We meant to spend the entire month of August in Maine, a state neither of us had ever visited (even though I graduated from a college in Vermont!). But between our trip out west, having too much fun with family in Baltimore, and one long day visiting friends and provisioning in New York City, we were only as far north as Newport, RI by the fifth of August. And because Mother Nature is a most capricious creature, the normal prevailing southwest winds off the coast got stuck in a northeast pattern, delaying us a further week.
If you have to get stuck someplace, though, Newport is a great town. We had all kinds of adventures, from taking a bus up to a winery and farmers market, to touring the 1936 USCGC barque Eagle, a 295 foot cutter that is used as a training ship and is the only active commissioned sailing vessel in the U.S. military.
We did an extensive amount of bike riding and cliff walking amongst the Newport summer "cottages," which in local speak means enormous mansions. We toured the grande dame of them all, the Vanderbilts' Breakers, a 138,300 square foot monument to Victorian excess, whose dining room alone is the size of our old house in Oregon (2,400 square feet). The most exciting discovery for us on that tour was finding a hand-painted image of Thalia, along with the other Greek muses, in a breakfast room. She was about four feet high, one foot wide, and painted on a sheet of pure platinum to prevent tarnishing. I'm guessing you could have bought more than one of our Oregon houses for what that room's sheet metal is worth!
Newport's harbor is a terrific one to anchor in, roomy and well protected from wind. There's a very nice marine center in which one can shower, do laundry, and hang out. And there's a jaw-dropping parade of mega-yacht sailboats, from gorgeous classic three-masted schooners, to modern 170 foot sailing yachts such as the Meteor ketch, which one can charter for a week for a mere $150,000, plus expenses.
Finally, August 12 dawned with good sailing conditions, and we headed north around Point Judith, up Buzzards Bay, and through the Cape Cod Canal to Gloucester, Massachusetts. There we spent two nights at anchor in the charming fishing town before continuing north. Gloucester is best known in recent times as the setting for The Perfect Storm, but its history is of course considerably longer and more interesting than that one event. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed here in the early 17th Century. We visited a very moving memorial to fishermen on the nearly 1,000 vessels lost at sea from 1623 to the 1980s, with names numbering in the hundreds some particularly bad years. There doesn't appear to have been a single year without some loss of life to this town.
By the 16th, conditions were right to continue up the coast. We decided to do so on an overnight passage, as there are relatively few safe harbors in which to anchor along the Massachusetts and New Hampshire coasts. Once you reach Maine, though, that changes. Maine's glacier-gouged coastal profile looks like a giant hand scraped the shoreline down into the water, creating countless rivers, bays, islands and coves.
Note the locals call this area "down east," a term that has several definitions and can apply to the Maine coast or the entire northern New England area, up to Canada. Wikipedia provided one widely accepted definition:
Down East, The Magazine of Maine explains the origin of the term in New England: "When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term 'Down East.' And it follows that when they returned to Boston they were sailing upwind; many Mainers still speak of going 'up to Boston,' despite the fact that the city lies approximately 50 miles to the south of Maine's southern border."
In any event, we were quickly corrected by locals and visitors alike until we got this right.
The complex geography and myriad potential destinations make it somewhat bewildering to plan one's first trip to this area. Our goals were to hook up with several friends while there, so that provided the framework for where we'd head.
Located near the mouth of the West Penobscot Bay, Rockland was where we landed on our passage up (down?) from Gloucester, because our friend Jan suggested it. We first met Jan in Bimini back in February, where he was single-handedly sailing Bohemia, the lovely 32 foot trimaran he built entirely himself over the course of 12 years in his barn in rural Maine. A native of the Czech Republic, Jan became an American citizen, and has been living with his wife Laura in a small town called Solon for 20 years. Rockland is where he usually launches Bohemia - small enough to trailer with her mast laid flat - so when he heard we'd be visiting, he brought her down and met us there.
Rockland turned out to be a large and very comfortable anchorage. Heading into the West Penobscot around Owl's Head gave us our first taste of Maine's stunning coastal views and the challenge of navigating around countless thousands of gaily colored - but often difficult to spot - lobster pot floats.
Rockland itself is a working town rather than a tourist town, but it's a great stop for a cruising sailor. We found a terrific marine supply store (Hamilton's), with better prices than West Marine and some really interesting merchandise, such as bags of 1,000 thick rubber bands for securing lobster claws. We located a very good little co-op grocery store where we stocked up on grass-fed meats, local eggs and vegetables, and unbelievably delicious grapefruit-sized cantaloupes that reminded me of the famous Cavaillon melons in Provence.
Most importantly, though, we dug into some of the phenomenally fresh local seafood. Our favorite haunt in Rockland - we visited three times during our two stays there - was Claws, an unassuming waterfront shack on the north end of town, past the ferry terminal, fish processing plants, and boat yards with vast forests of metal stands on which hauled-out boats are balanced for winter storage.
