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Where to Spend an Off-Season, Crowd-Free Weekend in Maine

Noe DeWitt/Courtesy White Barn Inn

It’s amazing how quickly the New England landscape changes once you drive over the Maine winter border. Heading north on Route 95 through New Hampshire, the suburban sprawl and wide, sandy beaches dissipate into remote hamlets, enormous swathes of forest, and rugged Atlantic shoreline. In the peak summer (and even shoulder fall) months, this stretch of highway essentially turns into a parking lot of beachgoers and leaf-peeping weekenders clamoring their way north for a city break. But in the cold winter months? You can sail along from Boston to the Maine border in 60 minutes flat.

While summer and fall are still very much peak tourism season for coastal Maine, insiders have long maintained that a visit to the Pine Tree State is rewarding at any time of year. One could argue that the colder months are when the state really feels most like itself—with hygge-tastic fireside vibes, amazingly fresh seafood plucked straight from those chilly Gulf of Maine waters, and plenty of outdoor (and indoor) activities. Even in the winter months, you’ll find that this state is simply teeming with small businesses to explore—funky boutique hotels, fabulous restaurants, and unique shops, all run by extremely passionate people with interesting stories to tell.

In fact, the state of Maine is so vast that you could come back again and again to have a different experience each time: Skiers know and love the inland mountains like Sugarloaf and Sunday River, and the state also has thriving cross-country skiing and snowmobiling scenes. But if you’re looking for a no-fuss, short-notice, cozy weekend road trip, you’ll find that coastal Maine, in the winter without the Disneyland-like throngs, really is, as the state’s slogan implies, “the way life should be.” Here’s how to see Maine in winter if you want to pack some of the state's best things to do in a colorful getaway, from the state's top to bottom.

Camden, with its castelike Norumbega Inn, no longer shuts down in winter months in the way that it used to.
Camden, with its castelike Norumbega Inn, no longer shuts down in winter months in the way that it used to.
Courtesy Norumbega Inn

Peak Maine: Mid-coast's quiet luxury

The beautiful thing about Maine is that even Mainers disagree on where certain things are. “Mid-Coast,” for example, is basically everything along the shoreline between Portland and Mount Desert Island, but some would say it’s technically between Freeport and Ellsworth—or Bath and Ellsworth. Or Bath and Mount Desert. (You get the idea.) But what Mainers will absolutely agree on is that this area that once upon a time truly shut down for the winter months simply doesn't any more.

A great example of this lies in Camden, where the historic and castlelike Norumbega Inn completed a grand renovation last year to reopen as an elegantly stylish year-round hotel under new ownership. This part of the state is a beautiful tableau of rugged beauty this time of year, with dramatic, rocky shorelines, charming towns straight out of a Hallmark movie, and all with surprisingly excellent Thai (Long Grain) and Costa Rican/Caribbean (Costa Media) food along the way—both of which taste extra satisfying in the colder months. If you’re a foodie, take a detour slightly inland to the Alna Store, a 2024 national James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant—chef Devin Dearden switches up the menu drastically every two weeks, pivoting from Korean influences to Mexican to Basque.

In nearby Wiscasset, wine shop In A Silent Way curates a mix of intriguing and hard-to-find wines, and invites guests to linger for a while at the wine bar over a menu of seasonal small plates. They serve their wines using high-quality hand-blown crystal glasses—a surprisingly refined touch in an otherwise rugged locale, and one that completely embodies the vibe of what Mid-Coast Maine is becoming.

This area is replete with outdoor activities. Non-skiers, rejoice: the Camden Snow Bowl offers rip-roaring tobogganing for just $10 an hour. And for an unexpected yet quintessentially Maine experience, consider booking a rowing class with DoryWoman Rowing, which takes guests onto Belfast Bay in traditional wooden dories all year-round (pending the weather, of course).

Before turning back to head home, budget some time to pass through Freeport. It’s home to the L.L.Bean flagship (the brand’s only store open 24 hours), as well as the Freeport Conservation Trust Trails, a swathe of 1,500 acres open to the public for hiking and snowshoeing. It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and breathe in that crisp coastal air before the drive back.

