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When it comes to the Pine Tree State, the whole world already knows about lobsters and lighthouses. But less well known are the wide open skies and trail systems of Aroostook County.
“You know, when you enter into Maine, it’s like you’ve still kind of got the hustle and bustle of traffic and shopping, and that’s what southern Maine kind of has. But when you enter into central Maine and north, you kind of feel like the skies just open up,” says Leslie Jackson, a tourism specialist with Northern Maine Development Commission.
While Jackson’s quick to point out that some of the locations singled out in the Lonely Planet’s description aren’t technically in northern maine, they are in the northern half of Maine – and that’s a good start. “Someone, obviously, has been to this area, and has been able to enjoy and appreciate what we have,” Jackson says.
That someone is Robert Reid, editor of U.S. Travel for Lonely Planet. The point of the Top Ten lists, he says, is to put amazing – and undervisited – areas on the map. For Maine, it’s the area that includes the craggy North Woods, heavily populated with moose, all the way to the potato-studded crown of the state.
Things to do are as diverse as out-of-the-ordinary, spooky Steven King walking tours in Bangor, hunting and fishing around Moosehead Lake, camping and hiking in Baxter State Park and paddling down the Allagash. Reid’s even coined a new term for the upper half of Maine.
“And we think that Big Thumb – I call it the Big Thumb of Maine, sticking up toward Canada – has so much to offer, and a lot of people miss it,” he says. “So we wanted to give it some props and maybe more people will add it onto their trips when they go to the coast.”
There’s no question that the coasts of southern and Downeast Maine far outstrip the north when it comes to tourists. Last year, more than a third of Maine’s 38 million visitors came to enjoy beach vacations, vs. just over a million who visited Aroostook County.
Jackson, with the Northern Maine Development Commission, says that the state does tend to focus on coastal Maine as its one big area of strength, with the idea of encouraging visitors to head north once they’ve had their fill of the beach.
It’s unclear yet if the strategy is working; Aroostook County still represents only about 3 percent of the state’s leisure tourists, a figure that’s changed little. according to state tourism reports.
Still, Jackson says ratings like the one in Lonely Planet are helpful because unlike tourist towns such as Bar Harbor, northern towns stay open year round and are currently trying to boost the area’s reputation for “Maine” things, like snowmobiling along the area’s vast network of rural trails. Those trails are singled out for special kudos by Lonely Planet, because they’re something different that you can’t find everywhere.
“People tell us constantly they’re looking for new places, looking for some place new, something like this, something different. And right there in the middle of New England is something that most people haven’t seen,” Reid says.
Other north-of-center areas mentioned include Moosehead Lake and its century-old steamboat, as well as rafting on the upper Kennebec River – that gets a special “Big Thumbs up” from Reid and Lonely Planet.