Forget about the ocean. The lakes are where you'll find the real Maine. Here, an essential guide to three of the state's best
Jennifer Tzar
| Credit: Jennifer Tzar

Here's how it will go: You'll say to a friend, 'We're taking a vacation in Maine.' Before you can continue, you'll be interrupted by a barrage of talk about lobstermen and salt-sprayed air and a B&B on a cliff. When, at long last, you get a chance to interject that you're going to inland Maine, you'll be met with skeptically raised eyebrows. This will happen every time you tell someone you're planning a trip to the Maine lakes.

But I—daughter of Mainers—am here to tell you that this indignity is the price you pay for joining the elite. By the end of your stay, you'll have something in common with inlanders: disdain for conventional ocean types. Dare I suggest the lakes are better?Let's just say it's a quieter, subtler, more sensuous experience—the real Maine. This is where residents go to escape from overeager out-of-state vacationers, to take a break that is, in keeping with Maine character, both understated and transcendent. There's nothing like walking on a lakeside path cushioned with pine needles, miles from the nearest road, or canoeing after dark on still blackness that reflects the Milky Way.

Tourism at the Maine lakes reached its heyday around the turn of the 20th century. Those who felt that the coast was overrun by commoners traveled inland by ship and railroad to seek out the unspoiled frontier. Grand resorts and rustic sporting camps soon sprang up. Most of the old resorts have long since burned down or turned private. Meanwhile, many of the sporting camps—deep in the woods, with pine-log cabins and dining halls adorned with furs and moose heads—are exactly as they always were.

The sheer number of lakes—5,785 at least an acre in size, 267 exceeding a square mile—fuels an ongoing discussion as to which are "good" and which are "the best." A good lake is relatively free of algae and has visibility of at least 10 feet. It has varied views, rather than a monotonous tree line, and its shores are thinly developed, so that long stretches remain as they were a thousand years ago. Fish, ducks, cormorants, and loons are thriving, and it is not unheard of to spot an eagle or a moose. The best lakes have all of the above, secret swimming spots, and perhaps a sandy grove of pines by the water.

Like many Mainers, my parents grew up with family "camps" (Mainespeak for cottages) on lakes. My father contended that both of these lakes were merely average—and in that healthy competitive spirit made a successful search for one of the best locations for his young family: Kezar Lake. Back in the seventies, the local gas station/store carried everything from live bait to videos of B horror films (Stephen King, who has a summer house on Kezar, rented them daily). As a child, with missionary zeal I'd steer visitors to the place to get an ice cream cone by boat, the restaurant with singing waiters, the well-hidden granite gorge. But the best thing was the 10-mile-long lake itself, in the shadow of the White Mountains.

Later in life, I learned that each of Maine's lakes has its secret pleasures. Here, the inside story on three of the best—Kezar, Rangeley, and Moosehead—and tips for venturing into the north woods.

Maine's best lakes are remote enough that you often need to mention a couple of towns to locate one. Kezar is near Center Lovell, close to Fryeburg—cut off from the world beyond except for a single road that passes an unassuming boat landing and marina.

A cabin on the lake
Chalmers Realty Nancy Pike holds more listings for cottages on Kezar Lake than any other real estate agent—but even she has few available. Call several months in advance. 30 Main St., Bridgton; 800/486-3312 or 207/647-3311.

Quisisana Since 1917, this 47-acre haven, with its 10-room inn and 37 whitewashed, wicker-furnished cabins, has been a shrine to music. Nearly all who work here are accomplished students from the finest conservatories in the country. Every night after dinner, the employees hold a concert in the performance hall whose tall windows overlook the lake. Pleasant Point Rd., Center Lovell; 207/925-3500, fax 207/925-1004; doubles from $230, including meals.

Severance Lodge Club Members own the 35 pine cottages, with porches, and some rent them out from June to October. The prevailing sense of decorum is a throwback to the club's early-20th-century days; summer is referred to as "the social season." The dining room serves French dishes with a New England touch: thus, lobster sauté. Severance Lodge Rd., Center Lovell; 207/925-3100; cottages rent by the week and include maid service (call for prices).

A room—or dinner—at the inn
Center Lovell Inn A big night out for camp dwellers is a drive to this 1805 inn to indulge in baked Brie en casserole and rack of lamb. The rooms are not without their froufrou quotient, but the windows frame sweeping views of the White Mountains. Rte. 5, Center Lovell; 800/777-2698 or 207/925-1575; doubles from $142; dinner for two $75.