2023 James Beard Award Semifinalist Sur Lie serves up international-infused American tapas in Portland.

Sur Lie Restaurant

2023 James Beard Award Semifinalist Sur Lie serves up international-infused American tapas in Portland.
Dawson Renaud/Courtesy Sur Lie

A bustling hospitality scene as hot as ever: Portland

The big scuttlebutt in Portland these days? The impending April opening of The Longfellow Hotel—the first independent, full-service boutique hotel to open there in nearly twenty years. Its new spa, in particular, will be a welcome addition to the city’s hotel scene. If you can’t wait until spring, both The Francis and Blind Tiger offer the renovated Victorian vibes that Portland’s West Side neighborhoods are known for (Blind Tiger is technically two locations close by each other, and both are equally fantastic). But don’t just count on boutique hotels for the fun—the new Canopy Hilton Waterfront is a fantastic way to redeem some Hilton Honors points, and has a stellar restaurant and an enclosed rooftop bar with excellent views of downtown and the water.

Yes, Maine is all about the rural retreats and rugged landscapes—but spending a night or two in the center of the action in downtown Portland is still very much worth it this time of year to stay within a stone’s throw of all the city’s latest and greatest food and drink. It’s hard to go wrong in this town, but for a venerable shortlist: 2023 James Beard Award Seminfinalist Sur Lie for international-infused American tapas; TWELVE from executive chef Colin Wyatt, formerly of Eleven Madison Park, for the secret (read: off-menu) off-season-only burger; popular food truck-turned-restaurant Quanta Basa's sourdough Neapolitan pizza; natural wines and snacks at Lambs; indulgent low-dose chef-created edibles from female-owned Pot + Pan.

From March through May, White Barn Inn will offer Farmsteader Dinners—within the property's titular barn—honoring Maine's agrarian families and utilizing local ingredients.
From March through May, White Barn Inn will offer Farmsteader Dinners—within the property's titular barn—honoring Maine's agrarian families and utilizing local ingredients.
Noe DeWitt/Courtesy White Barn Inn
The property has also partnered with tony outerwear company Barbour for an in-house borrowing closet perfect for braving Maine winters.
The property has also partnered with tony outerwear company Barbour for an in-house borrowing closet perfect for braving Maine winters.
Noe DeWitt/Courtesy White Barn Inn

Best for off-peak deals at luxury hotels: Maine's South Coast

While there are still a number of hotels (especially along the coast) that close seasonally in Maine, a number stay open year-round, and offer plenty of promotions and events to entice visitors to make the journey north. In Kennebunkport, the tony White Barn Inn, Auberge Resorts Collection following in the footsteps of Cape Cod’s Wequassett Resort & Golf Club has partnered with outerwear company Barbour for an in-house borrowing closet; simply call ahead with your sizing for a warm new coat to borrow (or perhaps buy) on those bracing winter walks, which will be waiting in your room. March through May, the Inn will also be offering Farmsteader Dinners in its titular 150-year-old barn, honoring the tradition of Maine’s agrarian families coming together after a long day of working the land. The dinners will highlight local farms, purveyors, beermakers, and other culinary delights. And in May, on the cusp of peak season, White Barn Inn will welcome iconic Montreal restaurant Joe Beef for an “immersive culinary weekend” pop up.

Also in Kennebunkport, over on the oceanfront overlooking Walker’s Point (also known as the Bush family compound), the Cape Arundel Inn & Resort offers a “Timberland Winter Wardrobe” stay package: $969 plus taxes and fees gets a two-night stay, access to a custom Timberland closet to raid some hiking boots and outerwear to bring home, a guided outdoor hike or snowshoe with a Registered Maine Guide, a round of cocktails upon your return, and a three-course dinner for two at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Ocean.

A few towns southward, the iconic Cliff House Maine, which has welcomed guests since 1872, has truly mastered the art of staying busy even in the off season. This winter, the resort offers a “Snow Globe” outdoor dining experience, as well as resident artist–taught painting classes, performances by visiting Broadway talent, and more. Wherever you stay, you can bet on the nightlies being significantly discounted from steep peak-summer rates.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler