There are so many things to do in Maine. How does one make a bucket list of the top 10 things?
I have lived in Maine and have written about Maine for close to five decades, and my personal bucket list of things to do in Maine ebbs and flows with the seasons. But there is a mental game I play. I call it: “If I Had Only One Day.”
It’s a simple game: I ask myself, if I had only one day to spend in Portland, what would I do? Or one day to spend in Acadia National Park, where would I hike? It’s my way of focusing on what really are my absolute favorite things to do in Maine — and how much I’d miss doing them. Some of my choices are influenced by memories of being new to Maine, and some by memories of my sons when they were young, laughing with delight during the many trips we took to Maine. But enough back story. Here, if I had only 10 days to spend in one of my most loved places, are my favorite things to do in Maine.
10 Favorite Things to Do in Maine
Take a Maine Windjammer Cruise
Sailors will tell you that cruising Penobscot Bay is not only one of the best things to do in Maine, but that the bay offers some of the most beautiful sailing waters in the world, with all those evergreen-covered islands sprouting from the deep blue bay, lighthouses perched on rocky cliffs, and anchorages in protected coves that speak of island quiet and ease. The historic Maine windjammers, restored schooners that once carried goods around world, give travelers the thrill of sailing: wind snapping sails, stars seeming to explode from deep night skies, the salt-brined scent that whips up appetites, taking dories into island harbors where leafy paths entice walking.
These schooners were not built for luxury — the cabins can be a challenge to maneuver in for couples — but, oh, when you settle on the deck and smell food cooking in the galley, and the entire day stretches ahead, sea, sky, breezes, the woes of a tight cabin disappear. I’ve done a four-day sail, and if I had one day to see the Maine coast, I might stow away to where the day becomes two, then three…
See More: Maine Windjammer | Sailing the Penobscot Bay
Climb Katahdin and Camp at Baxter State Park
I could not leave Maine without one final climb of Katahdin and a night watching stars and listening to the quiet wilderness of Baxter State Park, where the 5267-foot mountain forms the bedrock of one of the most unique state parks in the country. Former Maine governor Percival Baxter gave the 201,000-acre park to the people of his state to be “forever wild,” and when you hike the hundreds of miles of trails within the remote park, you will feel that “civilization” is far away. But if I had only one day, I would once again climb Katahdin via the Knife Edge, a 1.1-mile serrated path that links several peaks before the summit.
The narrow, rock-strewn path has made more than a few intrepid climbers sink to their knees and take a hand over hand approach where it narrows to precipices. I won’t say if I was one of those reduced to a crawl or not. It’s possible that I don’t remember. But I do know it is that feeling of self doubt that makes this so memorable. You focus, you get to the summit where the Appalachian Trail comes to its end, and you feel you have done something extraordinary. How many hikes do that?
Experience Fall in the Oxford Hills
In the mid 1970s, I spent a winter and spring in an unheated cabin set on the shore of beautiful Keoka Lake in North Waterford. There was no running water — the owner had drained the pipes before the cold settled — so early every morning, I cut a hole in the ice and carried buckets of clear, potable, and very cold water into the cabin, where it warmed in a big tub by the always-stoked woodstove. I tell you this because the villages that rim the ponds and lakes of the Oxford Hills in western Maine are among the loveliest I know, and my affection for them may, in part, be because I knew them when my adult life was just getting in gear.
I began writing from that cabin by the lake, and when people ask me about things to do in Maine I will always include a visit to Harrison and Waterford, Bridgton and then to Denmark and Lovell, and on into Fryeburg, where each October the great Fryeburg Fair celebrates fall’s bounty. Short climbs into the hills open onto vistas of forest and lake. The hill towns are full of apple orchards and farm stands, and if there are prettier country roads for leaf peeping, let me know, because these are at the top of my list.
Go White-Water Rafting from the Forks
Maybe it’s because I was one of the first writers to climb into a rubber raft and hurtle through the gorgeous and imposing Kennebec Gorge, and then a few days later to experience the wild tempest of the West Branch of the Penobscot River with the brow of Katahdin as a constant companion, but a guided rafting expedition remains one of my most memorable northwoods days. When I first buckled up the life vest and heard the thundering water in the gorge, my heart started pounding. The excitement of seeing waves crashing over the bow of the raft is only exceeded by the raw beauty of the landscape. What began with one or two hardy rafting companies in a northwoods hamlet has today grown into one of the elite white-water rafting centers in the East.
Ski the Snowfields at Sugarloaf
Of all the things to do in Maine, my winter day would be spent skiing the only lift-serviced, above-tree-line snowfields in the east. As I write this, both of my sons now live in snow country far from New England, where mountains climb above 10,000 feet and snow cover is measured in hundreds of inches, and I admit that I partially blame their days skiing the Sugarloaf snowfields. So my last day here would be both in praise of one of the most exciting and unique skiing experiences in New England, as a sort of requiem to when the boys were young and every snow day was an invitation to find bumps and jumps and trails that threaded into snow-covered woods.
