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J. Eric Smith

The Maine Less Traveled

Away from the throngs of tourists, the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay offers stunning views, rich history and unsanitized rustic charm

By J. Eric Smith

I first visited Maine nearly 20 years ago, sailing into Camden on the western shore of Penobscot Bay while crewing on the Naval Academy’s 98-foot ketch Astral. As a wayward son of South Carolina’s Low Country, where the meeting of ocean and land is about as gradual and gentle as is geologically possible, I was awed by the violent clash of rock and surf and tide as we entered Camden Harbor, and by the looming, sheer faces of Mount Battie and Mount Megunticook rising up beyond the town, far closer to the water than mountains had any right to be, based on my experiences to date. After mooring and settling in, my friend Adam and I, fueled by testosterone and beer, decided to climb the mountain face closest to Camden, setting out without maps, without provisions, without much sense—and learning that those peaks were bigger, those faces steeper, and those distances greater than they had seemed from the deck of the Astral. Still and all, though, that delusional hike had its defining, transforming moment, when we cleared the tree line (temporarily) and found ourselves sitting on an exposed rock, looking east across Penobscot Bay at one of the most beautiful vistas imaginable. I knew I’d be back.

And when I did return to Camden the next time, some years later, I learned that there were easy trails and even a road to the top of the Camden Hills, which Adam and I had worked so hard to climb—and which were typically filled with sightseers when you approached them the way they were supposed to be approached. Preferring solitude to crowds, my wife Marcia and I then opted to explore other parts of the Maine coast, sticking for the most part (like most tourists) to the U.S. 1/Maine 3 Corridor that runs the coast from the beaches of Ogunquit and York (crowded) to the outlets of Freeport (very crowded) to the sailing towns of Rockport and Camden (crowded) to the tourist and speed traps of Ellsworth (very crowded) to the tamed wilderness of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island (lovely, and very crowded).

But this summer? This summer we found a way to beat the crowds—by finally visiting the very vista that Adam and I had viewed and admired all those years ago: the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay. Jutting south of Route 1 between Bucksport and Ellsworth is a large peninsula of folded hills and freshwater lakes, bordered to the west by Penobscot Bay, to the south by Eggemoggin Reach and to the east by Blue Hill Bay. At the southern end of the peninsula, accessed by a gorgeous old (and very high) suspension bridge, is Deer Isle, from which ferries can carry you farther south still to Isle au Haut, a pristine enclave of Acadia National Park. The area is surprisingly isolated, strikingly beautiful, and rich in the sorts of charms and thrills that aren’t prechewed and delivered to your doorstep each morning.

All natural: the Gallery at Caterpillar Hill. Photo by J. Eric Smith

It’s also surprisingly old and historical, given its relative isolation today. Both Samuel de Champlain and Captain John Smith visited and charted the region for their respective masters in France and England, and the French had established a trading post near Castine by 1613. The Dutch, too, staked their claim on the region, briefly capturing Castine after Naval bombardment in 1674 and 1676. French (and, later, Canadian) dominion ended after the Revolutionary War when the Treaty of Paris set the boundary between Canada and the United States at the St. Croix River, rather than at the Penobscot, where it had been until that time. The 19th-century economy of the region was defined by shipbuilding, rope making, lumbering and fishing—until the so-called “rusticators” began leaving Boston and New York to travel up the coast to escape from the pressures of the city in the late 1800s. To this day, tourism, timber and fishing vie uneasily for economic primacy throughout Maine—although on the eastern shore, the tourism component is a bit less in-your-face than it is in other parts of the state.

