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Maine in Autumn

See the Autumn Leaves Change in Maine

by Susan McKee

Everybody goes to Vermont or New Hampshire to "leaf peep" in the fall - so I headed to Maine instead.

My reward? Traffic-free highways and lots of autumn color, plus a chance to wander through small towns filled with locally owned shops whose owners actually have time to chat with their customers.

Journeys are easier to plan with a goal in mind, so I more or less followed the Kennebec River valley, retracing the steps of Benedict Arnold. You remember him, right? What we don't remember from in our American history classes is that Arnold once was a well-regarded general on the side of the Revolutionaries -- before having his heart captured by his second wife, an ardent Loyalist half his age.

General Arnold led a daring attack on the British Québec in 1775, dragging men and supplies through a Maine winter in an effort to wrest eastern Canada from the crown. If his surprise had been successful, the newly formed United States would have included the Maritime Provinces and maybe even Québec itself.

I made stops at the various forts and museums along the way to learn why the expedition failed (in short: the weather was brutal, and by the time he made it all the way north, half his forces had died or deserted.).

A couple of towns along my route from Augusta to Jackman (just shy of the Québec border) stand out.

Augusta, the sleepy state capitol, has a compact state museum with lots to see (my favorite was the "Made in Maine" exhibit highlighting 19th century manufacturing). Old Fort Western, a National Historic Landmark, is America's oldest surviving wooden fort (it hasn't seen action since Colonial times).

Skowhegan, a personal favorite just because of the name, was in an uproar when I drove through - because HBO was filming a movie there. Helen Hunt, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were the star-power for "Empire Falls," based on the book of the same name.

Because of its location on the Kennebec near the head of the tide, Hallowell (founded in the 1770s) was an early Colonial trading station. In the 19th Century, it grew into a major shipping port and cultural center, bustling with businesses, including a sawmill, iron works and icehouse. Now the "smallest city in Maine" with a population around 2,500, it is recasting itself into one of those quaint shopping towns. This is the kind of place that all the commerce is in a compact area that's been designated a National Historic District. The shops, coffeehouses, bars, galleries and bookstores are locally owned, and there are more antique stores than I could count.

The shopkeepers even have time for fun. All the merchants on the three-block-long main street were putting up Halloween decorations, getting ready for a citywide contest for the best scarecrows when I was there last year.

The thought of whitewater rafting gives me the shakes, so instead I sent my traveling companions down the Kennebec River with Northern Outdoors - and went hiking in the woods instead.

From its source at Moosehead Lake, the Kennebec River carves its way through a deep, rock-walled gorge on a breathtaking 12-mile journey to The Forks. Along the route participants conquer rapids named the Three Sisters, Alleyway, and Magic Falls.

IF YOU GO

The Maine Department of Conservation posts its weekly reports on foliage conditions throughout the state on the Internet www.state.me.us/doc/foliage You also can call the foliage hotline for a report during that time period; dial 1-800-777-0317.

Other good places for information on Maine are the Office of Tourism www.visitmaine.com or call 1-888-624-6345 and Maine Tourism Association www.mainetourism.com or call 1-207-623-0363).

For Kennebec Valley information, www.kennebecvalley.org or call 1-800-393-8629.

If you want to go rafting with Northern Outdoors, call 1-800-765-7238 or log onto www.northernoutdoors.com

The Hallowell Area Board of Trade is a great source for local antique shops and restaurant listings. Visit them online at www.hallowell.org

The Maine State Museum is located in the State Capitol Complex on State Street in Augusta. Go to www.state.me.us/museum or call 1-207-287-2301

I had a terrific seafood dinner at Wings Hill Inn in Belgrade Lakes. Next time I think I want to plan to spend the night there and sample one of their legendary breakfasts as well. Log onto www.wingshillinn.com or call 1-866-495-2400.

My constant companion on my trip to Maine was a copy of Following Their Footsteps: A Travel Guide & History of the 1775 Secret Expedition to Capture Quebec by Stephen Clark (Clark Books, 2003). It includes great driving maps along with more history than even I had the energy to digest..

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