Time Union: Lonely Planet

A hidden gem in Down East Maine

Castine offers a picture postcard of village's past

By REGIS ST. LOUIS  King Features Syndicate

One of Maine's loveliest little-known settlements, Castine, is a charming, picture‑book village with an astoundingly rich history dating back to the early 1600s.  Its lanes are lined with grand 19th century houses framed by stately elms, with a sprinkling of old‑fashioned shops and B&Bs leading down to the waterfront.

Castine will introduce visitors to the state's magical Down East region. Long winding roads course along jagged coastline, with sleepy towns and lone lighthouses perched near the water's edge. Veering off the coastal highway (Route 1) offers ample rewards with back roads tracing curvy peninsulas stretching into the sea. Castine lies at the edge of one‑such long peninsula, flanked on either side by the Penobscot and Bagaduce Rivers. Its strategic location near Penobscot Bay played a significant role in the city's history.

The French founded Castine as a trading post in 1613 ‑ seven  years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It also served as an  important fort that would suffer attacks under French, Dutch and later British flags. Despite its embattled history, not much stands of the large forts that saw so much action. The remains are low earth‑works now covered with grass, which make surprisingly serene picnic spots. The highest point in town is Fort George State Park surrounding the former British garrison, while Fort Madison enjoys a fine perch on the edge of the sea.

Court Street is another idyllic lane passing by the grassy Town Common. Several handsome 19th‑century buildings overlook the common, including the 1859 Abbott School, which still houses an elementary school. Walking west along Court Street leads past the picturesque Maine Maritime Academy and the edge of an old wind‑swept cemetery, where some of the gravestones date back to the 1700s.  On blazing summer days, thick‑skinned swimmers and fearless children brave the cold Maine waters for a dip off Backshore Beach.  The crescent‑shape shore is  a mix of sand and rock, with  beachcombers scavenging for shells on sunny days.                                

A less daunting, way of getting out on the water is hiring a kayak.  Castine Kayak Adventures (www.castinekayak.com), at the town dock, offers rentals as well as organized tours, including peaceful sunrise or sunset trips and overnight camping excursions.  Seals, ospreys, eagles and herons often can be spotted while out on the water.

Castine's other attraction is its forest (Maine is after all "the pine tree state").  Just on the edge of town sits the Witherle Woods, a 96-acre preserve set with walking and biking paths along former British Artillery trails.  It has an impressive variety of bird life among old-growth forest and some fine views of Penobscot Bay.  More extensive trails are a short drive from Castine at Holbrook Island Sanctuary State Park, particularly known for its shorebirds.

Getting there: Bangor Airport (www.flybangor.com) provides connections to other U.S. cities. From Bangor, it's 37 miles south to Castine. From Portland, wind up Route 1 for about 100 miles, turn south at Route 175 (Castine Road), which turns into Route 166. For the latest happenings in town, visit  www.castine.me.us.

Places to stay: Castine's oldest hotel is the Pentagoet Inn (800-845-1701; www.pentagoet.com), doubles from $125. This classic Queen Anne has a tranquil wraparound porch and charming guest rooms set with antiques and period details. The Castine Inn (207-326-4365; http://www.castineinn.com doubles from $120) offers elegant rooms in an 1890s manor surrounded by lovely gardens.

Places to eat: Even if you don't stay at the Pentagoet, it's worth stopping in for a decadent meal of lobster bouillabaisse or anise-dusted scallops. After dinner, you can retire to the old-world pub for a glass of port among the old photographs.

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