Joan and Mike Furnari walk along a carriage trail at Acadia National Park on June 25. The couple, who live in Southwest Harbor, walk the carriage roads almost every day. They said it has been quiet in the park, but they noticed an increase in visitors over the past week and expect that to continue as the summer goes on. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When MJ Crace of Lebanon worked as a manager at Sarah’s Café in Wiscasset, she could gauge how busy the restaurant would be based on the line for lobster rolls at Red’s Eats across the street. On an average summer day, she said, there might be 35 to 40 people in line, which meant there would be an hour’s wait for a table at Sarah’s.

In town for lunch with her grandkids last weekend, Crace said, “we looked over at Red’s and there were maybe six or seven people in line. There were parking places all over town.” Crace’s party got seated at Sarah’s right away, at a coveted patio table.

Call it the silver lining in the dark cloud that’s hanging over summer this year. If tourists stay home – whether because of state quarantine policy or skittishness about vacationing in a world where the novel coronavirus is still running rampant – Maine residents can enjoy July and August again. Instead of hosting an endless parade of out-of-town guests, they can stuff their faces with Pier fries in Old Orchard Beach, or stop by L.L. Bean for new gear before heading “upta camp.” They can find a parking spot at their favorite beach, and grab a table at their favorite restaurant, instead of patiently waiting for cooler weather when tourists begin migrating back to Massachusetts and New York.

Crace’s experience in Wiscasset has opened up her eyes to unexpected possibilities this year. “I’m thinking about going up to Bar Harbor, specifically, because I know it won’t be elbows to you-know-what.”

She also wants to do some shopping in Ogunquit, something she would normally “never, never” do in July or August.

“I think this summer, more than ever, more Mainers are going to be out experiencing our own state, for once with a little peace and quiet,” said Will Elting of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, who is looking forward to biking Acadia National Park in July.

Maine residents won’t even have to avoid Portland’s Old Port for two whole months. Take a drive down Commercial Street in Portland these days, and while it’s still busy, it’s not impossible to find parking. Every few spaces, an empty spot appears, prompting a search for the shaft of heavenly light and chorus of angels singing. Sure, lines of hungry diners still reach out to the street at Portland Lobster Co. (We’d be willing to bet those are mostly Mainers, stuffed to the gills with homemade banana bread, looking to sit in the sun again while they tear apart a freshly caught lobster). But gone is the stop-and-go driving with cruise passengers dressed in too-short shorts and cheesy T-shirts at every crosswalk.

MAINERS HAVE THE EDGE

Gillian Schair of Portland, founder of the 200-member Ladies Adventure Club, is planning on taking advantage of “this topsy-turvy summer” by taking her family whitewater rafting on the Kennebec in July, “which I haven’t done since I was a girl.”

A couple look out at the view on top Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park on June 25. The popular Acadia spot was fairly empty on the sunny summer afternoon. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I’m going to canoe the Allagash in August,” she said. “I booked it before COVID came along. Now I’m hoping it might be a smaller, more intimate trip. I feel bad for the trip leaders and companies, but I do think there are some ways we as Maine residents will benefit.”

Schair is also planning sunset pizza picnics at Kettle Cove – a regular outing for her family, but never in July or August – and a trip to Baxter State Park in September. She has tried for the past couple of years to get overnight reservations at a lean-to so she could hike Mount Katahdin for the first time and stay at Chimney Pond for a couple of nights, with no luck. This year was different.

Eben Sypitkowski, director of Baxter State Park, said he expects occupancy rates at the park this year to be similar to other years, but Mainers will have the edge on tourists.

“We are starting to see out-of-state folks back out of their reservations, and some of those are getting snapped up by Mainers,” he said. “Our reservations levels are pretty much the same place they usually are this time of year, which is to say the more popular places are pretty full and it’s becoming difficult for our reservations folks to find two consecutive days at places like Chimney Pond or Daicey Pond or Kidney.”

But tourists are only canceling a month ahead because of the unpredictability of the pandemic, Sypitkowski said, so who knows what will happen in August?

Indeed, even though they will face less competition from visitors from away this year, Mainers can’t expect to have their favorite trails and parks all to themselves, says Rex Turner, an outdoor recreation planner with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation. Turner said state parks are seeing “a fair share” of out-of-state visitors, along with Maine residents looking to get out of the house and into the relative safety of the outdoors. “Impressive numbers” of people swarmed trailheads and boat launches in April, May and early June, he said.

