October adventures in ME, NH and VT
May 30, 2013 9:53 PM   Subscribe

My brother-in-law will be getting married at the outdoor chapel in Camden, ME in mid-October. Yes, the idea of an outdoor wedding along the seacost of Maine in autumn strikes me as a less-than-ideal plan, but that's a different subject altogether. I will have two weeks for visiting northern New England, so an itinerary of sorts needs developing. And here's where YOU come in!

I realize that, following closely on the heels on C'est la D.C.'s question about sites to see in northern New England, that what I'm asking may sound like a copycat scenario. The length of the trip, plus when I'll be doing it, guarantees different answers will be provided.

My vacation will take place roughly between Columbus Day and Halloween, so if I wanted to, I could spend an average of five days in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Or I could disperse them in a different way. Regardless of how I divide up the time, I will need to get some input regarding the following:

-Lodging. Guidebooks are helpful here, but they can't cover everything. Additionally, since I'll be there during peak leaf-peeing season, I will need to economize lodging but not to the point where I'd be better off sleeping at a rest stop. My wife and I have enjoyed staying at B&B's while we are on vacation, but I bet that many of them are booked solid for the month of October.

-Dining. Not everything can be at the level of the NECI, of course. Guidebooks also help here, but hearing a local perspective would be even better.

-Booze. A college friend of mine, who currently lives in Connecticut, recently went on a beer tour of Vermont--lucky SOB. Supposedly, VT knows a thing or four about making good beer. I don't want to be limited to just beer, so wineries and even distilleries can be on the list. I believe there's a place in Vermont that makes iced apple cider, so I'll be curious to find out more about that.

-Driving. My wife is originally from southern New Hampshire (a suburb of Nashua), so she has more familiarity with the conditions that the country backroads can throw at you. Even with her historical knowledge, there will still be things that I don't encounter in the Midwest--like moose. Or bear. Or 85-year-olds spending 30 minutes photographing a bright red maple leaf. Some of what I mentioned are based on stereotypes; others are based on reality. What am I missing here?

-Libraries and state capitals. Finally, these two. It's been something of a tradition for us to visit the capital of a state we've never seen before. The wife definitely knows Concord quite well (including knowledge about the adult toy store that's next door to the NH GOP headquarters), but she hasn't been in Montpelier in years, and Augusta is new territory for her. Are there any particular highlights that neither of us should miss?

As for libraries, this also becomes something of a tradition on our tours, particularly if we're in a college town. The wife is a librarian, so she has professional curiosity to see what goes on in these establishments. Middlebury is on the list, mainly because I've heard more than one person from New England compare this school's town to where I went to college. Oh, and Castleton State College is also on the list because of an MST3K episode. Any other college or town libraries worth seeking out?
posted by stannate to Travel & Transportation around Comara, Australia (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a Mainer. I think you can make Augusta a brief visit. There isn't much going on there.

If you can make it work, drive inland after the Camden wedding en route to Vermont. Around the Dover-Foxcroft area, there are lovely hiking trails (part of the Adirondack trail), decent b&bs, and lovely, inexpensive restaurants. The roads are smaller, but as long as you drive during the day you shouldn't worry about moose or deer.
posted by miss tea at 3:17 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's true there are more moose and bears in Maine than in the midwest, but it's not as though the state is crawling with them. During the time when I lived in Maine, I only once saw a moose (from afar) and it was not in the road.

Nthing that Augusta is dull. If you like LLBean, you should go to the Freeport outlet. Portland, ME has Allagash Brewery and I'm fairly sure they have tours. Susan's Fish and Chips is also in Portland and it is amazing. Also, if you're up in New England around Halloween, make a day trip down to Salem, MA and learn about the witch trials!

Regarding B&Bs, figure out where you are planning to go first and then call around. I'm sure there will be something. Prime tourist season in New England is during the summer, before the air gets crisp and cool. There should definitely be a few openings in October.
posted by donut_princess at 4:51 AM on May 31, 2013

I know that chapel, sounds lovely.

A bit north of Camden is Belfast, which has a really great vegetarian restaurant Chases Daily.
posted by shothotbot at 5:25 AM on May 31, 2013

Booze. In Vermont, there is a boutique distillery, Caledonia Spirits and Winery, with a great gin.

Visiting Portland, Maine lets you tour breweries and eat at fantastic restaurants, in addition to being generally a wonderful place to visit. But, it too is on the coast, which maybe isn't what you want.

