“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 visited 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 capital and photograph the capitol building. Of course, the capital 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, in the Abenaki language, 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. Maine-iac. And how’s this for a little trivia: Maine is the only state pronounced with one syllable, and the only state that borders only one other state: New Hampshire.
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.
Third Boxcar, Midnight Train …
The hard “R” in the English language has been all but forgotten in New England. You paak the cah at Haaavad Yahd, as the old saying goes. The one exception is Bangor. Don’t call it “Banger,” like bangers and mash. You will be both scoffed at and corrected. And no, it’s not “Bang Or” either. Say it with me: “Bane Gore.”
I knew two things about Bangor as I drove here. 1) It is mentioned (and mispronounced) in the tune “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, and 2) Stephen King lives here; Bangor truly is the Derry, Maine he has written about so often. Really, the whole reason I came to Bangor is Stephen King.
Bangor is a pretty sleepy little town of 33,000, once home to the timber trade, then shoe manufacturing, and now a healthcare hub. Henry David Thoreau referred to Bangor as “A star on the edge of the night.” You could drive five more hours north of Bangor and still be in Maine. There’s not much up there but woods and dirt roads and moose (including Maine’s highest peak – Mt. Katahdin, and Baxter State Park, a great expanse of woods with no amenities).
All those people to the north, to the west, and in Bangor get their healthcare here.
Once you’ve driven through the small town and seen the views of the Penobscot River, you have seen about all there is to see in Bangor. Oh, wait – I’m forgetting the Hollywood Casino! In all seriousness, the town does have a beautiful public library, thanks in no small part to Steve and Tabby King, and some historic buildings and homes thanks to those lumber barons (the Kings live in one of those beautiful old homes).
On my first night in Bangor I turned on the satellite to find “The Cider House Rules” on television. How wonderful to be in the state of Maine for the first time, watching a movie that showcases so much of Maine’s beauty. “Goodnight, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!”
The RVing community is small in Maine, even in summertime. A couple I first met in Portland, who write RV park reviews for Good Sam, ran into me again in Bangor. The gentleman parked next to me in Winthrop is now parked next to me here.
I have become aware of some Maine state laws that just make so much sense. 1. Headlights on when windshield wipers are on; 2. If you order a bottle of wine at a restaurant, you may take the unfinished portion with you; and 3. When two lanes become one, instead of a sign saying “Merge” or “Yield,” the sign says “Take Turns.”
Talk about first world problems; the fun-filled, action-packed Saturday I planned from afar for Bangor was a bust. Through the Bangor Historical Society, I took a tour of Mount Hope Cemetery, the second oldest garden cemetery in America
(second only to Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I do plan to pay my respects), and I hate to say it, but the guide was rather boring. How do you wander around a cemetery with more souls in it than the living in Bangor, and not have good stories to tell? I mean, he told some stories, but he didn’t tell them very well.
It didn’t help that right in the middle of the tour, the Constant Companion decided to make its presence felt. There are no bathrooms at the cemetery. None. Not even a porta-potty. I excused myself before the tour concluded, ran to the car, and drove like a crazy person to the mall area, where I reached a bathroom just in time. Thanks, Petco!
For that evening, I had booked a performance at Husson University’s newly constructed Gracie Theater – “One Night in Memphis.”
I assumed it was a play, but no playbills were distributed before the performance. It turns out the whole show was a bunch of Memphis Sun Studios impersonators, from Carl Perkins to Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis to Elvis himself. The sound in the theater was ghastly. The performers were proficient, but lackluster. I’ve seen and heard better rockabilly music at taverns in Seattle. I was also feeling pretty resentful that some of my most revered rock ‘n’ roll icons were being impersonated so poorly on stage. I left before intermission.
As per my usual, I went in search of the oldest bar in Bangor.
The Waverly isn’t much to look at, but it’s been an operation since 1974.
Jimmy was tending bar and all the locals were there. Jimmy’s dog, Buddy Hoover, is bar mascot.
Jimmy introduced me, on the house, to “The Champagne of Maine,” coffee-flavored brandy. Delicious!
Somewhat disenchanted with my home for a week, I traipsed an hour and a half back to the Maine MidCoast for more exploring, visiting the towns of Belfast, Camden, and Rockland.
Belfast sits on the Passagassawakeag River – such a mouthful that the locals call it the Passy River for short. A lovely footbridge traverses the entire waterway, with views of the town. Belfast is quite the haven for progressive art and artists, earning it the nickname “Moonbat Kingdom.”
I felt very at home in Belfast and wanted to stay longer. I’ll be back.
