No wonder Midcoast Maine has become so popular with those whom Mainers call “rusticators” or “summer people.” Maybe too popular. The sheer volume of tourists, locals claim, has inevitably altered the character of typical attractions like Camden and Boothbay Harbor, with their picturesque, yacht-filled anchorages. In summer, the year-round populations of these two destinations — roughly 5,000 in Camden and 2,000 in Boothbay Harbor — multiply several fold.
While both coastal towns retain their charm, in summer they can take on the feeling of popular shopping malls — as just about every store’s inventory expands to include tchotchkes and souvenirs with lobster motifs and slogans like “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” To escape the pedestrian crowds, slow-moving cars clog the roads to Camden Hills State Park and Boothbay’s Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. It’s not the way a vacation should be.
In Damariscotta: Poetic inspiration, reversing falls, old-fashioned stores — and parking
For a trip into the Maine of the past, snag a cottage rental in or take a day trip to a less known alternative lying roughly midway between the two — Damariscotta. Its Indian name, meaning “place of alewives” (as in a type of herring), was immortalized in the fugue-like poem “Variations on a Summer Day” by Wallace Stevens, who vacationed there.
Damariscotta and the adjacent village of Newcastle retain the feel of authentic, small-town Maine unblemished by a tourist- dependent economy. The lines to buy ice cream cones or browse the art galleries are underwhelming. Cars can usually find parking near or on Main Street. The snug, picturesque harbor is too far up the Damariscotta River to accommodate towering cruise ships.
Under the bridge connecting the two villages are the river’s remarkable “reversing falls.” At high tide, the water rushes so fast upstream, rapids are created. As the tide goes out, the rapids flow in the opposite direction. Just a mile up the river are huge historic middens created by the discarded shells of Native Americans. A couple of more miles upstream, where the anadromous alewives go to spawn, you’ll find the 4,600-acre freshwater Damariscotta Lake. It offers less chilly swimming than the nearby ocean, where the iconic lighthouse at Pemaquid Point stands sentinel.
Back on Damariscotta’s Main Street are noteworthy restaurants, including the Damariscotta River Grill, King Eider’s Pub and Savory Maine. For its “real Maine” feel, visit S. Fernald’s Country Store at breakfast or lunch; its signature “eggs in a frame” breakfast sandwich, called Eggs Bigelow, is just $5.99. For old-fashioned frappés, stop by the soda fountain in the old drugstore.
Renys, a 70-year-old department store that combines Walmart prices with country store atmosphere, bills itself as a “Maine adventure.” Next door is the Lincoln County Theater, which features not only the latest films but also “Live from the Met” opera performances. There’s a thriving independent bookstore, with its own coffee shop and frequent author book-signings. The fact that a fish market and yoga studio share the same building speaks to the town’s whimsical charm, which might draw you back again and again, like the migrating alewives.
Location: 50 miles north of Portland, Maine, damariscottame.com.
Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia and Maine. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.
More from Travel: