Summer Classic: A Vacation on the Coast of Maine
“There’s No Such Thing as ‘Fun for the Whole Family’.” – Jerry Seinfeld
… and true?
Recently, I had the chance to run a field test. When I turned (a boyish) 70, my wife gave me a remarkable present: I could choose a trip anywhere in the world. My mind flooded with ideas: seeing plays in London, sailing in Tahiti, exploring the geothermal wonders of Iceland…
The only problem was, the rest of our family didn’t have time for a long trip abroad. And I didn’t want to go without them. My favorite place on Earth is wherever they are.
“Lots of people love Maine!” I ventured – a classic summer vacation spot. “Let’s go there.” Merry arranged our stay in a house in Owls Head, midway up the Maine coast. The entire family unit would come: Locke, 28, living in San Francisco and working at Google on virtual reality; Graham, 31, a busy Los Angeles fashion photographer with a sunny California style; Graham’s wife, Jessica, a dedicated teacher with a love of science; their son, Golden, the world’s most adorable 5-year-old (hey, check Wikipedia); and Merry (age not available), a former Santa Barbara zookeeper who tends our family flock with humor and wisdom.
We arrived at our home-away-from-home, a two-story clapboard house built for a sea captain in 1884. It had dormers and a big porch looking out at Penobscot Bay; all the bedrooms had views of the water. Out beyond our private pebbly beach, sailboats bobbed at their moorings and a lighthouse flashed a beacon.
After the long drive from Boston, we didn’t feel much like grocery shopping. So we headed for dinner in nearby Rockland, a small harbor town (pop. 7,200) whose Main Street is lined with handsome brick buildings. By luck, we happened into Café Miranda, which chef Kerry Altiero calls “a diner on acid.” His serious-yet-playful approach to cooking strays across Thai, Mexican, Asian, barbecue, and Italian. The menu ranges from “deconstructed” nachos to maple-smoked haddock cakes sautéed with white beans.
The restaurant building was once the historic Owl Benevolent and Fraternal Club, but on this warm summer evening, we sat outdoors on the terrace. Merry ordered “Pretty Maids” – seared local scallops with mushrooms, egg-and-ginger broth, watermelon radish kimchee, and fire-roasted “sea kale” (nori). It was a knockout, as was my tofu burger on focaccia bread with gorgonzola and mushrooms. This was comfort food with an edge, served in generous portions. “A lot of my contemporaries are doing beautiful work that is more like chamber music,” the chef explains. “We are a three-piece rock band turned up to 11.”
Merry and I were awakened at 4:45 am by rose and gold light streaming across the water and brightly into our window. This “backward” geography – sunrise over the water instead of sunset – is exactly the opposite of what we’re used to on the Pacific Coast.
After breakfast at home, we headed to Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum, a showcase of Maine art and three generations of the Wyeth family. Everyone knows Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World, depicting a woman sprawled on a grassy slope below a distant house. But I confess that his art, usually rendered in bleak grays and browns, doesn’t move me much.
I do love the colorful illustrations that his father, N.C Wyeth, painted for classic storybooks such as Treasure Island. And I revere the depth of skill and thought in paintings by his son, Jamie (who was so precociously talented that at age 18 he was commissioned to do a portrait of John F. Kennedy).
He and I once talked about the small Maine island where he lives alone, painting what he sees inside his 22-acre world: “I feel I could live here for three lifetimes and still not scratch the surface,” Jamie told me. “I painted a whole series on seagulls, which I have plenty of. The great part about living among seagulls is that eventually they look at you as another seagull. I sit there and they fall asleep next to me.”
At the museum, I admired his painting of indigenous Maine coon cats, running and leaping around a lichen-covered rock that sticks up in the middle of a field. “It’s like Stonehenge. I treated the whole thing as if the cats were here in homage to this rock.”
We drove north a few miles to Camden, a postcard-perfect Maine seacoast town with handsome inns and a small harbor where vintage sailing ships wait to take travelers aboard. We joined the Surprise, a black-hulled schooner built in 1918. After we had motored away from the dock, captain Will Gordon asked, “Who wants to help raise the sails?” Jessica, Golden, and I hauled on ropes and watched the sails climb the wooden masts, flutter briefly, and grow taut in the wind. We were sailing!
In the water around us we saw lobster trap floats, each identified by the distinctive colorful striping of individual fishermen. Rockland is the lobster capital of Maine, and last year 77 million pounds came out of Penobscot Bay. My eyes grew wide when Captain Will laid an amazing fact on us: “In winter, millions of lobsters walk out to sea; now they’re coming back toward shore to lay their eggs.” I pictured a million-lobster march, down below us on the ocean bottom.
We passed a decommissioned lighthouse that is home to three generations of a local family. “The oldest member of the clan is an 80-year-old woman,” said the captain. “Every morning, she swims around the island – the water is 56 degrees – without a wetsuit! There’s no electricity or running water out there; the family pilots a little boat to Camden and takes showers at the YMCA.” I began to understand the famously hardy character of folks in Maine.
We passed a big white house on the shore’s edge, once owned by Thomas Watson, Jr. of IBM. A smaller house was the former home of Benjamin Spock, the 1950s child-rearing expert with a permissive approach. “Some people say he screwed up an entire generation!” said the captain. “What’s funny is, everyone here knew his kids – and they were totally out of control.” (Ahh, nothing like a bit of inside info to make you feel like a local resident.)
We sailed along, puffy white clouds against a blue sky and sunlight glowing on white sailboats as if in a Winslow Homer painting. I unwound a few notches, like rope lines loosening around a winch, and discovered the peace and relaxation of the sailor who has only to loll on deck and enjoy the breeze.
After breakfast, Merry and the kids presented me with my entire life in photographs, all printed in a beautiful book that was bound and boxed in beige linen. I lost about a pint of tears.
Then we boys, ages 5 to 70, walked down to the beach to skip flat stones across the flat water. Little Golden got excellent distance, while Graham scored the most bounces. As if unclear on the concept. Locke heaved a big rock into the water with a kersploosh. “Is this right?” he deadpanned.
We searched for sea glass, white, green, and blue, shining in the sand. These discoveries made Golden wonder if there might be pirate treasure buried nearby. (A couple of days later, Graham and I sneaked away to a local coin shop so we could plant old copper and silver coins in the sand for Golden to “stumble upon.”)
In the sunset, Merry and I sat watching our grandson romp in the shallows with his dad and uncle. Three generations happy together: Could there be greater joy?
Getting There: Rockland lies 190 miles north of Boston Logan Airport; Owls Head is 5 miles outside Rockland.
Visitor Information: www.visitmaine.net/page/98/rockland-maine
Where to Stay
Airbnb.com lists Rockland/Owls Head rentals with various prices and amenities. We loved our warm, funny hosts, Donna and Steve, whose three-bedroom Airbnb rental is called Trinity on the Ocean. In winter, they live in the house, which is filled with family photos and tchotchkes.
Where to Eat
Café Miranda (15 Oak St., Rockland; 207-594-2034, www.cafemiranda.com)
Yardbird Canteen (686 Port Clyde Road, Tenants Harbor; 207-372-2068, www.facebook.com/yardbirdcanteen) Roadside stand, half an hour southwest of Rockland; sit outdoors at picnic tables for some of Maine’s most highly rated seafood. Don’t miss: haddock chowder (not overdone with cream, but brothy and buttery), fried clams (light, non-greasy), locally made Whoopie Pies (recommended: salt caramel).
Things to Do
Farnsworth Art Museum (16 Museum St., Rockland; 207-596-6457, www.farnsworthmuseum.org)
Schooner Surprise (Camden, 9 miles north of Rockland; 207-236-4687, www.schoonersurprise.com) Day sails and charters, mid-May to mid-Oct. Our two-hour sail cost $43 for adults, $33 for children.
Owls Head Transportation Museum (117 Museum St., Owls Head; 207-594-4418, www.owlshead.org) World-class operating collection of pre-1940 ground vehicles, aircraft, and more, from an 1886 Benz (first vehicle designed for an internal combustion engine) to a 1955 T-bird, vintage planes, even bicycles (starting with an 1868 Velocipede Boneshaker).