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Coasting Down East

Leaves, lobster, and lodging with a view: Maine’s amazing coastline towns and villages offer some of the nation’s greatest autumn sights and delights.

By Marty LeGrand

On a five-night foliage tour of midcoast Maine last October, my husband and I had much the same agenda. Our needs were simple yet decadent: Give us leaves, lobster, and lodging with a view. Nearly all of the inns where we stayed—including historic gems and their lavish modern counterparts—were within sight of the water and striking distance of the first two items on our list.

“Great time of the year,” Mainers will say of visiting the coast in the fall. While the inland mountains are better known for vivid foliage, the coastal palette will surprise you with its contrast of warm autumn tones, the indigo sea, and gray granite.

Route 1, the main coastal highway, was blessedly uncongested as we drove through the land of pointy firs and yellowing birches, past grange halls, fire stations, and saltbox houses ringed by sturdy rock walls. The scent of the sea guided us better than any GPS as we explored peninsulas whose rocky points were inevitably graced by lighthouses and lobster shacks. We traveled 500 miles in five and a half days—not a pace I’d recommend for leisureliness. Instead, pick one or two of these destinations and leave time to enjoy the porch rockers.

The Pentagoet Inn

U.S. 1 crosses the Penobscot at Verona Island, the northernmost point on our journey. The rusted Waldo-Hancock Bridge we traversed has since been replaced with a futuristic, cable-stayed bridge, one of whose twin obelisk-style towers functions as an observatory. A high-speed elevator whisks visitors more than 400 feet skyward to the Penobscot Narrows Observatory (Fort Knox State Historic Site, 207-469-7719, maine.gov/observatory) for views of Penobscot Bay and the surrounding mountains.

We enjoyed the scenery the old-fashioned way, poking down country roads to Castine, a quiet town situated well off the beaten path on a peninsula bounded by the Penobscot and Bagaduce rivers. Founded in 1613, the community has been colonized by four countries: France, Holland, England, and, of course, its current occupiers. (The U.S. moved in when the British moved out in 1814.)

We learned all this from Jack Burke, innkeeper at The Pentagoet Inn (26 Main Street, 800-845-1701, pentagoet.com), a restored 1894 Queen Anne hotel located about one sloping block from the waterfront. Burke knows something about geopolitics; for 20 years the Portland native worked overseas with the Foreign Service. Passports Pub, the inn’s Victorian parlor-cum-explorer’s club, is plastered with his collection of political cartoons and portraits of world leaders both famous and infamous, including an oversized oil of Lenin. “I had a disproportionate number of good guys,” Burke explains of the Russian revolutionary’s prominent place next to a portrait of Gandhi.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep and armed with leaf-peeping suggestions from Burke, we set out for Stonington, a charming fishing village on Deer Isle and hometown of last night’s main course. Sprinkled among the town’s seafood outlets, marine businesses, hardware store, and pharmacy are numerous antiques shops, art galleries, and restaurants. At one, the cheery Maritime Café (27 Main Street, 207-367-2600) overlooking the harbor, we dug into bowls of tasty fisherman’s stew and watched cruise boats depart for Isle Au Haut and other small islands that, sadly, we had run out of time to visit.

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