Joe and I had a great year of travel in 2012. Omaha and Wisconsin, of course a few times, Chicago for a wild four days of city sights, tastes and summer heat, and Hermann, Missouri for plenty of wine imbibing and friends, but the trip that won my heart this year was our week long escape in September to the midcoast of Maine, where we hid ourselves away in a little cottage right on Clark's Cove outside of Damariscotta.
Our primary desire when we picked Maine was relaxation and nature and isolation and water and lobsters. And we had all in delightful abundance. We arrived in Portland in the late afternoon on a Saturday, grabbed our luggage and our rental car and then began our drive up the coast of Maine to Damariscotta, and our hidden little gem of a cottage. The drive north along the coast of Maine is stunning. It's dark green forest and glimpses of water as you travel across bridges that link together the tiny coastal villages and larger towns. It was a beautiful peek into what the week had in store for us.
With the light fading fast and heavy storms in the forecast for the area, we headed straight to our rental cottage. And good thing we did. That quaint spot is tucked away like a clever parent hiding a Christmas present. Down Mug Fog Lane, dark, gravely, hidden, and then turn the corner, park your car, carefully unload your luggage and watch your step, don't tumble down the steep gravel covered stairs to the house, well, house overstates it a bit, the cottage, former fish drying shack, picture of rustic Maine coziness. We explored for a bit as much as we could in the dark, freshened up and then hopped back in the car since we were starving and the local grocery store was already closed for the night.
Joe had scoped out restaurants in advance, along with about 1,000 trips and activities and sights, so we took our pick of places and chose the Damariscotta River Grill. Known for their local organic ingredients and rotating menu, we grabbed a seat upstairs in the bar and dove into our first Maine meal. Shrimp bruschetta, a couple of hard ciders, lobster cakes on fresh creamed corn and fresh portabello mushroom pasta with spinach and local cheese for me. It was a light and savory way to start the trip. We lingered over our drinks and then headed back to the cottage, tired from a day of travel.
The cottage was humid and damp when we got back, the impending storm making everything feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable, so we opened the windows, settled in the upstairs loft bedroom and fell asleep. I suddenly woke up at midnight, with rain sprinkling against my face. Lightning lit up the cove, hard thunder rumbled and woke Joe up as I scrambled to pop out the screen that kept the window open and close it before I was soaked. Climbed back in bed and we fell asleep staring at the crashing thunder storm, watching the cove rollicking and roiling with the wind and rain. Welcome to Maine.
The next morning was clear and still and perfect. The storm moved along and we were left with water like glass, gray skies and the mild cool weather we were promised. After a leisurely morning we got showered in the tiniest Bicentennially themed bathroom ever, and drove back into town looking for breakfast and coffee. We drove around a bit and got our bearings and then headed south to Boothbay Harbor for our afternoon excursion.
Boothbay is a tourist haven. With many boat excursion options that leave out of the bay, puffin or whale watching, schooner sailing, and plenty of shops and restaurants perched along the rolling streets all angled toward the water, we signed up for the last trip of the season to Cabbage Island.
In a sea of grey haired Maine locals, I knew Joe had made a good decision insisting that we buy tickets when I had been a little skeptical about the whole thing. Cabbage Island Clambake is worth the $65 per person ticket, without a doubt. As we listened to many, many locals talk about how they come back year after year, we were sold before we even got on the boat. With a boat tour, then the run of the island, followed by a full on traditional clam and lobster bake, we had an afternoon of feasting and wandering and photographing ahead of us. The best kind of afternoon.
Climbing aboard the Bennie Alice, we secured a couple of seats in the stern on top of the life jacket boxes with unobstructed views. Though the family sharing the boxes with us were making Joe a little insane. He about came out of his skin as he watched the teenage daughter with purple tipped hair wipe off her camera lens with a wet wipe. He kept mumbling under his breath "Ugh, stop, dummy, stop doing that." Joe shot a ton of photos of the little islands and light houses, and seals and birds and the cloudy sweeping skies over tug boats and sail boats and lobster boats. The tour guides pointed out interesting sights on the hour long trip. But I think most of us were thinking about the lobsters to come.
