Choosing Maine: Town-by-Town Tour of Maine
Getting Your Bearings
Maine is divided into sixteen counties. Although the county system is not as significant as town government, a glance at these counties, each of which has a distinct personality, is a good way to learn what's where.
This south-central county of 105,259 residents is named for the state's third-largest river. Although its waters were once so toxic that the river was said to glow in places, the Androscoggin is now the healthiest it has been in a century and is a prime spot for kayak and canoe enthusiasts, some of whom paddle in the Great Falls Canoe Race held each June.
The Androscoggin winds through the county's two biggest cities, Lewiston, home of Bates College, and Auburn. The friendly burgs are so entwined they share two nicknames - L-A and the Twin Cities - and they rival Portland in their combined size and economic importance. Auburn is a city of about 23,203 people, while 35,700 or so folks call Lewiston home.
Lewiston and Auburn are busy centers of commerce and cultural activities, favored by many companies because of their prime location, which is nearly smack in the middle of the most populous part of Maine. Once an industrial area full of mills and factories, which attracted a large French Canadian population, the pair have enjoyed a great rebirth in the late nineties, retrofitting office centers into those old mills and attracting new businesses of all sorts. Though they are bustling, the Twin Cities are ringed with bucolic villages, among them Leeds (2,000), Poland (4,866), and Turner (4,972), and they are only an hour or so from the heart of the western mountains. Androscoggin County is also dotted with crystal-clear lakes, ponds, rivers, and brooks, including Lake Auburn. Nearby Lost Valley is a popular ski area once the snow flies.
Maine's largest and northernmost county is unspoiled and unpretentious. Jutting up into the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec, this beautiful, rolling area is often called simply the County due to its vast size. Lumber barons and lumberjacks are the stuff of local legends, and towering timber still stretches for miles in the western and northern parts. More than two thousand lakes, rivers, and streams (including the legendary Allagash Wilderness Waterway) dot the countryside, home to scores of old-fashioned fishing and hunting camps. (Some are so remote that floatplanes are the only way in.) The rest of the County has an almost midwestern feel, with miles and miles of agricultural fields, most of them devoted to potatoes - a breathtaking sight when in bloom. During the fall harvest, local children are excused from school to help dig for spuds.
Picturesque and remote, Aroostook is referred to (even by Mainers) as "the other Maine." It seems almost untouched by the faster pace of life to its south. The population has declined somewhat due to lack of jobs, a condition the state's Northern Maine Development Commission is working hard to improve, but the County is as real and unspoiled as Maine gets.
Major cities in Aroostook include Presque Isle, home to about 9,511 residents, a branch of the University of Maine, a shopping mall that is popular with Canadians, and a neat old downtown. With a population of eight thousand or so, Caribou is another hub, located on the shores of the Aroostook River. Madawaska (a Maliseet Indian word meaning "land of the porcupine") is the northernmost town in Maine and a major port of Canadian entry, with approximately 4,534 residents. Other communities in the region, most of them potato-powered, include Fort Kent (home to 4,233 and another branch of the University of Maine) and Fort Fairfield (3,579). Houlton is the county's oldest community and the seat of government, with more than six thousand residents. A number of its beautiful, rambling old homes and a whole section of the brick downtown are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The most populous county at 273,505, Cumberland contains the cities of Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook, and one of the fastest-growing areas in Maine.
With a population of 64,249, Portland is big enough to offer a wealth of cultural and recreational activities, yet still be of a size where folks know one another. A bustling haunt for locals and tourists alike is the Old Port, a quaint section of shops, restaurants, and offices by the waterfront, with Victorian brick buildings, wide sidewalks, and narrow cobbled streets.
Casco Bay wraps around the city, dotted by the Calendar islands, which were named in the 1600s by Captain John Smith, who marveled, "there are as many islands as there are days in the year." (He was off slightly - there are only 136.) The city's waterfront bustles with activity. Lobstermen and fishermen off-load their catch, among the biggest in New England, and cruise ships and pleasure craft dock at Maine State Pier and Long Wharf.
The major island closest to Portland is 720-acre Peaks, home to a year-round population of about 1,500. Chebeague Island is the largest island in Casco Bay, supporting a year-round population of four hundred. Both have the remoteness and romance associated with islands but are within commuting distance of the city.
South Portland, one of Maine's largest cities in its own right, is home to the Portland International Jetport and the Maine Mall, the state's largest retail area, full of big chain stores. Classic New England villages and wide sandy beaches surround both South Portland and Portland. The residential towns of Cape Elizabeth (9,068), Scarborough (16,970), North Yarmouth (3,210), Falmouth (10,310), and Cumberland (7,159) are still fairly rural, but the pace of new home construction is brisk. Farther up the coast is Freeport, home of the renowned sporting goods retailer L.L. Bean as well as numerous factory outlet stores, restaurants, inns, and 7,800 residents. Brunswick, a community of more than 21,172 people, has a college town feel thanks to historic Bowdoin College.