One thing to consider is driving across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont along Route 2. It will take you from a bit north of Camden west to Burlington. You go north of the notches, through White Mountain National Forest in Maine and New Hampshire. This is a beautiful way to arrive at Burlington, with good moose sighting opportunities along the way.
posted by jilloftrades at 5:35 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any other college or town libraries worth seeking out?

I've been to the majority of Vermont's public libraries and there are a lot of gems. Without thinking of how this would all fold in to a road trip or anything else, here are some suggestions.

- St Johnsbury Atheneum - this is a classic place and despite the recent political issues, it's an amazing building with an amazing attached art gallery. You can go see it and then walk a bit up the road and go to the Fairbanks Museum which is one of a kind, one of those old museums with a passenger pigeon in a glass case and art that people made out of bugs. If the Dog Chapel is still open and you are dog lovers, go there.
- State Library (109 state st, you have to go into the building and sign in put it's open to the public) - this is not that fancy but if you're in Montpelier and want a nice place to chill and check email it's worth a visit. They don't get a lot of foot traffic (though it is open to the public) and the librarians there have some neat stuff that they would probably show you if you express interest in VT history.
- State Library in Maine is in Augusta and is neat looking building (and folks there are very nice) I'm not sure I would make a special trip, but it's got comfy hangout-and-wifi space. I've never been to the NH state library.
- UVM and Dartmouth special collections (There is a MeFite who works at Dartmouth though not in special collections)
- The Haskell Free Library and Opera House literally straddles the US/Canada border and there is a line through the middle of it and it's a lovely place with friendly staff. A bit out of the way, worth a visit.
- I'm fond of the Brooks Library in Brattleboro, they have a neat collection of art and Jerry Carbone is the director and a wonderful guy who would give you a tour if he was around.

I'm sure there are many more but those are my picks. In terms of lodging, I'd look into AirBnB as an alternative to hotel/motel stuff. It is high season so it makes sense to make reservations early which is a bit of a bummer if you want to freewheel it a little. You could even look into Couchsurfing but that may be too much like sleeping in your car at a rest stop.

As far as driving, you should be fine, People will be going slowly a lot, so build in a lot of time. During dawn/dusk hours be careful to heed moose signs and don't outdrive your headlights but otherwise you should be okay. The big thing about moose is that they can just SIT in the road and not move (and are giant) so you need to watch out and be aware. I saw a moose last week, very exciting. I also second the Route 2 advice - you can cut across some lovely areas that are pretty, full of foliage and have some nice stuff to see along the way. Feel free to let me know if I can help further, I live in Randolph VT, right in the middle of the state, and Autumn is a joy every year.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

there will still be things that I don't encounter in the Midwest--like moose.

Yes, this is a real thing in Maine and NH. I totalled a truck and have had at least three other close calls with moose while driving at night in New Hampshire. By "close call" I mean "moose crossing the road within 50 feet in front of me." My wife was in another accident with a moose. Granted, I have probably driven at night in the mountains of NH more than most, but it's a real thing. Drive slow, be alert, use high beams when you can, and if a car is coming at you slow down and try not to get blinded.

It's not like there's a moose every ten feet but there are sections of road (I'm looking at you, Rt. 16 in Pinkham Notch) where I have never not seen a moose and due to their body shape, size, and color they are very hard to see when they are in the road in front you.

Most of the danger would be on dark roads through the mountains in Northern NH and Maine. You'll probably be fine on the highways and in the southern parts of those states. You'll probably be fine everywhere, but be alert.

During the day the biggest hazard is tourists stopping quickly to photograph a moose.

Mid-October might be just past the foliage season so lodging options might be plentiful.
posted by bondcliff at 6:16 AM on May 31, 2013

bondcliff is right on with his moose talk. One other driving tip I'd offer is that cops in small towns in New England are serious about their speed limits. It will be 40-50 mph between towns and then drops to 25-30 as you pass through; make sure you slow down as you pass through.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:58 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also I would be remiss if I did not suggest going and checking out the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge and the hiking on Mt. Moosilauke. They may be closed or closing in mid-October so I'd call before I went up there.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:00 AM on May 31, 2013

There is some very good, obscure beer in Vermont.