The real purpose for my journey was the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, repository of many important works of N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. It did not disappoint.
I also walked the almost mile-long Rockland Harbor Breakwater on Penobscot Bay to the lighthouse and back without slipping or snapping an ankle. No bathroom out there either, and I was pretty worried about what I would do if the Constant Companion struck, but luckily everything held together. Okay, I’m gonna say it: I held my shit together! (I apologize …)
Driving through Camden on my way back to Bangor, I did not take a single picture of its picturesque downtown or harbor. I stopped for lunch at McLaughlin’s at the beach in Lincolnville, but didn’t snap photos of my meal! Ladies and gentlemen, I no longer feel like a tourist. The Maine MidCoast has really won my heart. I would like to return and spend the whole summer there.
Back in Bangor, things really started to look up. First, my friends Alice and Joanne arrived from Minneapolis.
I met them at the RVing Women convention in Oklahoma almost two years ago. They travel in their RV about five months out of the year. Talk about fortuitous; they are taking an RV caravan to Nova Scotia, which happens to rally at the RV park where I’m staying!
The other great thing that transpired, the catalyst that brought me to Bangor, was the tour of Stephen King’s “Derry” by Stu Tinker and SK tours.
“Stu” was one of my favorite characters in King’s “The Stand,” and doesn’t Stu Tinker just sound like a Stephen King character name?
Okay, I’m a huge Stephen King fan – really kind of a geek about it. I promise I’m only going to give you the highlights. I think I’ll write a separate article with more details for the hardcore fans.
Bangor is King’s inspiration for Derry, the fictional town in which “It” and several other books are based. The movie based on the book is coming out in September, and I bet Stu is going to be busier than a one-armed paper hanger.
Here is King’s house on North Broadway. Perfect, don’t you think?
This is the business King drove by every day, inspiring the name of his ultimate evil character, the devil himself, Randall Flagg:
The standpipe, where Stan encountered the ghosts of drowned children in “It:”
The spot in Mount Hope Cemetery where SK filmed the funeral scene for “Pet Sematary:”
“The Barrens,” where in “It” the Losers Club built a dam.
Here is the drain King walked by one day, during a rainstorm, which gave him the idea for Pennywise the Clown (arm added by Stu for the photo op!):
And Paul Bunyan, erected by the city in 1959 to commemorate its lumber history, but who will always be remembered as the statue that comes to life and terrorizes Richie in “It:”
My other geek-out moment came when I visited Gerald Winters and Son, a bookstore in downtown Bangor specializing in Stephen King books and memorabilia. The bookstore windows are all decorated for the “It” onslaught, bound to ensue when the movie premieres.
The MidCoast beckoned me back on my final day in Bangor, when Alice, Joanne and I drove to Castine and to the Penobscot Narrows Observatory.
Castine (1613), founded before the Plymouth colony, has been occupied by the French, the English and the Dutch. Signs are posted all around the burg, oozing historical anectdotes.
The Castine Historical Society does an excellent job of preserving and highlighting Castine’s colorful history.
Castine was the site of the failed Penobscot Expedition, when the British navy prevailed over Revolutionaries, including Paul Revere – the greatest American naval defeat until Pearl Harbor in 1941. When the British were defeated, those loyal to them picked up lock, stock and barrel, including homes, and moved to Canada. They left the British customs house behind, which is now the oldest post office in the United States.
Walking around the town, you understand why Castine is consistently named one of the most picturesque towns in Maine.
Another day, another lighthouse! This time the Dyce Head Light in Castine (1828), which is now a private residence. Just how awesome would that be?!
Twenty minutes north, along the Penobscot River, is Bucksport and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory. The Observatory is the first bridge observation tower in the United States and the tallest public bridge observatory in the world, at 420 feet. From the tower you can see Fort Knox, the town of Bucksport, the Penobscot River, and the Bay.
MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE (BAR HARBOR & ACADIA NATIONAL PARK)
Bar Harbor was once named Eden – so proclaimed in writing by Samuel Adams, cousin of John. Deductive reasoning would suggest it was named after the idyllic utopia of biblical fame. It really is painfully, breathtakingly beautiful on Mount Desert Island. (By the way, “Desert” is pronounced like a verb and not a noun.)
In actuality, Eden was named for Sir Richard Eden, an English statesman. In 1918 it was re-named Bar Harbor, syncing with its description on nautical charts; a piece of land connecting two islands was, and still is, treacherous for boats.