Lobsters! Bring me your lobsters!
There they are! See them? See all of them cooking over there? Mine, they will be mine.
Cabbage Island, situated in gorgeous Linekin Bay, has hosted clambake excursions since the 1950's. The Moore Family bought the island in the 1980's and has run Cabbage Island Clambake excursions for just as long. They do it right. In the Downeast tradition, with wood piled high to steam tray after tray of seaweed covered lobsters, corn, potatoes, onions and eggs. While the skilled staff cooked up our feast, we had time to maraud over the 5 1/2 acres of lush island. With rocky Maine coastlines, beautiful flowers and gardens, and a rustic homey feel, we hiked around until the dinner bell rang.
Even though it was a little chilly, we picked an outdoor picnic table near all of the cooking action, instead of one of the seats inside the big meeting house, where most of the elderly diners were tucked away, presumably with afghans and hot coffee to keep them cozy. First course was a thick and creamy New England fish chowder. It was yummy and tasted of ocean and savory seafood. Then the big event. Each diner gets in line at the cooking area and picks up a tray. But this isn't any tray. This isn't your school cafeteria tray or your Sweet Tomatoes tray, nope. This tray is laden with all the delicious things.
Two twin lobsters, steamed clams, fluffy new Maine potatoes, summer sweet corn on the cob, a onion and an egg, which gives new meaning to the term "egg timer" since it literally was used to tell the cooks when the rest of the feast was done cooking. We sat down with this feast, smiling from ear to ear, and watching everyone else collect their meal with big smiles plastered on their faces too. Plentiful napkins and lobster bibs procured and we dug in.
It was heaven. Sloppy buttery heaven. Other than some slightly overcooked clams, everything was mouthwatering. The setting, the food, the company. It was one of the most perfect afternoons of my life. Those little brief hours of perfection don't come along all the time. I can still taste that lobster and see that view in my head.
After our feast, and an old fashioned piece of simple blueberry cake, we explored the island a little more. We had a brief chat with the grandmother of the Moore family, in her 90's and getting out to chat with all of the patrons using her walker, she wanted to make sure we were all happy and well fed.
How could you not be happy with lobster in your belly, an hour to explore and cool fall weather? Our afternoon came to an end. We loaded back on the boat, grabbed our same seats, but on the return trip we shared the boxes with two married Boston school teachers. We learned all about the massage chair they bought for themselves for Christmas from Brookstone "On sale down from $1,999, to a thousand which we couldn't pass up!", all about their three day bus excursion up from Boston that was drawing to a close, how they were much more adventurous than all the other gray hairs on the bus and how when they first met as teachers, the very chatty Mrs. was 13 years younger than her husband and, so it took him eight years to "grow" on her, because as she put it "13 years is a big difference when you're 22." She was funny and had a thick accent and made the twenty minute return trip zip by.
Once we disembarked back to Boothbay, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and shopping a bit. We bought some Christmas presents, a buoy for our Christmas tree and then ended our visit with a little local gelato, Maine blueberry of course.
After our hour long trip back to the cottage, we sat out on the deck, where we would end up spending a majority of our time when we weren't out galivanting around town, and figured out some loose plans for the rest of the trip. We still hadn't picked up supplies at the grocery store yet, so we decided to go out for dinner and catch the sunset at a spot recommended in one of Joe's photo books, Round Pond Bay. Which just happens to be the home of the Muscongus Bay Lobster Company.
We grabbed some beer and soda on our way, since Muscongus Bay is a casual outdoor BYOB restaurant, and we drove along the twisty country roads until we came to Round Pond. The view was like sitting inside of the sunset. Like being bathed in pinks and oranges and blues from top to bottom as the sunset reflects on the water and hits the boats. One of the most colorful, vibrant and all consuming sunsets I've ever seen.