The Santos family take photos in front of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse at Acadia National Park on June 25. They traveled up from New Jersey to visit the park.

The number of Maine residents camping at state parks is up nearly 30 percent over 2019, according to the bureau, with the number of nonresident campers down slightly. The same is true for historic sites and swimming beaches. At state parks, employees are reminding visitors to wear masks at places like busy trailheads, bathrooms, gatehouses and parking lots.

Campers from nonexempt states are required to supply proof of compliance with the state’s rule that they quarantine themselves for 14 days, or provide proof they have tested negative for COVID-19, when they check into their campground. Bureau spokesman Jim Britt said that by and large, nonresident visitors appear to be complying with the rules, and are arriving prepared with masks and hand sanitizers.

Most of Turner’s own interactions are with out-of-state visitors headed for more remote hiking trails and camping spots. He can’t say how many are complying with the requirements, but he said more out-of-state visitors seem to be aware of the new rules than they were earlier in the pandemic.

“Even with out-of-state visitation more difficult,” Turner said, “we have seen strong use and at some sites, we have reduced capacity in order to keep things safe. The end result is that while there are plenty of places to get out and not be crowded, people shouldn’t expect the typically busy places to be empty.”

That means planning trips is still important, Turner said, and there are tools that can help. Mainers can sign up on the bureau’s website, for example, for text alerts that let them know when parking lots are full at the state’s most popular parks and trails – saving someone from, say, Portland a wasted drive to Popham Beach.

Cyclists are also looking forward to a summer of fun – although they’re hoping that drivers will slow down, since traffic seems to be moving faster since the pandemic started, said Elting of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.

Groups of visitors stand among the rocks in front of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse for the iconic view of the lighthouse at Acadia National Park on June 25. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

One choice cycling route this summer, Elting said, will be the Bold Coast Bikeway, a brand new scenic bikeway (most tourists probably don’t know about it yet) that runs 211 miles from West Gouldsboro at the top of the Schoodic Peninsula to Calais. Much of it is on roads, Elting said, “but it’s routed in such a way that it is really quiet roads. There’s little traffic and just stunning views.”

Another go-to spot is the carriage road system and the loop road at Acadia National Park.

“There’s some really beautiful riding up there that should be a lot less congested,” Elting said. “I personally am going up there in July. I’m excited to do that.”

He’s also planning to explore new bike trails in August at the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket.

NOT QUITE THE SAME

Acadia is a popular spot with just about everyone. It’s one of the top 10 most visited national parks, with 3.5 million recreational visits in 2019: 756,439 of those visits were in July, and 759,735 in August. But Christie Anastasia, a public affairs specialist at Acadia, echoes what Turner said about state parks – even if fewer people visit Acadia, don’t expect it to be your own personal playground.

A half-empty parking lot on top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park on June 25. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Island Explorer, the park’s bus system, is not running this summer, which means even if there are fewer visitors to the park, you’ll be competing for parking spots at trailheads and other popular Acadia destinations. “It could lead to a lot more congestion,” Anastasia said.

The parking lot at the Jordan Pond House, for example, was completely full at 10 a.m. on the last Saturday in June. (Apparently, Mainers need hot popovers as much as they need haircuts.)

Acadia also illustrates that even though you might be able to visit some of your favorite Maine places this year without bumping into crowds, those visits will probably be quite different. The Hulls Cove Visitors Center, the most popular one in the park, for example, has moved outdoors, under tents, with social distancing and rangers wearing masks.

“Most of our trails are not six feet wide, so when you pass somebody you’re probably going to want to throw a mask on your face because you’re going to be passing a group that could be from anywhere,” Anastasia said. “So the more popular a trail is, the more you’re going to be masking to do that hike.”

Same with lobster pounds like McLoon’s Lobster Shack in South Thomaston.

“They’re doing carhop service and prefer people order in advance, so it’s not quite the same experience,” said Hilary Nangle, a travel writer and author of the Moon series guidebooks to Maine.

