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Destination: Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Cruisers are well taken care of in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, with its easily accessible and protected harbor and multitude of amenities.

“Whatever interests boaters, we have it: shopping, dining, hiking trails, an aquarium, antique train and car museum, and a great 18-hole golf course,” says Jack Cogswell, owner of Carousel Marina, where the majority of visiting megayachts tie up.

Locals call the “hah-bah” the boating capital of Maine, a claim bolstered by such popular sailraces as the Volvo Leukemia Cup, Shipyard Cup and Northeast Junior Sailing Championships.

In summer local lobster boats start the daily harbor parade, heading out at first light. There are boats that serve Monhegan and other islands, some of which have been summer communities for more than a century, and anchored cruise ships ferry their passengers ashore and back. In late June Maine’s schooner fleet anchors in the inner harbor, attracting visitors by land and sea. Excursion vessels returning from sunset cruises end the day’s spectacle.

Most visiting boaters dinghy to the town dock at Whale Park. It bustles from morning till night during the annual Windjammer Days festival in June, with band concerts, pancake breakfasts, food vendors and educational booths. At other times it’s still astir with activity, and a great place to relax and watch people and boats.

“You can spot celebrities [who own megayachts] downtown,” says Cogswell. “Some like to be seen, but others may be disguised a little.”

Whale Park fronts on Commercial Street, the harborfront retail hub where restaurants, jewelry stores, boutiques and a growing number of art galleries jockey for space. Several downtown shops sell the obligatory souvenir T-shirts, but you’ll also find a gourmet grocery store, hardware store, banks, post office and two bookstores. The vintage taffy pulling machine entertains onlookers at the Ice Cream Factory, where you can make your own sundaes. Music enlivens several pubs.

Flower-bedecked brick sidewalks wind their way along the harbor, past bed and breakfast inns to Sample’s Shipyard on West Harbor. The movie ship Bounty, schooner Adventure, and schooner Roseway all have been up on Sample’s 700-ton marine railway for repairs.

The loop ends at Memorial Library (free Internet access), where children’s programs, craft shows and band concerts are held on the lawn. Brud Pierce, the internationally famous “Hot Dog King,” may be vending from his street cart, as he has for 56 years.

Within a few blocks of the town dock, the shops on shady Townsend Avenue give way to large gracious homes, many now bed-and-breakfast inns. Stroll to the 1894 Opera House for culture, acquired last fall as a performing arts center, or the miniature golf course for fun.

Trolleys circling through town (donations accepted) connect downtown and the marinas with the Meadows retail district (visitors center, mini-mall, supermarket, movie theater, cabaret and Thursday morning farmer’s market). There, you also can hike the Land Trust’s Penny Lake Trail or use the YMCA’s swimming pool and facilities for a daily fee. You’ll need a taxi to reach the Boothbay Country Club’s golf course or the Boothbay Railway Village’s steam train rides and antique car displays.

The 20-plus local restaurants range from take-out to fine dining, most with harbor views and specializing in — you guessed it — lobster. USA Today agrees with locals that the lobster rolls are “wicked good” eaten dockside at the Lobstermen’s Co-op. Locals gather at Ebb Tide for breakfast and later for its fish chowder. Bet’s Fish Fry take-out on the Boothbay Common serves the area’s largest, freshest fish sandwich.

From downtown you can cross the harbor on the 1901 footbridge to the east side of Boothbay Harbor. Decades ago the swing span provided access to marine businesses at the head of the harbor. Now Christopher’s Boathouse Restaurant serves gourmet cuisine in a former boat shop.

The east side retains its commercial lobster docks, sandwiched between waterfront restaurants and motels, and boutiques and art galleries face the harbor. Our Lady Queen of Peace Church has been a landmark for 76 years, towering over the bronze dory that memorializes local fishermen lost at sea. A short walk east accesses Barrett Park’s playground and picnic tables on Linekin Bay.

Lobstering is king in Boothbay Harbor, replacing the once-thriving commercial fishing industry. You may spot an occasional dory, seine net or stern dragger, but for fishing, charter boats predominate. Folks also jig for mackerel from the docks.

The Department of Marine Resources aquarium on McKown Point illustrates the local fishing industry past and present. Touch-tanks of live sharks and other sea creatures captivate youngsters. Trolleys serve the aquarium.

You can access many nearby wooded hiking trails along the Sheepscot River by boat or dinghy. Trail maps are available from the Land Trust office downtown or the visitors center. Land Trust officials ask that you respect the trails and adjoining private property.

Modern tourism activities often obscure this proud maritime town’s 400-year history, recounted in the Boothbay Historical Society Museum. The European fishermen who sent relief supplies of salted cod to the Plymouth Pilgrims were driven out by Native Americans in 1696. Some 30 years later, Scotch-Irish families began to settle in the region, supporting themselves on subsistence farming and trade in lumber, firewood, hay and fish, according to the Boothbay Region Historical Society. In 1764 the settlement was incorporated as the town of Boothbay.

Boothbay later prospered as a fishing, fish-processing and shipbuilding center. From the 1820s until 1941, steamers brought urban New Englanders to vacation amid the region’s invigorating sea air, rocky pine-clad islands and slower pace of life. In 1889 the harborfront commercial center separated from Boothbay, forming the town of Boothbay Harbor, now home of 2,500 year-round residents.

East Boothbay on the Damariscotta River remains the area’s boatbuilding center. Hodgdon Yachts, founded in 1816, launched their 404th boat last fall, a state-of-the-art luxury 154-foot cutter ketch. Almost next door, Washburn and Doughty launched a 92-foot steel tug. A score of other firms build and repair smaller craft or are involved in marine support industries.

Boothbay Harbor isn’t a secret among boaters. You’ll be among a fun-loving crowd downtown, yet you can also find a peaceful anchorage in a nearby cove. That’s the appeal of the boating capital of Maine.