Built on the banks of the Penobscot River, Bangor (pop. 33,039; pronounced “BANG-gor”) is the largest city in northern Maine. This site was an important rendezvous for local Native Americans, who called it Kenduskeag (“eel-catching place”). In 1604 Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River as far as Treats Falls here, but long-term settlement did not begin until 1769. Throughout the next century, Bangor was the most important lumber town in the eastern United States. It also developed into a shipbuilding center, and Bangor’s lumber circled the globe. The people of Bangor were devoted to providing amusement for the loggers and sailors who would arrive in town with free time and fat wallets. In a riverside neighborhood called the Devil’s Half Acre, dozens of bars, bordellos, and gambling dens competed to empty the men’s pockets.
In the 19th century, Bangor was as wide-open as any town in the Wild West, but traces of rougher days have all but disappeared. Modern Bangor, once a supply center for the northern half of Maine, is still a center for the lumber industry. Coming into town across the Penobscot River, you’ll turn right onto Main Street and see a 31-foot statue of a grinning Paul Bunyan, erected in 1959. The compact downtown area, impressive redbrick 19th-century buildings interspersed with church spires, lies a few blocks east of Paul Bunyan.
The Bangor Historical Society Museum (159 Union St., Mon.-Sat. 10am-4pm June-Sept., Tues. and Thurs. 10am-4pm fall, $5), housed in an 1836 Greek Revival mansion downtown, has exhibits, furnishings, and paintings reflecting 19th-century life. Away from the center of Bangor, car, truck, and tractor fans flock to the Cole Land Transportation Museum (405 Perry Rd., daily May-Nov., $7), off I-95 and I-395, which displays more than 200 historic vehicles, from wooden wagons to modern 18-wheelers.
Thanks to the nearby University of Maine, Bangor has a wide variety of places to eat and drink. Unexpectedly, there are a couple of inexpensive Indian and Pakistani places, including Taste of India (68 Main St., 207/945-6865), which gets annual “Best in New England” raves. For whiling away an evening, head down to the Sea Dog Brewing Company (26 Front St., 207/947-8009).
If you’re just passing through Bangor on your way to or from Acadia National Park, you may want to turn off I-95 at exit 180, southwest from downtown (not far from the Land Museum), and soothe your white-line fever at the trucker’s favorite stop, Dysart’s (530 Coldbrook Rd., 207/942-4878). This around-the-clock fuel stop and café offers a place to rest where you can dig in to the world’s largest sundae, the 18-scoop “18-Wheeler.”
If you prefer character over spotlessness, the pick of Bangor-area lodging is the Charles Inn (20 Broad St., 207/992-2820, $120 and up), a restored 1873 hotel downtown. The national chains are out on US-2 near the airport and I-95, a mile or so west of downtown, which is also where the fast food is.