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Mary Ruoff

Freelance writer Mary Ruoff of Belfast wrote the "Way Down East" chapter of Fodor's "Maine Coast" travel guide and has contributed Maine content to other Fodor's guides.

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Posted: May 23, 2017

How to beat the crowds at these tourist hot spots

Written by: Mary Ruoff
Even during busy summer, sunrise is a peaceful, quiet time in Old Orchard Beach. Photo by Joey Fenno/Courtesy of Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce

Even during busy summer, sunrise is a peaceful, quiet time in Old Orchard Beach. Photo by Joey Fenno/Courtesy of Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce

Mainers like to complain about the summer crowds, but we don’t always want to wait for the shoulder seasons to visit Vacationland’s hot spots. There’s a reason these places are popular with tourists in the summer, and after making it through a Maine winter, we deserve to enjoy them at their peak, too. Here are tips for visiting some of the state’s tourist traps during their busiest season. We hope they help you beat the crowds and traffic, cut down on waiting and give you a little less to complain about.

FREEPORT VILLAGE

freeportusa.com, 865-1212

Shop early to beat the summer heat and crowds in shopping mecca Freeport.Photo courtesy of Freeport USA

Shop early to beat the summer heat and crowds in shopping mecca Freeport.Photo courtesy of Freeport USA

The “buy local” movement is making it easier to shop here in the summer and avoid the throngs that descend on this retail mecca. More Maine-owned businesses (in addition to L.L. Bean, the town’s retail anchor) have opened in Freeport, such as Cotton Weeds Silk Shop, Bowe Art Gallery, and Sashay’s and Jill McGowan women’s clothing stores. There is even a “shop local” section on tourism-promotion agency Freeport USA’s website. When visitors ask for help avoiding the busiest times and midday heat, the agency advises hitting Maine-owned boutiques, shops and galleries first, between 10 a.m. and noon.

Fewer shoppers are out and about then, and these stores generally close earlier, around 5-7 p.m. rather than 9-10 p.m. for the many national retail outlets. After shopping, grab lunch and head to a scenic spot in or around Freeport, like seaside Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park or historic Pettengill Farm, set on 140 acres with woods, fields, apple orchards and salt marsh. Newcomer Calendar Island Tours will pick up passengers in downtown Freeport for trips out of South Freeport, including one to Eagle Island State Historic Site. L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools sponsor courses on local waters and trails. Head back downtown after an outdoor adventure to shop and eat, if you haven’t already. L.L. Bean’s flagship store is open 24/7.

Many repeat Freeport visitors don’t realize there’s a free parking garage below Freeport Village Station’s courtyard. Unlike the large public lots, which are also free, the garage virtually never fills up. Metro Breez has express bus service to and from Freeport.

OLD ORCHARD BEACH PIER

2 Old Orchard St., 934-2500. oldorchardbeachmaine.com

Beachgoers enjoy a beautiful day in Old Orchard Beach last summer. Photo by Derek Davis

Beachgoers enjoy a beautiful day in Old Orchard Beach last summer. Photo by Derek Davis

A carnival atmosphere pervades this southern Maine beach town in July and August, especially down by the pier and oceanside amusement park, where beachgoers blanket the wide sand. But while some visitors are sweating it out in line for Pier Fries, others are biking the Eastern Trail recreational path’s 8.5-mile off-road section from Scarborough to Saco. It travels through Old Orchard Beach, linking with an 8-mile on-road section that in part follows the waterfront. There’s excellent hiking and paddling at Scarborough Marsh, the state’s largest saltwater marsh, not far from the Old Orchard Beach town line. Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center has canoe and kayak rentals and special events (family nature walks, full moon paddles).

Packaging early morning or early evening beach time with the area’s convenient, quieter outdoor recreation is a great way to take in the Old Orchard Beach area’s many offerings and minimize the downsides of heavy seasonal crowds and traffic. But leave time for some of the crazy fun that can only be had here come summer.

Dogs are allowed on the 7-mile beach before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. (think sunrise and sunset). At the southern end, in Saco, Ferry Beach State Park has changing rooms and outdoor showers. Nearby, Old Orchard Beach’s Victorian-era Ocean Park neighborhood has a throwback vibe, Chautauqua-tradition events and activities, and “finger” streets leading to beach areas that aren’t so jammed (very limited street parking, go for the pay lots).