If you're in for a bit of an adventure, check out Hill Farmdstead. It's pretty fantastic, am relatively hard to find. I think the Splendid Table did a segment on them. Very good stuff.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:49 AM on May 31, 2013

+1 for Caledonia Spirits. Barr Hill Gin.
posted by slateyness at 7:51 AM on May 31, 2013

Portland (Maine) has The Great Lost Bear, one of the best beer joints in the country, with many beers on draft, many more in bottles and cans with good food, albeit not cuisine. Also Novare Res, ditto, and a very lively brewing scene. Portland is a noted foodie town, see this recent thread, as well as Yelp and your favorite travel sites.

Portland has a lovely harbor with active shipping, and a number of islands with year-round residents. It's fun to take a ferry (don't take the car) 20 minutes to Peaks or Diamond Island(takes longer), have a pleasant dinner, and catch the ferry back.

October is a lovely time to visit Maine and New England and is usually temperate, but bring some warm clothes, as the weather can be unpredictable.

There's a lot of hiking.
State Visitor Site outdoor_recreation_sports_adventure/hiking_walking
If you're a good hiker, consider climbing Katahdin. It's the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and well worth the time. If it's your 1st visit to Maine, I strongly recommend visiting Acadia National Park. Beautiful, lots of trails, and Bar Harbor and the island have tons of B&Bs.

Leaf-peeping. Yeah, it's a thing, but still less crowded than summer, so there are still places to book, though I have no specific recommendations. There are a lot of bus tours, but they tend to be well planned, and hit routine spots, so once you're on a trail, any geezers may be in as good shape as you, and pleasant to share trails with. There's a deservedly popular driving loop on the Kancamagus Highway that gets a fair amount of traffic, but is worth it, esp. on a weekday. North Conway, NH, is a popular starting-off place for hiking, but the town itself can have fairly ridiculous traffic.

Libraries. Interesting question. The USM Library, in Portland, hosts the Osher Map Library, a world-class collection of maps. The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association hosts a small private library that's kind of cool, in downtown Portland.
posted by theora55 at 7:51 AM on May 31, 2013

If you take 17W out of Camden toward Augusta, that is a lovely drive through the hills and small lakes. Union is on the way, and has two wineries:

Sweetgrass Farm, which also produces a really nice gin called Back River, and Savage Oakes. Since many facilities are seasonal around here, definitely call ahead to see if they will be open that time of year.

Augusta does have an older downtown area, but true, there is not a lot going on there, except the Riverfront BBQ Grill, pretty good food (and you can get a taste of the Back River Gin if you don't stop at the winery). It might be fun to drive through downtown Hallowell after visiting the capitol. There are a couple of places to park and look at the Kennebec, lots of shops. Then you can keep going south a few minutes and get on the highway south to Portland.

I'd be more worried about wild turkey and deer than moose that time of year. If you see a turkey, slow down and look for more (same with deer). I've seen turkey on 95, and sometimes a big eagle sitting by a road kill, hawks, etc. But yeah, be cautious at dawn and dusk, same as you would on any country road at night.

Nthing the Kancamagus Highway, that is a nice drive with great views. There are many pull-offs/overlooks, so no one will be blocking your way (but gas up before you head out, and bring a sandwich and water).

If you really want to do some hardcore Maine (and New England) wine and food tastings, get tickets for Harvest on the Harbor, which takes place in Portland between Oct. 23-26 this year. It is basically non stop walking under tents and tasting chocolates and wine. Last time I was there, they had a maple syrup liquor, but it was not sweet, it was distilled like whiskey. They also had a pear brandy (from Bartlett up North), all kinds of demos, and it's really an event.

I have never stayed in any hotels or B&B's around here, but here is a guide. If you click on the hotel link, for instance, there is a handy chart telling you price ranges, etc.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:39 AM on May 31, 2013

+1 on the Haskell Free Library and Opera House.
+1 on the Kancamagus Highway (from the post you linked).
+1 on US Route 2.
+1 on Acadia National Park (I think that was in your linked post).

I'm sure if you have any interest in beer, you've been to the Red Hook Brewery in Portsmouth, though you're probably looking for less mainstream stuff.

As for moose... the only moose on the road I ever saw -- and I drove a lot up in northern NH and Maine -- was in Maine on Route 15 up by the (appropriately named) Moosehead Lake. Then again I didn't often drive at night.

The section of US Route 3 from Pittsburg, NH to the Canadian border has some nice lakes, but for foliage you'll want to stay a little further south in October.

