When my husband and I were first planning our route for our new vanlife adventure, we decided to start with the cities we were most excited about. Growing up primarily on the west coast, the thought of going up to a place like Portland, Maine really intrigued us. We both had been to places like D.C, New York, Philly, Boston… But never up to Maine. We didn’t know what to expect about the city or the coast line over there, but we didn’t care. It became this magical land to us that we couldn’t wait to explore!
We made our way over to the east coast at the beginning of November, just in time to see the beautiful red, orange, and yellow leaves right before they fell. Timing was risky because we gambled with an early winter, but that was the only time that worked for us, so we took our chances. And it totally paid off!!
We fell in love instantly! We seriously did. The downtown Portland area had this quaint sealife feel to it. Beautiful brick buildings and cobblestone streets, a constant smell of the ocean, and some of the best food we have ever had! I was giddy the whole entire time because we actually made it… We actually arrived at a place neither of us have ever been to and we were making our vanlife dreams a reality. It makes me smile now just reliving our time there.
We were in Maine for about a week. We spent half of our time in Portland, and the other half driving up the coast and camping in Acadia National Park. I HIGHLY suggest spending some time both in the city and also nature, by driving the coast line. In the city you’re likely to overeat (at least we did) and are constantly surrounded by people and social media and the fast paced culture you are in. The opposite involves lots of driving and being in nature without cell service, which is just good for the soul. The Maine coast give you a healthy balance of both. Something we have tried to figure out during vanlife.
Most vanlifers choose to spend their time primarily at campsites and national parks and avoid as many big cities as possible. And as much as we love doing that too, we also have a desire to be in the big cities and experience their culture, eat their food, and drink as much local coffee and beer our stomachs can handle. Don’t get me wrong, doing vanlife in a city can be really difficult and very expensive, but I would hate to miss out on new experiences just because of finances. So we choose not to spend money on material things so that we can spend money in the cities. Plus, my creativity grows the most when I am in a city surrounded by art and culture and creative people. So for an average month, we try to spend at least 2 or 3 weeks camping and spending little to no money, and then immerse ourselves in a city for the other week or so.
After all that, this is my three day guide to Portland, Maine and the coastline, based on the trip we took.
Whenever I’m on vacation I am always planning where we are going to eat at every meal and the snacks and coffee in between. And vanlife is like one big vacation, which means I’m constantly thinking about food. So, when you first drive in I would go straight to Standard Bakery. It is the cutest little bakery facing the water. There is no place to sit inside, so just get one of their famous pastries, maybe browse through their cookbook that is on display, and go for a walk by the water. And they do have drip coffee there, but if you are in the mood for espresso, walk up a few blocks to Bard Coffee. We went to a few coffee shops in Portland, and they were the best, in my opinion. Enjoy your coffee and pastry (or pastries) and just walk the city.
The downtown Portland area isn’t very big, so you can easily walk everywhere. They have tons of cute local shops as well as touristy shops as well. For lunch or a snack go to Gilbert’s Chowder House and split a bowl of chowder. It’s an old restaurant on the water and they specialize in their chowder. Or if you want to get fancy with your chowder, go to East Ender. It’s a modern, quaint restaurant with tasty, elevated, and unique chowder. It will be more expensive but totally worth it! You won’t want to share this one. After chowder, go for a drive. The Maine coast is known for all their lighthouses, and there are a few just right outside the city. There is a light house right on the Southern Maine Community College campus called Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. It was my favorite lighthouse because you can walk on a long rocky path all the way to the lighthouse! Once you walk out to the lighthouse, you have a perfect view of the city! After that head south to the Portland Head Lighthouse. Tons of places to walk by the water and explore.
Once the sun lowers below the horizon, you witness the best lighting and such peacefulness that is unmatched. Once you’ve had your lighthouse fill, head back into town for dinner. There are a couple of places we went to dinner during the few days we were there, so take your pick:
There are tons of other restaurants in town, but those are the ones we chose. Since we visited in November, the nights got really cold, so walking around at night wasn’t really an option for us. But they have tons of bars and theaters to carry you through the night!
Wake up and enjoy breakfast. If you are a sweets person, go to Holy Donuts; they’ have amazing sweet potato donuts that are definitely worth a bite. Or if you prefer something savory, go to OhNo Cafe for a breakfast sandwich. It is a small hole-in-the-wall place that is half breakfast sandwich kitchen half beer store. So it might not look like a great place to eat, but trust me, their breakfast sandwich is totally worth it! We went twice while we were there. Yeah, it’s that good… and cheap which helps :)
Take a drive! Don’t drive the main highways. Get lost on the side roads instead. The drive up the coast is beautiful and you will want to stop at multiple places and cute coastal towns, but the main point of interest is in Prospect when you cross the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. Stop right before it and take pictures, and then head down to Fort Knox. My husband had a blast walking around Fort Knox and seeing the history of it all. It’s just a beautiful area to explore. And then cross the bridge and make your way to Acadia National Park! Now, if you don’t want to camp, there is a little town called Bar Harbor right before you enter the park that has beautiful hotels and fun shops and restaurants. Since we were there in the off season, nothing was really open which was a huge bummer. But that just means we will have to go back some day during their season! We went through Bar Harbor and drove around for a while before deciding to camp at Blackwoods Campground.
Mount Desert Island is a great place to explore, especially down by Otter Cove (and yes we did see otters!!!!) and Seal Harbor. And if you are up for a hike, go to Pemetic Mountain. It is difficult, but the views from the top are totally worth it! And I think you can drive up close to the top so you don’t have to hike the difficult part. If you are still in the exploring mood, head to the western side of the park and go to one of the more famous lighthouses, Bass Harbor Head Light. You can’t hike up to it, but you can hike to the side of it, just enough to get a good picture. But the view of the lighthouse and the water is pretty amazing. It is a little drive to get there, but you will be happy you did. And then crash for the night!
Wake up and make breakfast. If you camped, our go-to breakfast is Kodiak Cakes pancakes. You can buy it at Costco or Target. They are so easy to make and are actually pretty good for you!!! Devour those pancakes with some coffee and you are good to go. And while you make your way back to Portland, take roads you didn’t take on the way up and see new towns or lighthouses you didn’t see the first time. Take your time and really soak it all in.
Once you get back to Portland, go to another food place that you didn’t get to go to before. A couple of other great places that I were told were good but we never got a chance to eat at are: Central Provisions, Eventide, & The Honey Paw. But seriously, Portland has such a great food and drink scene that you can’t go wrong. And with everything in walking distance, it makes it so much easier to experience everything! We tried to go to several breweries at night, but they all close early, like 2 or 3 in the afternoon. So take that into consideration!
That is my long three day plan of the Maine coast for you all! But if there is anything we have learned with vanlife, it’s go with the flow. Seriously, just walk around and observe. See where people are eating and hanging out and looking at art and just try it out! You can research forever on the best places to eat or what to do in a certain town, but that gets tiring. Trust me, I do it all the time with vanlife. So just enjoy where you are at without the research. Walk around, talk to locals and ask what their favorite thing to do in the city is, check out bulletin boards at coffee shops and restaurants to find out what event is happening that night, or just sit and people watch. Enjoy yourself and the short time you have in a new and exciting city.
Hi! My name is Kat and I am a wedding and travel photographer based out of everywhere! My husband and I are currently doing the vanlife and making our way all throughout the United States in our van named Olive. I travel for photos!