Back downtown, Old Orchard Beach Pier offers dining and entertainment; the town has plenty of other restaurants and nightspots, too. There’s no admission fee or set closing time at beachside Palace Playland amusement park, which sells individual ride tickets as well as all-day passes. The packed-in park is almost always open until at least 10 p.m. in the height of summer. Old Orchard Beach has Thursday night fireworks during peak season, but of course that means more traffic and visitors.

Seasonal trolleys ($1 per ride) and regional buses serve Old Orchard Beach and nearby towns. Amtrak’s Downeaster train stops here.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK

Bar Harbor, 288-3338. nps.gov/acad

It’s been said before: Use the free seasonal Island Explorer buses as much as possible when visiting Maine’s only national park, especially in July and August, when you might not be able to find a parking space at popular destinations like Sand Beach or Jordan Pond House. Don’t count on using bus bike racks: there’s only room for six bikes. Island Explorer Bicycle Express provides round-trip service to the carriage road access at Eagle Lake.

You'll need a reservation to get a table at Jordan Pond House, Acadia National Park's only restaurant. Photo courtesy of Acadia National Park

You’ll need a reservation to get a table at Jordan Pond House, Acadia National Park’s only restaurant. Photo courtesy of Acadia National Park

Island Explorer doesn’t serve Cadillac Mountain’s peak, where many visitors must catch the sunrise where it hits the nation first from mid-October to mid-March. Park officials will be on hand to monitor the early morning traffic in July and August, closing the road up Cadillac if necessary. Hiking up is another option, as is watching the sunrise from Park Loop Road’s Ocean Drive section, where you’ll pretty much have the granite ledges to yourself. Or experience “first light” from 525-foot Gorham Mountain, which has a trailhead along Ocean Drive near Thunder Hole. Consider stargazing atop Cadillac. The peak overlooks Bar Harbor, which adopted an ordinance to limit light pollution several years ago and hosts Acadia Night Sky Festival, Sept. 21–24 this year. During the day, Cadillac’s crowds thin by 5 p.m.

Keep it fun when visiting Jordan Pond House. Plan to spend time in this area of the park before savoring the restaurant’s famed popovers with tea at tables on the big lawn. That holds even if you make a reservation, which you can do months ahead online. Without one in July or August, your wait may be rather long. Jordan Pond House has a two-story gift shop and an observation deck where visitors snap photos of the twin Bubble peaks lording over the deep, clear lake-size pond. In summer, the 3-mile loop trail around it (easy walking on the east side, rugged and planked sections on the west) bustles with hikers. Hop on the nearby carriage roads, and you may soon feel like you have the park to yourself.

POPHAM BEACH

Route 209, Phippsburg, 389-1335. parksandlands.com

Popham Beach is one of the state's most popular stretches of sand. Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Popham Beach is one of the state’s most popular stretches of sand. Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Many Mainers have a deep fondness for this beach, with its strong surf, sweep of sand framed by two rivers, and an offshore island you can walk to at low tide. The location – near the end of a twisty peninsular road below Bath and not far from the site of New England’s first, if short-lived, colony – adds to the mystique. On summer weekends, the parking lot typically fills by 10:30 a.m. (gates open at 9 a.m.), and the same goes for many weekdays this time of year at what is one of the state’s most popular parks. Ignoring no-parking signs on Route 209 can land you a ticket and even a tow. For text or email alerts about gate closures and other conditions, click on “Current Park & Beach Conditions” at the top of the park’s webpage and follow the link. An alternative if the lot is full: Reid State Park, up the coast a bit in Georgetown, has a beach with similar surf.

The view from the top of Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth during Open Lighthouse Day in 2009. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The view from the top of Portland Head Light. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

PORTLAND HEAD LIGHT

1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth; portlandheadlight.com

Anchored by Maine’s oldest lighthouse, the 90-acre park is a must-see for many tourists who love photographing the towering headland light. The park is also a beloved local space where Portland area residents picnic, play soccer, ride bikes, stroll and explore the fort remnants. But plan accordingly for July and the first half of August: Parking areas often fill on weekends and some weekdays, too. Luckily there’s never a line for the lighthouse museum in the eye-catching keepers’ house (built as a duplex), with a red roof and eyebrow eaves.

EVENTIDE OYSTER CO.

