By Lora Winslow
I was born and raised in Maine. And while I was skeptical as a child about the state motto emblazoned on our license plates (since Mickey Mouse and palm trees were nowhere to be seen), I now know how fortunate I was to grow up in Vacationland. Maine is truly a child’s wonderland, with countless natural wonders to experience and explore. If you need a little help convincing your kids that magical vacations don’t necessarily require princess castles, cartoon characters, or rides, here are some family-friendly activities unique to Maine that your children are sure to enjoy.
SING TO THE PERIWINKLES
There’s nothing quite like the joy on a child’s face the first time they see the ocean. The Maine coast is wondrous and majestic, and provides endless enjoyment for people of all ages. Saltwater waves to jump in, swim through, and float on. Sandcastles to build. Periwinkles that emerge from their shells when you sing to them. Sea glass and shells to collect, and stones to skip. Sand bars at low-tide to dig into. Tide pools full of barnacles, star fish, anemones, seaweed, and dozens of little sea critters. Kid-friendly beaches are abundant in Maine, like Mother’s Beach in Kennebunk, Ferry Beach in Scarborough, Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg, Pott’s Point Preserve in Harpswell, and Sand Beach in Bar Harbor.
FARMER FOR A DAY
Local, sustainable agriculture is a big part of what it means to be from Maine. And your kids can experience farm life first-hand by visiting one of the many farms in Maine that are open to the public. Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook has been family owned for 12 generations. Stop by to enjoy an ice cream, pick up some glass-bottled milk, and see their barnyard animals. (smilinghill.com) At Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, you can meet the animals, visit the barn and pasture, and tour the educational gardens. They also have campsites, hiking trails, and canoe, kayak, and bike rentals. (wolfesneckfarm.org) There’s so much to do at Pineland Farms in Gray! See a cheese-making demo in their creamery, explore the Family Farmyard, working dairy, and poultry barn, interact with farming exhibits, ride horses, and more. (pinelandfarms.org) The Morris Farm Trust in Wiscasset is both a working farm and an educational resource. Stop by to visit the animals, hike the trails, attend a workshop or event, and pick up meat, eggs, and produce. (morrisfarm.org) Yes, we even have bison in Maine. Watch them roam and graze at Beech Hill Farm & Bison Ranch in Waterford (beechhillbison.com). To find other farms in Maine, visit getrealgetmaine.com, and for a list of Maine farmers’ markets (featuring meats, produce, and flowers) visit mainefarmersmarkets.org.
FERRY BOATS & ISLAND LIFE
There are more than 4,600 islands off the coast of Maine… and while you can drive your car to some of them (e.g., Mackworth Island in Falmouth, Orr’s Island in Harspwell, and Mt. Desert Island), it’ll be way more fun for your kids (and you) if you take a boat! Hop on a Casco Bay Lines ferry (cascobaylines.com) to visit nine different Casco Bay islands (Peaks, Long, Chebeague, Cliff, etc.) or take a scenic cruise of the bay. The Maine State Ferry (maine.gov) has three terminals in the Midcoast, and will take you to Vinal haven, North Haven, Matinicus, Swan’s Island, Frenchboro, and Isleboro. Monhegan Boat Line (monheganboat.com) makes 1-3 trips daily to the picturesque Monhegan Island from Port Clyde. And while Downeast, you can take a ferry to islands like Great and Little Cranberry Islands and Isle au Haut. For a map of island trails to explore when you land, visit Maine Island Trail Association (mita.org).
BOGS AND MARSHES AND WETLANDS, OH MY!
The body of water that forms where freshwater from rivers and streams meets the saltwater of the ocean is called an estuary, and the low-lying, waterlogged land found there is called a marsh. Marshes are great for nature walks, canoeing and bird watching, and are home to plant species you won’t find elsewhere in Maine. Explore these unique sanctuaries at Scarborough Marsh (maineaudubon.org), The Wells Reserve at Laudholm (wellsreserve.org), or the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells (fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/), to name a few. Some marshes, called bogs, are conducive to growing cranberries, and Maine has many of these that you can wade around in with the frogs.
