WHY GO: Far off the well-trod Route 1, visiting Castine ME and the Blue Hill Peninsula is another great escape from the hordes.
Just an hour from booming Bar Harbor, time seems suspended here, especially around Castine’s Town Green– a whitewashed series of buildings that include the Unitarian Church, Town Hall, and Historical Society. That’s no big surprise as Castine is one of the oldest towns in New England.
The four-year engineering college, Maine Maritime Academy, is situated in Castine – as well is should be as it’s the deepest harbor in Maine.
But besides the students and those who choose to live here, life is quiet in these parts, which include the beautifully rustic Blue Hill Peninsula and Stonington on Deer Isle. The latter is known as the last true fishing village in New England. This obscurity compels those who really want to get away from it all to visit. The Getaway Mavens tell you how.
Things to Do in Castine and Around the Blue Hill Peninsula
On your way to Castine (18 miles away), heading North on Route 1, you’ll drive over a striking harp of a bridge spanning the Penobscot River.
For a thrill, take a minute-long elevator ride inside one of the soaring pylons that hold the bridge in place to an enclosed observation platform at the top– a very neat-o experience.
The Observatory and Fort might seem incongruous, but they both allow great views of the Penobscot River and are historic in their own way. And, inconceivably, both sites share a common entrance.
The Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, built in 2006, is the “Tallest Public Bridge Observatory in the World.” You’ll enter the Fort Knox Historic Site, purchase a ticket at the gate and park below the bridge.
Soon, you’ll be zipping up over 400 feet to nearly the top of this landmark structure. It’s only another few sets of stairs up, for vertiginous views of Maine’s Penobscot River and region.
Though Maine’s Fort Knox, built in the mid 1800’s, never saw battle (or one bar of gold), it was the state’s first granite fortification. You can wander around here for free to drink in its history and setting on the Penobscot River. $7 adults, $3 kids for Fort and Observatory, open daily May-October 9-5 (July and Aug open until 6pm).
VISIT: Wilson Museum, Castine
The Wilson is a little curio cabinet of a museum with fantastic harbor views. It’s certainly worth a few minutes of your time to hone in on a few key items. I was fascinated with sewing needles made from animal bone, and 19th century game pieces fashioned from ivory.
Anthropologist, John Howard Wilson, founded this Archeology Museum in 1921, with artifacts from six continents. The glass cases in which his eclectic collection is displayed are original – making for a very authentic, albeit small, institution. Objects displayed reflect the history of man through the study of tools; from stone to bone needles to polished beads and heftier, more finely tuned gear from Bronze and Iron Ages. Open end of May thru Sept. M-F 10-5, Sat/Sun 2-5, free.
PHOTO OP: Dyce Head Lighthouse
In private hands now, the Dyce Head Lighthouse is still a pretty sight. You can walk on a trail behind the property for some great vantage points.
PADDLE: Castine Kayak Adventures
Join a half-day ($65), full day ($115), or sunset ($55) paddle through Castine Harbor to island beaches, wooden boats and even a shipwreck.
But for a one of a kind adventure, take the Bioluminescent Night Paddle offered evenings in season ($65). Each stroke of your oar causes millions of microscopic organisms in the water to light up.
SAIL: Guildive Cruises
Here’s the other way to get out onto the water – take a two hour sailing excursion aboard the beautiful Guildive. Leaves from Dennett’s Wharf Restaurant daily at 10, 12:30, 3:30 ($50) and sunset 6pm ($55).
STROLL: Town Green and Castine Historical Society
Unitarian Church, Town Hall, Historical Society bathed in white. True New England charm.
SHOP: Art Galleries
There are a few serious art galleries and gift shops in Castine. Be sure to check out Gallery B and Dan Graziano Fine Art on Main Street. And the Adam Gallery (140 Battle Ave), featuring the saturated-color oils of Joshua and Susan Adam.
DRIVE/PHOTO OPS: Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle
If you stay at the Pentagoet Inn, owner Jack Burke will provide you with a directions and stopping points on the peninsula just east of Castine, including Stonington, and the retiree favorite, Blue Hill ME.
Driving the perimeter and making all the stops (too many to outline here) will take upwards of 6 hours. It’s a full day trip, but well worth it.
Getting to Deer Isle involves crossing a narrow green iron bridge, with a steep ascent going over, and descent coming back, and can be rather harrowing.
Stonington, at Deer Isle’s southernmost point, is considered one of the last “true” commercial fishing villages in Maine. It won’t be tough in the least to find fishermen loading lobster traps on trucks, or stacks of traps laying around docks.