Lake HouseA short drive from Kezar, the white clapboard seven-room Lake House was built as a tavern in the late 1700's. Chef-innkeeper Michael Myers serves some of the most delicious food in Maine, such as roast duckling with blueberry and blackberry sauce. 686 Waterford Rd., Waterford Village; 800/223-4182 or 207/583-4182; doubles from $110, including breakfast; dinner for two $85.

Where to get a bison burger
Tut's General Store This is a real general store that will "fix you right up" with poker chips, livestock feed, or a bison burger (more protein and less fat than beef). Hefty breakfasts also served all day long. Rte. 35, North Waterford; 800/281-4437 or 207/583-4447; lunch for two $10.

Breakfast with the locals
AJ's Everything Walk by the two wrinkled old men sitting on upside-down buckets just outside the door and into a large pine-log dining room with sturdy wooden tables. The bacon is crisp and the pancakes have the freshest blueberries in town. Rte. 5, North Lovell; 207/928-2454; breakfast for two $10.

Wicked Good Store & Restaurant As greasy as it is good. Like many stores in the area, it doubles as a gas station. Rte. 5, Lovell; 207/925-3090; breakfast for two $6.

Getting out on the lake
Kezar Lake Marina Rent a canoe ($25 a day) or a 24-foot pontoon ($200 a day), and ask Lee for help finding the lake's inlet and outlet rivers; he can also direct you to the Lovell town beach. Before you head out, grab an ice cream cone from the take-out window at the Loon's Nest, a restaurant at the marina. W. Lovell Rd., Lovell; 207/925-3000.

Off-lake adventures
Beech Hill Farm & Bison Ranch Take a tour to see Chief Chadwick and Irish Warrior, award-winning North American bison, or just visit the shop to pick up a bison-wool robe. 630 Valley Rd., Waterford; 207/583-2515.
Deertrees Theatre & Cultural Center The performing arts center—which stages bluegrass, vaudeville, and chamber music as well as plays—is hidden in the village of Harrison, a half-hour drive from Center Lovell. Deertrees Rd., Harrison; 207/583-6747.

Hedgehog Hill Farm Every summer Sunday there's a lecture on such topics as "herbs for pleasure and use." Bring a picnic to eat in the flower gardens. 54 Hedgehog Hill Rd., Sumner; 207/388-2341.

Kezar Lake Handcrafts Check out the baskets, pottery, weaving, and woodcarvings. At the intersection of Rtes. 5 and 5A, Center Lovell; 207/925-1665.


The view from all along Route 17 is phenomenal. Seven large lakes—Rangeley, Cupsuptic, Kennebago, Richardson, Beaver Mountain, Aziscoos, and Mooselookmeguntic—and hundreds of ponds are surrounded by the White Mountains. In summer, the people wandering among the shops and restaurants in Rangeley—quintessential small-town Maine—seem unusually content.

Getting your bearings
Lake Region Air A floatplane ride will give you a bird's-eye view. 96 Main St., Rangeley; 207/864-5307.

A cabin on the lake
In the Rangeley Lakes district, the best choice is to rent a cottage through the Morton & Furbish Rental Agency (68 Main St., Rangeley; 888/218-4882 or 207/864-9065). Also try Rangeley Lakes Rentals (40 Main St., Rangeley; 877/409-3300 or 207/864-3300).

Sporting camps
Another alternative is the area's lakeside log-cabin camps, usually located on private roads surrounded by thousands of wooded acres.

Bald Mountain Camps On Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Bald Mountain offers 15 cabins, each with a bath, porch, and woodstove or fieldstone fireplace. Three meals a day are served in the main lodge (dinner is open to the public by reservation). The usual sports offerings have been expanded to include tennis, windsurfing, and horseback riding; several fishing boats are also available. Bald Mountain Rd., Oquossoc; 207/864-3671; doubles from $240, including meals.

A room—or dinner—at the inn
Loon Lodge A mile from downtown Rangeley on the east side of the lake, the early-20th-century Loon Lodge has 12 bedrooms and one cottage. The downstairs pub can be lively, and the restaurant's fare—lobster and roasted corn soup, hanger steak with a three-mushroom hash—is hearty. Pickford Rd., Rangeley; 207/864-5666, fax 207/864-3773; doubles from $65; dinner for two $55.

Rangeley Inn & Motor Lodge This big blue 19th-century house is the centerpiece of Rangeley village. By today's standards, the 50 rooms are small and staid, but some have Jacuzzis. The dining room—lace-curtained windows, lofty tin ceilings—is a great escape from the woods. 51 Main St., Rangeley; 800/666-3687 or 207/864-3341; doubles from $84; dinner for two $80.

Getting out on the lake
Dockside Sports Center The center has a large fleet of motorboats for rent. 90 Main St., Rangeley; 207/864-2424.

