I used to despise the word “vacation”.
I never like the idea of having to vacate from one’s own life. “Life should never be that bad,” I used to say.
But there was something about our recent travels to New England and Canada that made me become a believer in the term “vacation”. Traveling to a state known as #vacationland will certainly help, but there were two essential elements that contributed even more to our ownership of the word: 1) we turned off our work emails, and 2) we never set an alarm.
Those two points aren’t revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, but I confess that it was the first time I did both concurrently on a trip. Even on our honeymoon, we set alarms and monitored emails. But this time, things were different.
This time, we vacationed like nobody’s business.
We’ll be imparting several of our favorite memories from our travels but wanted to start first with the region where our adventures both began and concluded: Maine. It had been a dream of mine to travel to Maine since I was a little girl. Something about the rocky shores, lighthouses, ocean waves, and calming serenity of the pictures I had seen growing up called to my inner search for peace and beauty.
So when we knew we would be heading to Montreal, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to throw in Maine for good measure. They’re only a 5-hour drive apart after all [and we all know how much we love a good road trip!] As an added bonus, Jason just so happens to have family in the area. Win-win!
Here are our highlights and recommendations based on our time in Portland, Maine and the surrounding area. Let’s just say our first trip there did not disappoint my 8-year-old self.
1) LOBSTER. Lobster is king in Maine. It’s a driving industry in the state and runs amok on all of the harbor-side menus. We started with a classic whole lobster [Jason’s first!] at Portland Lobster Company, but quickly moved on to the true delicacy of the region: lobster rolls. Shannon’s Unshelled in Boothbay Harbor is most likely the best in the immediate harbor vicinity [though The Lobster Dock puts up a pretty strong fight for its warm lobster roll offering, a true rarity]. The best thing about spots like these is that the lobster is allowed a spot to shine: no mayo mixed in, just the meat and some warm butter served on the side. It’s that good. Yet for the best of the best lobster roll experience this planet has to offer, there is no better place [in our humble but also quite obvious opinion] than Red’s Eats, an unassuming shack on the side of Highway 1 in Wiscasset. This easy-to-miss lobster shack is home to perhaps our final lobster roll until our return back to Maine — mostly because we know no other will compare [especially in Colorado], AND we’re pretty sure no one is supposed to eat that much lobster in one sitting. Piled high, these guys obviously don’t weigh or skimp on their proportions. They just scoop on the lobster until it is almost physically impossible to eat. We recommend sharing!
Sidebar: For a true locals’ experience, skip the lobster. Portland is a surprising foodie mecca, and we promise it’s not all lobster-driven. Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean influences run rampant everywhere, on top of charming ice cream storefronts and world class local coffee roasters. The variety will surprise you and may even be a welcome reprieve from your lobster-induced coma.
2) BEER. Craft beer is everywhere in Maine, and we knew from friends and locals to expect to be impressed. Sure enough, Allagash Brewing Company was especially worth the pilgrimage. The tap room serves up free beer flights, which are gratefully not overridden with hops. Their Red Ale was definitely the most memorable, but their House was a close second. One of our favorite decisions, however, was swinging by a specialty liquor store called the Bier Cellar in Portland to pick up a sampling of local beers, as recommended to us by the enthusiastically knowledgeable shop clerk. Based on his recommendation and our own tangential interests, we ended up taking home seven individual beers from seven different breweries and set up our own little tasting at home, since we knew we wouldn’t be able to visit them all. The conclusion? There are a lot of great flavors up here. The Belgian-style Table Beer from Liquid Riot Bottling Co., however, was enough to make us regret not visiting their tap room.
3) BEACHES. We never tired of seeing the ocean the entire time we were in Maine and spent entire mornings and afternoons just taking in the power of the water [living in a landlocked state will do that to you]. Old Orchard Beach was especially memorable for us. This popular spot is a kitschy, crowded, colorful, carnival and candy shop ridden slice of joy where extortion and novelty coexist side by side. We loved it, especially since we were given the chance to nestle our toes in the sand, step back in time at the throwback arcade, and share some salt water taffy with one another. Other favorite beach spots were Pine Point, a lovely beach with a local flavor and fewer people, as well as Willard Beach in South Portland, our go-to retreat on the first day of our vacation. Coffee and croissants in hand, toes in the sand, and the serenity of the sea providing a soundtrack to our Americano drinking and chocolate croissant eating was almost too idyllic for our own good.
