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WHY GO: Boothbay Harbor, Maine was the first “off-Route-1 town” that became popular with tourists on the Maine Coast. Centered in Mid Coast Maine, Boothbay is quicker to get to than Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park to the northeast.
Yes, tourists converge here in the summertime, but plan a trip in June, and you’ll get the best of all worlds: temperate weather, phenomenal blooms, uncrowded attractions, and lower hotel rates.
There’s a reason Boothbay Harbor and the adjacent Boothbay ME became so popular. Collectively, it’s stunning. So follow the Mavens’ lead and head there late Spring.
Things To Do In Boothbay Harbor
From the south, you’ll have to pass through this little town on Route 1 and cross the bridge before turning onto Route 27 to Boothbay Harbor. Most people stop for a lobster roll at Red’s Eats or shop at cool stores like the new Birch Home Furnishings and Gifts.
TOUR: Castle Tucker, Wiscasset
There are some quirky things to do in Wiscasset as well, such as a house tour of Castle Tucker, a home first built in 1807 with shipping wealth, added onto in 1866 at the wrong time, and run as a boarding house when owners had to eek out a living.
Castle Tucker, in fact, tells the story of a Wiscasset family, the Tuckers, and their rising and falling fortunes, through curious family artifacts and documents. Wiscasset was once the busiest harbor east of Boston. And a huge shipping town.
The original home – its center – was built with a Thomas Jefferson designed staircase. But the two semi-circular wings of the home, added in 1866, imbued it with a castle-like form.
Tucker’s Riches to Rags
Filled with Victoriana and overlooking the water, Castle Tucker became a grand mansion after newlyweds Richard, age 42, and Molly Tucker, age 17, purchased it. In 1858, Richard renovated and added two wings. He audaciously sourced luxury materials – like pricey Black Walnut and White Ash – used for the diamond pattern parquet floors.
The Tuckers raised five children – two sons, and three independent daughters. Jane acted in the Buffalo Bill Show. Patty was a published novelist in Colorado. Jenny, who lived in NYC, never married.
When Richard’s business nosedived, Molly opened their grand home to paying guests. Most came from Philly, New York and Boston for the full Maine experience – three meals a day (but no indoor plumbing) included.
What makes this property so compelling is that it features all the furniture that Richard Tucker purchased for his bride in 1858 – collectively costing $797. You can peruse a copy of the bill of lading, and other furnishings that were gifts from an Italian Count.
But the most interesting artifact is a rare, well-preserved 1921 Hoosier Cabinet in the kitchen, that no doubt worked overtime when boarders were in residence. The last Tucker granddaughter passed away in 2012. The home has been open to the public for tours since then. Open June 1-Oct 15, Wed-Sun. 11-4, tours on the half our $8 adults, $4 kids.
STOP: Edgecomb Potters.
On your 20-minute drive from Wiscasset to Boothbay Harbor on Route 27, why not explore some worthy places along the way. One is the big multi-building pottery shop on the right hand side. It’s an emporium of all things Crystalline Glaze (a specific glaze that creates a floral-pop pattern).
TOUR: Boothbay Railway Village, Route 27
So many people pass this place believing it to be a cheesy little train ride around a made up town. But none of that is true. The non-profit Railway Village is really worth an hour or two of your time for many reasons including the following:
This unique attraction was the brainchild of George McEvoy, a lover of historic preservation. As a kid, McEvoy worked at L.L. Bean during the summer loading catalogs on trains out of the 1912 Freeport Train Station.
He rescued the Freeport Station – the first building to be relocated here, shipped in pieces – to start Maine’s very first railroad museum in 1965. There are two-dozen buildings on site, clustered around a narrow-gage railroad track that McEvoy himself installed.
Weirdly Wonderful Boothbay Railway Exhibits
Each historic building holds some weird treasure. In one, find 1920’s “Mechanical Parables” – tiny dynamic tin dioramas that traveled with carnival sideshows. Push a button beneath each one and they move – like the “breathing” vagrant asleep on a park bench.
There are roughly 60 cars and fire trucks in another large pavilion. One is the limo that belonged to Thomas Edison’s widow, with a red chauffeur call-light on the roof. There’s also a pink 1957 Thunderbird – one man’s gift to his wife – a 1926 Harbor Register Newspaper truck, and Brud’s Hot Dog Cart. Brud was a Boothbay “institution,” who served up franks in good and bad weather for six decades (1943-2003).
The Salt and Pepper Shaker exhibit includes “naughty” and inappropriate (in today’s society) versions of the popular collectable. Blackface mammies, “Indians” with tomahawks, and size XXX breasted women are interspersed between less offensive ones.
The rare narrow gauge model train diorama is a marvel, with computer switch system that works like the real thing.
