48 Hours in Saint John Valley
In Aroostook County, vast farmlands, numerous trails, and northern hospitality provide worthy weekend excursions throughout the year.
Dining in the Crown of Maine
When driving north to Aroostook County on I-95, a stop at the Mount Katahdin Scenic Overlook, located directly off the highway after Medway, is a perfect way to stretch your legs and catch a view of Maine’s highest peak. I pull off the interstate to the overlook’s rest stop and admire Mount Katahdin in the distance over Salmon Stream Lake.
When I exit the highway in Houlton to head north on Route 1, I’m stunned by the scenic farmland and stop for a moment to take it all in. The rolling fields and the sun setting behind them offer a warm glow welcoming me to the “Crown of Maine” for the weekend. I meet my friend Dawn, who has a cottage on Portage Lake, at Cafe Sorpreso in Presque Isle for dinner and cocktails. Based on the chef’s recommendation, I order pork roast served with roasted carrots and a warm beet puree.
After dinner, we drive 40 minutes northwest to Dawn’s cottage on Portage Lake, where I’ll be staying for the weekend. We settle in with a cup of tea and look forward to waking up early enough to see the sunrise over the lake.
Breakfast by the lake
There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of loons calling and the smell of fresh coffee. It’s a cool morning, and we take a moment to sit by the lake and take in the sounds and smells of fall ushering summer away. We soon hit the road for a day of exploring the beauty of northern Maine. Our first stop is the Long Lake Sporting Club in Sinclair, which is about an hour north of Presque Isle and accessible by car, boat, plane, ATV, and snowmobile. The Long Lake Sporting Club has one of the best restaurants in the County, but it’s only open for dinner on Saturdays, so we enjoy the views and move on.
Poutine and walking
We continue north all the way to Fort Kent, at the Canadian border, where we stop for lunch at The Swamp Buck Restaurant and Lounge on Main Street. I’m advised to try the poutine, a dish with origins in Quebec that is commonly found on menus of restaurants in the region. The meal of fresh-cut french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds is delicious and filling.
We follow the border to Allagash, where the St. John and Allagash Rivers meet. At several picturesque vistas, we stop to take photos of the glistening waters against a dark sky.
We head back toward Fort Kent to the Saint John Valley Heritage Trail for a walk before the sun sets. This 17-mile trail follows the former Fish River Railroad line and stretches from Saint Francis to Fort Kent. The crushed gravel trail is a favorite for locals because it offers views of the Saint John River at the border with Canada, along with farmland, ponds, and forest. It is open year-round and is used by pedestrians, ATVers, cyclists, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, snow-shoers, snowmobilers, and even dogsledders.
Homemade pies, oh my!
We stay in Portage Lake for dinner at Dean’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant. This family-owned spot is popular with locals and located at the head of the lake on Route 11, easily accessible to snowmobilers in the winter and boaters in the summer. We enjoy a steak and a burger, but the highlight is a long list of dessert options, including several pies, cakes, and ice cream. We have a slice of apple pie and pumpkin pie with a cup of decaf to end the evening.
Red-flannel hash and a morning hike
We were told at dinner that the breakfast at Dean’s Motor Lodge is not to be missed, so we head back to try the recommended red-flannel hash with poached eggs.
Back south in Presque Isle, we visit the Nordic Heritage Center to walk on some of the trails. The center is an all-seasons recreational facility with hiking, biking, and world-class cross-country skiing trails.
Lunch before the long trip home
We stop by Teresa’s Corner Café and Bakery on Main Street in Presque Isle. It’s a place to get hearty meals all day, including breakfast, home-cooked stews, and homemade breads. I cozy up with a bowl of corn chowder and a grilled cheese sandwich.
As I make my way home, I notice many farm stands selling new potatoes on the side of the road. Since Aroostook County is known for its potatoes, my trip will not be complete without picking up a bag of my own. New potatoes are picked before they are fully grown and are sweeter because their sugar has not yet converted to starch. The farm stand I stop at uses the honor system, so I leave the $5 payment in the box and grab my ten-pound bag.
Continuing on my way through Mars Hill and Bridgewater, I’m awed by the architecture of the old barns and potato houses standing stately against the vast fields and rolling hills. These majestic farms and landscapes make me feel I’m in a painting. I can see why this region is known as the Crown of Maine.