86 Middle St., Portland, 774-8538. eventideoysterco.com

Even before winning a James Beard Award, Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street in Portland was always packed. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

Even before winning a James Beard Award, Eventide Oyster Co. on Middle Street in Portland was always packed. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

Portland’s Eventide Oyster Co. was glowing in national attention evenbefore its chef/owners won a prestigious James Beard Award this spring. That likely means even longer lines this summer at this pearl of an eatery, part of Portland’s luminous restaurant scene. Tucked in with two popular sister restaurants on the eastern edge of downtown, Eventide is known for its selection of mostly Maine oysters as well as its warmed lobster roll, served on a steamed bun. A large, concrete bar has a granite inset displaying oysters and shellfish; there’s picnic table seating and storefront-type windows. Can’t wait for a less touristy time to enjoy the casual fare with a signature cocktail or local draught beer? Munch on this: There’s brunch on Monday, as well as Sunday; you can make reservations for parties of six only; and Eventide is expanding to Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.

RED’S EATS

41 Water St., Wiscasset, 882-6128. redseatsmaine.com

WISCASSET, ME - JULY 1: Heavy holiday traffic builds at the bridge in downtown Wiscasset as travelers line up for Red's Eats famous seafood. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)

Heavy holiday traffic builds at the bridge in downtown Wiscasset as travelers line up for Red’s Eats famous seafood. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Southern Mainers know, when you plug in directions to any midcoast destination during the summer, add an extra half-hour for the half-mile drive through Wiscasset. A lot of that bottleneck can be blamed on Red’s Eats, the roadside seafood shack whose super-sized lobster rolls have gotten countless write-ups and garnered celebrity patrons. Customers’ cars constantly stop traffic as they pull into and back out of on-street parking spaces in the tiny downtown, making it feel like, wherever you’re going, you can’t get there from here. While the usual course of action would be to glare at the people standing in the line backed up onto the bridge to Edgecomb, there’s a chance someone in your car will insist on finding out what the fuss is about. If that’s the case, plan to get there just before it opens at 11:30 a.m., when the often hourlong line is still in the process of forming, and if possible, do it on a Tuesday or Wednesday. If you’re not as intrigued as the rest of your party, go across the street to Sprague’s Lobster and enjoy a leisurely meal while the others are still standing.

MOUNT KATAHDIN

Millinocket, baxterstatepark.org, 723-5140 (for reservations)

BAXTER STATE PARK, ME - JULY 29: Day hikers enjoy near perfect day at the summit of Mount Katahdin. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Day hikers enjoy near perfect day at the summit of Mount Katahdin. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Mount Katahdin in the shoulder seasons isn’t for everyone. Hiking the Baxter State Park mountain, Maine’s highest and the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus, is an eight- to 12-hour round-trip, with rugged terrain even on less challenging routes. There’s less daylight in spring and fall, and black flies come spring. Thankfully, the “forever wild” park makes it easier for Mainers to conquer the peak in the peak of summer, when hikers line summit trails on clear days (same for many fall weekends). Starting in April, state residents can reserve a prized summer day-use Katahdin trailhead parking space up to a day in advance. (It’s up to two weeks for out-of-staters.) Reservations ($5, limit of three per month) are held until 7 a.m.; unreserved spots are assigned starting at 6 a.m. If you aren’t camping here the night before, don’t plan on hiking Katahdin without a reservation. There’s plenty else to do in the 510,000-acre northern Maine wilderness park and endless opportunities for solitude in nature away from Katahdin’s crowds. The extensive trail system encompasses the park’s many mountains – more than a dozen peaks exceed 3,000 feet. Honor-system canoe and kayak rentals for only a dollar await at pond-side campgrounds and most backcountry ponds. Hiking around Daicey Pond is a great option for families, as is the trek from there to Big and Little Niagara Falls. Park roads are narrow, winding and unpaved. Camping (cabins, bunkhouses, lean-tos and tent sites) is primitive. Forget those stories about folks standing in line at the park’s Millinocket headquarters in winter to get the best sites. Baxter changed to a “rolling” system: Reservations can only be made within four months of a stay, no earlier. There’s online reservation for many sites.

Staff writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.

This story was corrected at 2:26 p.m. on May 30 to say the bridge near Red’s Eats connects Wiscasset to Edgecomb.

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