I am spending June through September 2017 in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – my first visit to each state! These are the New England Chronicles. Please check back for updates!
Ask Not To Whom To Pay Tolls; The Toll’s For Thee
Have you ever noticed the worst roads in America are tollways? You know, the turnpikes you are paying a direct tax to travel on? A bit ironic, but it makes some sense – most tollways are in the East, pounded by snow, plows, and salt in wintertime. What a guide in Minnesota once quipped holds equally true for New England, “There are two seasons: Winter, and Road Maintenance.”
If you’re coming from the West in a rig, keep your wallet out once you hit Illinois heading east, because you will pay hefty tolls to get to New England. Illinois is the worst, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the short distances between booths and the amount of the tolls. I paid as little as $4 and as much as $27 per toll in Illinois. This is the second time I’ve driven through Illinois, and when I do it again I will have an electronic transponder. The time it takes to stop at each booth, and squeezing my way through the booth lanes, mirrors in mortal peril, is vexing. States like Texas and Washington, that mail you a bill based on your license plate, are wonderful, but save Massachusetts, none of the states from Illinois to Maine have such an option.
Tolls seem fewer in Indiana and Ohio. By the time you get to Pennsylvania and New York, taking a ticket on one end and paying on the other is so much more civilized.
I thought about traversing only toll-free roads, and from Erie, Pennsylvania to Albany, New York, I took an alternative route to avoid Interstate 90. But, by and large, staying off the interstate takes much more time, and exponentially increases the chances of encountering a bridge, trellis, or railroad right-of-way for which I’m over-weight or over-height, especially in much older New England; can you say covered bridges?
All told, I spent over $200 in tolls between Illinois and Maine.
Yankee Country Dialect
Right away some phrases strike your ear and let you know you are in New England. In Maine, a “Lobster Pound” is not a shelter for homeless or stray lobsters, but a fresh seafood market. In some parts of the country “Lobster Roll” connotes sushi, but in Maine it’s lobster, on bread – a folded piece of Texas toast, brioche – whatevah’s clevah. Lobster pounds usually have a seafood shack/restaurant attached to them, for all your lobster roll and other “seafoods” (yes, they add the “S”) needs.
Pints aren’t just for Allagash beer; they are for seafood too, and you order fried clams or calamari or scallops by the half or whole. And by the way, it’s pronounced “skall-ups.”
New Englanders practice an economy of words. Why say “Lobster by the pound” when you can say “Lobster Pound?” Similarly, why say “Lighthouse” when you can simply say “Light?” At Cape Elizabeth and Portland Head, the lighthouse there is known as the “Portland Head Light,” evoking thoughts of automobiles rather than ships and treacherous rocks.
While woefully overused in film and television about the East Coast, “Wicked” is indeed a part of everyday conversation. The customer getting a pedicure at the nail salon warns that she is “wicked ticklish.” The bartender asks if you want the Bloody Mary “wicked hot.”
This is the land of “Bean Suppahs” hosted by churches and civic groups, so plentiful and popular that long lists of upcoming feeds are printed in the paper.
Weathering The Weather
I arrived in New England on the last day of May, assuming it was already high season. Not the case. Early June is “shoulder season,” and while the weather is more unpredictable, the price is right. Parking in downtown Portland is $10. I am paying low season prices at the campground eight miles from downtown Portland, where season starts on June 15. Weather has ranged from sunny and in the 70s, to rainy and in the 50s. Some days are sunny all day, and some days it rains all day. Hailing from Seattle, in all honesty the weather makes me no never mind. I’ve got a Gore-Tex jacket with a hood on it, and rubber boots. As I heard yesterday for the first time, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
“If you can’t endure the winter, you don’t deserve the summer,” a “Mainer” (pronounced “Mainah”) recently said to me, only somewhat kiddingly. At Reny’s (a Maine Adventure!), doormats for sale are inscribed, “Save a lobster. Boil a tourist.” I get it. In July and August, the hordes invade Maine. Thousands are dumped from cruise ships onto the streets of Portland throughout the summer; I am keeping a schedule handy to know when to avoid the Old Port area.
