Mesmerized by Maine


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CAMDEN, Maine -- Picnickers with their lunch spread across blankets casually converse in French as they gaze over the sparkling harbor stretching before them.

Lobster buoys bob on the waves while boats with billowing white sails glide across the horizon.

On the adjoining grassy knoll of this tiny park, children play a pickup game of softball in the warm sun. It's all so Norman Rockwell -- a throwback to an earlier era.

This state's jagged coast is a popular vacation destination to savor. The locals have an unhurried warmth and earthiness to them. Everyone drives 5 miles below the speed limit -- which, at first, annoys some of the higher-strung visitors -- but ultimately spurs them to slow down and appreciate the experience.

My husband and I traveled to Rockland and Camden on Maine's craggy coast (90 minutes from Portland's airport) to play some golf and enjoy the scenery. But this is just a small part of what Maine has to offer.

PG map: Maine
(Click image for larger version)

We stayed at Rockland's Samoset Resort (220 Warrenton St., 1-800-341-1650) where a large swimming pool overlooks the well-maintained 18-hole golf course. Among the amenities are a spa, tennis, basketball, even disc golf. Penobscot Bay, with a picture-perfect lighthouse at the end of a milelong jetty, makes it tempting to never leave the grounds. Don't make that mistake.

Instead, greet the day at Rockland's Home Kitchen Cafe -- where both townies and tourists sample "dad's" cinnamon rolls and sticky buns (650 Main St., 1-207-596-2449). Savor the plate-sized pancakes with fresh local blueberries or dive into the homemade corned beef hash. For guilt-free pleasure, try the veggie frittata with homemade toast or polenta and a bottomless cup of the local joe.

After breakfast, stroll through Rockland's plentiful art galleries, where local artists display scenic views of Maine in every size and medium.

Outdoor activities are a must in this region dominated by scenes of green forests sliding into the blue water at every turn. Five miles from Rockland, Camden Hills State Park offers 20 hiking and biking trails that provide plenty of exercise as well as photo ops. According to our park ranger, Mount Megunticook is the most popular hike. This well-marked shaded trail leads visitors one mile up to its rocky summit and rewards them with a spectacular vista of sea, mountains, forests and lakes. Like to sleep outdoors? The park provides several campsites with restrooms and hot showers.

After descending back to sea level, head to Camden, minutes from the park entrance. This village that's short on neon and long on hand-painted colonial signs is filled with tiny shops, restaurants and even an independent bookstore. One can join in the community's biggest debate: Who makes the better cappuccino, Zoot Coffee or Boynton-McKay? Zoot's is darn near perfect, but Boynton-McKay has the most tempting baked goods. (Be sure to check out the Terrible Towel and Steelers jersey at Boynton-McKay's back counter; owner Phil McElhaney hails from Pittsburgh.)

To better enjoy the scenery, rent a scooter, bicycle or scoot coup at Midcoast Adventure Rentals to explore the winding country roads. If water sports are more your fare, they can also book a kayak or sunset sailboat tour.

After a day of exploring, check out Camden's diverse dinner options. Two local favorites are Cappy's and Natalie's.

The rustic tables at Cappy's Chowder House (1 Main St., 1-207-236-2254) surround a wooden bar with Maine-brewed craft beers on tap. Its signature New England clam "chowda" is luscious and creamy, and the steamed lobster, pulled fresh from the bay, was a delicious bargain.

Natalie's offers a different vibe. Located in the Camden Harbour Inn (83 Bay View St., 1-207-236-4200), this elegant venue sets the scene for a romantic dinner with crisp white table linens accented by red chairs and oversized red chandelier shades. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable (they guided us to an exceptional French sauvignon blanc), and the food is as special as the ambiance. The tender dinner filet, surrounded by fresh-from-the-garden baby vegetables, is presented as a work of art. Natalie's is pricey (averaging $60 a person), but the experience was worth every penny.

For accommodations reminiscent of New England's historic roots, Camden offers more than a dozen B&Bs -- giant rehabbed "cottages" from an elegant bygone era. The Hartstone Inn on Elm Street is a favorite for foodies. Chef Michael serves five-course dinners, teaches cooking classes and even shares souffle tips. For information on other B&Bs, visit www.camdeninns.com, operated by a consortium of innkeepers.

Just two hours north of Camden is Acadia National Park, considered the crown jewel of the National Park System because of its pristine beauty. It draws 2 million visitors each year. First discovered in 1604 by Samuel Champlain, this glacier-formed park is known for its stark, granite cliffs. The park encompasses nearly 50,000 acres with trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. A 27-mile scenic drive circles the park.

At the edge of this park lies Bar Harbor, once the vacation home to America's rich and famous (J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford). The Bar Harbor Inn and Spa (Newport Drive, 1-800-248-3351) is a local landmark overlooking Frenchman Bay, and its Reading Room Restaurant has served guests since 1887.

Before the end of your trip, make one last stop at Red's Eats in Wiscasset (41 Water St., 1-207-882-6128). Its lobster rolls -- famous since 1938 -- will give you something to dream about on the plane ride home.

travel

Anne Lutz Zacharias is a freelance writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon (amlz@verizon.net).


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