Maine-based travel writer Hilary Nangle poses for a portrait outside of the yurt she and some friends are staying at in at Acadia Yurts in Southwest Harbor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Hardy Boat Cruises in New Harbor, which ferries tourists out to Eastern Egg Rock to view nesting puffins – a memorable experience, especially when coupled with a lobster dinner at Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf – is operating at just 43 percent capacity this year, and the number of trips have been cut back. Face coverings are required on the boats. But hey, you still get to watch cute puffins catching fish for their fuzzy chicks.

LET’S MAKE A DEAL

A little inconvenience doesn’t seem so bad when there are so many deals on the table. (Maine Outdoor Brands is keeping a list of some of them at adventurelocalmaine.com.) Many hotels and resorts have more lenient cancellation policies right now, and they have either discontinued or lessened their minimum night stays, Nangle said. “It allows people to splurge on someplace they might not otherwise visit,” Nangle said.

And Mainers should take this opportunity to splurge, Nangle says. Take the Arogosta at Goose Cove on Deer Isle, where private seaside cabins allow for plenty of social distancing and a James Beard semifinalist prepares dinner to serve on the restaurant’s large deck. The resort, where cottages and suites normally range around $300-$400 a night, is offering a “207 deal” for Mainers – a $207 rate on certain accommodations.

“That resort is a pricey resort, but it’s a wonderful place to go if you can only get away for maybe a night or two,” Nangle said.

With no tour buses or cruise ships visiting Mount Desert Island this summer, she said, the bigger hotels are going to be looking to fill empty rooms. And Grand Lake Stream, a renowned place for fly fishing, is also a great place for a family vacation, Nangle said – and there should be plenty of availability at the region’s sporting camps this year since the Folk Art Festival in July has been canceled.

Joan and Mike Furnari walk along a carriage trail at Acadia National Park on June 25. The couple, who live in Southwest Harbor, both worked as seasonal rangers at the park, Mike for 30 years and Joan for 20 years, and they walk along the carriage roads in the park almost every day. The couple said it has been quiet in the park, but that they have noticed an increase in visitors over the past week and expect the amount of visitors to continue to rise as the summer goes on. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nangle, who is constantly visiting vacation spots in Maine to update her travel guide, recently spent some time at the practically deserted Samoset Resort in Rockport. There were just a couple of families enjoying the pool, and she found herself alone on the patio for breakfast. She spotted very few golfers on the resort’s 18-hole course. “When I was there,” she said, “it was like having the resort to myself.”

Connie Russell, general manager of the Samoset, said the resort has been experiencing record call volumes, with out-of-staters inquiring about the state’s quarantine and testing requirements.

“We’ve lost so many reservations in the last three weeks,” Russell said. “We tell them (about the restrictions) and then they’re like ‘OK, we’re not coming.’”

Gov. Janet Mills exempted Connecticut, New York and New Jersey from those restrictions Wednesday, but that wouldn’t have helped much for this holiday weekend, when the resort is discounting stays an estimated 30 to 40 percent, Russell said. Plus, most of the resort’s out-of-state guests are from Massachusetts.

Russell said the Samoset staff is not asking guests if they have quarantined or tested negative. They simply hand over the form out-of-state visitors have to fill out and make sure they complete it. “They ask if we want to see the test, and we say, ‘Absolutely not,'” he said.

The lifting of some restrictions may help beef up weekend reservations later in summer, but the rest of the week, which is “pretty much empty” right now, will be tougher to fill, Russell said, especially since the lobster festival, the North Atlantic Blues Festival and the annual Maine Boat & Home Show have all been canceled.

The Santos family make their way up the rocks after taking in the view in front of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse at Acadia National Park on June 25. They traveled up from New Jersey to visit the park. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

With “very few rooms booked for July and August,” Russell said, the family-friendly resort – with everything from a nine-hole disc golf course to a heated, walk-in outdoor pool – is doing what it can to lure Maine residents for a vacation they might not ordinarily consider this time of year, including offering numerous discounts. Those discounts, such as the “Local Hero” discount for first responders, health care workers and essential employees, will likely remain through July and August, he said.

While it may feel selfish to think about having fun when so many businesses in the state are suffering, think about July and August as a time to give back – to Maine businesses that need the cash, and to your coronavirus-weary self.

“It’s obviously going to hurt a lot of people to not have the regular out-of-state visitors,” Elting said, “which I think makes it even more important for Mainers to get out and see some places in the state that maybe they always wanted to, but never had time.”

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