Driving aimlessly was a bit of a hobby of mine, particularly in the early 2000s when I lived in New England, gas cost a lot less, and I had far less debt. I suggest you try to find copies of Road Trip USA: New England, Maine's Most Scenic Roads, and New Hampshire's Most Scenic Roads. There are some great drives in those books (and interesting attractions in the case of Road Trip USA -- that is how I found out about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House).
posted by tckma at 11:55 AM on May 31, 2013

Unfortunately, the GOP headquarters is now on the other end of Main St. from Thorne's (the adult toy store). :-(

For NH drives, I'd nth the Kancamangus Hwy and recommend that you take it slow and stop for hikes. Also, the Mt. Washington Auto Road is a wonderful mix of harrowing, beautiful, and fun.

As far as general driving advice goes: Yes, there are moose. Be alert - especially at dawn and dusk. [And on the topic of moose, Fall is a great time to be especially wary of approaching a bull moose, as they tend to be aggressively seeking mates and other bulls to fight over mates with at that time of year, so don't hop out of the car for a better picture of the great big fella' with the enormous antlers. Nthing anyone who already pointed out that most of your moose encounters in NH are going to happen in the upper half of the state, although that's not a hard and fast rule.] Another quirk of Northern New England driving as it compares to Midwestern driving is that the highways are almost all 2 lanes - as opposed to 4. The locals have developed a handy dandy way of dealing with this: They pass on the shoulder. So you may be patiently stopped behind someone who is waiting to turn left and suddenly realize that an entire caravan of cars is bumping along in the gravel beside the road to your right without even slowing down.

There are some good microbreweries in NH, too (the link is to a map of 'em on the state's website).

For NH dining, the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester is always a good place to experience - when I went I sat at the stool that Sarah Silverman used when she visited, which was kinda neat. Also, in Concord, The Common Man restaurant and The Barley House are great. If you go to the Barley House, you've got to get the Hangover Burger, which, if you're doing the breweries right, will work out nicely. Arnie's Place in Concord is a great BBQ place/Ice cream stand that's worth a stop if you find yourself homesick for some good pulled pork or ribs. They have Cruise Nights on Tuesdays where people bring their antique cars and hot rods. Another restaurant that I've enjoyed is Moat Mountain (which brews its own beer) in North Conway. I wouldn't make a special trip or anything, but if you're in the area, it's definitely the place to stop.

When you get over to Vermont, you could visit Simon Pearce Glass in Windsor and watch the artisans blowing the glass. October being good apple picking time, I'd recommend Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, VT or Carter Hill Orchards, which also has some hiking trails, in Concord, NH - depending upon where you are when the craving for a crisp, sweet apple hits you.

Don't forget to pack a good jacket if you're wanting to spend any time outside your car while you're in the mountains.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 12:13 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Something else that occurred to me: if you are looking for cheap eats, especially during the day, look for variety stores along the way. For instance, this may or may not play into your itinerary, but say you were coming out of Portland to N. Conway, one of the roads you could take is 302. 113 is a more direct route, but 302 goes past Sebago Lake and up to Bridgton and it's also a pretty drive.

There's a variety place called Corsetti's along the way that has really great food. Many gas stations/variety stores have a full menu of cold and hot subs and sandwiches, breakfast pizzas, etc. Plus if you take 302, you will go past the hubcap guy's place, an astounding array of silver hubcaps everywhere. Windham has a discount store called Levinski's that has really annoying commercials, but you can get a Dickie's hoodie on the cheap there.

If you do decide to drive through Hallowell (which is about 5 minutes south of the Capitol building), just outside of the downtown shop area, on the right is Hallowell Seafood and Produce. Lobster rolls, jams and jellies, etc. The guys that run the shop are a hoot and so polite and funny it's scary. You almost have to stop just to talk to them.

Also, if you want to try a beer but are not sure about buying a six pack, most stores let you buy one or two (unless they have a sign on the cooler asking you not to split six packs).

One last thing to be aware of: you may not get cell phone reception away from cities, so make any calls where you do have coverage and be prepared to lose it in the country. But, hey, it's a vacation.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:45 PM on May 31, 2013

Thank you to everyone who responded. There are so many great ideas here, I'm glad that I will have 4 months to sort them all out!
posted by stannate at 12:35 PM on June 2, 2013

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