Spend a Day at Bowdoin College
This is one of my more offbeat “Things to Do in Maine” favorites. I am drawn to Bowdoin’s leafy campus in Brunswick for its history (Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Robert E. Peary all went here), but also because the setting — the small town on the fringes of the campus with its eclectic mix of shops and eateries — has always reminded me of why Maine has such a pull for so many people. Not to mention that some of the best beaches in the mid-coast are only half an hour away. If you are here on a warm day and watch the students sitting against the giant oaks and maples, it is impossible not to feel the jauntiness of youth.
I will always remember the first time I walked into the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and saw the dogsleds that carried explorers into the Polar landscapes, and the artifacts of those explorations. This is one of those under-the-radar museums that stays with you. When you find out how many toes Peary lost on these forays (nearly all), you’ll appreciate the endurance and courage needed, back when explorers were true heroes.
To cap the day, Bowdoin’s dining halls always score near the top among all colleges in the nation, and spending $14 or $16 for a top-of-the-line buffet will create a singular memory that you’ll tell friends about.
Walk the Marginal Way in Ogunquit
There may not be a greater contrast between two one-mile walks than Katahdin’s Knife Edge and this coastal beauty. From the time my two sons were able to walk, we brought them to Ogunquit and this signature walkway along a smooth bluff path that gives views of the wide sandy beach stretching northward to Wells, with the surf pounding on rocks just below. Memorial benches welcome sitters along the Marginal Way and it is not unusual to see a couple happily unwind by simply gazing out at sky, water, and passing walkers. A reward awaits when the walk spills into pretty Perkins Cove, with its lobster boats, shops, galleries, waterside eateries, and a drawbridge where visitors gather and watch the action.
See More: Things to Do in Ogunquit, Maine | Coastal Weekend Getaways
Take a Ferry to the Casco Bay Islands
This day comes in layers. First, I want to take a bag of doughnuts from the Holy Donut aboard the ferry. Made from potato flour, these dense goodies sell out by early afternoon on most days and make every “best doughnut” list in the country. From the Exchange Street shop, it is only a three-minute stroll to the Casco Bay Lines ferry. You could simply ride the ferry as it stops at a number of islands, but if I only have one day, I want to make the most of it. For me, the thing to do is to get off at Peaks Island, only 20 minutes into the voyage, rent a bike at Brad’s, and take a leisurely pedal around the island. I will find a sliver of beach, or one of those granite outcroppings, settle down to listen to the waves and seabirds, and open my bag of doughnuts. There may be other things to do in Maine that rival that setting, that moment, but if you’re lucky enough to have snagged a maple-flavored doughnut, I don’t know of any.
See More: Peaks Island, Maine | Island Day Trip
Stay at the Breakers Inn and Swim at Higgins Beach
I have stayed in some of the nicest, most luxurious inns in New England, and I have stayed in backwoods cabins where bunks and sleeping bags counted as high end, but of all the places I have stayed in Maine, one of the most memorable is the Tower Room overlooking Higgins Beach at the Breakers Inn, a turn-of-the-century inn that has been family run since I was in fourth grade. Simple, cozy, as comfortable as a favorite sweater. The beach is steps from the front porch, and it’s one of those beaches where most everyone is local. To make this a surefire thing to do, you must also swim. I don’t mean touch toes and wriggle out. I’m talking immersion, swim until the cold has settled in and you no longer actually feel it, and then, when you emerge, the sun warms you quickly and the Tower Room awaits just ahead.
See More: Best Beachside Lodging | Sandcastles by the Sea
Camp at Cobscook Bay State Park
So many visitors to the Maine coast halt at Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, as if there was an electric fence just beyond. Both should be on anyone’s must-see list. Acadia, especially off-season, when the brunt of summer trekkers have left and you have the views, the carriage roads, the prime camping spots relatively to yourself, rewards the biker, the walker, the photo-op-seeking driver, the seascape lover, the nature lover. And Bar Harbor can hold its own with any coastal town attractions anywhere — yes, that means you, California-dreaming towns and New Jersey shore towns.
But if I only had one day Down East, the thing I’d do is drive a bit more. About 100 miles, in fact. Past the fishing villages where lobster traps stand in heaps on the lawn. Past houses that have stood for two centuries, because they were built by shipbuilders who knew how to make wood fit together to make something practical and beautiful. Past endless blueberry barrens, where in summer hundreds of workers bend with rakes. Eventually, you’ll come to Cobscook Bay, with its surging tides and a state park you’ll share with eagles and seals, and the other adventurous travelers who have wanted to see what lay beyond.
So, there you have it. These are the things that I would do with my last days in Vacationland. What are your absolute favorite things to do in Maine?
This post was first published in 2017 and has been updated.
Mel Allen is the fifth editor of Yankee Magazine since its beginning in 1935. His career at Yankee spans more than three decades, during which he has edited and written for every section of the magazine, including home, food, and travel. In his pursuit of stories, he has raced a sled dog team, crawled into the dens of black bears, fished with the legendary Ted Williams, picked potatoes in Aroostook County, and stood beneath a battleship before it was launched. We think Mel is as New England as they come.