Claws is painted red, of course, and has a walk-up counter and some outdoor seating covered by a lobster-red awning. It is inexpensive, has very good food, and is utterly charming. Our first visit we had the 2/$20 deal, two one-pounders served with drawn butter. We added coleslaw (something everyone in Maine seems to do very well) and really good hand-cut fries to that. Of course we could have each eaten both of those lobsters, but it wasn't as if we left hungry. On our two subsequent visits we feasted on their nearly perfect lobster rolls - nothing but chopped lobster with a little Hellman's mayonnaise on a buttered bun - as well as steamer clams, a broiled haddock sandwich, and a surprisingly lovely and fresh mixed green salad with a blueberry vinaigrette.
Augusta, Solon, and inland Maine
Having friends like Jan makes all the difference in how much we get out of our travels. We would never have ventured beyond walking or bike riding distance of the ports we visited, but Jan invited us to spend a long weekend with Laura and him in Solon, some 90 miles northeast of Rockland. He suggested driving through the state capitol of Augusta on the way and visiting the museum there. We left both boats securely anchored and drove off, taking back roads whenever possible to see more of the countryside.
And what beautiful country it is! What we've seen of Maine - on the coast as well as inland - reminds us of the Pacific Northwest and, in places, Alaska. On the way to Solon we saw miles of bucolic, rolling hills, thick forests, low stone walls, and great old barns with peeling paint. Sadly, the farming economy has been dwindling for some time, so we saw a number of abandoned farms, houses badly in need of repair, and empty storefronts in the rural areas. But Mainers are a tenacious bunch - they don't seem too fazed by it all.
Augusta was a typical state capitol, to my eyes. (I believe Annapolis is the only state capitol I've ever visited that is so charming and thriving that it seems to have entirely escaped the has-been aura so many of these cities have). But the Maine State Museum
there was amazing. Dedicated to the culture and natural history of the state, in my experience it was second only to the transcendent Holocaust Museum in Caen, Normandy. We were there when it opened and stayed until early afternoon, when hunger drove us on to find a roadside cafe as we continued north.
We stopped again in Waterville to make a quick driving and walking tour of the lovely campus of Colby College, where our daughter-in-law Meghan earned her undergraduate degree. In Waterville Jan also took us to a local cafe/farmstand where I gleefully purchased bags of locally grown and freshly milled rye and wheat flours. (Happily for us, Maine's food scene shares a focus on local, sustainable products with the Pacific Northwest.)
Finally we arrived in tiny Solon, where Jan owns a 200 acre property of woods and arable fields. He told us his criteria when purchasing the property years ago were a long driveway (for privacy) and a large barn (to build and later store his boat). And indeed, the driveway is long, and lined with gorgeous old sugar maples. And the barn is vast, sited near a rambling 19th century clapboard house.
We spent three blissful nights here, sleeping better than we have in a long time in that wonderfully deep, dark night you can only find in rural areas. During the days, Jan - a generous and tireless host and tour guide - took us on a trek to discover the countryside. We hiked to two waterfalls, including dramatic Moxie Falls, drove around Moosehead Lake and lunched lakeside on local fish, and visited the unique and interesting South Solon Meeting House
, built in 1843 as a religious and community center, and gradually renovated over the years. It features two entrance doors, pews in individual boxes with hinged doors, and an extraordinary collection of contemporary floor-to-ceiling frescos by local art students.
Our last day there, Larry and I borrowed bikes and rode in an eight or nine mile loop around the area, then joined Jan to head over to visit some artist friends who had invited us for a dinner cooked in their outdoor pizza oven. That was quite an interesting evening! Named Abby and Fang, respectively, Jan's friends have lived for many years in a ramshackle, red roofed little house in the big woods, complete with an overgrown but productive vegetable garden and two hand-built studios.
Abby, who attended Reed College in Oregon years ago, is an abstract painter
. Her studio is cluttered but organized, dominated by a huge wood-burning stove in the center of the main room that is actually the guts of an old industrial boiler. Paintings, sketches, and sculptures cover every wall and table, including a fabulous life-sized bronze of a very young Abby done by a sculptor friend years ago, standing in a corner gazing contemplatively out the window. The second rooms features irresistibly colored Mason jars of ground paint pigments - carmine and ultramarine and cadmium and many others - ready to be mixed into oil paints or gouache. Large, colorful papier mâché planet-like orbs dangle from the ceiling.
As interesting as Abby's studio and house are, though, it's Fang's studio that really blows one's mind. The structure is roughly square, set rather precariously upon a foundation of enormous old horizontal cedar logs, and accessed by a rickety ladder. The roof sags a bit; its eaves are held up by young birch trees and the twisted trunk of an old wisteria vine. The building itself - as well as what's in and on it - are Fang's art. He calls it his shrine rather than studio, and it's an apt description. The entire exterior is decorated with an amazing collection of found objects such as dolls and religious relics, pottery and shells, statues and antlers; in short, more than the eye can even take in.