Inland, Sebago Lake is the second largest in Maine and the source of much of southern Maine's drinking water. Ringed with camps, motels, and resorts, Sebago is enjoyed year-round by residents of the neighboring towns of Windham (14,904), Raymond (4,300), Naples (3,274), Bridgton (4,883), and Standish (9,285). These small towns are rapidly developing, too, and are host to thousands of summer visitors.
Franklin County rises from the central upland portion of Maine to a more mountainous region in the north. In population, Franklin is one of the state's smaller counties - about 28,000 people living in twenty-two towns and plantations. There are no cities in Franklin County, and Farmington, a town of 7,410 people with a University of Maine campus, is the county's shiretown and commercial hub. The University of Maine at Farmington was Maine's first public institution of higher education and was recently chosen one of the top public liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Known for its brick downtown and quick access to the woods, Farmington is also enjoying a quiet renaissance as a retirement center.
Beautiful and unspoiled, Franklin County is an important center for tourism. Here you'll find many outdoor recreational areas, including Carrabassett Valley, home of Sugarloaf/USA, a popular ski mountain; Saddleback Mountain; the Bigelow mountains; and more than a hundred lakes and ponds, including those in the magnificent Rangeley lakes region. Franklin County straddles two major watersheds, with the Dead, Carrabassett, and Sandy rivers draining into the Kennebec River, and the Rangeley lakes pouring westward into the Androscoggin. Rangeley Lake alone is 149 feet deep. The town of Rangeley is a nifty place, with a bustling downtown, remarkable mountain vistas, and easy access to the lakes. It's easy to understand why it was one of Maine's earliest resort areas.
Towns in Franklin County include Wilton, population about four thousand - home of the only fiddlehead canning factory in the country as well as lovely Wilson Lake - and Weld, a small community of four hundred or so, site of eight-mile-long Webb Lake and stunning Mount Blue State Park, where the peaks climb and the water is clear.
The resort town of Bar Harbor (year-round population about 4,820) and extraordinarily popular Acadia National Park are the best-known features of Hancock County - between them the pair see more than three million visitors a year. Bar Harbor has all the inns, shops, and restaurants one would expect of a national-park gateway, but it's also home to a highly regarded environmental school, the College of the Atlantic.
Hancock County's Mount Desert Island (pronounced as either "desert" or "dessert") contains most of Acadia, the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the eastern seaboard, dominates the island's eastern side. If you explore south from Ellsworth to Deer Isle, you'll find the picturesque seaside towns of Blue Hill (2,390), Brooklin (841), and Stonington
(1,152), as well as Castine (1,343), home of the Maine Maritime Academy and one of the most beautiful villages in the state.
The county is named for John Hancock, the first governor of Massachusetts, who wrote the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence. Hancock's largest city is Ellsworth, which has approximately 6,456 year-round residents, a pretty old downtown, and a long stretch of strip malls. Tiny Frenchboro, on Long Island, is Hancock's smallest town, with - at last count - thirty-eight hardy souls.
Maine's capital city, Augusta, straddles the banks of the river for which this county is named. Once a trading post for the Pilgrims, Augusta is today a city of twenty thousand or so and provides a wealth of cultural and recreational activities as well as the workings of Maine's government. Nearby are the charming cities of Gardiner (6,198) and Hallowell (2,467), as well as the towns of Farmingdale (2,800) and Monmouth (3,785). The Belgrade and Winthrop lakes regions are popular residential and recreational areas.
In addition to the mighty Kennebec River, Kennebec County is home to scores of lakes and ponds, including the county's largest, eight-mile-long China Lake. Not far away is the city of Waterville, population 15,605, and home to Colby College, one of the country's top private liberal arts institutions.
Established in 1860, Maine's youngest county is named for General Henry Knox, George Washington's chief of artillery during the American Revolution and, later, his secretary of war. A replica of General Knox's mansion, Montpelier, stands in the coastal town of Thomaston (3,748). The largest city is Rockland, an eclectic mix of working waterfront and artsy downtown, which is currently enjoying great prosperity thanks in part to the Farnsworth Art Museum, one of the nation's best small museums. Rockland is home to about eight thousand people. In recent years this part of Maine's midcoast region has experienced growth due to the major expansion of the credit card bank MBNA, and then uncertainty as the company first downsized and then was sold to Bank of America.
Several towns in Knox County, including Rockland, Rockport (3,209), and Owls Head (1,601), flank Penobscot Bay, world renowned for its fine yachting. The Camden Hills, a ridge of low mountains that stretch along the coast, offer sweeping views of Penobscot Bay and its two-hundred-odd islands. Snuggled between the mountains and the sea is the town of Camden (5,254), a vacation hotspot.