Scratch Baking Co. Coffee on Willard Beach
4) BOTANIC GARDENS. Disclaimer: we are not what we would consider to be Botanic Gardens people. Sure, we will visit one, but we frequently feel as though once is enough. The Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens, however, completely blew us away and skyrocketed to the the top as one of our best last-minute vacation ideas ever. The Lerner Garden of the Five Senses was worth the trip all on its own. There we smelled the world’s most aromatic flowers; we tasted the harvest from the vegetable gardens [Jason’s genius idea involved pairing the perfectly ripe grape tomatoes and basil]; we felt the soothing river rocks under our bare feet in the meditation garden; we heard our echoing voices in the sound stone; and we saw the vibrant colors of the flowers paired with fascinating silver windmill instillations. Outside the Five Senses Garden, we uncovered romantic hidden nooks marked only by arched branches, we learned that we loved things like purple basil, bearberries, and silver falls, and we frolicked through enchanting Fairy Villages and took cover in hidden bear caves. Best of all, we set out on a hiking exploration through the massive expanse of parkland surrounding the gardens. [Let’s just say that it felt good to earn those lobster rolls!]
5) BOOTHBAY. Boothbay Harbor is what we would call “quintessential Maine.” The town is ripe with places with names like Harbour Breeze, Thistle Inn, and Nana’s Place dotting the boardwalk. One could spend an entire day just meandering through the local coastal-themed shops and admiring the boats in the harbor. Indeed, we ate nothing but lobster rolls and clam chowder the entire time we were there. We even got out on the water to witness up close the crashing tides, iconic lighthouses, playful seals, osprey colonies, and private summer homes and islands of the region. The culmination of our boat trip was the opportunity to witness a lobster haul and learn a bit about Main’s lobster industry and conservation efforts. Did we mention this place has everything “Maine” written all over it?
6) BEAUTIFUL DRIVES. Driving through Maine was one of the highlights of our trip, but we admit our opinion is mostly biased by the September season. The leaves were just beginning to show touches of Fall, even though the flowers and vegetable gardens remained in full bloom. The cotton candy skies and lush landscapes are what we mutually dubbed as “pleasant” — lovely and calming and able to fold you completely into its charms. That’s not necessarily hard to do when there are adorable colonial towns and lobster shacks hidden among the tall, sprawling forests. While we drove through many parts of Maine [always in search of moose, mind you], one of our favorite scenic driving excursions was to Cape Elizabeth. This lovely spot is just a 15 minute drive from South Portland and worth the trip just for the tortured rocky landscape and the beauty that is Two Lights State Park, named for the twin Cape Elizabeth lights. The BYOB lobster shack isn’t too shabby either.
7) FAMILY. You won’t find them in any guidebook, but the secret to our memorable Maine experience was none other than Jason’s family. This was my first time visiting this specific branch of the Braeuer clan, and after just one afternoon together, I knew it wouldn’t be my last. Despite our unannounced arrival, Jason’s Uncle Rob quickly took us to all the best spots [Old Orchard Beach and Pine Point were his fantastic introductions] and allowed us to eat as much ice cream and salt water taffy as our hearts desired. Many an afternoon and evening were also spent with Jason’s Aunt Binki, whether shopping on Congress Street, visiting a life-sized chocolate moose, teaching us about the joys of “lazy lobster”, or simply catching up over a bottle of wine. Jason’s cousins were the cherry on top to it all. Beatrice — a veritable walking Yelp review — quickly imparted all of the best Portland dining spots and flavors, and Lucy prepped all sorts of delicious meals for us. Harry taught us all there is to know about Pokemon Go, and Ella spent an entire afternoon with us baking bread and brownies and sharing knock-knock jokes. Needless to say, we quickly fell in love with our time there [and with their four adorable cats].
There you have it. Seven memorable reasons why Maine is now on our ever-growing list of repeat travel destinations. It’s probably a good thing, then, that we left a few to-do’s undone, simply for the excuse to come back. Still left on our Maine list is: dinner at the Little Tap House in Portland, a stop at the Portland Art Museum [because their exhibitions are truly impressive], a day trip up to the iconic Bar Harbor, and, of course, more family time — of which we can never get enough.
Who knows when we’ll get to go back, but we can’t help but be thankful for the chance to check off bucket lists and learn the true meaning of vacation from the state that understands it best, #vacationland.