But Stonington also harbors a small art colony, with several galleries. So, park, get out of your car and have a look around. It is utterly charming there.
Before heading back across that crazy green bridge, take a 3-mile detour (each way) off of Route 15 to Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies owned by Anne and Peter Beerits.
You can’t miss the place – the property is festooned with Wild West facades right out of a 60’s TV Western, and lots of funky sculptures created by Peter. Explore the various buildings, including the production area and shop.
The “no artificial anything” small batch jams and Chutneys are made onsite. Of course, Nellie’s ships – and yes, you can order online.
But a good number of fans make the pilgrimage – at all times of year – to say hi to Anne and Peter, revel in the whimsy, and stock up on the sweet stuff.
Where to Eat in Castine ME
EAT: Pentagoet Inn
If it’s open, go there. It’s the best dining in town. (See below under “Where to Stay”).
EAT: The Wharf at 15 Sea Street
The sign says “Organic Lobsters,” but heck, that’s just silly. The food here is ok – especially those “organic” lobsters steamed just like we like ‘em. Local talent on live music nights is actually better than decent.
But the quirkiest aspect to this waterfront restaurant is the major collection of dollar bills stuck way, way up high on the wood barn rafters. How did they get up there? You’ve got to contribute a buck and a quarter to find out.
Where to Stay in Castine ME
STAY: The Pentagoet Inn
The Pentagoet Inn is the queen on the hill, a lovely Queen Anne overlooking Penobscot Bay. On the Select Registry, this lovely Castine inn caters to the quirky foodie traveler who really wants to escape from the world and unplug. A few years ago, Yankee Magazine declared the Pentagoet, “Best Classic Maine Inn.” It’s easy to see why.
First Impressions of Pentagoet Inn
Jack Burke, looking ever the French seafarer with his salt and pepper beard and ponytail tucked behind his cap, worked with refugees in conflict zones around the world. His wife, Julie Van De Graat, was an executive chef and owned a beloved bakery in Philly.
For over 20 years, they have owned and run the Pentagoet Inn as a sanctuary for travelers on the lookout for an authentic Maine experience.
Burke grew up making multiple trips to Maine with his father, who delivered boats up and down the east coast. “There’s no other harbor like Castine in Maine. It’s so deep, the French Frigate Hermione was able to come in under full sail.”
The low-lit pub room – every inch of wall blanketed with photos of heads of state and officials from around the world – is one of the funkiest B&B rooms I’ve ever been tipsy in.
“Who wants a Lenin in their living room?” Burke exclaims, when I point out the Russian Communist among pictures of Gandhi, Arab sheiks, Gorbachev (without his port-wine stain birthmark) and other world leaders.
As a globetrotter, Burke has collected pictures and photos of good and bad guys from around the world. “Bad guys are very inexpensive. Good guys are pricey,” he says.
I loved the cookies and ice-tea as welcome, and great conversations over wine in the Pub with fellow travelers.
Rooms at Pentagoet Inn
Rooms – classic, traditional and sweet – are bright and sunny in the morning. I could meditate on the blue sea and green coastline from my dormer room on the 3rd floor. Its pale yellow walls, bay window, lightening fast wi-fi, elegant antique furnishings, fresh flowers, a most comfortable bed topped with quilted coverlet, and upholstered chairs offered a respite from the Big Bad World.
Glory be, coffee service was set right outside my door at 7am. I didn’t even have to walk downstairs for it!
Food at Pentagoet Inn, Castine ME
It’s no surprise that baked goods, served in the morning and afternoon, are decadently good. Julie owned the Pink Rose Pastry Shop in Philly for twenty years. Guests from DC and Philly come to Castine and the Pentagoet Inn specifically for her famous scones and muffins. Though a delicious second course hot dish is served as well, you might want to pocket some of those scones for later.
In season, the Pentagoet’s in-house restaurant opens for dinner, specializing in Maine-influenced dishes with ingredients sourced from farms on the Blue Hill Peninsula. The signature Bouillabaisse, says the Lonely Planet Guide, “may cause French visitors to weep with envy.”
Complimentary afternoon refreshment from 2-5.
Pub with full (cash) bar open for wine, beer and cocktails.
Jack offers “concierge service” at 9am each morning to assist with day trips, best places to see and eat and directions. He’ll provide information for a full-day’s foray around the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle nearby. It’s as unique and stunning a day as you’ll ever experience in Maine. Rooms from $175-$295 depending on size and season. Includes fast wi-fi, welcome tea and baked goods, multi-course baked and hot breakfast, and Jack’s invaluable “concierge service.”