Knox County is a mix of bustling tourist towns, quiet fishing villages, rural inland communities, and hundreds of islands - some of them inhabited year-round. North Haven and Vinalhaven, known together as the Fox islands, are both serviced by ferries from Rockland. A genuine working island, Vinalhaven has approximately 1,300 residents, while the more genteel North Haven has about three hundred. Matinicus, about twenty miles offshore from Rockland, is Maine's most remote inhabited island, with a year-round population of about fifty.
Most people think this county is named for our country's sixteenth president, but actually it is a tribute to Thomas Pownal, a Massachusetts governor whose home was Lincoln, England. Lincoln County is home to approximately thirty thousand Mainers and is a mix of coastal and inland towns and offshore islands such as the artist colony of Monhegan.
Lincoln County contains no cities, and the area's largest town is Waldoboro, with a population of about five thousand. Waldoboro was settled around 1740 by German families who were brought to America by General Samuel Waldo. Wiscasset (accent on the second syllable) is the next largest community, with about three thousand residents. This town bills itself as "the prettiest village in Maine," and it is indeed a charming place of fine architecture, nestled alongside the Sheepscot River. Other communities in Lincoln County include Boothbay (2,960), well-known resort Boothbay Harbor (2,334), and Newcastle (1,748). Damariscotta (2,041), located between the ocean and lovely Damariscotta Lake, is a bustling place during the warmer months and has seen an influx of retirees in recent years.
Monhegan, reached by ferry from Port Clyde, New Harbor, and Boothbay Harbor, is probably Maine's most famous island, thanks to the work of such internationally known artists as Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, and Jamie Wyeth. Located about ten miles out to sea, Monhegan is less than a mile wide and about two miles long, yet seventeen miles of trails wind around its nature preserves and spectacular cliffs, including the legendary Cathedral Woods. The island has a year-round population of about seventy-five and no automobile traffic.
Oxford sits smack in the middle of Maine's western mountains, and part of the White Mountain National Forest is located in this region, as are lovely lakes, ski areas, and resorts that draw tourists year-round. Bethel, called the classic New England village by many, is nestled in the Oxford Hills along the Androscoggin River. About 2,411 people live in Bethel's pretty old homes and farms. Close by is the Sunday River ski resort and the Sunday River Bridge, one of the most photographed covered bridges in the state. The foreign-sounding Maine towns of Norway (4,611), Mexico (3,959), Denmark (1,004), Sweden (324), and Paris (4,793) are all located in Oxford County.
Rumford, with a population of nearly seven thousand, is the largest community in Oxford County and the home of Mead Publishing Paper Division, a massive paper mill. Rumford has a ninety-seven-bed community hospital, as well as the small Black Mountain ski area. Rumford and nearby Mexico are part of the scenic River Valley, so named because it is where the Androscoggin and Swift rivers converge.
Penobscot County was named for the mighty river that meanders through the region. One of Maine's prime white-water rafting areas is on the river's west branch. Also situated along the river is one of the state's largest cities - Bangor.
Once known only for its colorful history as a logging town (a thirty-one-foot statue of Paul Bunyan welcomes visitors), Bangor today is a city of 31,473 residents and boasts a lively arts scene, state-of-the-art health-care facilities (including Eastern Maine Medical Center), and a growing importance in foreign trade and travel thanks to Bangor International Airport. It is home to the Bangor Auditorium - a six-thousand-seat hall hosting everything from concerts to garden shows - as well as the Bangor Civic Center and the Bangor Fairgrounds.
Bordering Bangor is Orono, population 9,112, home to the main campus of the University of Maine. The university is a city within itself, comprising more than eight thousand acres and 158 buildings, and featuring the Maine Center for the Arts, a concert hall that brings many national acts to the area.
The working city of Brewer (8,987) and the charming riverside town of Hampden (6,327) are nearby communities, as is the city of Old Town (8,130), famous for its finely crafted Old Town canoes. Millinocket (5,203) is located about seventy miles up the Penobscot from Bangor at the northern end of the county. Known for its huge paper mill, it's also the gateway to the extraordinary wilderness area called Baxter State Park.
Piscataquis County takes its name from the Abenaki term meaning "at the river branch," and it is Maine's third-largest county by size. Within its boundaries are two-hundred-thousand-acre Baxter State Park as well as Maine's highest mountain, Mount Katahdin. The park was a gift to the people of Maine by Governor Percival Baxter, who stipulated that it be kept forever wild. Excellent fishing, mountain climbing, and hiking are found on its 175 miles of trails. Piscataquis County also contains much of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a nationally known canoe route. Heavily forested, with a low population density, Piscataquis has about 18,000 residents. The town of Dover-Foxcroft, with 4,211 people, is the largest community and a business center for the surrounding area. A pretty town of graceful old homes, it is situated on the Piscataquis River. Greenville, population 1,625, is on the banks of 75,000-acre Moosehead Lake, the biggest lake contained in one state this side of the Mississippi. The town is a wilderness outpost, known for moose and four-season outdoor recreation. A spectacular site at Moosehead is majestic Mount Kineo, which rises out of the water forming a sheer seven-hundred-foot cliff.
