Had we not chatted to the co-owner (Mary Jo) of the Hartstone Inn in Camden, we would have driven straight past this stunning part of the Maine coastline. About 20 minutes north of Camden is the tiny seaside hamlet of Bayside Village, just off the Atlantic Highway at Northport on the shores of Penobscot Bay. Seeing it for the first time was like driving into some kind of movie set complete with pastel-coloured gingerbread houses.
It originated when the Eastern Maine Episcopal Methodist Church Conference put down money in 1848 on the land where the village now stands. Members set up tents side by side and soon built wooden structures for prayers and meals, many of which still stand displaying the names of the towns the people originated from. Almost thirty years later the devotees hit ten thousand, most of whom were there for leisure, not for prayer time. Eventually a community developed, replacing tent platforms with more permanent wooden dwellings that are still around today. Whilst it is a residential enclave, many of the Victorian dwellings are holiday rentals for anyone that wants to escape to a bayside paradise that’s 4 miles from the nearest shops.
Those shops are located in the nearby town of Belfast, a once ship-building town that ought to make it to the “let’s-stop-for-a-look” itinerary. The compact downtown boasts many colourful old buildings that house just as many galleries and craft shops. Not a great deal was open when we dropped into town so we continued along the highway until it was time for lunch.
Not much time was spent in this small city other than several minutes walking up and down Main Street in search for a place to fill our bellies. I’m never one to consider an Irish pub, but somehow we ended up deciding that this was the place to be. It may not look like much from the street, but once you step into the pub you’re immersed in a slightly themed space that even comes with its own dining car.
The bar at Finn’s is inside the old 1932 Jerry O’Mahoney dining car that once resided in Northport, but in the early 1980’s is was moved to Main Street in Ellsworth. In the early 1990’s a building was constructed around it and after a few stints as various restaurants, its latest incarnation has an Irish flavour.
The menu journeys from Irish nachos, bangers & mash, a boiled dinner and to more American staples like burgers and sandwiches. As dry and overcooked as the blackened chicken sandwich (7.95) looked, I was assured it was very juicy, tender and flavoursome. As I waited for my main dish I nibbled on a Scotch egg (4.25) with lemon aïoli. Pretty good, actually.
And then my homemade meatloaf dinner (10.95) arrived. A moist lump of beef, veal and pork loaf glistening beneath a warm cloak of brown gravy. Some garlic mash adds that ubiquitous Irish-ness and some boiled vegetables that tasted a lot like they were cooked in beer. This was some rather fine stodge.
We were nearing the north-easterly point of our road trip as we crossed the bridges at Trenton from the mainland to Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine. The downtown area has that typically quaint Maine fishing village-feel about it with a daytime liveliness thanks to day-trippers from cruise ships that anchor nearby. Restaurants, cafés, souvenir and outdoor enthusiast shops that keep the tourist cash flowing.
Opposite the Village Green in the centre of town is Matsumoto Joe, a cosy little place that’s well worth dropping into for possibly the best coffee in town. Yes, we did try the others but they didn’t quite cut it. Some quirky Japanese touches are there to satisfy the kawaii in all of us and what comes out of that shiny vintage espresso machine is pretty special.
They also do French press and cold brew and anyone that prefers their coffee sweetened and flavoured with something else, these guys offer a bunch of their own home-made syrups that will take care of that.
Many come for the lobster rolls, hoagies and burgers but all I wanted to try was the soft serve custard at Adelmann’s. Of the 24 flavours on offer, it was maple nut that made the pick – something with a decent maple flavour yet there was nothing that set it apart from regular ordinary soft serve.
One of the big drawcards to Mount Desert Island is Acadia National Park – a ruggedly beautiful area that covers much of the island and neighbouring islands. Granite peaks, the highest mountain on the Atlantic coast, lakes, woodland and wildlife if you’re lucky enough to see it. Or almost step on it, as I almost did with a local snake that was out to freak out the travellers.
The plan was to spend a little time in the national park, but thanks to the government closures we thought we’d be seeing nothing within the park boundary. The funny thing was that the barriers closing the park to visitors didn’t deter them from parking their cars and walking straight on past. And that meant us as well.
We may not have spent a great deal of time hiking around the park but at least we got a little taste of it. A very nice loop-walk from the bottom of Schooner Head Road, through the woodland and down to Sand Beach, back up the hill and through more woodland at Great Head.