On a recent tour in Portland some folks from Massachusetts gave me this look when I told them I would be in Bar Harbor for Independence Day, crying, “The crowds!”
I went home and quickly made reservations for Bar Harbor to avoid being left out in the cold, including a bus tour of Acadia National Park, fireworks boat cruise on the Fourth of July, happy hour walking tour, and dinner reservations for my birthday.
The (First) American Portland
A European settler arrived in Portland in 1623, which boggles the mind history-wise when compared to the West. Portland was named for the English Isle of Portland. (In 1845, Portland, Oregon was named by Portland, Maine native Francis Pettygrove, when he won a coin toss against Asa Lovejoy of Boston, granting Francis naming rights to the new Oregon town.)
Indian massacres, fires, some war-related and some not (spit when you speak of British Captain Henry Mowatt – I’ll write more about him after I visit Castine), and various and sundry vintage calamities ensued. Remind me again why our country puts fireworks in the hands of amateurs, when they have been killing and maiming ever since?
Maine became a state in 1820 (a non-slave state in the Missouri Compromise), and the rest is history. (Included in that history: Maine was the Temperance State and started the Prohibition movement. Boo, hiss Maine!)
Because of all those fires, most of the colonial architecture in Portland was reduced to embers. The one exception is an area four miles southwest of downtown, Stroudwater, settled in 1727 at the confluence of the Stroudwater and Fore Rivers. The area was originally settled in the 1600s, abandoned due to Indian attacks, then burgeoned with sawmills and shipbuilders in the 1700s. The Tate House, built in 1755 for a British Navy mast agent sent to Maine to oversee the harvesting of timber for shipbuilding and masts for His Majesty, it is well worth a visit.
Given the number of restaurants, distilleries, and breweries, and the thriving arts and culture scene, I was surprised to learn the Portland has only 66,000 people (the largest city in Maine; there are half a million in the metropolitan area). To give you an idea of just how small that is, as I was leaving the campground for the jetport to pick up Jamie, who visited from the other Portland, her plane flew overhead. I knew it was her plane, because it was the only plane arriving at 8:30 at night on a weekday, before summer season. At the jetport, while I sat idling at the curb, a police officer and a security officer walked by, waving jovially, not in any way pressuring me to move the car.
Hailing from the Northwest, we are strangers in a strange land. When Jamie and I tell people we’re from the other Portland and Seattle, the prevailing response is, “I’ve never been.” Who can blame them? It’s far. There are moments I can hardly believe I drove Nellie and Toad all the way across the country.
Portland is a very walkable town, with the working waterfront to the south, the Old Port district directly north of that (I was fortunate to be in town for the annual Old Port Festival, the official kick-off to summer),
the Arts District to the west, and government offices to the east.
Picturesque squares run along Congress Street, including Congress Square,
and Longfellow Square.
Another Portland native, Franklin Simmons, made the statue of HWL in his studio in Italy. It was dedicated in 1888, where it has sat in Longfellow Square ever since.
The painter Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910) was so infatuated with the Maine coastline that he had a summer home, turned permanent residence, on Prout’s Neck from 1883 until he died there 27 years later.
The Portland Museum of Art now owns the property and conducts tours twice daily from the museum downtown via Mercedes Sprinter van to the property. It’s a bit spendy at $55 per person low season, $65 per person high season, especially since it does not include parking, but it does include admission to the museum for the day. The museum itself is worth a visit; it was designed by I.M. Pei.
Standing at the edge of that imposing coastline, looking back at the studio, one does not need to guess from whence Homer drew his inspiration.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) is a Portland native son. You can tour the house where he grew up, gifted to the Maine Historical Society in 1901 by his younger sister.
Here is the desk where he penned, “Into each life some rain must fall.”
And here’s a traveling desk, which he took to Europe, where he wrote at least a portion of the epic poem, “Evangeline.”
His great grandparents are buried in Eastern Cemetery.
