Maine is full of small-town charm that often gets overlooked when visitors flock to the southernmost parts of the state. As a Mainer, I always encourage tourists to save time for all the magic that lies north of Portland.
My advice often invites the question, “Oh, you mean Acadia National Park?” While Acadia should not be missed, I’m talking about the in-between towns — the places with convenience stores that sell a mishmash of groceries, antiques, and lawn ornaments; places where your server is probably also the owner, and where “ayuh” is used instead of “yes.”
Here are some of the best small towns in Maine.
Most know Ellsworth as a place to drive through en route to Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island. But there are a few reasons you should do more than stretch your legs here. For starters, you can buy cheesecake on the honor system. Momo’s Cheesecakes offers its treats from a garage that has been renovated to keep up with the demand.
On the other end of Main Street, 86 This! calls itself “a classy, punk-rock burrito shop.” A wide variety of creative wraps are perfect for your picnic basket. Meanwhile, yogis will delight in Steamy Buddha‘s offerings. And just past the Ellsworth line, there’s a Maine experience like no other: Timber Tina’s Great Maine Lumberjack Show. Watch the show or try your hand at log rolling.
Where to Stay: Under Canvas Acadia, a luxury glamping experience, is a short distance away in Surry.
Moosehead Lake is Maine’s largest lake, but it’s not as frequented as its southern counterpart — Sebago Lake. Greenville is a 1.5-hour scenic drive from Bangor International Airport and Moosehead is certainly the focal point of the town. One way to take in the lake’s beauty is by booking a seaplane ride — ideal for both the summer and fall.
Steamboat Katahdin has been around for 100 years and outlived what used to be a competitive market of vessels. Visitors can also join a Registered Maine Guide for a unique moose safari. And road trippers will love Lily Bay State Park for its sandy beach, campsites, playground, and picnic areas.
Where to Stay: Rent a camp. “Camp” is a term Mainers use in place of lake house, cottage, cabin, and more.
If you’ve dreamed of staying in a Maine town that’s only accessible by ferry service, Swan’s Island is the place to go for lazy days at the beach with a view that has no end. Its charm lies in its simplicity: one store, lighthouse, museum, and library. While swimming is available at four public beaches, the “quarry pond” gives visitors the option of a freshwater dip. A variety of trails, boat charters, and eco tours are also available for travelers wanting some activity. If you’re already planning a trip to Acadia National Park, don’t miss this nearby treasure.
Where to Stay: Vacation rentals may be your best bet here. Since the ferry leaves from Bass Harbor, staying at The Claremont is often preferred.
When I attended the University of Maine, Orono seemed like a college town. Now as a mother of two, Orono feels like a family destination. Those seemingly contradictory vibes boil down to the fact that no one is an outsider here. You’ll never feel like a tourist (unless you want to).
After grabbing coffee and an acai bowl from Nest, cross the street to the Stillwater River Trail, which is just short of four miles out and back. For something more outdoorsy, Maine Bound Adventure Center at the university offers kayak, canoe, and paddleboard rentals (along with rooftop kits for transport). Locals also love Pat’s Pizza (or the fish tacos at Woodman’s). And in true college town fashion, there are plenty of places to enjoy a beverage, with Orono Brewing having the most extensive selection of craft brews.
Where to Stay: Away from downtown, a part of Orono is located on Pushaw Lake, where this quaint cottage is located.
Maine’s Mid-Coast is lined with charming, can’t-miss towns, like Camden. While the downtown area is chock-full of shops, restaurants, and cafes, don’t forget to find some elevation by hiking or climbing Mount Battie at Camden Hills State Park. For a unique way to see Maine’s coast while capturing its beauty, check out a photography workshop excursion on board the Moon Dog.
Where to Stay: 16 Bay View overlooks the harbor and is centrally located to dozens of shops and restaurants.
Home to the Maine Maritime Academy, Castine is one of the state’s most overlooked destinations and also one of the oldest, with more than 100 historic markers throughout town, which landed it on the National Register of Historic Places. To get a sense of its charm, join a walking tour or catch up with the local crowd at the newly renovated Dennett’s Wharf, which has been a staple in the community for 50 years.
Where to Stay: Check into the Pentagoet Inn & Wine Bar, a historic bed-and-breakfast with an on-site pub and quaint woodland garden with views of Penobscot Bay.
In the winter months, Kingfield comes alive as a ski town of sorts, situated next door to the famed Sugarloaf Mountain. But to only know Kingfield as a place to rest your head between trips to the slopes would be missing out on a different type of beauty that blossoms during the summer and early fall. Outdoor enthusiasts bring their bikes and hiking shoes to hop on the 80-mile network of groomed paths known as Maine Huts & Trails. If your goal is to cover as much of the Maine woods as possible, booking a “hut” to sleep in between hikes is a great way to meet local adventurers.
Where to Stay: Check out this adorable A-frame cabin on Airbnb.
Located on Deer Isle, Stonington has everything a visitor could want from a historic fishing village. A working waterfront gives tourists a glimpse into how their famed lobster dinner was made possible. The town is nestled into a hillside, with sweeping views of the bay. You can get lost in nature, busy yourself with art galleries, or take in a show at the Stonington Opera House. Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to the island without stopping at Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies. Eclectic sculptures and goods made by Maine artisans accompany the treats.
Where to Stay: Aragosta at Goose Cove not only offers dreamy oceanfront lodging in cottages and suites, but the fine-dining restaurant serves creative culinary delights from a renowned chef who works directly with local fishermen and farmers to curate the freshest cuisine.
A former mill town, Buckport sits on the banks of the Penobscot River and is home to a thriving waterfront with picturesque views of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Fort Knox. The paved walkway stretches for almost a mile, and visitors can find a bench and enjoy some fried clams from nearby Crosby’s Drive-In. Friars’ Brewhouse Tap Room serves local beer and is a great place to stop in between browsing shops on Main Street.
Where to Stay: Check out this quiet waterfront Airbnb.
Maine’s Lakes and Mountains region in the western part of the state is home to several idyllic towns, including Naples, which is nestled between Sebago Lake and Long Lake (with another 50 lakes nearby). Learn how to water ski or wakeboard, or take it easy with a pontoon rental. Dining options are plentiful, too, with many waterfront restaurants and eateries (think: all the seafood and blueberry desserts you can eat).
Where to Stay: Lakeview Inn is a bed-and-breakfast where you can expect ukulele concerts and weekend barbecues.