While rolling down Route 52, between Megunticook Lake’s placid waters and the leafy maples of Camden Hills State Park, a sandwich board with the words “fresh blueberries” slowly came into focus. I made the snap decision to pull a Smart-car-sized U-ey into a dirt-covered driveway, my tiny wheels creating plumes of dust behind a roadside farm stand. As I opened the door, a gray-haired man casually approached me, looked at my little coupe, and said, “You could fit 40 of those cars in here.” Yes, it was summer in Maine.
For city dwellers like me, weekend escapes hold a certain power, one that unleashes the potential for letting go and puts you in touch with your other personality, the more relaxed, spontaneous you. And while simple pleasures like just-picked fruit on a country drive hold the essence of summer anywhere, few places provide as ideal a setting as Maine’s Penobscot Bay region, where the produce is fresh, the sea breezes calming, and the locals cheerful.
After a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, my weekend officially began early on a Friday afternoon as I swung open the red porch door of the Hartstone Inn & Hideaway, an elegant culinary B&B in the coastal village of Camden. My room wasn’t quite ready, but any worry I had immediately flew out the doorway. The hostess, who was prepping for the evening dinner service, pulled out a map and circled small renderings of a nearby wine store and cheese shop, as if the two together made a perfect wait-for-your-room pairing.
Food, whether fished out of the sea or plucked from the earth, is one of the region’s biggest draws. From large-clawed lobsters served through weathered takeout widows to organic microgreens delicately arranged on fine dinnerware, the cuisine is homegrown, honest, and authentically Maine. And despite cool northern climes and rugged coastlines, vintners manage to produce wine here, too.
At Primo Restaurant in Rockland, the distance food travels from the field to the fork is condensed to mere feet. Inspired by her former employer, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, James Beard Award-winning Chef Melissa Kelly brings the values of “local” and “seasonal” to her Italian-inspired menu by growing ingredients on her surrounding four-acre farm. At times, Kelly can be seen running out to the garden to snip herbs for use in the kitchen, where her team attentively rolls out fresh pasta and cures farm-raised meats, all by hand.
A few miles up the coast, guided by chef-owner Michael Salmon, the Hartstone Inn offers laidback gourmet dinners in addition to daily multicourse breakfasts. Salmon seamlessly meshes classic New England fare (such as local crab) with international influences (like Caribbean remoulade), and he invites guests to join him for one-on-one cooking classes. For a true taste of Maine, the inn staff will pack a “Lobster Picnic Pail,” complete with a blanket, a map of a local picnic spot, lobster rolls, potato salad, and Maine whoopie pies (two cookie-like pieces of chocolate cake sandwiched together with a cream filling).
One morning at breakfast, innkeeper Mary Jo noticed me swiping through a tabletop iPad stocked with links to area activities and asked me what I was going to do for the day. My reply? “Windjammers and wineries.” She immediately handed me a piece of paper detailing the “Hartstone Inn Winery Tour,” which listed three stops and accompanying driving directions. (The windjammers were just across the street, floating in Camden Harbor.)
Among the wooden barrels and stainless steel tanks at Cellardoor Winery, I curiously watched as owner Bettina Doulton climbed high up on a stack of pallets and grabbed a few bottles of an unreleased vintage for an impromptu tasting. Perhaps it’s because of the unconventional grape-growing climate or the quirkiness of the winemakers, but Maine’s wineries are filled with surprises. Not only does Cellardoor have a wine “villa” in Rockport, but it also has a full-fledged tasting room and winery, set on a 200-year-old Lincolnville farm. Cabernet. Grenache. Chardonnay. Pino Gris. Not all of Cellardoor’s grapes are grown locally in its vineyards, but there’s enough variety to keep you wondering about Maine wines.
“From Camden Harbor, we headed toward a small island, passing Curtis Island Light and sailing alongside other schooners and larger windjammers as if we were all part of a single fleet, cruising in seductive synchronicity.”
The cuisine might be a shining star in midcoast Maine, but it’s not the guiding constellation that draws most visitors from near and far. If you’ve ever seen romantic images of windjammers and schooners with gale-filled sails or fisherman hauling home their catch on stormy waters, you know it’s the sea that ultimately calls. This is the Maine immortalized by American painters like Winslow Homer, whose work is kept on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Across the street in the “church,” the Wyeth Center honors three generations of Wyeths (N.C., Andrew, and James), who have captured the soul of Maine and its dramatic coast on canvas.
What’s most remarkable about Penobscot Bay is that there’s little dissonance between reality and imagination, and you can relive the paintings on a day (or longer) sail. Aboard the Schooner Olad, a restored yacht built in 1927, the first mate called for volunteers, and within seconds, I was hoisting the sail and feeling the lean as we tacked out to the open ocean. From Camden Harbor, we headed toward a small island, passing Curtis Island Light and sailing alongside other schooners and larger windjammers as if we were all part of a single fleet, cruising in seductive synchronicity.
As my weekend wound down, I made one final stop to hike over the large boulders that lead out to the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, which stands in solitude at the end of a 0.8-mile-long breakwater. Like the diminutive beacon that weathers the whims of the sea, I allowed the wind to whistle in my ears and welcomed the occasional spray of saltwater, fully yielding in the spirit of letting go.
On my way back to Boston, Sunday traffic piled up and my three-and-a-half-hour drive turned into five. Instead of feeling anxious to get home or dwelling on the confinement of my little car, I tapped into my newly established peaceful state of mind. To my right, a quart of wild Maine blueberries held a place of honor in the front seat, and their presence put me at ease. After all, the tiny berries would soon become pies and I could hold on to my weekend in Maine for just a little bit longer.
How to Book: Rates at the Hartstone Inn & Hideaway start at $125 per night. You can book on BedandBreakfast.com, where the Hartstone was featured as one of the Top 10 Culinary Inns for 2013. The website lists 25 other inns in Camden and 20 in Rockland, with average rates between $135 and $145 per night.
Have a question for Anne about her trip to Penobscot Bay? Want to share your own experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.
(Photos: Anne Banas)
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