Maine is a happening place in summer. The excellent Portland Harbor Hotel books up with weekenders determined to take ferry trips to Peak's Island, eat lobster rolls on the wharf, and browse the racks for Made in Maine style at Portland Dry Goods. Farther north, towns like Rockland and Camden swell as summer people arrive with SUVs full of fresh linens and six packs of Sam Adams. Then, quite suddenly, the tide changes and the summer hordes – referred to locally as "people from away" – disappear. Down East gets downright quiet. The strange thing is: September is the best time of the year to visit. The weather is perfect, rental prices are lower, and there are – to stumble into a bit of a paradox – fewer visitors. The key is to find the right destination.
Summer towns like Bar Harbor and Kennebunkport are at their best when children are swarming around the inevitable ice cream parlor and jumping in droves off the town dock. When the crowds dissipate, the appeal of towns built to handle crowds dwindles as well. But that problem doesn't extend to more local-centric hamlets – even those with photogenic water views. At the northern tip of Penobscot Bay, Belfast retains its off-kilter swagger thanks to gourmet organic lunches at Chase's Daily and a vibrant working waterfront overseen by a good-humored harbor mistress. Not far south, the sleepy town of Owl's Head embraces the off-season quiet. The General Store stays open, offering haddock melts and microbrews, but the roads are almost free of cars. The pavement has been ceded to clever cyclists looking for a ride down the rugged coast.
Farther east – east and north are easy to conflate in a state jutting up and out toward Nova Scotia – the colonial town of Castine welcomes students to the Maine Maritime Academy. They run and chat along a main street that passes the lovely Pentagoet Inn and MarKel's Bakehouse (formerly Bah's), renowned for offering highly caloric breakfast treats. The sailors swim in Wasson Cove's shallow water, which hovers above hypothermic after spending the summer warming on the rocks. Historic homes are suddenly available for $1000 a week, a great deal for anyone who doesn't have to ferry their children to the first day of school.
The summer is over, but Maine has more than one season to offer. That said, when winter rears its head, get the hell out.
More information: Flying CapeAir into Rockland is a great way to enjoy the midcoast region, but there is nothing wrong with a drive up Route 1.