We sat on the deck after ordering a few light items at the window, and enjoyed the view and the pumpkin beers. A little dog, who belonged to one of the staff at the restaurant, was tied up near our table and he kept sidling over to beg under our table. He was lanky and sneaky and came back disappointed over and over again since we refused to share with him. He eventually went off to try to knock over a trash can and left us to our dinner.
Jalapeno cornbread and a bowl of lobster chowder redolent with rosemary and thyme, it was the best soup I've ever eaten and I'm going to do my best to try to make it myself here, since I don't know when we'll be back. Because I need to eat it again, it was that good. I think it was the fact that they used so many herbs, the huge chunks of fresh lobster and the perfectly cooked potatoes. So often cream based chowders are bland. This was far from it.
After a lingering slow dinner on the deck, thanks Muscongus Bay, followed quickly by a slew of mosquitoes that began eating dinner on my arms, we headed back to our cottage. And we ended our first full day in Maine, a Sunday nearly anyone would appreciate.
Monday was a lazy, glorious, don't take a shower, don't do anything kind of day. We went to the grocery store and the farmer's market to get supplies. We had coffee on the deck and read. Joe explored and shot some photographs. I got some writing done. Mostly it was the kind of meandering unplanned day that vacations are made of.
In the morning at low tide I walked on the rocks and tiny beach near our cottage. Minutes after this shot I mistook a wet rock for a very dark dry rock, stepped, slipped and landed with a stunning thud on my butt and hip, covered in seaweed and mud, but uninjured. Joe made sure I was ok and then we both started laughing like idiots. Needless to say, I had to change my pants. I smelled like seaweed, and not in that good sushi way.
Our cottage shared Clark's Cove with a oyster farming company and a few lobster boats. So Joe walked over to the adjacent dock and bought six lobsters from Jason, the lobster-man, for our dinner. I've never seen him look happier than when he came strutting back from the dock with a bucket of lobsters for about $20.
We spent the majority of our day right out here. Back and forth from inside the house to the deck. The clouds of the last two days burned off and the weather was sunny and warm.
These are the nearly ladder like steep stairs up to our bedroom, kind of a challenge to navigate when you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but all weathered and smooth and cozy.
After lobster buying, we decided to go for a long walk to check out the farm and property that the cottage is a part of, along with the other local houses. We chatted with the owners of the cottage and some of their staff.
We pet the horses' noses. Looked for cars and found not a one on our whole walk. Lovely.
After our day of indulgent lazing about, it was time for our first home cooked dinner. Corn on the cob, steamers, lobster, and salad. We sat on the deck, listened to the ocean and each other and just enjoyed the totally isolated quiet.
No one around, no visitors, no phone, no television, no internet, just us and the ocean and the meal and the wide, wide night sky.
As it got chillier and darker, we cleaned up the dishes, tossed the clam shells into the ocean along with the lobster water, and I headed inside to read. Joe took some truly spectacular night shots for a few hours. I tucked myself in bed with a trashy vacation novel and read about the zombie apocalypse with the lights off while he took these amazing shots. I've never seen so many stars in my life, or seen the Milky Way with such clarity.
The only light coming out of the cottage was that little orange light in the middle, which was the pilot light on the stove.
So that ends the first three days of our trip. Even though it was three months ago, I feel like we were just there. And I want to go back. Joe and I even talked about the idea of retiring to Maine. I think we would both be happy living there. There's just something about the attitude of the residents, the beauty of the place, and the quiet solitude that's deeply appealing. More to come: some lighthouses, a trip to Acadia National Park, the tourist trap of Bar Harbor, some Andrew Wyeth, and more lobsters, because this is how we do in Maine.
Most photos by Joe Sands, unless he's in them of course, and then a random few of mine mixed in.