Inside Coastal Maine: A Rugged Splendor

There are days along the coast of Maine – when the light is slanting just so, when breezes bend the saltmarsh grasses, and pointed firs cut sharp shadows into a sunlit sky – that you could swear you were standing inside an Andrew Wyeth painting. And then there are days when the sea boils and slams against the shore, when the sky is gray and low and you can lean hard into the wind and catch cold salt spray against your face, days when you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Winslow Homer dory clinging to the crest of the next wave.

These painters understood the draw of the Maine coast, knew its many moods. They spent their creative energy working to capture the distinct character of this place and its people. On their canvasses I glimpse some of what it is that draws me back, again and again – the chiseled beauty, the solitude, the changing sky. Wandering through the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, I try to remember when my own love of Maine began. My husband stands before Andrew Wyeth’s huge “Turkey Pond,” discussing the fine points of perspective with our infant son, and I ponder how it is that this place has woven itself so firmly into our lives.

It started, I think, during my summers as a counselor at a girls’ camp not far from Rockland. On days off, I’d open my map and study the jagged outline of the water’s edge, searching for a new place to explore. My favorite discovery of those years was Popham Beach, an unspoiled stretch of sand near Bath. The beach is so big it never seemed crowded, and I could always find a place that felt secluded and silent – which is what I most craved after days filled with hundreds of campers.

Another time I made it all the way to Port Clyde at the very tip of the St. George Peninsula, just south of Rockland. I didn’t know what I’d find there. I went just because it was a tiny black dot at the very tip of a long finger of land – and because I liked that it contained my dad’s name. At the end of the road, where the land runs out and the water begins, was the Port Clyde General Store, with its worn floorboards and a cast iron stove kept on simmer for chilly days. The place smelled of wood smoke and coffee, and nothing about it was shiny or neon or new. I bought a couple of fresh peaches and settled in at the end of the long pier, leaving the earth-bound world behind. Sun-bleached boards warmed my bare legs, sweet peach juice trickled down my wrists, and before me was nothing but spangled water stretching away to an island-filled horizon.

Since those summer days, I have returned again and again to the Maine coast, collecting a scrapbook of memories – of shoreline walks and perfect views, of island hopping and endless undulating roads that lead down to the sea. I go to Maine to look at the water, to smell the briny air. To lean on a boat rail and watch the waves. To hike mountains that rise up from the water’s edge. A love that began almost by accident has become deliberate. I go now to Maine to return to the familiar.

Long before my husband and I were married, we found ourselves exploring Maine’s southern coast, just across the border from New Hampshire, where we live. We spent one fall day in Kennebunkport, wandering past well-preserved 19th-century homes, vowing to return to the romantic Captain Lord Mansion, where we took a quick look and picked out a corner room with a fireplace. Late in the evening, as a full moon rose among silver clouds, we walked to a curve of beach along Ocean Avenue and flew a kite into the midnight wind.

Another time, in early spring, we strolled hand in hand through Portland’s historic Old Port, poking in and out of shops offering mobiles, Maine pottery, vintage clothing, wrought iron hardware, antique maps, and blown glass. The I.M. Pei-designed Portland Museum of Art, with its collection of Maine artists, remains one of our favorite haunts. At nearby Portland Head Lighthouse, we once spent a long night sitting on the rocks, listening to the bell buoy and imagining our future. The rosy Maine tourmaline in my engagement ring is a sparkling reminder of our courtship along the coast.

On our honeymoon, we drove north to Acadia National Park and its surrounding villages on Mt. Desert Island. Each year since we’ve returned, usually in early June or in October, avoiding the summer crowds. We follow Route 1, anticipating our favorite spots – the towering crane of the Bath Iron Works at the bridge over the Kennebec River, the bend in the road entering Wiscasset, a true “picture postcard” village listed in the National Register.

Sometimes we take quick detours in search of lighthouses. Once we turned off Route 1 in Damariscotta and made our way to the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point, where the old lighthouse keeper’s house is now home to a fishing museum and an art gallery. But the main attraction the day we visited was the weather itself. People got out of their cars just to stand with their faces to the wind, leaning stiffly against the gusts.

More recently, we discovered the lighthouse at Owl’s Head, south of Rockland. Built in 1825, the lighthouse is perched on an ideal picnic spot with a sweeping view of the Camden Hills.

We almost always stop in Camden, about half way to Mount Desert Island, to stretch our legs and visit the cozy rooms of The Owl and Turtle bookstore. Usually, we buy an ice cream on the waterfront, where tall-masted windjammers are moored between cruises. And on clear days, we hike or drive to the top of Mount Battie, where the words of Camden poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, inscribed in a plaque, describe the view: “All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood;/ I turned and looked another way,/And saw three islands in a bay.”

Occasionally, we take a detour to Caterpillar Hill, one of the most accessible – and stunning – views anywhere in Maine. Part way down the Blue Hill peninsula, just west of Acadia, at the height-of-land on Route 15/175, the view stretches away in a breathtaking sweep of land and water – across Deer Isle and Eggemoggin Reach and on to Penobscot Bay, the quintessential Maine coast landscape.

When we finally arrive in Acadia, it feels like a homecoming. There’s tiny Flying Mountain in Southwest Harbor, a mini-hike that provides a view of islands, inlets, mountains, and the gracious summer “cottages” across Somes Sound. In Northeast Harbor, there’s the perfect silence of Thuya Gardens, reached by a series of winding paths. The garden itself, designed by landscaper and artist Charles Savage, is a restful escape, a place of geometric tranquility.

We always spend a day on Little Cranberry Island, where we mosey along quiet streets lined with white clapboard houses, stop at the Historical Museum and Isleford Artists Gallery, and savor a cup of clam chowder on the deck at Isleford Dock restaurant. We never miss the fried clams and blueberry pie at Seafood Ketch in Bass Harbor. And we always treat ourselves to dinner at the Bar Harbor Inn, with its curved wall of windows looking out across the water.

Our favorite ritual of all, though, is late-afternoon tea at Acadia’s Jordan Pond House in Seal Harbor. The cup of tea itself is merely an excuse to eat the accompanying hot popovers slathered in strawberry jam, all of which is served on a sloping green lawn at the edge of the pond. We always earn our tea with a hike – usually up the two Bubbles on the opposite shore of Jordan Pond. Though the climb to these twin summits is short, the views are expansive: the tranquil water below, the forest tapestry beyond, and the wide island-specked ocean stretching away to the east.

With each visit to the coast of Maine, our list of favorite places and special views grows longer, and our sense of belonging deepens. Though we may never put down roots here in the traditional sense, we have come to feel a special kinship with this place, something to do with the “recurrent rhythms of tides and surf” that Rachel Carson described in The Edge of the Sea. The sea has, she acknowledged “the obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty.” But, she wrote, “There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance.”

After years of visiting, we decided, finally, to claim our own place by the edge of the sea. We return now, to the same spot, a small gray cottage sheltered by spruce and fir trees. A narrow pine-needled path winds to the water, and here we sit on sloping rocks and gaze across to a rocky island inhabited only by seals and cormorants and seagulls. In the early morning we watch lobstermen at work, checking their traps. Most evenings,we try to be home in time for the sunset show. We watch the sky shift from rose to purple to gray, watch the world slip into silhouette, and breathe the sweet cold air of Maine.