Overheard while boarding the flight home from Portland to Minneapolis:

Flight attendant: "How was Maine?"

Passenger: "Great! It reminded me of the North Shore ... you know, in Minnesota."

Flight attendant: "Where's Minnesota? Oh, is that where we're going?"


Notwithstanding the cluelessness of the New York-based crew, that passenger had a point. My spontaneous first-time outing to Maine did have the restorative feel of a jaunt to Lake Superior, with the vast Gulf of Maine sitting in for the largest lake in the world.

It's the "north shore" of the Eastern Seaboard, if you will. But Maine brings its own assets to the table: quaint New England village charm, a bustling national park, a maritime sailing culture, a wealth of mysterious islands. And lobster. Plenty of lobster.

I had an expiring Delta Air Lines companion pass, and my pregnant partner and I yearned for one last trip before fall (and the third trimester), so we planned a long-weekend getaway just two weeks in advance. Even post-Labor Day, available lodging was scarce, and I've never had to spend more per day on a rental car. Beyond that, the pieces of a stimulating trip all came together, mostly by winging it.

Pulling out of Portland International Jetport, we got one requisite tourist stop out of the way immediately: a visit to the iconic Portland Head Light, the striking 1791 beacon that is probably Maine's most famous image. Next we strolled the cobblestone streets of the city's Old Port, landing in the trellised outdoor seating of Via Vecchia for Italian small plates.

At dark, we pulled into Glen Cove Inn near the gorgeous town of Camden — the base for most of our trip. The updated motor court is tucked in the woods by the sea. For breakfast, we sat on our basic room's back patio to take in the robust late-summer foliage and salty air. Between outings, there was just enough time to soak in the heated saltwater pool.

On Saturday, we explored nearby villages, each seemingly with its own small harbor bursting with sailboats. We drove to the 800-foot summit of Mount Battie, where a 1921 stone tower allows a panoramic view of the coast. We ordered our first Maine lobster rolls at Graffam Bros. market, carrying them out for a harborside picnic.

For sunset, we boarded a touristy but satisfying cruise out of Camden on the schooner Lazy Jack II. We sat near the bow as the tall ship sailed into Penobscot Bay for a golden-hour view of private islands. Colorful buoys for lobster cages were strewn across the bay.

Popular park

Sunday morning, we made the scenic drive up Route 1 toward Acadia National Park. In Ellsworth, a guy with an "America: Love It or Leave It" sticker on his truck waved to an older hippie flying a "Defund the Pentagon" banner on a bridge. I realized the date was Sept. 11.

I approached Acadia with trepidation, knowing it was the sixth most popular U.S. national park in 2021, with more than 4 million visitors. But the glacial mountain-and-maritime paradise on Mount Desert Island manages its 77 square miles well. We set out to drive the introductory 27-mile Park Loop Road. At Sieur de Monts, we strolled a boardwalk through wetlands, encountering a large painted turtle. At Thunder Hole, a crowd gathered on seaside cliffs to see (and hear) waves surge into a narrow channel, creating loud thunderclaps.

It was at the unassumingly named Sand Beach where my mind was blown. The broad strip, framed on both sides by granite cliffs, was not something I expected to find in Maine. I waded into the bracing waves and strong undertow while a huge catamaran did a 360 in front of me to give its passengers a panoramic view. It was the first, but not the last, time in Maine that I thought of "Moonrise Kingdom," Wes Anderson's 2012 movie in which preteen lovebirds run away to a tidal inlet on a New England isle.

We took in the classic view of the Bubbles, the glacially rounded mountaintops seen from unspoiled Jordan Pond, and dropped into the idyllic Jordan Pond House, famed for its buttery popovers. At dusk, we retired to the parkside village of Bar Harbor, with its festive main drag mostly focused on selling T-shirts, albeit nicely designed ones. We got ice cream at the old-timey CJ's Big Dipper and brought it to the village green, which appeared right out of my seventh-grade history book.

Secret islands

Acadia was frequently spectacular, but sharing it with thousands of others did take the edge off. At Acadia, you're always aware that everyone else is seeing this, too.

So we endeavored to do something special — and random — for our final night in Maine. And I knew it had to involve an island.

After studying a mess of confusing ferry schedules for various islands, I landed on Vinalhaven. The island is a 15-mile crossing from Rockland, near Camden, and its car ferry is run like clockwork by the state. I booked the ferry and a hotel, and got our SUV onto the boat, as well. The 75-minute ferry ride threaded its way between the craggy isles of the Fox archipelago, of which Vinalhaven is by far the largest.

Vinalhaven is a residential island for workers in the lobster industry and not a super popular tourist destination, with a single village on its 167 square miles. Many homes are festooned with the colorful lobster buoys that look to me like giant fishing bobbers. We checked into our clapboard hotel, the Tidewater, too late to claim a spot in their Monday night lobster boil.

But the big guesthouse is a marvel, built on the site of a former mill. When the tide is high, a huge volume of seawater rushes into a broad inland "pond" through channels beneath the hotel. After a quiet period of equilibrium, the waters surge back into the harbor at low tide. The cycle reverses every six hours or so, and from our romantic attic loft we felt like we were sleeping above a raging rapids.

We drove to a remote lighthouse and to Tip Toe Mountain — named, I suppose, for the baby steps you need to take on its root-covered, mossy trails. We were rewarded at the 118-foot peak with a sprawling, contemplative view of perhaps everything we had seen in mid-coast Maine — the islands and bay, the Camden Hills and maybe even Acadia to the east. We returned to town, picked up our last lobster rolls at Homeport restaurant, and dined on our high balcony at the Tidewater as the waters rushed in at dusk.

I left Maine realizing there was much more I'd like to do next time: bike the gravel carriage roads of Acadia, take a multiday "windjammer" sailing trip, or disappear to offbeat islands for a week or two. But Vinalhaven was a reminder that sometimes the best travel experiences are in the unplanned discoveries you make.