The Spruce Point Chapel, built by a businessman who wanted his employees to go to church – but not his – was moved here in 1990’s. It now serves as a popular wedding venue.
The original Boothbay Town Hall, built in 1847, is still in use for Town Hall Meetings.
The small, coal-powered train runs many times a day during the summer season and is still stoked by a strong and most likely very hot human. Open end of May to Mid October, daily 10-5, $12 adults, $6 kids.
GO: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay
It will take a good 2-3 hours to wander the trails of this spectacular 270-acre garden complex, and totally worth it. Begin in the Visitor’s Center and walk out to your left.
There, you’ll find the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses – a collection of flora you’re enticed to smell, nibble, and of course, gaze upon. There are benches, fountains, and sculptures galore as you wander the paved stone path.
Continue on to the Woodland and Pond Gardens, passing strangely named plants such as “Shrubby St John’s Wort,” “Cut Leaf Prairie Dock,” “Brunette Bagbone” and the aptly named Floppy Evergreens.
Find a Stone Meditation Garden at the bottom of the hill, overlooking the water. This is a great place to pause to contemplate the beauty of the hand-hewn rocks.
On to the Fairy Village, where most days you’ll find busy kids constructing tiny homes made out of the twigs, bark and other materials left in baskets precisely for that use. Near here, the Botanical Gardens pier juts out into the Black River, and you can arrange to take a river tour on the resident boat.
From the pier, continue uphill and follow signs for the Rhododendron Garden – a stunning can’t- miss enclave. This sunken garden, with rock ledges and waterfalls, is a photographer’s (and artist’s) dream, especially in late May and early June when the Rhody’s are in full bloom.
Before you exit the Gardens, plan to stop into the Children’s Garden, even if you don’t have kids. There’s a maze, a pond, plenty of child-sized shovels, hoes, and watering cans, a little playhouse and staff to teach the rudiments of gardening. Open Mid April – Oct, 9-5 daily, $16 adults, $8 kids.
VISIT: Maine State Aquarium
This small but fantastic aquarium was the brainchild of educator and biologist, Elaine Jones, who serves as Director. First opened on the fishing docks in 1915, the Aquarium was moved to this bright new building in 1995 after Jones and her husband envisioned this design for optimal guest interaction.
There’s a touch tank with small sharks that seem to purposefully come to the surface to be petted. Also find the random odd creature caught in commercial fishermen’s nets. These men and women of the sea know to call Jones when they find something weird.
Be sure to stay for feeding time, when you can witness fish and lobster in small, clear glass tanks munch on lunch. There’s nothing so weirdly mesmerizing as watching lobsters methodically stuff raw fish into their strange mouths using their smaller, un-banded claws. Open end of May through late-Sept, daily 10-5, closed Mon/Tues in Sept. $7 adults, $3 kids.
HARBOR TOUR: Novelty – Ferry to Squirrel Island
Why take a tour boat when you can ride with the locals? This ferry trip also offers narrated tours of Boothbay Harbor. But you could be riding with workers carrying ladders and lunchboxes, or the locals with homes on Squirrel Island. This is a much better deal for people watchers.
Get a gander at harbor-side hotels – Rock Tide, Browns, etc. Pass marinas like Carousel, where parts of the movie Carousel were filmed.
The Novelty also takes visitors to Burnt Island two days a week in July and August for a 3-hour “Living History” tour of the Burnt Island Lighthouse, complete with costumed interpreters. It’s a “step back in time” to the 1950’s. Novelty runs March – November – $18 adults, $9 kids, check website for schedule.
TOUR/PUFFINS: CAP’n FISH’s Audubon Puffin Watches
These 2 ½ hour cruises are offered June-August on select days only – and are VERY popular. The boat heads out to Eastern Egg Rock – the closest Puffin colony to Boothbay Harbor. Wed, Fri Sun at 10am, Tues 1pm. $35 per person.
STROLL: 1901 Foot Bridge
This much-photographed wooden pedestrian bridge connects East to West Boothbay Harbor, and is a glorious place to be when the sun sets.
SHOP: Alison Evans Ceramics
You’ll find this RISD grad’s ceramic creations around the world. But stop into her Boothbay Harbor shop, and Alison Evans herself is here to greet you. If you are a foodie, Evans’ work might look familiar. She makes the tableware for Hugo’s and Eventide in Portland ME.
In New York, her Oyster Dishes and other cool creations are sold at ABC Home and Bunny William’s Showroom. My choice here for a house or wedding gift: the beautifully boxed “Oyster Lovers Gift Set.” It comes with an AE signature oyster platter, shucking knife, glove, towel, recipes and more ($227).
