For a dose of Downeast Maine’s quaint, small-town charm, you need to take a drive on US 1. Historic communities line up along the old Atlantic Highway, providing numerous excuses to stop and explore. It can make for a very long day of driving, especially if you’re actually trying to get somewhere. On this page, I’ll give you an overview of some of the route’s most interesting towns.
While US 1 enters Maine at the New Hampshire border and continues all the way up to Fort Kent, this trip only covers a portion of that route. I started on US 1 at Brunswick, Maine, and followed it through towns like Bath, Damariscotta, Rockland, Camden, Belfast, and Searsport. With time dwindling, I abandoned Route 1 after the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and instead took “The Airline” – Maine Route 9 – on to the border.
My 2010 New England Leaf Peeping Trip covered slightly more of US 1. On that trip, I continued on to Acadia National Park.
This was the first day of my October, 2016 trip to the northeast. The trip had one primary goal: to make it up to the northern end of Nova Scotia, and spend a few days exploring Cape Breton Island. It would have also been fun to explore Maine’s Atlantic coast, but unfortunately this time, my plan was merely to pass through. Interstate 95 would have been quicker, but I still wanted to do some sightseeing.
I had arrived in Portland, Maine, late on the previous day, and drove up to Freeport to spend the night. Freeport is home to L.L. Bean, along with dozens of other outlet stores, which means it also has some reasonably-priced motel rooms. It also positioned me nicely for the long day of driving that lay ahead on Day One.
I didn’t stop at L.L. Bean on the first day, but I did hit it on the final day of the trip. On this day, though, I made quick progress towards…
I turned off Interstate 95, and onto US 1, just before Brunswick. The town is worth, at least, a quick walk.
Get used to seeing beautiful church steeples. It seems that every town in Maine has one, or two, or more.
Brunswick’s main street is the very wide Maine Street. It’s lined with businesses that are still in business, and capped off by the huge old Cabot Mill complex. The monstrous brick building has been converted into office and retail space. It looked as if an enormous antiques store occupied at least part of the building. I really wish I would have had the time to check it out.
While US 1 turns away from the mill, I decided to drive straight for a moment, and I ended up crossing the Androscoggin River. Unfortunately, I missed an even more noteworthy bridge, just downstream slightly. The town’s swinging pedestrian bridge has been in use since 1892. It was built for use by employees at Cabot Mill.
Back on US 1, I passed through Bath (although I explored it more thoroughly back in 2010). My next stop was…
Just a few weeks before my trip, I clicked on some kind of click-bait Facebook post that promised “40 Small Towns That You Won’t Believe Exist”, or some nonsense like that. Of course, I had already visited at least 20 of them, and had no trouble believing that they existed. But there was one I hadn’t visited before – Damariscotta. It looked nice, so I decided to visit.
The town is on the Damariscotta River, and there are boat docks just a block away from Main Street, which in this case is spelled without the extra “e”.
The river divides Damariscotta from its neighbor, Newcastle.
Is that a glimpse of fall color along the riverbank? Yes, but just a glimpse. I was here during the last few days of September which, I soon discovered, was a week or two before the full intensity of fall would hit.
Fun Fact: Damariscotta has at least 7 power lines for every resident, and they all seem to run through every photograph you want to take.
Even the church steeple has to compete with a different kind of electrified cross. But despite the power lines, downtown Damariscotta is delightfully quaint and enjoyable, with plenty of restaurants and shops — many of which are still the kind of stores that locals shop at, rather than tourists.
There were a few more small towns that I could have visited along US 1, but I decided to push on to Rockland, where the highway finally met up with the Atlantic coast.
Rockland feels pretty big, after driving through smaller towns for a while. It has an impressive Main Street that includes the Strand Theater, which has been there since 1923. Across the street, another eye-catching sign spells out EAT atop the Farnsworth Art Museum, which exhibits modern art with a Maine theme.
Rockland Harbor is just a few blocks away from Main Street, and Owls Head Lighthouse is just about five miles away, at the mouth of the harbor. But, I needed to get to Canada. I resolved (just as I did in 2010) to return to the Maine Coast, sometime when I could devote more time to it. I will, someday, I promise.
US 1 provides numerous glimpses of Penobscot Bay as it heads north along the coast, through several small towns and communities. The next more sizeable city is Belfast, where an elephant perches atop the Colonial Theater. Part of the business district is here, along High Street, while the rest…
… is along Main Street (which drops down in elevation from High Street to the waterfront).
I parked at the docks and looked around for a bit, then drove back up Main Street, parked again, and wandered around some more.
The town has some great old signage (this building is home to the helpful visitor’s center)…
… a few fall leaves…
… and naturally, a stately church. This is the Congregational United Church of Christ, also known as the first church in Belfast. One sign says it was built in 1818, while another says it dates back to 1796 (presumably meaning the congregation, rather than the building). Its tower holds a Paul Revere bell — which was the first church bell in Belfast.
While I successfully resisted the lure of that big antique mall back in Brunswick, and at least a dozen other antique stores along the way, I was overpowered by the mere volume of junk at this barn in Searsport. If you think the parking lot is packed, you should see the inside. Every available inch has something crammed into it. It’s worth a stop, even if you don’t really have the time.
Penobscot Narrows Bridge
Just up the road from Searsport, US 1 crosses the fancy, fairly-new Penobscot Narrows Bridge, which opened at the end of 2006. Back when I visited in 2010, the old Waldo-Hancock Bridge (which opened in 1931) had been closed to traffic, but was still standing next to the new structure. In between that visit and this one, the bridge had been removed. It’s unfortunate, because it, too, was a beautiful bridge, but it was found to be structurally unsound, and beyond repair.
Shortly after crossing the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, I decided I didn’t have time to continue exploring US 1. I took Maine Route 46 up to Maine 9, the “Airline”, for the drive to Calais, Maine, where I crossed the border and continued on to my motel in New Brunswick. I’ll show you more of the Airline and Calais on the following pages.
Here’s the drive from Freeport to Brunswick…
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…Brunswick to Damariscotta…
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… Damariscotta to Rockland…
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… Rockland to Belfast…
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… and Belfast to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and on up to Maine 9:
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The Bottom Line
You could easily devote a couple of days (or more) to visiting the small towns I’ve mentioned on this page. There are plenty of places to stay, eat, and shop, along with small-town charm and coastal scenery. And of course, you could continue on up US 1 to visit the rest of the Maine coast, if you had the time.