With only 257 square miles, this is Maine's smallest county. Bath, located along the Kennebec River, is Sagadahoc's largest city, with a population of 9,266. Bath has been a shipbuilding center since the eighteenth century, and the tradition continues today at Bath
Iron Works, where massive ships are constructed for the navy. Bath boasts handsome homes and a brick downtown as well as the Maine Maritime Museum.
Topsham, with about nine thousand residents, is the next-largest community, as well as the area's fastest-growing town. The towns of Bowdoin (2,727) and Bowdoinham (2,612) are bucolic villages near massive Merrymeeting Bay, where six rivers meet and where migrating ducks and geese rest en route to warmer climes. Woolwich (2,810) is a rural town located across the Kennebec from Bath.
The land area of Somerset County - 3,903 square miles - makes it Maine's second-largest. Extending from the Canadian border all the way to Fairfield in central Maine, the area is almost 90 percent forested, and borders Moosehead Lake and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Flagstaff Lake, as well as much of the Dead River, a popular rafting spot, are located in Somerset County.
Skowhegan is the largest community, with a population of 8,824. The home of the late Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate, Skowhegan is also the site of one of Maine's largest agricultural fairs and a prestigious school of painting. Fairfield (6,573), Pittsfield (4,214), and Madison (4,523) are other sizable towns in Somerset County. The Forks and Caratunk, tiny villages both, are at the epicenter of Maine's white-water rafting industry.
Belfast (6,381) is the largest community in Waldo County and the area's only city. Once known more for its chicken processing plants than its lovely harbor, Belfast today is a mix of lively downtown shops, businesses, and elegant homes from the 1800s. Deemed "culturally cool" in USA Today, the city is home to a number of artists, has a theater troupe, a huge co-op, a dance studio, and a movie theater.
Waldo County's coastal towns include Lincolnville (2,042) and Searsport (2,641), famous for its sea captains' homes. Several of its small inland communities bear patriotic names: Liberty (927), Freedom (645) and Unity (1,889). Waldo County has grown in recent years, thanks to the expansion of credit-card giant MBNA in the 1990s and smaller local heroes such as Moss, Inc. There is a small but excellent hospital - Waldo County General, in Belfast. Islesboro (603) is home to a tony island community where actor John Travolta has a summer place.
The easternmost county in the nation, Washington is nicknamed "The Sunrise County" because many argue that the sun hits here first as it wakes up the United States. A trip through this part of Maine reveals rocky and sandy beaches, dramatic oceanside cliffs, the highest tides in the country, and acres and acres of windswept blueberry barrens, home to Maine's thriving lowbush blueberry industry. Nature preserves dot the landscape: Petit Manan in Steuben, Great Wass Island in Beals, Roque Bluffs State Park south of Machias, Cobscook Bay State Park in Dennysville, and Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge outside Calais - all set before miles and miles of oceanfront.
This is the quietest coastal region in Maine, a place where tradition still reigns and where tourism is welcome but not counted upon. Fishing and blueberrying are the major industries. The primary city is Calais (pronounced CAL-us), which has about 3,447 residents and is connected by a bridge to St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Eastport (1,640) is the easternmost city in United States, and it has a lovely and historic brick downtown. Because of its situation on Moose Island, just about every house in Eastport has a fantastic view of Passamaquoddy Bay. Other important towns in the county are Lubec (1,652) and Machias (2,353), home to a branch of the University of Maine.
Maine's oldest and most southerly county was created in 1652 as Yorkshire Province. This stretch of Maine is famous for its broad white beaches and picturesque New England towns. York's coast is the home of the famed villages of Kennebunkport (3,720) and Ogunquit (1,226), where tourists flock by the thousands in the summer. From Kittery (9,543) in the south, known for its outlet shopping, to Old Orchard Beach (8,856) in the north, a beachfront boardwalk community famous for its honky-tonk atmosphere, the southern Maine coast is popular both with vacationers and new Mainers, many of whom commute to Portland or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for jobs. Some of Maine's wealthiest communities are in York County, as well as many of the fastest-growing towns.
The neighboring cities of Biddeford and Saco (with populations of 20,942 and 16,822 respectively) together make up York County's largest center of commerce. The towns of Sanford (20,806) and Wells (9,400) are other notable spots.