Though there are outposts all over Maine -Ogunquit, Freeport, Kennebunk, and Portland – Abacus first opened in Boothbay Harbor 45 years ago.
Browsing the theatrical, whimsical collection of unique housewares is free. Although I do believe you’ll be tempted to purchase a thing or two. My favorite; wildlife images on original 1870 Webster Dictionary pages.
Restaurants In Boothbay Harbor
EAT: Bet’s Fish Fry
From her well-known bright blue shack on a busy street, Bet sells one thing and one thing only – Fried Haddock. But it’s the biggest, freshest piece of fried haddock you’ll ever gobble up. The “half portion,” which comes with a side of fries, is as big as a huge dinner plate and costs just $9.
Bet used to have her own fishing boat, but this place became so successful (for good reason), she’s here full time. And she’s a trip!
EAT: Harborside Tavern
Chef Fiona Dunlap, took over what was known as Andrew’s Harborside several years back, and made it her own. Though still casual, the food is phenomenal, and the vibe is fun and congenial.
EAT/ISLAND: Cabbage Island Clambakes
For $62 you get several Maine experiences in one: a boat ride, an island visit, and a full, uber-local meal cooked right on site. Offered from mid-June to early Sept, once a day during the week and twice a day on weekends, these slots fill up quickly, so reserve far in advance.
DRINK: Boat House Bistro
The roof deck provides a terrific view of the harbor. And, dogs are allowed!
Hotels In Boothbay Harbor
STAY: Spruce Point Inn
The Spruce point Inn was never a totally laid-back, feet in the dirt, flip-flop kind of casual Maine Family Resort. A favorite of the Kennedy’s and Ernest Hemingway, Spruce Point was perennially spruced up for down-staters in search of a certain kind of rustic comfort. Though rooms differ, most sport traditional Maine-Shore-from-another-era décor, updated for today’s travelers.
First Impressions of Spruce Point Inn
Arriving at the end of the day, the lovely waterfront grounds start to take on a sunset glow. This is the time that young couples emerge from their rooms to take Instagram shots of the seaside pool, the flowering bushes, and Adirondack chairs lined up on the broad front porch of the main building.
It’s this honey-dipped scene that met me when I got there. And, inside, Jamaican summer staff were gracious and quick with a smile. They helped me find my room in the Lark Building a few minutes walk from the main lodge.
There are many nods to the past in the redone reception area lobby, a room with polished hardwood floor and bright open feel. There’s a black and white photo of the Kennedy boys smiling on a sailboat. And another of Hemingway relaxing in one of those veranda chairs with a drink in his hand.
There is no question that this place held much allure for the glitterati of the 40’s and 50’s. Of course, it still holds special appeal to city-weary guests.
Rooms at Spruce Point Inn
Rooms are clustered within several buildings around the gorgeously landscaped property as well as in the main building.
Mine featured dark pine wainscoting, pastel yellow walls, cathedral ceiling and skylight, with updated bedding and a dreamy pillow-top bed. The marble bath, sporting a Jacuzzi and large shower, was large and pristine.
The high point, of course, is the view of Boothbay Harbor from the balconies and front porches of cottages.
Dining at Spruce Point Inn
You’ve got options here. Have the urge for a beer on tap, craft cocktail, or burger. Try the casual Bogie’s.
If you’re looking for a more romantic, fine dining evening, book a table at the white linen/crystal, votive candle lit “88.” Your meal begins with an amuse bouche and a little shot of complimentary sparkling wine with grenadine.
Soft jazz (recorded) wafts through the room as you dine on well-prepared Maine Cuisine. Prices are surprisingly reasonable (especially for this NY gal), with Atlantic Salmon at $2 and Scallops costing $29. Many of the ingredients come from local farms and fisherman, so the menu changes seasonally. Rooms from $160 off-season, from $400 summer season. Closed mid-Oct to mid-May.
STAY: Topside Inn
This 22 room inn at the top of a hill remains open year round – one of the very few lodgings in Boothbay Harbor that does. Rooms are stylishly upscale and contemporary, in seaside shades of greens and blues.
Low rates, even in season, reflect the absence of big hotel amenities like pools and fitness rooms. But for those who appreciate a serene getaway and fantastic gourmet breakfast, it’s nirvana. Rooms from $189 off season, $209-$289 in season per night includes midday treats and gourmet breakfast for two.
STAY: Linekin Bay Resort
A casual family resort, since the 1920’s, Linekin had gone to seed until the owners of Newagen, Scott Larson and Steve Malcom, purchased it last year. They’ve knocked down some of the 20-30 cabins, built new ones, completely renovated the lodges and brought in new kitchen staff. Guest rooms are now bright and nautical chic. All inclusive only from end of June to end of August, two night minimum.