During low tide the land bridge continues to be a popular walk between Bar Harbor and uninhabited Bar Island, and inevitably a few times a year tourists get temporarily stranded on the wrong side of the tide.
Despite the name change, the word Eden is a part of many business names around town. Highway 3 into Bar Harbor: Eden Street. A palatial, gated estate outside of town – “East of Eden.” Clever!
Acadia National Park makes up a large part of Mount Desert Island. Unique in its inception, the park is made up entirely of donated land. At the turn of the 20th Century, city folk came to the island in droves for rest and relaxation. Called “Rusticaters,” the especially well-to-do built “cottages” consisting of anywhere from 30 to 60 rooms. What made it a cottage and not a mansion? No ballroom. Now that’s roughing it!
It is such a shame that a huge fire started at the Bar Harbor town dump in 1947, wiping out almost all the cottages. The families, possessing similar cottages in other idyllic communities, decided not to rebuild. Remnants of foundations, grand entrances and walkways can be seen on the road into town, and in 2007, the town added capstones to mark where some of the cottages were located.
In an amazing gesture of philanthropy and largesse, the Morgans, Vanderbilts, Astors, Pulitzers, Proctors, Rockefellers and their ilk decided the land that eventually became Acadia must be preserved for the public.
Not every donator is a household name, but you can be sure old money made this national park happen.
It’s no wonder they felt this way; the features of the park are truly spectacular. Thunder Hole, where waves crash into the rock formation with a cacophonous roar,
just to name a few, and 125 miles of hiking trails.
John D Rockefeller, Jr. is largely responsible for the look and feel of Acadia National Park. He financed the building of 16 bridges and 53 miles of carriage roads. Large pink granite stones, quarried right here on MDI, line the thoroughfares, protecting travelers from the edge. Known as “coping stones,” the workers who spent 27 years building Rockefeller’s vision affectionately called them “Mr. Rockefeller’s teeth.”
To this day, workers who clean debris and weeds from between the stones call it “flossing.”
For the guy whose family started Standard Oil, Junior was no fan of the automobile. In fact, he banned them on his carriage roads, erecting houses for full-time gatekeepers to keep automobiles out. When the writing was on the wall in the 1940s about the tenacity of the horseless carriage, Rockefeller built an automobile Loop Road so the carriage roads could remain car-free. To this day, no public automobiles are allowed on the carriage roads. They are the playground of horses, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists, and hikers. On the day before Independence Day, while vehicles and people crawled like ants through the park, I took a peaceful and scenic carriage ride. On the two hour trip we saw a total of four bicyclists and two hikers.
The Rockefellers still own land on Mount Desert Island, and one day I took the dogs to a leash-free area at Little Long Pond, just outside Acadia, which the family opened up for visitors in honor of Junior’s 100 birthday.
With such beauty and natural splendor comes crowds, and lots of them. Those who warily predicted multitudes and throngs to me were not wrong. I did what I could to sidestep them, keeping track of the cruise ship schedule, rising early, and planning many events before or after Independence Day. But, many times the masses could not be avoided.
For example, sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain: Who knew so many people would be interested in something as old-school as a sunrise? I tend to prefer sunsets, as they arrive at a decent hour and usually involve cocktails, but I could not pass up the allure of being in the spot where the sun first kisses the contiguous United States each day.
I woke at 3:30 a.m. to make it to the mountaintop by 4:45 a.m. Here was my view at 4:25 a.m.
And here was my view a couple of minutes before sunrise.
A gaggle of teenage girls sat down to my right, blathering on about this and that and piercing the peaceful quiet.
They were constantly on their phones, but not taking photographs. Who the hell were they texting at 4:30 in the morning, Eastern time?
That big round orange orb you see is not the sunrise, but an exceptionally tall man in an orange hoodie who decided to stand right in front of us in the final moments.
I like to call this one “Lemmings with iPhones.”
I did not enjoy driving in Bar Harbor. It felt like a twisted video game, where any misstep or moment of inattention could result in death or dismemberment. Traffic backed up for miles in Acadia one day when a car hit a bicyclist. Just outside the campground on July 4, I passed a motorcycle wedged under a car. In one week I saw injured bodies laying on the side of the road twice, and that is two times too many. Added consternation came in the form of a two-year road project on Highway 3, resulting in a rather large detour through a rural area that snarled traffic and added many minutes to the journey in both directions.
For a much-needed respite I traveled to the villages on “Quietside,” the section of Mount Desert Island west of Somes Sound. Here is a view of Southwest Harbor.
Somesville is the oldest village on Mount Desert Island, founded in 1761.
The village sits at the northern end of Somes Sound, a natural fjord.
The only other one like it is Puget Sound, my home-sweet-home in Washington. The Selectmen’s Building (1790) is now the Mount Desert Island Historical Society Museum.
I bet there are no bad photos of Somesville.
On another day I took a car trip to the Schoodic National Scenic Byway to the village of Winter Harbor, which was uncrowded and serene.
I stopped off at Bartlett’s Winery in Gouldsboro for a bottle of their Rusticator Rum and made a Maine cocktail with it.
Back in town, crowds were par for the course for the Independence Day Parade, but I could not miss what The Today Show, USA Today, and National Geographic have named the best July 4th celebration in America. The free shuttle that runs all over Mount Desert Island – The Island Explorer (thank you, LL Bean!) – was on a limited schedule due to the parade, so for 10 bucks I got a ride downtown from a tour company van parked at the RV park. As luck would have it, I walked up to a second-floor restaurant patio overlooking Main Street just as they were opening, minutes before the parade began.
I am not the type of person to say the last experience I had with something is the best; just because it is the most recent does not make it superlative. But, I get why Bar Harbor’s parade is so popular, and I do believe it is the best small town parade I have ever attended. It has just the right mix of patriotism,
social and environmental consciousness,
and Shriners! Lots of lots of Shriners, on and in various tiny vehicles. They make my heart happy.
That evening I took a boat cruise to view the fireworks, both to avoid the crowds and because of The Constant Companion – nice to have a head on board!
The cruise departed a mile and a half outside of town, which was ideal for avoiding traffic. Our captain, a fisherman by day making extra money during tourist season, barked at a couple attempting to bring a dog on board. “That fucking dog is not coming on my boat. What are you thinking, bringing a dog on a fireworks cruise? Where is it supposed to pee? We are going to be out for three hours. Some people don’t like dogs. Some people are allergic to them!” The shrinking couple muttered there was no need to be rude about it. The captain replied, “I’m being truthful, not rude!” I liked him immediately.
Like the captain, Bar Harbor locals, population 2,500 year-round, are always thinking of cottage industry ways to make extra income from the four- to five-month tourist trade. Many homes advertise farm-fresh eggs, produce, seafoods, woodworking, and craft products. I found particularly charming the camp wood stands along the roadside.
Back at the campground, some of the work campers took me under their wing. Albert and Carol, originally from Maine, now winter in Arizona, but return to Hadley’s Point campground each year to live and work.
They introduced me to Larry and Donna, who hail from Pennsylvania and do the same.
Almost every night Albert had a campfire, and half the park would stop by for a visit.
(Photo by Carol Hamor.)
Larry loves to sing karaoke, and I had the pleasure of joining him on two occasions at a locals karaoke bar, the last time on my birthday, when Albert and Carol brought a cake.
(Karaoke photos by Donna O’Block.)
While in Bar Harbor I also got to meet blog reader and fellow solo woman traveler, Teresa, who travels in an Airstream with her two dogs.
I was a bit disappointed in the food scene in Bar Harbor. The Happy Hour Tour was lackluster. I must admit, after five weeks, I’m growing tired of seafood. Can you believe it? I didn’t even try the lobster roll that Eater suggested in Bar Harbor. I did, however, have my first experience with Cherry Stone Clams, and I am a convert! They are big and meaty. Right across the road from the campground, I feasted on clams and mussels with drawn butter – no nonsense, no attitude, just good seafood, caught that day, steamed and served. (The Cherry Stones are on the far right in the photo.)
I hear that Fall is a great time to be in Bar Harbor. Not only is there amazing leaf peeping, but since the kiddos are back in school, it is less crowded. As one tour guide told me, in the fall the tourists are “Newlyweds and nearly deads.” Wonder where I fit in?
Only three more days left in Maine! I will miss it.
As I drove 2.5 hours northeast of Bar Harbor, on what was at times a very bumpy Highway 1, “The Bold Coast Scenic Byway,” Frank Sinatra’s song, “Let’s Get Away From It All” kept playing in a loop in my head. There is no doubt, this is coastal, rural Maine – WAY “Downeast.”
How I came to find myself in Eastport, Maine was quite serendipitous. Martha, a blog reader who lives in Miami and keeps a summer cottage in Eastport, invited me to see her little corner of the world. At first I suggested a day trip from Bar Harbor, but later I confirmed my Bar Harbor reservations were one day shorter than I had on my calendar, and the booking could not be extended. Instead, I scheduled two nights in Eastport, at an RV park overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay and Canada.
