It started in Boston. Hunter arrived on the red-eye, picked up a Jeep, and scooped me from the train station the moment my bus rolled in from NYC. It was Labor Day and we were road-tripping. We could already smell the saltwater and fried clams as we pulled onto Highway 1. Maine was calling our names.
There was something about Maine. Even from afar, it seemed like a place worthy of making the effort to experience. Browsing blogs and google-map marking lobster shacks sent me instantaneously into a happy dance. I hadn’t even been yet! But Maine delivered. Loaded with the things I love: smiling faces, ocean breezes, fresh food. Void of the things I don’t: traffic, arrogance, cement. And while both lobster and blueberries would rank high on a list of simple pleasures, it wasn’t the food or the scenery or any single attribute that made Maine so special. It was all of it tied together, all of it for real. Rarely did I come across a restaurant with an instagram account. Never did I feel I was being sold to. Could Maine be great simply because it was? Not because it was trying to be? How’s that for a modern day brain-teaser.
Our first stop was Bob’s Clam Shack where I was shocked to find the white haired woman behind the counter was in no rush for me to arrive at my order. “Lillian’s style clams or Bob’s!?,” I lamented… “I don’t know!” “Take your time,” she smiled. There could not have been a stronger indication that we were no longer in New York. I “decided” on one of each, and we loaded up on lobster rolls, clams and ice cream before rolling out to Rockland. The seaside hotel was still and sparkling. Perched slightly higher than the ocean, the sprawling lawn was dotted with those white plastic chairs that scream summer and cold rosé in keg cups. We obliged.
For dinner, we headed to Primo, a true farm-to-table establishment. Most of their produce and meat come from the surrounding farm with the restaurant, a multi-room, sprawling farmhouse, at the center. The upstairs bar was surprisingly hip and happening on a Thursday night for a town of 7,000. I admit to doing some aggressive New Yorker things just to get us seats at the bar (vacation takes time to settle in…) where we slurped oysters and drank martinis made with local gin. (Because it’s always wise to match your gin to your seafood!) After moving downstairs for dinner, we popped some bubbly that played nice with all the local produce. The feast included hand-rolled cavatelli with grilled chicken and mushrooms, garden lettuces, plump lobster raviolis and pan roasted halibut with crab cakes and shrimp tomato burr blanc. Cannolis, courtesy of the kitchen, stuffed with fresh ricotta and crushed pistachios arrived to end the night.
The next morning delivered a cotton candy sky as the sun practically rose inside our cottage, pouring through the windows with the ocean breeze. To no one’s surprise, Hunter had spied a sign for doughnuts on our way home from dinner. The Willow Bake Shoppe turned out to be a Rockland tradition, boasting 50+ years of fresh, fried dough. Sitting on the rocky seashore, we licked the sugar from our fingers, sipping hot coffee and marveling at the serenity and beauty we’d so easily slipped into. Things in Maine were off to a good start.
En route to Camden, we burned some calories on the Maiden Cliff Trail. The view of Lake Megunticook from the top was a worthy reward, but the smiling faces along the way were the best part of the hike. The colorful cast of characters included everyone from toddlers to golden retrievers to friendly foodies who directed us to Harbor Dogs for lunch. In Camden’s picturesque port, a retired ship captain enchanted us with stories from yesteryear as part of Camden’s annual windjammer festival. Comments like “Camden, the most beautiful place in the world. Why ever go anywhere else?” were genuine and charming. Armed with fish burritos and sitting with our legs swung over the edge of the dock, we plotted ways to convince him to come along as our tour guide for the rest of our trip. Well curated gift shops and browse worthy bookshops like The Owl and the Turtle made a happy stroll through Camden, but the adventures of Acadia awaited.
Cruising into Bar Harbor, the sun was soft and low. Every island, lobster shack and B&B glittered. I call this golden hour, but for Hunter, it’s happy hour. And when in Maine, this means blueberry beer hour. While I’m not usually a fan of flavored beer, the Sea Dog blueberry on draft was fun and not too fruity. Also, anti-oxidants. Score another one for Maine.
Seemingly everyone recommended Thurston’s Lobster Pound. But while the lobsters were tempting, the long lines weren’t. Instead, we opted to explore some lesser trafficked lobster locations. It didn’t take us long to find Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound where they happily pulled our selections from the tank and plunged them into boiling baths. Once red and ready, we tore in, plunging huge chunks of sweet meat into melted butter, covering our hands and bibs with evidence of the massacre, licking our fingers and washing everything down with local beers.Back in town, we wandered the sweet streets of Bar Harbor, poking our heads into restaurants with live bands and buzzy pubs savoring the last days of summer. At Side Street Cafe, we were (well, I was) tempted by a piece of blueberry pie. We (together this time) ate it from stools and a high counter on their large wooden deck, watching night settle over town.
Sunrises became part of our daily itinerary, so the next morning, we joined 2,000 of our closest friends atop Cadillac Mountain. It was a unique experience to be the first in the U.S. to watch the sun rise, launching us into a full day of outdoor activities. We took full advantage of Acadia’s 47k acres, completing a stunning hike, spending some time sprawled out on Sand Beach, and cruising the full park loop. Despite it now being September, the weather was stunning. The sun danced.
A post-lobster-roll-lunch adventure took us to the south side of Bar Harbor where we discovered the 158 year old Bass Harbor Lighthouse, a terrific bakery (Little Notch!) and (surprise surprise) more blueberry beer. For dinner, lobster continued to rein supreme. We carried a to-go picnic feast (and some wine…) from Rose Eden back up Cadillac Mountain to watch the sun set over the endless bays, islands and harbors. With corn, mussels, two whole lobsters and blueberry pie, it was a feast for kings — fitting with the view of an entire kingdom below.
While watching the sunrise from Cadillac was a must-do experience, we got smarter for day two in the park. The Coffee Cup Diner quickly became our morning favorite both for its 5am open time and the jolly folks who rocked out to rock n’ roll oldies while cooking our breakfast sandwiches. Loaded with egg sammies and blueberry (obviously) muffins, we headed to Acadia’s iconic “Thunder Hole” with a picnic blanket and our thermoses of coffee. While we might not have been the first people in the country to see the sun lift from the horizon, we were completely alone, perched on the edge of the world, drinking up the beauty of the coastline.
Leaving Bar Harbor was tough. The park engulfed me up in the best of ways. The crashing waves, towering trees, the warm, friendly sunshine… there are few things as all-encompassing of heart and soul. I commemorated my love-affair in sweatshirt form… which I decided was a better idea than a tattoo. You’re welcome, mom. M-A-I-N-E is scrawled across my sweatshirt as I type this. A perfect memento of my summer love. We grabbed green juices, Hunter’s least-favorite but a much needed respite from lobster, from Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen and some fantastic treats from Morning Glory Bakery before begrudgingly loading up the Jeep and heading south.
En route to Portland, I assumed my position… feet up, shades on, window down. As I don’t have a driver’s license, (yes, a minor oversight on my part being the one who suggested a road trip…) Hunter graciously accepted responsibility for the road. My job was simple: find the cutest places to stop for provisions. A continuous flow of lobster shacks, picturesque harbors, peek-a-boo white sand beaches and signs pointing every which way for ice cream and blueberry pie meant that we had no shortage of places to stretch our legs.
At this point, we’d eaten a lot of lobster. But the quintessential waterside lobster shack still beckoned. The description of Waterman’s fit the bill, so we headed for the James Beard winning, family-owned eatery. Something was in the air at Waterman’s and it wasn’t just the salty breeze. Was everyone always this friendly? Was the line always this long ? Why was everyone hugging?? As we approached the window, we noticed the sign: “It’s been our pleasure serving you these last 30 years. Today marks our last day.” Perplexed with our luck, we joined the crowd and enjoyed our best lobster meal yet. Perfect lobster rolls on soft potato buns, sweet whole lobsters, and more of Maine’s addicting signature purple dessert. Since it’s BYOB, we chilled a bottle of lobster wine (yep, it’s a thing) in a plastic bucket and poured ourselves glasses to wash down the feast. Luckily the beach was only a few feet away for a sunny siesta.
A few hours later, the sweet serenade of a ukulele welcomed us to our Portland Airbnb. #KeepPortlandWeird must apply to both coasts, which we were more than alright with. There was far too much to see (and eat) in a single day, but we put on our game faces. Happy Hour started with punch at The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. Ceviche snacks, martinis and platters of oysters followed at Eventide. When our table at Central Provisions was finally ready (yes, we waited 3.5 hours….) they treated us to one of those epic, stop you in your tracks, everything is perfect, meals.
Our late night of eating didn’t stop us from again beating the sun, making our way to Cape Elizabeth to watch the day begin over Portland Head Light. Coffee and doughnut pitstops were in order on our way back into town, letting us sample local coffee culture at Tandem, a gas station converted into hipster-coffee-utopia, and finding it very difficult to pick between the flavors of sweet potato confections at Holy Donut. At least the blueberry was an easy choice.
Fall arrived on cue as Labor Day was cool and misty. We made our way back towards the city via some of Maine’s famous white sand beaches. At a small fish shop, I convinced the owner to package up some deconstructed lobster rolls so we could assemble our lunch while on the road. Lobster roadie-rolls were a welcome treat somewhere between New London and Stamford.
The sun came out as we crossed through Connecticut and we cruised back into the city, on one of those not-too-hot yet brilliantly sunny summer afternoons. The Maine halo even made the FDR on a holiday weekend feel easy breezy.
Maine made everything effortless. The next delicious meal or heart-stopping view was never far away. And if you couldn’t quite find it, there was always someone willing to show you the way. It’s that kind of authenticity that allows a deep and fast bond — when every interaction adds a new page to the same story that you simply can’t stop reading. Unapologetically relaxed, unanticipatedly delicious, every town, person and roadside produce stand was more charming than the last. I’ll be back for you, Maine. And when I do, I know just what to expect. Because no matter what changes, you’ll always do your Maine thing. When everything comes from the heart, it’s hard to be anyone but yourself.
If you’re hungry in Maine, here’s what we recommend:
Bob’s Clam Hut for (obviously) clams. Get both.
Primo for a lovely meal in a beautiful place.
The Willow Bake Shoppe to continue the donut tradition
Harbor Dogs for fish “tacos” that look surprisingly like fish burritos…
Rose Eden Lobster if you want the real deal and aren’t interested in crowds or long lines
Side Street Cafe for blueberry pie that’s absolutely #worthit
Little Notch Bakery for provisions on the South side of Bar Harbor
The Coffee Cup Diner to stock up before the sun’s up
Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen for green juice to balance all the lobster
Morning Glory Bakery if you need to drown your sorrows in carbs on your way out of town
Portland Hunt + Alpine Club for perfect cocktails in the heart of Portland
Eventide for the raw bar and friendly faces
Central Provisions because it’s really worth the wait
The Holy Donut if seeing that picture of perfect donuts made you a little hungry
Tunes to get you off and cruising…