We would have spent more time hiking the trails but we had a boat to catch back in town. It was almost time for whale watching, another popular activity around Bar Harbour, along with puffin-spotting.
Did we see any? Well, the tour operator virtually guaranteed it, and they didn’t disappoint us. I think we saw something like four mink whales around Mount Desert Lighthouse, many seals and loads of water birds.
Two full days were spent in Bar Harbor faffing about eating, drinking, exploring and relaxing. Dinner at Havana with its progressive New American/Latino-inspired fare (sorry, no photos as it was a night off) and another dinner at the more low key Side Street Café.
An unfussy and all-American menu keeps the punters well fed alongside a bunch of Tex-Mex favourites and, of course, some of that beautiful seafood you’d expect to see in this part of the country. We have an open toasted ciabatta with chicken (10.95), feta, olive tapenade and handful of chips from a packet. Not a lot of creativity there, but that’s something you can’t expect from a place like this.
Mussels in white wine (13.95) steamed up the table with sweet aromas of garlic and chorizo as well as a serving of Lexi’s shore dinner (22.5). Here we have more mussels, half a pound of clams, boiled corn and a lobster slumped over the entire thing. There was meant to be a cup of clam chowder but I only discovered I didn’t get it until after we’d left and returned to our B&B. I guess I was so engrossed in extracting the sweet flesh from the lobster that I – along with the waitress – failed to remember what I paid for.
It was at this point that I felt like our New England road trip was coming close to wrapping up. The time came to leave Bar Harbor and backtrack our way down the coast towards Camden, stop in for our last coffee at Zoot, and continue our exploration down Route 131 to the Marshall Point Lighthouse at the bottom of the cape.
At the top of the peninsula is the small town of Thomaston where we stopped to grab lunch at one of a couple places that were open. The main street was eerily devoid of people, as was this small family run business, but it was no deterrent to sample some local no-fuss fare in a café that was all ours.
An old fashioned sandwich (8) – ham and cheese – and cup of chowder for him. For me it was a more substantial – and rather delicious – lobster mac & cheese (10.95) that I didn’t want to end. Pity we weren’t around long enough for dinner as the menu seemed a lot more grown-up, creative and seafood heavy.
The drive southwest from Thomaston takes you through several small towns; on to the Boothbay region in the Gulf of Maine that’s home to many artists – an area where spotting galleries and studios doesn’t come as much of a challenge.
Down on the water is the compact village that hugs the west of the harbour with many wharves, seafood restaurants, inns and shops to keep the vacationers happy.
Home for us was the Tugboat Inn, situated overwater on the wharf overlooking the marina, west bank and McFarland Island. It’s evident why so many people flock to this town and why so many would want to call it home. The serenity is nothing short of seductive and sitting on the overwater deck outside our room, sipping on red wine whilst watching the sun set was something I’ll remember for a long time.
What some people may think is a tugboat mock-up attached to the inn is, in fact, a former working tugboat that was put there in the early 1970’s. The Marina Lounge & Café at the Tugboat Inn stems from its side with a dining space strewn with wooden tables with views over the harbour. It’s very much a pub-style set-up with a menu to match. And yes, there’s a whole lot of local seafood going on.
Our dinner started to the soundtrack of tearing open plastic packets of complimentary wheat crackers; there for dunking into a cream cheese and hummus concoction that tasted like French onion dip. Maine crab cakes (12.99) came next, shallow fried and served with chipotle aïoli and micro herbs.
A sunset-coloured Atlantic haddock (18.99) – crumbed and fried – satisfied the better half with its flakey innards. For me, the seafood Newburg (24.99) that looked like it had stepped out of the recipe archives from the 1970’s. Maine shrimp, scallops and lobster baked in a creamy sherry-spiked sauce. The retro touch of piped Duchess potato melted my heart. Love this kind of food that brings back many memories.
Overlooking Town Landing is a coffee shop that saw us several times during our stay, be it for afternoon top-ups or breakfast before leaving Boothbay Harbor to continue down the coast. Cosy set-up, friendly service, pretty good cortado and some smashing house-made sticky pecan buns.
And down the coast we went, towards our final port-of-call on this New England adventure.