Columbus Day is the new Labor Day in Maine’s coastal tourist spots.
The first Monday in September was traditionally the last day of business for many restaurants, lodgings and shops in places like Bar Harbor. But over the past few decades staying open through at least Columbus Day (Oct. 10 this year) has become the norm.
Sure, things are often less busy come fall, with kids back in school and temperatures cooling. But not always: tourist destinations increasingly host festivals and special events to draw visitors during the shoulder seasons.
Warmer autumns, the ease of last-minute trip planning on the internet, the Baby Boomer retiree population bubble and the growing popularity of activities like biking and kayaking are also helping to extend the tourist season.
Yet, fall deals are still to be found. Even many seasonal motels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts have peak- and off-season rates. Some places lower prices in September, then raise them for Columbus Day weekend. Lodging places may offer promotions and packages in tandem with events.
We’ve gathered tips and suggestions for fall trips to three of Maine’s most popular coastal towns. For information on destinations statewide, go to the Maine Office of Tourism’s website, www.visitmaine.com.
OLD ORCHARD BEACH
Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce, www.oldorchardbeachmaine.com
The tourist season has pushed into fall more recently in this beach town, which anchors a 7-mile stretch of white sand and has a pier with shops and restaurants. That makes Old Orchard Beach a good choice for autumn room deals. Some lodgings offer perks like continental breakfast that they’re too busy for in summer. The chamber vacation guide’s lodging chart, available online, notes which motels and inns are open year-round.
Beach walks on crisp days aren’t the only draw in autumn. Eastern Trail, a southern Maine recreation path popular with bicyclists, has an 8.5-mile off-road section from Scarborough to Saco, through Old Orchard Beach. It links with an 8-mile on-road section that partly follows the town’s waterfront. There’s a new nature center at Saco’s Ferry Beach State Park (open through September, walk in year-round) near Old Orchard Beach’s charming Victorian-era Ocean Park area. At Scarborough Marsh, across the town line in Scarborough, trails are open year-round (nature center closes in September).
Midway between Portland and Kennebunk, Old Orchard Beach is a good base for day trips along Maine’s southern coast and a stop on Amtrak’s Downeaster train. From mid-August through Sept. 18, Amtrak’s 1955 Great Dome Car (first-come, first-served), with windows on the roof and sides, is traveling the route for the first time. The 23rd Annual Car Show on Sept. 16 and 17 brings a swell of visitors to Old Orchard Beach; Chilifest on the Pier is that Saturday. Rides close at seaside Palace Playground amusement park after Labor Day, but the arcade is open Friday to Sunday through Columbus Day.
Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce, www.boothbayharbor.com
Boat tours, including whale-watching excursions, harbor cruises and Monhegan Island trips, depart from this peninsular midcoast resort town into October. There are usually fewer passengers come fall, which means more room on deck to spot wildlife and soak up views of Maine’s most jagged coastal swath. Like the water, hiking trails are all about these parts: Boothbay Region Land Trust has more than 30 miles of trails at its many preserves.
Interestingly, the upcoming holiday season has assured more lodging and dining choices for fall tourists. Last year, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ inaugural Gardens Aglow light show, Nov. 18 through New Year’s Eve this year, drew an unexpected 36,000 visitors to the 270-acre Boothbay attraction. Now, many seasonal businesses in the area are staying open through December to tap the influx.
Quirky Boothbay Harbor Fest, Sept. 2 to Sept. 11, offers musical performances, a marine-themed fashion show and “A Taste of Local Flavor” on Labor Day weekend, when you can enjoy tasty bits and live music at local restaurants for $15. Chefs will compete to create the best lobster “bite” at the 5th Annual Claw Down on Sept. 15 at Ocean Point Marina in East Boothbay. If that whets your appetite, consider staying at Linekin Bay Resort in Boothbay Harbor; in spring and fall, the usually all-inclusive sailing resort has bed-and-breakfast rates and drops to a one-day minimum, though weekend nights are often booked for weddings.
Boothbay Railway Village’s Family Harvest Days, with activities like barrel train rides and blacksmithing demonstrations, is the first weekend in October. The Boothbay museum’s 49th Annual Fall Foliage Festival follows the next weekend with live entertainment and craft and food vendors. Also in early October, area inns take in the overflow from the popular Damariscotta Pumpkinfest and Regatta, which runs from Oct. 1 to Oct. 10 this year.
Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, www.barharborinfo.com
That September sweet spot, when summer crowds are gone and fall foliage fans have yet to arrive, may not be so sweet in Bar Harbor this year. The centennial celebration of both nearby Acadia National Park and the National Park Service has kept this town hopping, as has warm weather and a lack of rain. The tourist boom at what’s always a bustling summer destination is expected to continue into the fall: crowds will likely be smaller than at summer’s peak but higher than usual for autumn.
Unlike most Maine tourist destinations, Bar Harbor has a number of large hotels, which typically base rates on availability. But there are also loads of bed-and-breakfasts, motels and cabin rental places in and around Bar Harbor. Many lodging listings on the chamber’s website, under “Places to Stay,” make note of high and low season rates. Exactly when prices fall varies — either after Labor Day, after Columbus Day or on Nov. 1. Places away from downtown tend to close for the season earlier.
The 8th Annual Acadia Night Sky Festival, Sept. 22 to 25, celebrates Maine’s bright starlight (starry skies are harder to see on much of the East Coast) with lectures and events like stargazing paddles and solar viewing. On the weekend after Columbus Day, many area lodging rooms book up for the Mount Desert Island Marathon. Visitors who take part in Take Pride in Acadia Day on Saturday Nov. 5, helping with park maintenance, are treated to a chili lunch.