Inside is even more fascinating. The space feels like the interior of an old gypsy caravan. It's compact, and so crammed full of stuff, I don't know exactly where Fang finds surfaces to create his work. But create he does, and his vivid imagination puts together the most extraordinary little shrines and other art imaginable. Jesus and Mary, Buddha and Allah and Shiva and all have their places along with mirrors and mannequins and birds' nests and dolls' heads and milagros and skulls and candles and feather boas and a cigar store Indian and beads and a disco ball, to name just a very few. These are all artfully and wonderfully arranged into groupings that make you feel like you just fell down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. In fact, the entire evening was rather surreal and utterly delightful, including a delicious al fresco pizza dinner (I now want a wood fired pizza oven in the back yard of our next house. My engineer is already researching plans.).
After returning from our fascinating side trip with Jan, we spent another day in Rockland waiting for the thick fog to finally lift, then motored across West Penobscot Bay to the island of North Haven, anchoring in Pulpit Harbor. We chose this destination because my Middlebury college roommate, Mary, and her husband John were there, in the final stages of completing a summer home that John, a residential architect and fine artist
, designed. We had never met John and I hadn't seen Mary in many years - since 1980, in fact - so this was a long overdue reunion.
Mary met us at the dock in the late afternoon - looking if anything better than she did in college! - and we spent an hour or so driving around the island on a very scenic tour. Although they live in Cambridge, Mary and John have been spending summers here since their now grown children were quite young, so their connections on the island go way back, and their knowledge is extensive.
We then finally got to meet John and see his handiwork, a beautifully designed summer cabin with a separate guest house, where son Henry was staying, and nearly completed. The most impressive thing about the interior of the main house - which features a great room, bedroom, bath, and screened porch - is a glass-paned garage door separating the great room from the porch, and which can be rolled up to open up the view, or closed for more warmth. The entire space was lofty yet cozy, all finished in various natural woods, and graced with an enormous old trestle table in the dining area. We had a wonderful dinner of local pork tenderloin, vegetables, ice cream and berries before Mary returned us to the dock for the evening.
The next day we brought our bikes ashore and joined Mary in riding all over the island. John was busy reviewing his final punch list with the contractor. Our first destination was Turner Farm
, a most picturesque working organic farm with a twice-weekly farm stand open in its main barn. There, we stuffed our backpacks with a mountain of vegetables, beef stew meat and bacon, eggs, fruit, and two loaves of bread still piping hot from the oven. We spent a few more hours with Mary wandering through art galleries in town, where I especially admired the work of local artist Andrew Anderson-Bell
, whose pastels vividly capture the beauty of the Penobscot Bay.
Later that evening we picked up Mary and John at the dock in Pulpit Harbor so they could join us for a Provençal beef stew onboard. It was fun seeing an architect explore Thalia's pretty and compact interior, and we spent another very enjoyable evening.
Castine and the turn southward
Other friends we had hoped to join up with this summer are Bill and Frances, but we were so delayed that we missed their annual summer visit to Blue Hill, the next big bay further east. So we headed to Castine instead, up at the very top of the Penobscot Bay, to visit this charming town we'd been told about by a cruising acquaintance who lived there for many years. It's a tiny town - not even a grocery store - but has wonderful scenery, architecture, and was an important site historically, including what NPR termed "The worst naval disaster you've never heard of," resulting in the court-martial of Paul Revere
, who up to now I had thought was a really good guy.
As much as we were enjoying our travels in Maine - and having seen only a very small part of it - we realized it was time to start the long trek southward. So we island-hopped down the bay, staying in a few lovely and remote anchorages. Our last night in Maine was spent at anchor in Booth Bay Harbor, where we didn't even go ashore, as we were gearing up for another short ocean passage back down to the Gloucester area. We did get some very nice photos of several lighthouses on the way there, though, and managed to dodge several kajillion lobster pots.
The passage south started out less than ideally, having to motor sail in tricky, light winds, but by nightfall things steadied out and we sailed nearly the full 20 hours in very pleasant conditions. We're in Rockport, MA now, just a few miles from Gloucester, and have been stuffing ourselves with the three large lobsters we bought. Last night was just straight buttery lobster with coleslaw and a tomato salad. I made a stock with the shells, so tonight we're feasting on lobster risotto. Around midnight or so, we'll head out again to capture the best winds heading down to the Cape Cod area. There, we're meeting up with son Kyle and his girlfriend Kate for a few days before heading over to Nantucket again for our annual post-Labor Day visit with our friends Tom and Jan. And after that, we'll continue to head south to chase warmer weather.