Des & Sandie Nichols
THE MAINE ATTRACTION
Maine in summer, surely, was created for the artist's brush, the photographer's lens and the writer's pen. For here, captured in its rocky coves, lies America's true masterpiece, nature's opus of outstanding serenity set against the all-powerful Atlantic Ocean. But at this time of year, there is no conflict, no brutal conflagration between the crashing waves and the jagged land. The sea looks more like an affable friend and, for now, all is calm. The colorful buoys of a thousand lobster pots bob gently on the benign water and call for the seascape painter to dip into his pallette for the brightest hues that he so rarely uses. Shining reds, gleaming yellows and bright blues don't just define the ownership of each trap but also speckle the flat surface of the sweeping bays with a myriad of shiny jewels. It is hard to eulogize too much about this area's sheer unadulterated beauty.
But the most important word here is summer. For this is all a trick, a clever deception, a sleight of nature's hand, to make you believe that life could always be like this. Sadly, it is just a tantalizing and short-lived utopia. This week marks the end of August, and already there is a sense of the death throes of another summer season. The flocks of tourists, with their cars carrying plates from a score of other states (especially Florida) are starting to migrate home, heading far away from what is about to become the most unbearably hostile environment outside Alaska to return to their sanctuaries further south. Maine in mid-winter is a god-forsaken place. It is dissected by razor-sharp, freezing ocean winds and locked in an icy grip of snow, ice and refrigerator temperatures - and it is dark most of the time. We have spoken to many proud Mainers who openly show such love and privilege about living up here, but not a single one we have found has a good word about the lockdown of January and February. All we hear are tales of being confined to their homes for weeks on endless end, sitting out the time around the roaring log fire until the spring once again returns and offers them release.
Nevertheless, we keep falling for this summer trick. The same happened last year, which is why we returned. Every time we see one of the gorgeous sunlit white weatherboarded houses overlooking the sea with a 'For Sale' sign outside thoughts of finding our idyllic resting place for our approaching dotage fill our heads. But like with so many things in life, reality and bloody nature get in the way of discovering a personal nirvana.
So we now, with reason and regret in equal measure, accept that we are just here as transients, like so many others. As much as we are looking for a new place to settle, away from the wacky world of Key West and Florida, as much as we would like to make Maine our home, it just ain't going to happen. The Memsahib just doesn't do 'cold'. The sad fact is that every brief idyllic summer here is followed by a long, brutal, brain-numbing winter and life is getting just too short for us to hunker down in an enforced hideaway for half of every year. But that doesn't stop us loving the place.
However, being a stupid, bloody tourist isn't all bad. We have been exploring the nooks and crannies of the coast from the Canadian border in the north right down to where New Hampshire takes over in the south. To be honest, the further north you go, the less interesting it gets but there are a few places that gleam.
We try to be adventurous but we do have one other small problem. We are just not as reverential to nature as we feel we should be. In fact, to be honest, we find a lot of it quite irritating. It seems to conspire against us personally and everything seems to want to cause us permanent injury. Sorry, but nature is, at times, a complete sadist. The hiking trails are a littered with hidden stones and roots, camouflaged and lurking menacingly, waiting to trip us up. A million insects target us like vampire kamikaze dive bombers to pierce our skin and draw our blood. And even the plants don't behave any better. They lie in wait to attack, pretending to be all pretty and innocent and then, without warning, they inflict excruciating pain with their needle sharp spikes or venomous poison. We were particularly told to watch out for poison ivy. We have no idea what it looks like except that we have been told 'it has three leaves - one bigger than the other two'. Well, I've got news for you. Almost EVERY damn wild plant has three leaves - one bigger than another. This must be why a four-leafed clover is considered lucky. Forget ‘Naked and Afraid’. We wouldn’t last even five minutes in ‘Badly Dressed and Slightly Nervous’.
We have tried our hardest to follow in the footsteps of the intrepid early explorers but nature just keeps getting in the way - so we now tend to stick to the well-worn paths that lead to the local pubs to do our research.
So we are pleased to report on some of the many delights that this Maine sojourn offered us and we shall start in the north near the Canada border and gently guide you down to the south where New Hampshire takes over, scoring each highlight out of 10 for 'must-see' recommendation. Only pictures can do full justice to this most beautiful of states so we shall let them do the talking (for once).
We sincerely hope that the sight of some of the idyllic beauty of Maine will persuade you to take a trip here. You’ll love it. But make sure it is in mid-summer.
Here are just some of the places, for us the highlights, that you should put on your itinerary:
ROQUE BLUFFS is a 274-acre state park with one of the larger beaches in Maine. It looks over Englishman's Harbor (6/10) Nearby Jasper Beach has a reputation for interesting, colorful egg-sized stones. To us, stones are just, well, stones. (4/10)
COREA is a small fishing town with an excellent seaside lobster pound. Certainly worth a visit, passing by the quaint Birch Harbor and Prospect Harbor with its noble white lighthouse. (8/10)
ACADIA NATIONALPARK is a wonder, with magnificent views over the islands and headlands that stretch towards the distant horizon. A three & a half mile walk around Jordons Pond is one hike that must not be missed. Sand Beach is arguably the best beach in the state. The view from the top of Cadillac Mountain is breathtaking. We even attempted a hike or two here, like real country folk. All it did was put the 'tired' into 'retired'. (9/10)
(Sandie looking more like an exhausted latter-day Gandhi. Not so much Mahatma as MaHatMaStick)
BAR HARBOR is a famously beautiful town, a popular hilly seaside resort bustling with life. It is the center of life around here and therefore completely unmissable. The only black mark is the invasion of the cruise ships which moor off shore, their tenders disgorging overfed tourists to flood the Main Street. Don’t miss a trip to Northeast Harbor village with its classy shops and to the graceful Asticou Azalea Gardens nearby. You won’t be disappointed. (9/10)
BASS HARBOR is the home of our favorite lobster pound, called Thurstons, at the far end of the Mount Desert Island. This is a real target for travelers with its balcony overlooking the fishing boats actively unloading their catches of prime lobster. A few miles away you will find the Bass Harbor Lighthouse. (9/10)
STONINGTON is an hour or so south of Acadia on Deer Island. This unassuming but glorious little village is a bustling harbor and even has its own opera house and the Stonecutters Kitchen, the perfect place for lunch on the quay. (8/10)
CASTINE, founded in 1613, is a former British colony and one of those off-the-beaten-track discoveries, the sort of stubborn little corner we love to probe. It may be small but its history is greater than anywhere else in Maine having been fought over by the British, French and Dutch and, of course, the Patriots on numerous occasions. It was here in July 1779 that the American Navy suffered its greatest defeat (until Pearl Harbor) at the hands of the British Argyle Highlanders, who won a bruising battle in spite of being woefully outnumbered. A certain Col. Paul Revere was involved in the disgrace and charged (but acquitted) with cowardice. He was probably running away shouting ‘the British are coming and I‘m out of here.’ Today it houses the Maine Maritime College, whose 1000 students almost outnumber the population and have their own huge merchant ship sitting on the dock. (9/10)
BELFAST is a terrific town with some interesting shops and restaurants. Its harbor is a real-life working harbor with a boat-builders' yard working on everything from tugs to luxury yachts. (8/10)
ISLESBORO ISLAND is reached in 20 minutes by a small car ferry from Lincolnville Beach. This 14-mile haven became a Gilded Age resort for the wealthy after the Civil War and is well worth a trip as it seems almost totally devoid of tourists and the locals can't do enough to make you feel welcome. It seems that no-one is trumpeting the delights of this fabulous find - thank goodness. Only about 500 people live here year-round but several celebrities have summer homes here including, John Travolta and Kirsty Alley. Honor Blackman, immortalized as ‘Pussy Galore’, James Bond’s muse in Ian Flemings’ Goldfinger, once owned the second largest house on the island. (10/10)
Click on video below
(if you are on your phone you may want to turn it sideways)
Above: Sandie at the top of Islesboro lighthouse - she’s a keeper.
CAMDEN is simply our favorite place to rest up, a town with beautiful houses, elegant shops, fine relaxed dining and a superb harbor where modern motor launches and tall-masted yachts rub anchors with the magnificent schooners that take the tourists on their sunset cruises. Spoil yourself with the pork belly appetizer on the terrace at the Hoxbill Restaurant overlooking the whole scene. Then tuck into the scallop risotto. Incredible. A drive to the top of nearby Mt Battie in Camden Hills State Park will reward you with a magnificent view over the town and the outlying islands. (11/10)
ROCKLAND was first settled in 1769 and was once a major shipbuilding center. Today it is a worth-visit tourist town and a walk along the sea-wall to the lighthouse is as refreshing as it is fascinating. (7/10)
BOOTHBAY HARBOR is a bustling tourist town with the more familiar trappings of gift shops and ice-cream parlors. Its main feature is an impressive wooden pedestrian bridge, with a small cottage at its center. In 1779, the huge bay was packed with the American naval fleet preparing for their infamous and ill-fated attack on the British at Castrine but today it is encircled by countless hotels, guest houses and vacation rentals. (7/10)
SAGADAHOC BAY AND GEORGETOWN lie off the obvious tourist route but are worth a visit if you like the quiet unseen beauty of Maine. This Bay is of particular significance historically as it was here that the first English colony in New England was attempted when King James II chartered two ventures in 1606. Unfortunately, the colonists were mostly made up of unsavory ex-convicts who quarreled with both themselves and the local natives, and it all went belly up. Even more interesting is the fact that you can buy cooked lobsters and clams around here for $6 a pound. At our campsite they even deliver them to your door (see below)..(8/10)
KENNEBUNKPORT totally deserves its formidable reputation. Some of the houses here are just unbelievable and it is a particularly fashionable place as Presidents Bush have their family home here. Secret Service agents are seen every day and night guarding the entrance. A drive north along the shore takes you to Cape Porpoise and another beautiful lighthouse. (9/10)
CAPE ELIZABETH's most notable attraction is the Portland Head lighthouse, built between 1787 and 1791 at the instruction of George Washington using his fund of $1,500 and sensibly choosing one John Nichols to be the architect.. It is one of the oldest in Maine. (7/10)
Got the picture? Maine in summer is a sensation.
The British are known for their humor, a tradition we try and keep alive even though we are now US citizens and in spite of the fact that most of our new fellow countrymen just don't get it. In an effort to reach out to those who struggle, we shall try to explain. Firstly it is as subtle as a sledgehammer. It is totally lacking in any intellect or intelligence. It is also rude and crude, often very crude. And childish, infantile even. As a rule, the British find funny anything that refers to the otherwise unmentionable parts of the body that they prefer not to discuss. Let's give you an example. A well endowed lady is holding a fruit - you say "she's got a lovely pear" and you'll have every Englishman in stitches.
This is the basis of the British phenomenon called the pantomime, a Christmas variety show with an innocent children's story theme, like Aladdin or Snow White. However, the scripts are packed with smutty innuendo that go over the kids‘ heads and leave Mum and Dad rolling in the aisles.This style is also the format of hundreds of those fabulously dreadful British TV shows, like Are You Being Served? and Dad's Army. But the seminal medium and greatest exponent of this hilarity is the old British seaside postcard. They are a crude Norman Rockwell with knobs on. Every holiday town by the sea used to sell these by the thousand and thankfully still does. They are peculiarly and quintessentially British. The Americans just wouldn’t understand them, the French would find them silly and the Russians would just ban them anyway. To get you into the swing here are a few examples (quit now if you are easily offended). The first two I found with the help of my old organ (Daily Mail newspaper) - there, I've started already...
Get the idea?
So why are we telling you all this? Well, the other night we were sitting out on the deck of the wonderful Chart Room restaurant overlooking a bay near Bar Harbor. A gawky, disinterested waiter approached us and announced himself in a robotic, disinterested monotone:
"My name is Jason and I am your waiter for the evening".
At that point an already enlivened Sandie (after her first G&T and glass of wine of the evening) inquired about the lobster special for $21. That was when it all unfolded into a postcard scene of good old British saucy seaside double-entendres. To be honest, Jason started it.
"Well, it all depends on what size you like. If you like big ones, we shall have to charge more. Would you prefer a large one?” he asked without expression.
Sandie took the feed brilliantly, like a seasoned English comic.
"I like mine quite big, not huge, but do you have a hard one? The other night I wanted a hard one but my husband had a soft one" (referring to the hard-shell/soft-shell option, what else?).
Jason fell for it hook, line and sinker . He stood there expressionless, still engaged in what he thought was a perfectly normal conversation.
"All we have is soft ones".
Sandie was now in full flight.
”Do you think, if you ask him nicely, that the chef could get his hands on a hard one?”.
We were now thoroughly enjoying ourselves but we fell apart when he came to ask me what I wanted.
"Would you like a large one too, sir?", came the question.
"I was always told size doesn't matter" I replied.
At this point we were almost on our backs, legs and arms flailing like upturned cockroaches.
Poor Jason. He 'clam'-ed up and drifted off wondering what had just happened. He thought he had been having a perfectly normal conversation.
As they say... nudge nudge, wink wink - a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse. You don’t know what you’re missing Jason, old chap.
I resisted asking him if he had crabs. Just.
Sometimes we live in a world of our own.
AND FINALLY, FINALLY....
Traveling is also about meeting good people and we were lucky to have great RV neighbors in Acadia. Linus and Leisa, we thank you. We shared some great nights, packed with laughter, overflowing with wine and with a supporting cast of great food (see below and click on video). And Linus helped me with those little technical jobs on the bus while Leisa, for some reason, faithfully caught up on all our blogs going back over two years. That was a challenge way beyond the call of duty.
By the way, catsacrossamerica.net has had a complete makeover and you can now easily click back to see any you may have, accidentally or deliberately, missed. Thank you all again for joining us. Our next stop is New Hampshire's White Mountains and then verdant Vermont.
Another tough day at the office. Click on the video below - turn your phone sideways!