Almost every day Henry walked four miles from his home to the Portland Head Light (more on that in a minute).
One of my favorite directors of all time, John Ford, graduated from Portland High School, and his statue and information about his Academy Award-winning films are situated on Gorham’s Corner – the intersection of York, Pleasant, Fore and Center Streets just above the Old Port, an historically Irish immigrant neighborhood.
This Little Light of Mine
There are 65 lighthouses in Maine, and unlike Pokémon, you do not need to catch them all. However, one not-to-be-missed Light is at the aforementioned Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, about 20 minutes south of Portland.
It is the most visited, photographed and painted lighthouse in New England, and it is virtually impossible to take a bad photograph there.
The Portland Head Light was commissioned by George Washington himself – the first lighthouse to be completed by the federal government, and was originally powered with whale oil. The job was so prestigious and so important, the first lightkeeper was buried on a hill in Eastern Cemetery with a direct view of his charge. (By the way, go on a tour of Eastern Cemetery (1718) through Spirits Alive and you won’t be sorry, especially if you are lucky enough to get Ron Romano as your guide. Ron wrote a book about early grave stones in Southern Maine, and particularly about Bartlett Adams, a gravestone carver. Until Bartlett arrived in Portland in 1800 at the age of 24, stones were ordered from Boston.)
Seeing Casco Bay The Locals Way
There are seemingly endless opportunities for getting on the water in Portland (including a five-hour catamaran to Nova Scotia), and I opted for what is arguably the slowest, but the most authentic: the Casco Bay mail boat.
Twice a day the mail boat makes deliveries to Casco Bay Islands, including Peaks Island, Long Island, Chebeague Island, Cliff Island, Little Diamond Island, and Great Diamond Island.
The Casco Bay Islands are sometimes referred to as “The Calendar Islands,” because an early explorer mistakenly thought there was one for each day of the year. Depending on who you ask, the actual number of islands could be greater, or less than, 365. Our Portland city tour guide said there were over 700, but some tourist magazines have the number in the 200s.
New Food Adventures
I’m closing in on the age of 50, and sometimes it feels like there’s nothing new under the sun. Well, I’ve tried two new things since arriving in Maine: 1) steamer clams; and 2) a whole steamed lobster.
At J’s Oyster, while I was staring down a bucket of soft shell clams, AKA New England Steamers, the bartender demonstrated how to pull the skin off the siphon and rinse the clam in the warm clam broth.
Northwest clams you just eat right out of the shell; they do not have such a large siphon and are not nearly as sandy. I couldn’t finish the bucket because they were so grainy! (I later learned they probably should have been soaked in water longer.)
At the Porthole, a no-nonsense local joint on the Portland working waterfront, Jamie and I tried whole steamed lobster for the first time.
For $24.95 you get two steamed lobsters, corn on the cob, potatoes, and a roll.
With the help of the bartender and a lobsterman sitting at the bar, we learned to eat the claws first, then the tail. Unlike crab in the Northwest, most of which comes cut for easy cracking, you do all the work on Maine lobsters. Turns out the lobsterman at the bar sold our lobsters to the restaurant, and he warned that they were particularly hard-shelled. Man, he wasn’t kidding. One of them really fought back, and for three days my thumb hurt where I got poked by the tail.
Now, back to lobster rolls. Do you remember the scene in the movie “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” when Johnny Depp’s character is talking about puerco pibil?
“El, you really must try this. It’s a puerco pibil. It’s a slow roasted pork–nothing fancy, just happens to be my favorite–and I order it, with a tequila and lime, in every dive I go to in this country and honestly, that is the best it’s ever been, anywhere. In fact, it’s too good. It is so good that when I finish with it, I’ll pay my check, walk straight into the kitchen, and shoot the cook, because that’s what I do, I restore the balance to this country.”
I think about that scene with every lobster roll I eat! It goes without saying that not all lobster rolls are created equal. I ate a couple of downright dismal ones. What makes them bad? Too small. Soggy, small lobster pieces. Plain old hotdog buns for bread. Too much mayonnaise and not enough lobster. No butter.