UP CLOSE WITH WILDLIFE
Whether on land, under water, or in the air, Maine is home to countless species of wildlife and offers many ways to see these animals in their natural habitat. Take a boat tour in the Gulf of Maine to see whales, seals, puffins, dolphins, sharks, eagles, and more. There are plenty of tours to choose from, like First Chance Whale Watch out of Kennebunkport (firstchancewhalewatch.com), Atlantic Seal Cruises in Freeport (atlanticsealcruises.com), Hardy Boat Cruises in New Harbor (hardyboat.com), or Bar Harbor Whale Watch (barharborwhales.com). The Maine Wildlife Park in Gray (maine.gov/ifw/education/wildlifepark) is a refuge for animals that can no longer survive in the wild. See more than 30 different species here, like black bears, owls, moose, raccoons, turkeys, deer, and more!
TRAINS & TROLLEYS
Rail travel abounds in Maine, with passengers riding trains and trolleys for a variety of reasons. For a little history, visit the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport (trolleymuseum.org) or ride the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad in Portland (mainenarrowgauge.org). You can also explore different regions in Maine by narrated trolley, like Oli’s Trolley in Acadia National Park (olistrolley.com), Portland Discovery’s lighthouse tours (portlanddiscovery.com), and various companies in the southern beaches. Want to see more of the state? Hop on the Amtrak Downeaster (amtrakdowneaster.com)—multiple stops between Boston and Brunswick—and just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
FRUIT & BERRY PICKING
There is no activity in Maine yummier than fruit picking! Not only are they great to snack on (try to get at least some in the basket!), but Maine fruits also make delicious muffins, pies, pancakes, jams, and desserts. Strawberries are typically available in late June and early July, while blueberries and raspberries are at their peak in late June through August. Apple season is usually from August through October. For a list of places to pick organic or low spray fruit, visit thesunriseguide.com/pick-your-own-fruit/…and always call ahead for availability and public picking hours.
CATCH YOUR DINNER!
Sure, you can get seafood at nearly every restaurant and market in Maine, but it’s way more fun to get it right from the water! (Bonus? This will help your kids foster a deeper connection with their food and where it comes from.) Digging for clams in mud flats (the soft, wet sand at low tide) is fun for people of all ages…and can be done for free at all State Parks in Maine (maine.gov)—everywhere else requires a license. But clams can be tricky to catch, so we recommend you do some “how to” research first! Or climb aboard a real, working lobster boat to learn how lobsters are caught and pick your own crustacean. About a dozen lobster boats offer these tours, like Lucky Catch Cruises in Portland (luckycatch.com) or Lulu Lobster Boat Tours in Bar Harbor (lululobsterboat.com)—find them all at lobsterfrommaine.com. Prefer freshwater fish? You’ll need a fishing license, but you can catch trout, salmon, bass, and more from any of the thousands of lakes in Maine.
OUTDOOR MOVIES & MUSIC
As the sun sets on summer days, screens and stages pop up around the state; offering locals and visitors the opportunity to watch movies and enjoy live music in the great outdoors. Several towns in Maine have outdoor movie series and show classic favorites in public parks, in downtown city squares, even on parking garage rooftops! Another Maine tradition that’s a favorite for kids and grown-ups alike is a trip to one of the state’s drive-in theaters. Watch a new release summer flick from the comfort of your car at the Bridgton Drive-in, Saco Drive-in (thesacodrivein.com), Skowhegan Drive-in (skowhegandrivein.com), or Pride’s Corner Drive-in in Westbrook (pridescornerdrivein.com). Several towns in Maine offer daytime outdoor concerts for kids, while the L.L.Bean Summer in the Park free outdoor evening concerts in Freeport (llbean.com) are fun for the whole family.