By Gary Walther
"The rockbound coast of Maine" is a travel cliché, but what if it read "The lighthouse-bound coast of Maine"? Instead of visualizing the danger, visualize the gorgeous, 19th-century structures, many of them still operating or at least intact, that helped make the rockbound coast safe for mariners.
There are 57 active lighthouses in Maine and they compose, for the traveler, an easy connect-the-lights itinerary up or down the coast. They're still active because of the Maine Lights Program, a private initiative taken up by the Maine government to preserve lighthouses. You get a connoisseur's choice of seascapes—lighthouses were erected because the scenery was operatic (translation: dangerous)—and all you do is fill in the details (lunch, other sightseeing, romance).
One option is to land in Portland, where you can take in some of the state's most interesting lighthouses on the way south to Cliff House. There’s Portland Head Light, erected in 1791, the oldest lighthouse in the state, and the first lighthouse built after independence from Britain; Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland harbor and known as a "sparkplug light" for its short, stout shape; and Portland Breakwater Light (better known as Bug Light), built in 1875 and distinguished by its Corinthian columns inspired by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as well as its architect, Thomas U. Walter, who designed the east and west wings of the U.S. capital as well as the dome. Before arriving at the hotel, stop at Boon Island Light, the state's tallest lighthouse (137 feet), in York.
Or, if you start from the hotel, head north to Goat Island Light (1835/1859) off Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport, which you'll have to view through binoculars from Cape Porpoise Harbor, just north of Kennebunkport, or on one of the lighthouses cruises described below. The lighthouse was erected to warn mariners away from the rocky islands that stud the coast near Kennebunkport.
One easy way to take in the lighthouses is to book a lighthouse cruise. Portland Discovery operates from Portland and takes in Portland Harbor Breakwater Light (Bug Light), Spring Point Ledge Light, Ram Island Ledge Light, and Portland Head Light ($24 per person). Finestkind, which departs from Ogunquit (closer to Cliff House, $28 per person), offers a 14-mile round-trip cruise to Cape Neddick Light, activated in 1879 and still in use today—and one of the last eight lights in Maine to still have its Fresnel lens. (It was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Cape Neddick Light Station on April 16, 1985.) The cruise is the only way to see it, as it is not accessible by land.
Cliff House is your harbor on the rockbound coast of Maine, the closest luxury hotel to Boston—"a luxury experience in Maine without the long drive," says GM Scott Spann, referring to the bottleneck that is part of going to Cape Cod in summer. The rooms are in keeping with the hotel's spirit—clean-lined but with references to coastal and nautical without props (say, a lobster trap on the wall).
Call it the new luxury lighthouse on Maine’s coast.