The best of the best were The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport,
Bite into Maine in Cape Elizabeth,
and The Bait Shed at Pine Point (where I had a roll trio of crab, shrimp, and lobster).
Don’t worry, I didn’t shoot the cooks! (By the way, my photo of the lobster roll at the Clam Shack in Kennebunkport was featured on MaineToday.com!)
Maine isn’t all about lobster and lobster rolls and Whoopie Pies (which I really don’t get – they taste like two Little Debbie snack cakes with icky-sweet icing in the middle to me. I am seriously rethinking attending the Whoopie Pie festival in Dover-Foxcroft). Of the 250 eateries in the Portland area, many are chef-owned. I had a very memorable meals and snacks at Scales, Eventide,
Becky’s Diner (“Nothin’ Finah!” Sitting at the counter for breakfast, I met Tina and Leslie from Ohio and New York, celebrating a milestone birthday),
Holy Donuts (made from Maine potatoes!),
and Empire, an Asian restaurant that I visited three times AND ordered to go food for dinner.
Can you tell I really liked it? Empire serves the creamiest and tastiest boozy concoction called Dragon’s Milk, which is a mix of coconut milk, green tea-infused gin, pandan syrup and muddled Thai basil leaves.
Highway 1 South – The Maine Beaches, Beeches!
If you hop on Interstate 95 in Portland and head south, you can be in the southernmost beach town of Kittery in about 45 minutes. Or, you can meander your way on Highway 1 along the coastline, which is what Jamie and I opted to do one sunny Sunday. There are 30 miles of white sand beaches along Maine’s southern coast, studded with charming art towns and seaside communities. We stopped in Arundel at a cemetery founded in 1792,
browsed in Kennebunk,
said hello to the Bushes on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport,
and strolled around Perkins Cove in Ogunquit.
One of the best days, evah!
On a sunny Saturday I returned to Highway 1 and Old Orchard Beach, Maine’s very own Coney Island/Brighton Beach. Along with The Pier and the amusement park, it was also Corvette weekend.
Regarding coastal points north of Portland, I plan to visit the Maine MidCoast while in the state capital of Augusta. The only exception – we drove 25 minutes north to Freeport, home of the L.L. Bean flagship store. As it is open 24 hours a day, we went at night and there were no crowds. Take note, this is the flagship store, not an outlet store! Yeowch, the prices! There is an outlet store across the road at the outlet mall, and even that’s pricey.
The Last Day: Fun In The Sun
Holy cow, summer is here. The weather went from the 60s to the 90s, overnight. Last weekend was a real scorchah!
Today I visited the Portland Observatory Museum (1807) on Flag Day – a free admission day, which makes sense when you know a little bit about the history of the observatory. It is the last standing maritime signal tower in the United States. Sitting atop Munjoy Hill with a direct view of the harbor, a person in the tower flew a flag to indicate when a ship was arriving.
Captain Lemuel Moody built the tower and charged an annual $5 service fee. The service was discontinued in the 1920s, when radio was introduced.
The 30-mile views from the atop the observatory are pretty awesome, especially on a sunny, 70-degree day.
On this auspicious occasion the mayor of Portland, Ethan Strimling, was there to give a few words. Isn’t he handsome?
There is no bedrock where the observatory stands, so Moody, a mariner but not an architect, figured ballast would work just as well on land as it does in a ship. The entire basement is full of granite rocks.
The proof is in the pudding; despite many hurricanes in 210 years, the tower has never toppled (the docents did mention that it tends to sway a bit in the breeze!).
What better way to enjoy lunch than directly on the water on a beautiful, sunny day? On my final day in Portland I opted for Dimillo’s, the only floating restaurant in Portland, constructed from an old auto ferry. It’s been around since the 1980s, so it is a Portland institution. The demographic is largely 60-plus and well-heeled, but you can’t beat the views. Valet parking is complimentary, and your parking ticket for the pay lot is validated by the restaurant.
