If you’d like to sneak away for three or four days on a getaway that could include virtually every Maine summer delight and even a visit to another country, here’s a suggestion that has been a tradition for our family several times a summer for more years than I care to count.
It includes, among other things, hiking, camping, kayaking, biking, golfing, puffin-spotting, whale watching and international travel — all within four hours of our midcoast Maine home.
Just head east on Route 1 until you reach tiny East Machias, where you’ll turn right on Route 191 and follow the bay down to Cutler. There your getaway should start with a trip out to Machias Seal Island with Capt. Andrew Patterson of the Bold Coast Charter Co. to see the largest puffin colony on the Maine coast. You’ll not only see these unusual birds, you’ll see them up close — a special experience.
Once back on the road, you’ll reach the parking lot for the Cutler Coast Unit of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, about halfway between East Machias and Lubec, for your first hike. This 12,000-acre paradise includes the best of everything you’d expect to find in Washington County: blueberry barrens, peat lands, forested ledges, thick woods, grasslands and meadows. But the real reason to try this hike is the steep, jagged cliffs that tower above the ocean along 4.5 miles of completely undeveloped coastline.
There are two loops, one 5.8 miles and 9.8 miles, both of which are great hikes, but you can experience the best of the area by following the trail for about a mile and a half right down to the cliffs, with a view of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, and return on the same trail back to your car. This is our customary choice, as there’s so much more we want to cram into our short getaway. If you do the longer loop, you’ll notice that there are three remote and primitive tent sites out on Fairy Head that you might consider for a future visit.
Once back on Route 191, keep your eye out for Boot Cove Road on your right. It will take you past the trailheads for several more delightful hikes in the network that make up the Cobscook Trails. Boot Head Preserve and Hamilton Cove Preserve are both rewarding short hikes. If you don’t do them on your first visit, make a note to include them on your next.
Next, continue along to the famed red and white striped West Quoddy Head lighthouse, perched on America’s easternmost point of land. There, in 532-acre Quoddy Head State Park, you’ll find more trails leading along the bold outcroppings above the ocean and another view over Grand Manan Channel.
Then it’s back through Lubec, a town experiencing a renaissance of sorts since the demise of the sardine canning industry that fueled its early growth, with new little shops, places to eat and other attractions. Here you’ll embark on your international travels as you cross the short bridge and pass through Canadian customs — don’t forget your passport or ID card! — onto Campobello Island, NB.
Enough off the beaten path that it never gets crowded, the island is perhaps most famous as the site of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cottage and the 2,800-acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park. The residence, a magnificent 34-room “cottage,’ where FDR spent many summer vacations away from Washington, is the centerpiece of the park. It stands as both a memorial and a symbol of the close friendship between Canada and the United States, and both countries share in the funding, staffing and administration of the park.
Once on the island, head for Herring Cove Provincial Park to set up your camp in the quiet seclusion of one of the campgrounds 88 sites or, if the weather’s bad, take one of the four “canopies,” enclosed shelters with bunks. Over many years of camping there, we’ve never had a problem picking out just the right site.
Adding to the charm of the park is a crescent-shaped sand and pebble beach more than a mile long, where a dozen people constitute a crowd. And there are plenty of biking opportunities both in the park, all over the island and on the three carriage roads in the International Park. So be sure to bring along your bikes.
Bring your golf clubs too, if that’s your game, as there’s a manicured, Geoffrey Cornish-designed nine-hole track that gets about as crowded, in my experience, as the beach. In fact, I remember a round a couple of summers ago in the late evening — set your clocks back, it’s Atlantic time there, so the sun sets at about 10 p.m. in June — when my wife and I were the only two people on the entire course. The view from the first tee is one you’ll never forget.
And pack the kayaks as well. Although the tides and currents around the island can be a little intimidating, you’ll find great paddling in Mill Cove near the north end of the island. And a special reward for a visit are sand dollars that seem to have a special affinity for the beach there.
You’ll want to hike the variety of trails on the island, and my favorite is the 2.5-mile stretch between Raccoon Point and Liberty Point on the bold east shore in the International Park. Once at Liberty Point you may well spot whales offshore, and a pod of Minkes glided by us on a recent visit there.
At low tide, you’ll want to head for the lighthouse at East Quoddy Head, as you can hike out to it only at low tide. But you have to include a visit there for both its beauty and the opportunity to spot more whales. Whale-watching tours are available out of Head Harbor, near the lighthouse, and on one of those you’re virtually assured of sightings. And it’s a great place to search for, and find, sea glass.
A special place to eat on the island is the year-round seafood institution called Family Fisheries. It’s billed as a true maritime dining adventure, and I’ll attest to that representation, proven on multiple visits there over the past 20 years. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are also served at the golf course club house, and there’s another breakfast and lunch opportunity in a reopened bakery near the Herring Cove park, which makes a nice alternative to campsite breakfasts, especially after several days of camping.
Your getaway can best be concluded by picking the one alternate route off the island, the quirky M.V. Island Hopper ferry to Deer Island, NB. Eleven trips a day leave on the hour for a modest fare, car and all, and once on Deer Island, a drive to its north end takes you to the free government ferry to the mainland and the village of L’Etete, near St. George.
From there it’s a short drive to scenic and historic St. Andrews, then a hop to St. Stephen and the border crossing back into Maine in Calais.
Believe me, you can cram more fun into three or four days there than almost anyplace I can think of, and it’s not that far away.
John Christie is an author and a year-round explorer of the Maine outdoors. He and his son, Josh, will share this space this summer to highlight places to enjoy the beauty only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: