The origin of the term down east derives, in part, from the wind direction (downwind) and the nautical direction (northeast) that ships traveled from Boston to the far reaches of Maine. Today, Down East Maine often refers to the rural counties of Hancock and Washington, where tourists seldom venture. And it’s hard to get more Down East than the town of Machias. Located 320 driving miles northeast of Boston, this small, quiet town preserves Maine’s unpretentious authenticity.
Machias doesn’t need to compete with its coastal cousins, such as Ogunquit, Camden, or Bar Harbor, when it comes to eclectic dining choices or an array of t-shirt shops. The town rewards those who don’t need a five-star luxury resort but yearn to explore a road less traveled. Machias has its attractions, and surprises, to be sure.
Most notably, the town played an important role at the outset of the American Revolution. Today, Machias is known for the wild fruit that decorates the landscape outside of town: lowbush blueberries. Maine is the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world, the majority coming from this area. So, if you’re looking for a place to unwind and appreciate real Maine, Machias is it.
Things To Do In Machias
Machias does not boast the blitz of tourist attractions that Maine’s other coastal towns do, but there’s still plenty to keep you busy. From historic sites to hiking trails, boat excursions to blueberry barrens, the area blends beautiful natural landscapes with a variety of activities to keep everyone entertained.
What’s In A Name?
A good place to start your tour of Machias is at the natural landmark the town is named for. In the language of the Passamaquoddy, the Native Americans who inhabited the region when European settlers first arrived, machias means “bad little falls,” referring to a stretch of the Machias River that was nearly impossible to navigate. The colonists harnessed the river’s power and established a number of mills, particularly lumber mills, which proved to be an important trade resource for the town. Indeed, Machias was one of Maine’s few coastal towns where lumber, not shipbuilding and lobster fishing, was the primary commercial interest.
Today, Bad Little Falls Park, located in the center of town, features hiking trails, picnic areas, and, of course, numerous vantage points from which to view the falls, which are particularly impressive when they’re roaring. Though the remnants of a 20th-century hydroelectric dam are still visible, the area has been allowed to return to its natural state.
Seeds Of Revolution
Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown, these are the key sites in America’s war for independence. But, Machias, Maine? In fact, the town’s waterways played host to the first naval battle of the American Revolution. Inspired by the uprising at Lexington and Concord, Machias residents attacked and captured a British war vessel, the Margaretta. The town celebrates the historic event each year with the Margaretta Days Festival. Reenactors, dressed in period garb, bring history to life by recreating some of the skirmishes for modern-day audiences.
Built in 1770, the Burnham Tavern played its own role in the Battle of the Margaretta, as the naval battle came to be called. The town’s residents, it is believed, gathered at the tavern to debate and plan what to do while the Margaretta was anchored in the Machias River.
Today, the tavern looks very much as it might have circa 1800. Volunteer docents take visitors on tours of the historic building and interpret not only its important ties to the naval battle but also what daily life was like for the townspeople at the time.
The Berry Rules
Lobster may be the first food that leaps to mind when one thinks of Maine, but in Machias, it’s all about the blueberry -- the wild blueberry to be exact. Lowbush blueberries thrive in the acidic soil of Down East Maine. A drive around the region, with its vast blueberry fields, underscores how well the fruit grows here.
For more than 40 years, Machias has celebrated its signature fruit with the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival. Each August, thousands descend on the small town to take part in all the festival has to offer. From the popular pie-eating contest to the locally produced musical -- with a blueberry theme, of course -- to tours of a nearby blueberry farm, there’s plenty to keep everyone busy.
Everyone should climb aboard a boat when visiting Maine’s coast. The best way to do that in Machias is with the Bold Coast Charter Company. The company offers half-day tours to Machias Seal Island. The small, rocky patch of land, located 10 miles out to sea, is at the center of a longstanding dispute about whether it is United States or Canadian territory. What is not in dispute is that the island is a vital nesting site for migratory sea birds, perhaps most notably, the Atlantic puffin.
Thousands of puffins, who look as if they stepped in a bucket of orange paint and then dipped their beaks in for good measure, call the island home during the summer. Razorbill auks, Arctic terns, and other migratory seabirds can also be found here. Bird blinds, from which you can discreetly observe the birds’ activity without disturbing them, have been erected on the island. Make sure your phone is charged; you’ll be taking plenty of pictures.
Pro Tip: A word of caution, landing on the island is not guaranteed, particularly when the seas are rough.
Lace Up Your Hiking Boots
After your boat trip, take time to experience the region on foot. The easiest way to do this is on the Sunrise Trail that slices through town. The trail runs on a railroad bed along which, for much of the 20th century, trains carried freight and passengers from the Canadian border to Ellsworth, Maine. After the railroad closed in 1984, the tracks fell into disrepair. By 2005, however, the state decided to convert the rail line into a multi-purpose path. Today, most of the trail’s 87 miles are unpaved and perfect for hiking, jogging, or off-road biking.
Best Places To Eat In Machias
Admittedly, the variety of restaurants in Machias is limited, but if you include the nearby towns, your choices expand. And you’re sure to find the state’s tasty crustacean at most establishments. Naturally, there is no shortage of desserts overflowing with wild blueberries.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
For 70 years, locals have known that Helen’s Restaurant is their destination when they want a tasty meal in Machias. Originally opened in 1950, this landmark restaurant came to be known for its award-winning blueberry pie. After a fire in 2014, the restaurant was reborn with many of its signature dishes. Try the lobster roll for lunch and start with the chowder for dinner. And save room for the delectable blueberry pie.
Good Food: Morning, Noon, And Night
Whether you’re looking for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, The Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant has it all. This friendly establishment serves traditional American fare, with a section of the menu dedicated to comfort food, including a roast turkey dinner. You definitely want to sample one of their homemade desserts. And, if you’re in town on a Sunday, stop in for their fabulous donuts.
Where To Stay In Machias
As with the dining options, there are only a few lodging choices in Machias, but if you look at neighboring towns, you’re sure to find an inn or motel that will more than meet your needs.
The Riverside Inn, located in East Machias, boasts beautiful rooms with a warm, inviting feel. The Victorian-era home, situated along the Machias River, served as the home of two sea captains. Today, it is a finely appointed bed and breakfast that also has a restaurant and cocktail bar on-site.
Another beautiful property, also in East Machias, is the Talbot House Inn. The first building on this property dates to 1771, but a century later, the front portion of the building was replaced by the arresting, impressive edifice you see today. As wonderful as the exterior architecture is, the inn may be more memorable on the inside. It features exquisitely furnished guest rooms, scrumptious breakfasts, and a gift shop.
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting Machias for more than a few days, remember the Canadian border is a mere 35 miles away. If you want to explore what our neighbors to the north have to offer, remember to bring your passport.