On my travels, I try to visit each state capitol and photograph the capitol building. Of course, the capitol of Maine is Augusta. As I researched this trip I found a lovely campground on a lake, called Augusta West. Driving there, I learned the campground was not in Western Augusta at all; it is located in the town of Winthrop, Maine, smack dab in the Lakes Region of the state. There are 12 lakes and ponds within the township of Winthrop. In fairness, it is west of Augusta, but it’s a good 20-minute drive to downtown. Once again I must remind myself to use Google Maps and Google Earth before committing to a reservation.
I had no sooner put Nellie in park than I was visited by two denizens of the campground – Richard, who has been coming for 10 years and recently had hip surgery, and Sheldon, 20 years and counting, my passenger-side neighbor. Turns out most of the campers at Augusta West keep RVs and manufactured homes on the lake as vacation homes; many live less than a half-hour away. The park maintains 25 spots for transients like me.
A lake surrounds the campground on three sides. It was quiet and sunny and rather bucolic. I asked Sheldon the name of the lake, and he replied, “Annabessacook.” I said, “That’s a mouthful!” He answered, “Well, there are three lakes in a row here. The Maranacook, the Annabessacook, and the Cobbosseeconte. The story goes that an old Indian chief had three daughters. Marana was a cook, but Anna was the bessa cook.” “Then what the heck does Cobbosseeconte mean?” I asked. He shrugged. “Maybe she liked to eat.”
Actually, the names are Native American, but they are not critiques of culinary skills. Cobbosseeconte, shortened nowadays to Cobbossee because people can’t be bothered with five more letters, named by the Abenaki tribe, means “Land of many sturgeon.” Maranacook loosely translates to “Place where many deer are found.” Annabessacook? “Smooth water,” roughly.
It is no wonder that the song “Moonlight Bay” was rumored to have been penned in the area. I must admit, I became a willing victim to the tranquility of the Annabessacook. After all, I had just arrived from 16 fun-filled, action-packed days in Portland, blowing an entire month’s entertainment budget in the process.
On my only Saturday night in the Augusta area, I stayed at the campground for karaoke
and was invited to a campfire after-party, where I strummed the ukulele and everyone sang along. (I got more nose wrinkles when I mentioned I would be in Bar Harbor over Independence Day. Are people that averse to crowds here, or is it going to be absolute mayhem?)
While in the Augusta area I did manage to photograph the State House and tour the Maine State Museum,
but I skipped other ancillary sightseeing, like Fort Western (1754), America’s oldest surviving wood fort. I think I’m forted out.
Augusta did not have that much to offer in the way of sightseeing anyway. It sits on the banks of the Kennebec River, and the little town looks so picturesque, but there really isn’t much there.
The upside is that people are more relaxed. This is where you leave your car windows down due to heat without concern for theft, and others remind you to run out and close them as dark storm clouds come rolling in out of nowhere.
There are more French speakers on television, indicative of the proximity to Canada. Mainer accents are thicker in Augusta, unlike a city like Portland where there are so many transplants. My accent, or lack thereof, sticks out more here. While I was buying mosquito cream (they love me!) at the local plant nursery, another customer asked if I was “From away.” “Because I’m buying mosquito repellant or because of my accent?” “Yes,” she said.
Small little unmarked cemeteries abound, but I fear I cannot stop and photograph each one; white people have been dying for hundreds of years longer in this part of the United States, and there are simply too many!
Still and all, being the sucker that I am for a good graveyard story, I’ve booked another cemetery tour in Bangor. How can I not when it is the home of Stephen King?
I’ve noticed that “Maine” is a good name for a state, simply because of the plethora of play-on-words slogans and business names. Bagel Mainea. The Maine Event. Maine Street. Mainely Produce.
Augusta failing to hold my rapt attention, I started day-tripping. One day I drove south along the Kennebec River to Hallowell (1761 – pop. 2,381) and Gardiner (pop. 5,800) – both towns known for their restaurants and antiquing.
It just so happened the Gardiner was celebrating Riverfest, and I perused the vendors before having lunch in an authentic 1947 diner.