Marcia, our daughter Katelin, her friend Madison and I spent a full week this summer at the Oakland House Seaside Resort (www.oaklandhouse.com, 800-359-RELAX) in Herrick’s Landing on Eggemoggin Reach. Finer accommodations we couldn’t recommend: Oakland House is one of the few remaining original Maine coast resorts, opened in 1889 by retired sea captain Emery H. Herrick on land that had been in his family since well before the Revolution, run today in true family style by Capt. Herrick’s great-grandson, Jim Littlefield, and his wife Sally. The resort features a bed-and-breakfast style inn and a series of cabins and houses, some of them small and rustic, some of them large . . . and rustic (in the best possible use of that word). We stayed in a cabin called Ledges, in a perfect location that allowed Madison and Katelin to pretty much have the run of the resort: beaches, gardens, parks, and a centrally located tetherball pole where all of the kids at the resort that week tended to gather to plan their days. Summer accommodations were offered modified American style, with breakfast and dinner as part of the package. Which was a good thing, since Oakland House also has the best restaurant in the region—and one of the finest restaurants in which Marcia and I have ever dined, period. Bonus points to Oakland House for the Thursday night lobster and chowder dinner on the rocks above the swimming beach, and for arranging a day trip for us on an actual working lobster boat, which took us (Madison and Katelin at the helm, no less) up through Buck’s Harbor to the uninhabited (well, except by mosquitoes) Pond Island, then back again, picking up traps along the way.

If you go to the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay, then those sorts of outdoor activities are the ones you’ll likely want to engage in, since there are no clearly defined no-brainer tourist centers on this shore, and very few gift or bric-a-brac shops in its scattered and distinctive villages, which include Castine (the poshest spot on the peninsula), Blue Hill (very arts-and-crafts oriented), Stonington (a working fishing village), and Brooklin (home to the very cool Wooden Boat School). Which is not to say that there isn’t shopping aplenty in the region: It’s just that it tends to be off the beaten path a bit, and tends to be a little bit more rough and tumble or quirky than what you usually find in the sanitized souvenir shops along the more heavily traveled portions of the Maine coast. We particularly enjoyed the Gallery at Caterpillar Hill (great art in a stunning location), the Buck’s Harbor Market (a grocery store and more with superb fresh-baked bread), Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies (yummy eats and great sculptures) and Blue Poppy Garden (a fabulous indoor/outdoor shop, with flowers to die for).

When we weren’t busy exploring the villages and shops of the eastern shore, we spent most of our time hiking. Our two favorite destinations were Holbrook Island Sanctuary, which offered a wide variety of easy-to-moderate hikes through a wide variety of diverse ecosystems (mountain, pond, farm, creek), and Crockett’s Cove Woods Preserve near Stonington, a rocky, mossy, earthy sort of place, lots of shadow, lots of slime mold, lots of fungus—and lots of fun accordingly for those of you who like to look down when you walk. Oakland House itself had a great series of trails, too, one of which climbed up to a rock outcrop above Eggemoggin Reach, from where you could see the bridge to Deer Isle, Buck’s Harbor, Pond Island . . . and, far across the bay, the Camden Hills where Adam and I first felt like lords of all that we surveyed. It felt good to come full circle, sitting on a rock with a friend (in this case, my wife), marveling in the splendors of Maine.


Getting There

It takes about eight hours to drive from the Capital Region to the eastern Shore of Penobscot Bay if you take the Mass Pike (I-90) east to I-495 north, then follow I-95 north to Augusta, Maine, at which point you leave the interstate system entirely, following Maine 3 through and past Bucksport, then turning right onto Maine 15, which winds (and we do mean winds) all the way through the peninsula and over the bridge to Deer Isle. Any other route (i.e., following U.S. 1 up the coast) will take dramatically longer. The nearest airport of (mild) note is in Bangor, about 30 miles from Blue Hill as the crow flies, but a good deal further as the rental car rides. Rail travel is pretty impractical: Amtrak’s one daily train from Rensselaer to Boston arrives in early evening, and you don’t even want to hear about the hours and hours it would take to chug from South Station up to Belfast or Bangor. If, however, you’re a fancy pants and want to sail daddy’s yacht up from the Cape, then Stonington and Buck’s Harbor are your most readily accessed ports of call on the Eastern Shore of Penobscot Bay.



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