Washington County, Maine has a population of 32,000 people, and at over 1.6 million acres, that equates to 13 people per square mile. It takes almost 4 hours to drive from one end of the county to the other. The county is larger in area than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Eastport (1780), on Moose Island between Passamaquoddy Bay and Cobscook Bay, once a thriving sardine and shipbuilding community, is struggling a bit with its economy, and identity.
Calais, 25 minutes away, is the destination for most major shopping. The closest airport is Bangor, over two hours away. Town pamphlets boast there are no fast food restaurants, big box stores, or reliable cell service – that’s right, you must actually get your nose out of your device and interact with people. The town is a mixture of long time locals and “PFA’s,” People From Away. Many PFA’s hail from Florida and vacation in Eastport, with water views from almost every vantage point, and reasonable housing prices.
Whether a family with roots that go back generations or recent transplants, the people of Eastport will tell you the same: 1) THIS is the real Maine; and 2) Bar Harbor is not Maine.
Many of the shops in the Historic District along Water Street house art and artists, but Eastport has not fully embraced that creative metamorphosis. Case in point: The Eastport Mermaid, “Nerida,” erected on Eastport’s waterfront two years ago.
And I do mean “erect.” There was quite a controversy about the hardness of her nipples. Hey, she just came out of the water!
A curious piece of art also adorns the Historic District, once a prop for a reality television show, now a memorial to a fallen New York City fireman.
In 2001, Fox filmed the reality show “Murder in Small Town X” in Eastport, calling the town “Sunrise.” Ahhh, the early days of reality TV, when there was an actual attempt at a plot and a plan. The premise: A family was murdered, and contestants were tasked to solve the crime. I watched a couple of episodes on YouTube when I first arrived in Eastport, and the show felt like a mix of “Murder, She Wrote,” theater in the round, a cheesy corporate team-building exercise, and “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.”
As the fickle hand of fate would have it, the young man who won the competition died a short time later on 9/11. The people of Eastport restored the abandoned prop and placed it in the town in his memory.
The generosity of time and spirit of Martha, her husband Jay, and her neighbors Michael and John floored me. When I arrived in Eastport, Martha had just gotten in from Florida the day before. It also happened to be her wedding anniversary. Still, she met me at the campground, took me on a driving and walking tour of the town, gave me a tour of their adorable cottage, and took me to lunch. Two nights in a row, we had dinner together.
While at lunch Martha pointed out a bottle of Raye’s Mustard, made in Eastport! Off we went to the factory, touted as America’s last family-owned, authentic, 100 percent stoneground mustard, founded in 1900.
A map hung in the gift shop, inviting visitors to stick a pin in their hometown. I was the first person to claim Seattle, which has never happened with those visitor maps before. I don’t know if that says more about mustard, Seattleites, or Eastport.
I gave Martha a break from tour guide duties the second day, driving about an hour to see a lighthouse and a summer cottage.
While at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, I was enamored with this photo, taken at the West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec, Maine.
I had seen many photos of the iconic red-striped lighthouse, one of only two in the country painted that way, so a pilgrimage was in order.
The marker really should say “in the contiguous United States,” because of Alaska, but we’ll forgive them. “Easternmost” is a big selling point in this part of the country, from easternmost gift shop to easternmost town to easternmost city to easternmost golf course.
Lubec really is the easternmost point of land in the continental United States. Once a fishing village, it is slowly reinventing itself as an artistic and cultural community.
Campobello Island, one of the three Fundy Isles, is located on the Bay of Fundy across the international bridge from Lubec.
Campobello Island is in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. I crossed the border for a couple of hours to commune with the Roosevelts. In the early 1900s, the family kept a summer cottage at Campobello. In fact, it was at Campobello that FDR contracted polio and had to be secreted away by train, far from the public eye.
With 34 rooms, including 12 bedrooms, and six bathrooms, it was a favorite of Eleanor, who continued to summer there until her death in the 1960s.
On the morning I was due to depart, Martha and I stopped to visit and shop at David Oja’s beautiful jewelry and design studio. Check out his work here. He ships!
What a wonderful surprise, to learn of Eastport and travel there. With every person I met, I had to promise to return, perhaps for the Pirate Festival, held the weekend after Labor Day each September. I even had two offers to park Nellie. It would be fun to watch the citizens of Eastport “invade” Lubec by boat, water balloons a-flying.
To paraphrase Billy Joel, I never knew what friends I had until I came to Eastport. I am so fortunate to be living this life.
Up next: Burlington, Vermont.