so close to Canada you can frequently spy its lush green landscapes on the other side of the Saint John River.
I was at the Inn of Acadia in Madawaska, just before the state’s borders curl around New Brunswick to the east. Along with parts of Canada, this sprawl of Maine down to the Kennebec River, 270 miles south, was settled by French-Acadians in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Acadia became a colony of New France, with a distinct identity from both the motherland and Quebec. And its culture is evident in everything from the landscape to the food.
My ployes was a buckwheat pancake filled with jammy blueberries and yoghurt, topped with granola. A delicious legacy of those early settlers, and still a breakfast favourite here.
This was the fuel for the beginning of an epic road trip all the way down the US Route 1 to Key West in the Florida Keys. Designated the country’s first interstate highway in 1926, US1 starts in Fort Kent, 20 miles west of Madawaska. A granite monument marks ‘America’s First Mile’, with views across the Saint John River to Clair, New Brunswick.
US1 was originally a patchwork of regional highways connecting the early settlements and George Washington is said to have travelled the route several times.
Though, trotting along in horse and carriage compared to my Hertz Ford Fiesta (nicknamed Harrison), it probably took him a little longer.
Maine’s Acadian Legacy
Tracing the road along the Canadian border, past road signs greeting “bienvenue” before eventually saying a regretful “au revoir”, I was once again reminded of the Acadian legacy. The river, now marking the wiggly border, was once home to communities spanning both sides of the water.
This part of US1 weaves through the Saint John Valley Cultural Byway. The majority of the population are of French heritage, including descendants of original Acadian settlers.
The Acadian Village in Van Buren (open from June to September) includes original homes rebuilt log-by-log on this historical monument. There is also a wistful statue of Acadian heroine Evangeline, a fictitious character created by Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In the 1847 poem, Evangeline is separated from her lover Gabriel during the Deportation of 1755-1763, when British rulers forced Acadians from their settlements. Many fled to Louisiana, creating the Cajun culture still prominent there today, while a handful retreated to the Upper Saint John Valley.
As I continued down the highway, I thought what a wrench it must have been to leave – and why many Acadians later returned to this boldly beautiful part of the world. The road hugs tightly to the Saint John River, passing meadows scattered with wildflowers and cutting through thick forest. I was slightly too early for the fall colours, though smatterings of cerise and auburn popped against the green – a sneak preview of the new season wardrobe.
Scenic byways loop around lakes and forested areas shadowed by mountains. After passing through the tiny towns of Caribou, Presque Isle and Houlton, I hit the stretch known as the ‘Million Dollar View’. The vanity of the name was forgiven as I pulled into the many lookout points to better admire views across the Chiputneticook chain of lakes, glimmering in the perfect shade of cerulean blue.
Farther south, the Saint Croix International Historic Site immortalises one of the earliest European settlements on the North Atlantic coast.
The 6.5-acre island, visible from the historic site, is where the French first settled in 1604. It wasn’t the most successful. After building relations and trading with native Passamaquoddy people, almost half of the settlers perished in the harsh winter. The survivors moved to Port Royal, Nova Scotia in 1605, which later became the capital of Acadia. Bronze statues depicting life on the settlement are dotted among pine trees, along winding paths carpeted with soft wood chip.
Maine’s Atlantic coastline is dotted with more than 60 lighthouses, and candy-striped West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec is the most striking. Despite its name, the bright tower marks the easternmost point in the contiguous United States.
Farther along the US1 Road…
Back on the road, US1 loops into Route 187, part of the Bold Coast Scenic Byway. The scent of pine and fir trees, mixed with salty sea air, breezed through the windows as the landscape opened up to marshes, wild blueberry fields and lakes stretching to the ocean.
Farther south, Route 186 travels through the Schoodic Peninsula, past bays surrounded by wildflowers and fragrant shrubs before winding up to Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park. The pale taupe, rocky outcrop is a serene spot to gaze at the ocean.
After a night in cute seaport town Camden, its pretty harbour sheltered by mountains Bald and Battie, I hopped over wide crevices along the 0.8-mile rocky pier leading to Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse.
In Portland – Maine’s Capital of Cool
Portland has a very different vibe to the rest of Maine. This compact city is wonderfully walkable, from the cobbled streets of the Old Port to the waterfront, once the hub of fishing village Casco, renamed Falmouth before becoming part of modern Portland.
Now, among buildings in diverse architectural styles from Federal and Gothic to Queen Anne, Portland’s appeal is very modern. I only had a day to explore, and vowed to return as I browsed bookshops and boutiques in the Arts District, and sampled craft brews at Novare Res.
Maine was the birthplace of Prohibition, but its vast coastline also made it a major smuggling route for bootleggers.
The boozy traditions continue today with hip speakeasy-style bars like candlelit Bramhall, intriguingly named The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, and hip Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, which serves Scandinavian sharing boards with cured meats, quails’ eggs and pickles.
Tucked in the southeastern corner of Maine, tiny Ogunquit (‘beautiful place by the sea’) looks almost too perfect to be real. Tiny souvenir shops, saltwater taffy stores and lobster shacks curl around serene Perkins Cove, bobbing with fishing boats. A small pedestrian bridge loops across the water to reach Ogunquit Museum of American Art, whose impressive collection includes two portraits of Ernest Hemingway by Henry Strater. After complaining that the first made him look “too damn literary”, a second (preferred by the writer) captured him, bloody nosed, after a boxing match.
The museum’s sculpture gardens, with granite, aluminum and wood sculptures gazing out to sea, can be viewed during a scenic tour with Finestkind Cruises. Our captain, Bob, let me take the helm for a while as we sailed to Nubble Lighthouse, built on a ‘nub’ of land off the rocky coastline.
I learned a little about the history of lobstering in Maine. The crustaceans were once so abundant, early settlers crushed their shells for fertiliser and nonchalantly scooped them from tidal pools for dinner. Now the industry is so competitive that five lobstermen must retire for each new licence issued. The problem, as Bob explains, is that they rarely retire.
The foodie history continues in nearby York, blessed with a wide beach the colour of set honey. The Goldenrod has been making saltwater taffy since 1896, and visitors can watch through the window as the sweets are pulled and stretched to achieve the perfect light-yet-chewy texture.
The first electric trains from Portsmouth, Massachusetts began in 1897, bringing visitors to purchase the taffy then pulled by hand.
I took a box for the road – my last delicious bites of Maine, as sweet, salty and infused with tradition as the state itself.