The typical Maine vacation involves lying on the beach, visiting lighthouses, and eating lobster on a wharf. I prefer to explore Maine’s rocky coast by sea each summer – it introduces me to the local wildlife and shows me aspects of the region that land travelers can never experience. Whether aboard a kayak or a windjammer under sail, I feel every movement of the sea and appreciate its power.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, as I silently rounded the sloping rock, me or the seal 10 feet from my kayak. The seal hesitated, clearly unsure whether to stay or slide off into the water. He chose the latter and was gone in a splash. The swells grew larger as my husband and I headed across the bay. We played our kayaks like surfboards as we rode the waves, little black-and-white guillemots coasting through the water beside us.
Visitors seldom venture to the Schoodic Peninsula, north of the main part of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Only here in Frenchman’s Bay can we paddle with just seals and eagles for company, beach on tiny islands, or explore the sea caves that pierce the solid wall of cliffs on uninhabited Ironbound Island. Devil’s Den is an eight-foot gap that opens into the island’s interior, one of the park’s secret places and only reached by kayak.
Looking a live lobster in the eye as it tries to catch my hand in its snapping claw is quite different from meeting one on my plate. I was grateful for the thick rubber gloves Captain Tom had given me when I boarded his lobster boat, Lucky Catch. I was helping haul big wire traps over the side and retrieve these tasty, if feisty, crustaceans as part of his 1.5-hour lobstering trip. I had never been on a working boat and I learned that there’s a lot more to catching lobster than hauling traps.
Sustainability laws, for example, which is why we were measuring this one to determine its age. Tossing undersized lobsters overboard, along with a hitchhiking hermit crab, we add a bag of bait herring before dropping the trap back into Casco Bay. This is how all 130 million pounds (60 million kg) of Maine lobster are harvested annually, by hand and trap by trap, in boats like Lucky Catch. Back in Portland Harbor, we could buy our catch at a discount, and a dockside restaurant cooked it; lobster doesn’t get fresher than that.
Red sails against the two masts formed an ever-changing pattern overhead as I lounged on the deck of the 95ft (29m) ketch Angelique, sailing through the waters of Penobscott Bay. It was two days into my week-long windjammer cruise and already I was comfortable with the moving deck and the rhythms of shipboard life. My husband Tim, who loves any craft under sail, was happily hoisting sails, hauling lines, and taking turns at the helm; my 12-year-old daughter Mary staked out a perch on the flat deckhouse roof, handy when it was time for her favorite job of furling Angelique’s red sails. Me? I gave an occasional hand, but was happy leaning against a chest on the deck, watching the shore slide past.
That proved surprisingly absorbing. We passed little fir-clad islands shaped like hedgehogs, larger ones with summer cottages and an occasional lighthouse. In the evenings, we’d put in at a deserted cove or tiny village where the only businesses were artist studios and an ice cream stand. One night, the crew built a driftwood fire on the beach and we feasted on fresh corn and lobsters. For an idyllic week, without phones or email, we played tag with porpoises, waved at lobstermen, and watched osprey soar overhead, following the winds and tides and often not knowing where we were or caring where we anchored that night.
I’m not normally a birdwatcher. But puffins? They’re different, and on a cruise to Machias Seal Island I discovered that I could watch them for hours. There are two places in Maine to see these denizens of chilly North Atlantic waters: Egg Rock, off Boothbay Harbor, and the larger colony at Machias Seal Island. Puffins nest on these remote outcrops in the summer to raise their pufflings, sharing the island with nesting razorbills, murres, and Arctic terns.
We saw all of these on our cruise from Cutler, but the puffins stole the show with their big, bright-colored bills and orange feet. I discovered that I’m enchanted by their stuffed-toy shape and bouncing walk, and by the way they seem dressed in little tuxedos that make them look like ducks playing penguin. As we slowly circled the island, we had plenty of chance to watch them on the rocky shore, flying, diving, and bobbing up and down in the water. Although this is a trip for birders, not a sightseeing cruise, the puffins provided plenty of entertainment for me.
Cruises leave from Portland; others leave from various Maine ports, but not all are hands-on experiences. Trip costs: US $35 for adults, US $20 for children.
Kayak rentals and tours are offered all along the Maine coast, in Acadia at Bar Harbor and Southwest Harbor. Half-day guided tours cost about US $50.
Windjammers sail from Camden and Rockland, on cruises ranging from three days to a week. Six-night cruises begin around US $1,000, shorter from about US $600.
Cruises sail from New Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, and Cutler; prices begin at US $35, children US $15. Learn about local puffin conservation projects at the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland.
The crowds are scarce and the rewards plentiful at these 5 wet-and-wild destinations.
From putting your money in the pockets of local businesses to steering clear of unethical tours and activities, it's simple to improve your travel habits for the better.