Other day trips found me on the Maine MidCoast, which was anywhere from an hour to two hours from Augusta. I put some miles on Toad! It was during those trips that I realized – Mainers are quite the tailgaters. You would think that in a state with so much open space, with treacherous road conditions in winter, they would leave more room in between vehicles. Perhaps it has something to do with the state motto, “Dirigo.” I looked it up. “I lead.” Maybe they just cannot bear to follow.
On another getaway I traveled to Wiscasset, along the banks of the Sheepscot River. Wiscasset bills itself as “The prettiest village in Maine.”
That may be true, but I can’t say for sure, because I was enthralled with Red’s Eats. Continuing on my lobster roll roll, I made the pilgrimage to Red’s, and it did not disappoint. Best damned lobster roll to date.
I continued on to Boothbay Harbor, a quaint little town that made me wish I was staying there instead of Augusta.
A fog rolled in at Spruce Point, making everything eerily quiet.
From Boothbay Harbor I drove to the Kennebec River town of Bath, historic home of shipbuilders, still home today to Bath Iron Works, where the vibe was distinctly more blue-collar and less affluent, but very welcoming.
They have a beautiful dog park there.
I returned to the Maine MidCoast on another day, this time in search of oysters. In Portland I saw names like Damariscotta and Pemaquid on little signs shoved into ice next to fresh bivalves. When it came to oysters on the half shell, I was determined to visit the place of their origin.
It turns out Damariscotta is a word that describes a town, a river, and a lake. In the town of Newcastle, within spitting distance across the Damariscotta River from the town of the same name, I found exactly what I was looking for at the Newcastle Publick House; my half dozen oysters were pulled that day from the river, where they are relocated to be finished. The river imparts a high salinity that is a bit shocking at first, but tasty.
From Damariscotta it was a short trip to Pemaquid Point to see the lighthouse completed in 1835 – the first lighthouse ever to appear on US currency when it was picked for the Maine quarter in 2003.
My final day in Augusta was spent once again in the MidCoast region, this time in St. George, specifically Port Clyde. LL Bean heiress Linda Bean has taken special interest and care with the Port Clyde area, which is no surprise, as she lives just up the road in Tenants Harbor. This is no Bruce and Demi buying an Idaho town kind of thing; Linda has lived in Maine her whole life and is especially interested in preserving Maine history in general, and the lobster industry specifically. In keeping with her love of the region and of the Wyeth family, she offers a 2 1/2 hour boat tour called, “Wyeths on Water.”
I scheduled the tour for Monday. On Monday morning Rayette phoned to say there was a small craft advisory. We agreed to try again on Tuesday. She made the same call on Tuesday, both of us hoping that Wednesday might work. What do you know, Wednesday was perfect! Not only that, I was the only customer on board.
On the tour we passed the Marshall Point Light, featured in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Remember when he ran from coast to coast?
It was amazing to get Rayette’s undivided attention, to look at the art created by the Wyeth family as I was viewing the actual scenery itself, and to watch captain Dennis and Rayette pull lobster pots.
I understand now why people looked at me quizzically in Portland when I told them I was going to Augusta. Augusta is a sleepy little town. In hindsight, I would stay on the MidCoast and take a day trip to Augusta, instead of the other way around. Still, I’m glad I got to see the Lakes Region and meet the nice people who live there.
I’m really looking forward to Bangor, for so many reasons. My main purpose in going there is Stephen King, and I have booked a three-hour SK tour, which includes his home. I am rendezvousing with my RVer friends Alice and Joanne there before they head to Nova Scotia, and it will be wonderful to see them again. Things can get a bit solitary when you travel alone, even for someone like me who cherishes alone time but easily strikes up conversations with strangers. But, since arriving in Augusta, I have also received emails from two readers who live in New England and invited me to stop by for a visit! One lives in Boston, and the other in Eastport, Maine, about two hours east of Bar Harbor. As I started my journey in the west, I assumed most of my readers were also in the west. What a delight to hear from people on the East Coast.
NEXT STOP: BANGOR, MAINE