Sundown Cottages Sundown will deliver a rental canoe, fishing boat, or sailboat to any of the Rangeley area lakes. Bald Mountain Rd., Oquossoc; 207/864-3650.

Where to eat dinner
Porter House Restaurant It's easy to get lost on the way to this 1908 farmhouse. Dining on veal in a cherry cream sauce or grilled portobellos, you have the sense that you are Maine aristocracy. The food and wine list are impeccable. Rte. 27, Eustis; 207/246-7932; dinner for two $50, served Wednesday—Sunday only.

Breakfast with the locals
Gingerbread House Families from all over flock here for breakfast—the muffins are outlandishly large. Later in the day, kids line up at the front counter for ice cream. Rte. 4, Oquossoc; 207/864-3602; breakfast for two $15.

Our Place Café Outside, there's a fence made of flower boxes. Inside, tough-love waitresses serve eggs and bacon, waffles and pancakes. Richardson Ave., Rangeley; 207/864-5844; breakfast for two $10.

Off-lake adventures
Ecopelagicon Rangeley's spiritual side comes out among the shelves lined with aromatherapeutic knickknacks and crystals. Ecopelagicon also stocks camping supplies, hiking guides, and topographical relief maps. Most enticing is the Carrabassett coffee served in back. 3 Pond St., Rangeley; 207/864-2771.

Mingo Springs Golf Course You can catch a glimpse of Rangeley Lake from 13 of Mingo's 18 holes. Proctor Rd., Rangeley; 207/864-5021.

Pleasant Acres Tree Farm It's simple: Choose a balsam fir, and they'll ship it to you in time for Christmas. Pleasant St., Rangeley; 207/864-5040.

Wilhelm Reich Museum Reich studied "the energy that governs all living matter," which he called orgone. A protégé of Freud's, he became famous for his own unorthodox views on just about everything. The grounds of his former estate have nature trails, bird-watching areas, picnic tables, and cabins to rent. Dodge Pond Rd., Rangeley; 207/864-3443, fax 207/864-5156; cabins from $400 per week.

As you motor out into the middle of Moosehead, the largest lake in the state, it's easy to feel as if you're on an ocean. At the southern end of the shoreline is the buzzing town of Greenville. On the western side, halfway up the lake, is sleepy Rockwood. Anywhere in this area, you never lose the sense that you're on a frontier: the edge of the thick forest of northern Maine.

Getting your bearings
The best way to see Moosehead's 74,880 acres of deep-blue water is by seaplane. Tell the pilot to drop you off at sandy Ogden Cove on nearby Lobster Lake—it has to be one of the world's most beautiful beaches. Try Folsom's Air Service (207/695-2821), Currier's Flying Service (207/695-2778), or Jack's Air Service (207/695-3020).

A cabin on the lake
Birches Resort This 1930's sporting camp—cum—resort near Rockwood lies at the end of a long dirt road. Set up house in one of 16 log cabins in a birch grove on the lake, take a room upstairs in the main lodge, or rent one of seven privately owned cottages. At the marina, you can rent kayaks, canoes, Sunfish, motorboats, and mountain bikes, or sign up for the moose-watching cruise. Birches Rd.; 800/825-9453 or 207/534-7305; from $100 for a lodge room.

Spencer Pond Camps A hundred years ago, this sporting camp on Spencer Pond, 34 miles north of Greenville, was built by a Maine guide who wanted to give nature lovers a place to get closer to their obsession—and far away from everything else. Today the six-cabin camp is still geared to those visitors. Spencer Pond; 207/695-2821 (winter 207/843-5456); doubles from $40.

A room—or dinner—at the inn
Blair Hill Inn Here is the life of ease: cocktails on the veranda, a dinner of fresh grilled tuna, a Jacuzzi soak on the deck, and a good night's sleep on a feather bed. The 1891 Victorian house is meticulously restored and furnished, and most of the eight guest rooms have spectacular views of Moosehead. Lily Bay Rd., Greenville; 207/695-0224, fax 207/695-4324; doubles from $220, including breakfast; dinner for two $100.

Greenville Inn If you're wondering how the lumber barons lived, this three-story 1895 Victorian mansion, set on a hill overlooking the town and the lake, will give you an idea. Austrian innkeeper Elfi Schnetzer and her daughter, Susie, preside over six rooms and six pine cottages. Norris St., Greenville; 888/695-6000 or 207/695-2206, fax 207/695-0335; doubles from $140, including breakfast; dinner for two $68.

