Aroostook County, Maine
Most visitors to Maine stick with the lighthouse-and-lobster crawl along the state's rugged coastline. Up in its woodsy interior – where the moose are – is a different Maine altogether. Vacationland's backcountry is a rustic swath of lumberjack roads, "camp" lodges reached by float plane, and the canoe paddleways Thoreau wrote about in his book 'The Maine Woods,' which turns 150 next year.
In Aroostook County – as far north as you can go without a passport – gossip tends to come in français first (though the occasional Canadian "eh?" makes an appearance). Bonded by their isolation, Quebecois and American communities showcase a can-do spirit manifested in the decidedly unusual attractions they offer the few outsiders that make it this far into the woods.
The most remarkable attraction is "Gateway Route 1," better known as the "Maine Solar System Model," which covers 40 miles between Houlton to Presque Isle. Ten years ago, eccentric local professor Kevin McCartney rallied locals to create a quirky roadside version of the Milky Way. Planets, built with donated labor and goods, were constructed at a 93 million–to–one scale. They sit on giant poles planted in backyards or roadside fields – the distance between them to the same scale as their size. Earth, which is only 5.5 inches in diameter, is posed outside Percy's Auto Sales. Encountering it is both humbling and strangely reassuring.
French Maine takes form a half hour north of Caribou in the St. John Valley, first settled by Acadians in 1785. Inside Lille's giant gold-domed Notre Dame cathedral, built in 1910, travelers are likely to find a gray-bearded man scraping old paint off a pew with a spoon. This is Don Cyr, a.k.a. "the man with the church," who is restoring and expanding his Musée culturel du Mont-Carmel to tell of local Acadian traditions like the "concealment shoe," a boot buried in house walls to repel evil-doers.
Across the St. John River from Edmundston, New Brunswick, Madawaksa's simple Acadian Restaurant serves ployes, a local delicacy of buckwheat pancakes smeared with pâté or dipped into chicken stew. Bilingual signs on the sidewalks outside note Madawaska's location as the "northeastern corner of the USA." The wee Four Corners Park nearby is dedicated to long-distance motorcyclists who tour all four U.S. corners in one long drive.
Aroostook's most scenic areas are accessed by hiking or cross-country ski trails, or along the state scenic byway on Route 11, which heads south toward the coast. It runs along the Fish River Valley – side roads lead to dreamy ponds with house rentals – before finishing with extended views of Baxter State Park's Mt. Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Few ever see that fabled spot. Fewer still see it from the east.
More information: A loop can't be done in a day (Madawaska is five hours' drive from Bar Harbor). The "galaxy man" Kevin McCartney runs the fun Old Iron Inn, a B&B in Caribou with the only room named for an amoeba in the country. Fort Kent is home to a 200-year-old fort and the world's best-named paper, the Fiddlehead Focus.