10 Best Natural Harbors in Maine
Maine’s coastline stretches some 3500 miles. It isn’t surprising that along that length are hidden coves or even larger bodies of water that provide perfect natural harbors. Some, like Portland, have been built up, citified, but still retain their natural beauty. Others, like Bar Harbor offer moorings, restaurants and shops. Then there are the hidden gems that you really have to work to find or maybe get a hint from a helpful local. Boat rental and sporting outfits offer maps and charts. Sites like U.S. Harbors (usharbors.com) provide tide and navigation information. These are ten of the best natural harbors, some large, some small, all quintessentially Maine.
1. Portland Harbor
Portland Harbor is Maine’s largest and busiest port. Though the skyline is framed with container docks, marinas and high-rise hotels, this was not always the case. The harbor itself is a natural, deepwater basin, with a curved topography that welcomes and protects ships. It is part of Casco Bay, sitting at the entrance to the Fore River. First settled in 1633 and known as Casco, the harbor became the base for a fishing fleet, and Portland Harbor still is.
This is a busy city harbor, so swimming is not really on the list of things to do. But you can board any number of charter boats to do some whale watching, or to see the many lighthouses on the Maine Coast. Fishing is also a big business. Portland lets you combine a city-side vacation with all the luxury that entails, with a scenic waterfront location where you can explore nature and get a little wet if you wish.
Tides average eight to ten feet and the harbor remains open year round, with few exceptions. Cruise ships, container vessels, vintage sailing ships and private yachts have all found a home at Portland Harbor.
2. Bar Harbor
The town of Bar Harbor sits on Frenchman’s Bay. This is the place where you can board a lobster boat named Lulu and learn about Lobster Boxing, rent a kayak and paddle along the coast or take a hike through Acadia National Park. Bar Harbor is on Mount Desert Island, a short hop from the mainland in the Downeast & Acadia Region.
The docks are suitable for yachts and smaller boats and there is the possibility of ice-over near shore. Most visitors head here for the summer months. The harbor is deep enough to allow cruise ships to visit, dropping anchor just offshore. High tides average eight to ten feet.
Restaurants, hotels, shops, whale watching tours or fishing charters, its all here, mostly on the north-eastern end of the island.
3. Boothbay Harbor
Located in Lincoln County, Boothbay Harbor is a draw for yachtsmen and fishermen. Originally called Townsend by Colonel David Dunbar in 1730, the small town thrived because of its oversized deepwater, protected harbor. In 1779, the American naval fleet gathered in Boothbay Harbor before challenging the British at the battle of Castine. It wasn’t until 1889 that the name was changed, but by then it had developed a reputation of a safe harbor. At times of bad weather, the channel could hold between 400 and 500 ships.
High tides also run between eight to ten feet, with few exceptions. Ice-out is possible, but only along the shoreline if at all. Fishing boats, whale watching tours, lighthouse tours and overnight cruises leave from Boothbay Harbor. While ashore visitors can take in the Maine State Aquarium, the Lobster Dock and the Boothbay Harbor Opera House. The Carousel Marina offers full boat services, a restaurant and a yacht club.
4. Rockport Harbor
Rockport Harbor is a finger of water that sits south of Camden on West Penobscot Bay. When it was settled in 1739, the town of Rockport was actually called Goose River Village. The harbor is more like a long, tapering river and in summer there are almost more boats anchored off shore than at the docks. This was once a working fisherman’s harbor, but today it mostly sees pleasure boats. High tides range from eight to eleven feet. Icing along the shoreline is possible.
Alongside the harbor is Rockport Marine Park, which has a boat ramp, floats, picnic areas and plenty of lush lawn in the summer. Fishing is allowed from the Harbor Master’s Dock. The Timberwind, a 70-foot windjammer sails out of this port, offering three and four day coastal cruises. The area is considered an art colony of sorts, so there are plenty of arts and crafts boutiques in town.
5. Camden Harbor
Camden Harbor is a neighbor of Rockport, also off West Penobscot Bay. At one time the two municipalities were one, but they split up over a dispute about building a bridge. Camden Harbor is also the domain of pleasure boats and yachts. The Camden Yacht Club, founded in 1926, host cruises and races throughout the summer. Adult and youth rowing and sailing lessons are offered. The club offers a boat launch and dock space for day or overnight visitors, both available to the public for a nightly fee. The Curtis Island Lighthouse guards the entrance to Camden Harbor, accessible only by boat or kayak. Camden Hills State Park is to the north.
6. Winter Harbor
Located almost across from Bar Harbor in Hancock County, Winter Harbor is surrounded by land on three sides. It is also completely hidden from its neighbors, making this the perfect place to put a World War II communications center. Southwest of the harbor is Grindstone Neck, a summer colony including a yacht club, golf course, tennis club and hiking trails.
The Winter Island Yacht Club does offer boat slips for rent, but there is also the Winter Harbor Town Wharf and the Winter Harbor Marina. Moorings are also available in the harbor itself. Winter Harbor Lighthouse sits on nearby Mark Island. Winter Harbor is also on the Schoodic Peninsula, which is home to part of Acadia National Park.
7. The Mud Hole – Great Wass Island
This is the harbor for the adventurous. It sits 25 miles east of Mount Desert Island and is a quiet cove where most times you will be the only boat at anchor. It has a narrow, tricky entrance which will close off at low tide, but inside the cove is 16 feet of water to anchor in. It is quiet, tree rimmed and well protected from storms. Swim to shore or paddle over in a dingy or kayak, then go for long hikes on the Great Wass Island trails. Since there are no lights, the stars come out in all their glory. Just make sure you have a tide chart with you, but then again, you may not mind getting stuck.
8. Cutler Harbor
Named after an early settler, Joseph Cutler, both the town and Cutler Harbor are in Washington County. The harbor itself is a perfect cup shape right off the Little River. The river looks more like a long tapered bay and the topography makes Cutler Harbor a safe haven for sail and motor boats. Nearby is the Little River Light, and Grand Manan Island. To the south, reachable by boat, is Cross Island National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of Machias Bay. Moorings are offshore. Hike the Bold Coast Trails, five minutes from downtown, camp in the wilderness or take a cruise to Campobello Island, one time summer home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
9. Kennebunkport – Cape Porpoise
Long before Kennebunkport became the Bush family home, Captain John Smith found a quiet cove surrounded by islands and named it Cape Porpoise. That was back in 1620. Today, protected by Goat Island Light, Cape Porpoise is home to fishing and sailing boats. The entrance to the harbor is between Folly and Goat Islands. The water is fairly deep. In 1782 an English brig and the Hammond, a schooner, met in mid harbor. The brig was trying to steal one of the American ships, but the Hammond stopped her by pushing her into the shoreline. Restaurants offering lobster in everyway imaginable are available in Cape Porpoise and Kennebunkport is just a few miles down the road. To the northeast is the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, offer hiking trails and countless animal species to find.
10. Isle au Haut
Sitting some ten miles south of Deer Isle and the town of Stonington is a rather smallish island with a high profile. The highest point is 556 feet tall, quite the view as you come up on a sail or motor boat. Samuel Champlain himself named this isle that is now home to less than 100 full-time residents. The harbor is on the north-western edge of the island, fronted by the main roadway housing a tiny post office. Also available is a quaint general store that offers take out food during the summer season. Lobster fishing is the main industry
Much of the island is part of Arcadia National Park and there are several trails criss-crossing the area. Turn a corner on some trails and you find yourself facing the ocean. The Isle Au Haut Lighthouse sits on the island’s Robinson Point. Whales sometimes dance off the coast and birds have made this island, the forests and the craggy coastline, their home.