Lodge at Moosehead Lake Signing into the lodge is like registering for summer camp. In their welcoming pep talk, proprietors Roger and Jennifer offer information, advice, and even their priceless service as concierges with an inside edge. Their eight-room Colonial inn is decorated with a mix of dowdy English charm and artistic flourish. Most rooms have ceiling borders made of twigs. Lily Bay Rd., Greenville; 207/695-4400, fax 207/695-2281; doubles from $205, including breakfast; dinner for two $85 (the dining room is open only to guests).

Where to eat dinner
Blue Moose Café French chef-owner Claudine Dallam's dining room adds a sophisticated touch to the area. The food—salmon glazed with maple or blackened with a mango salsa—is a refreshing mix of Caribbean and deep-woods Maine. S. Main St., Greenville; 207/695-0786; dinner for two $45.

Lost Lobster If a tiny part of you still yearns for the coast, you can tie on a plastic bib at Lost Lobster, on a deck set back from the lake. It feels otherworldly to eat seafood this fresh near a seemingly endless body of water that isn't the ocean—and at the edge of a seemingly endless forest. N. Main St., Greenville; 207/695-3900; dinner for two $45.

Breakfast with the locals
Kokadjo Trading Post Nineteen miles north of Greenville, in Kokadjo (population 4), there's a huge sign that reads, this is god's country. why set it on fire and make it look like hell. The sign was erected in the 1930's by the Maine Forestry Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps to ward off forest fires. In this township, whose character is shaped by pulp haulers and sportsmen, nothing is quaint. So you shouldn't expect the folks minding this 19th-century trading post and small restaurant to be chatty. Still, they're friendly enough, and the food is good. Rte. 76, Kokadjo; 207/695-3993; breakfast for two $10.

Getting out on the lake
Moosehead Safari & Scenic Cruise The three-hour cruise doesn't guarantee a moose sighting, but it's a blast. Rte. 15, Rockwood; 207/695-3241; $40 per adult.

Moosehead Marine Museum The museum runs cruises on the 1914 steamboat Katahdin. Learn the story of the lumbermen and the party days of the late 1800's. Main St., Greenville; 207/695-2716; from $20 per adult.

Northwoods Outfitters Rent a boat to explore on your own, or let Northwoods arrange a fishing or hiking trip. Main St., Greenville; 866/223-1380 or 207/695-3288; $15 per day.

Off-lake adventures

Katia Ancona If you're a traveler who expects to return from vacation a new person, Greenville's prized massage therapist will refresh you with reflexology, instruct you on your "transitional diet," custom-make your bath salts and an eye pillow, even pass on a few healthy recipes. Walden Farm Rd., Greenville; 207/695-2711.

Maine Mountain Soap & Candle Co. The handmade wares—flower-shaped, honey-scented floating candles; piney bricks of "workingman's soap"—are subtly scented with natural oils. Main St., Greenville; 800/287-2141 or 207/695-3926.

Driving down roads lined with balsam, cedar, spruce, and fir trees, you'll learn the meaning of the word alone. More than 3 million acres of the forested land north of Moosehead's wild tip—and more than 2,000 miles of dirt roads—are owned privately (some 2 million of them by the Great Northern Paper Co.) and overseen by the North Maine Woods organization. This region borders the barely touched 205,000-acre Baxter State Park, with the mile-high Mount Katahdin and 78 lakes. Farther north still is the Allagash Wilderness Waterway—92 miles of white-water rafting rivers.

Where to stay
Loon Lodge Everything in these parts is isolated—which explains why this fabulous lodge (no relation to the Loon in Rangeley), 90 miles north of Greenville, advertises its "quiet" isolation. Allagash Lake; 207/745-8168 (winter 570/287-6915); cottages from $265 per week, including meals.

Chesuncook Lake House To reach this stunning lake, you can take a half-hour flight by floatplane from Greenville or a circuitous route that involves a one-hour drive followed by a four-mile hike or a 40-minute boat ride. Transporting supplies to Chesuncook involves the same journey; therefore, a stay at the 1864 Lake House is a no-frills experience. Chesuncook Village; phone and fax 207/745-5330; doubles from $220, including meals.

Off-lake adventures
Gulf Hagas Gorge The four-mile-long slate gorge between Mount Katahdin and Greenville has countless waterfalls and refreshing pools for swimming. The Appalachian Trail passes through here.

North Maine Woods Exploring the area's wonders, you'll pass through a maze of largely unsigned roads. But there is help: Send $5 to North Maine Woods (Box 425, Ashland, ME 04732; 207/435-6213; checks only), and you'll receive a good map. But there are more than a few rules protecting the deep woods: Leave your bicycle at home. Always yield to logging trucks. Pay the tolls at the checkpoints, which aren't always open. And, of course, don't cut down trees—leave that to the professionals.