For many lifelong readers, the most memorable journeys are those that transpire between the covers of a book. This is how I first traveled to Oz, Narnia, Whoville, and Maine. At the time of these peregrinations, I was, in fact, a citizen of Maine. But like the voyages to these other occasionally cold and sinister places, a visit to the real Maine seemed to require a fictional entree (and maybe a magic wardrobe). Years later, while I still can’t attest to the accuracy (should you make it to Oz or Narnia) of the descriptions by Baum and Lewis, I can vouch for the usefullness of two childhood classics set in my home state, One Morning in Maine, by Robert McCloskey, and Charlotte’s Web, by E.B.White, both of which were written in 1952.
Maine is a place that doesn’t easily reveal itself ot outsiders—or even insiders. The locals often ignore you, the roads wind around consfusingly, and the weather can flat-out suck. But those who appreciate Maine’s craggy beauty and its emotionally steel-banded yet romantic character are forever smitten—which explains why its slogan was, until recently, “Vacationland,” and why, when you mention that you live in Maine, so many people reply, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Maine.”
It’s further testament to the state’s thorny charms that McCloskey’s and White’s books have endured as long as they have. Both One Morning in Maine and Charlotte’s Web take as their setting the Blue Hill peninsula along Maine’s central coast, where I now live during the summer with my family. The area—which includes the towns of Brooksville, Brooklin, and Blue Hill, among others—remains one of Maine’s most interesting and varied seasied stretches, with dramatic views over the water toward Mount Desert Island in some places, tiny rock coves and stony beaches in others. Though more than a half century old, the tow books are still the best guides around to the peninsula, providing helpful sightseeing suggestions and packing tips, and allowing readers-tourists a privileged view into the area. Even if these books are as close to Maine as you ever get, you’ve gotten closer than most.
McCloskey’s Buck’s Harbor
One Morning in Maine functions as a kind of “Two Hours in Buck’s Harbor.” Sal (whom McCloskey introduced in his 1948 book Blueberries for Sal) and her family live on an siland or peninsula so remote they need a boat to reach civilization—i.e., Buck’s Harbor, located in the town of Brooksville. Sal wakes up and remembers, “Today is the day I’m going to Buck’s Harbor with my father!” Notably, Sal and her sister, Jane, wear fleece-lined slippers in the middle of the summer. (Tip #1: Pack sweaters for your beach vacation.)
Over breakfast Sal discovers her first loose tooth, and she runs down to the clam flats to tell her father. McCloskey’s drawings of Maine’s iconic rocky coast are more evocative in their honest grunginess than the average brochure photograph. His charcola renderings of the pine trees, the smuchy high-tide mark that traces the rocks, the water, the seaweed, the jagged mussel bed, the head of a seal, all look appropriately viscous and oily, just as these objects do on windless mornings now. Gazing into McCloskey’s murky woods, the seasoned native can practically hear the mosquitoes. (Tip #2: Pack bug spray.) Sal tries to show a seal her loose tooth, slips on a seaweedy rock, and just misses sliding into the ocean—this being before the Croc World Takeover, Sal wears sneakers onthe beach. (Tip #3: Shells and barnacles will shred your feet. Pack appropriate waterproof footwear with thick soles.)
Finally, Sal and Jane and Dad load themselves into the dinghy, and Murphy’s Law being the prevailing cosmic force in these parts, the motor doesn’t start, so Sal’s father has to row across the bay. McCloskey’s Buck’s Harbor—a T intersection with a church and a few buildings—remains basically up-to-date and can function as your road map. Condon’s Garage, where Sal’s dad hauls his dead outboard, is still called Condon’s Garage. The girls get ice cream at the general store and sit on the porch, still one of the best ways to while away the late morning in Buck’s Harbor. McCloskey’s store is located a few doors down from the present store; his illustration of the interior shows the usual fare—matches, bananas, mops, shovels, axes, and potato chips. The current Buck’s Harbor Market is a bit more swank—you can buy organic produce and a hunk of Humboldt Gof—but the remote-port-in-a-storm vibe remains the same. The story concludes with the family headed home for a standard Maine lunch of clam chowder. (Tip #4: Despite the slight culinary uptick in this area, people with allergies to shellfish and dairy should probably pack their own food.)
White’s Brooklin and Blue Hill
E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web needs no plot summation beyond: Some pig. Threat of bacon. Literary spider. White, who moved from Manhattan to Maine in 1937, inhabited an old farmhouse with a barn and many outbuildings in Brooklin. From Buck’s Harbor, Brooklin is about a 30-minute drive northeast, and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it locale. There’s a general store, a “mall” (a clapboard house and barn with an antiques store, a jewelry-and-knives boutique, and a massage studio), a variably open cafe, and a library. Brooklin is also about 12 miles south of Blue Hill, which hosts the fair featured at the end of Charlotte’s Web, where “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” makes his debut.
The Blue Hill Fair is still the major local happening each Labor Day weekend: rereading White’s description of it, I don’t think it’s changed at all in the intervening decades, a charming fact that turns unnerving when you’re seated atop the creaky Ferris wheel. White’s book is so closely associated with the actual fair that the livestock area is called Zuckerman’s Farm. There, you can see tragically fat pigs, tawny patchwork cows, and fluffy, topiary-like alpacas. Between ogling the animals in their stalls and the cabbages in the vegetable hall, you can watch the horse pull or the piglet race or the lumberjack show. Adults can play bingo in the smoke-filled “over 18 only” parlors while kids loop jerkily through the twilight on the spinning-teacup ride.
The fair, in other words, is a quick way to dip a toe into a culture where the past and the present, the fictional and the real, the delightful and the tragic, are intertwined. The midway lights and “the crackle of the gambling machines and the music of the merry-go-rounds and the voice of the man in the beano both” announce the shuttering of summer. As White so aptly puts it, “The crickets sand the song of summer’s end…’Summer is over and gone,’ they sang… Summer is dying, dying.” Glee and friend dough commingling with sadness, a day derailed by a temperamental outboard—this is the Maine that White and McCloskey deliver. Whether you’re a native facing your return to the real work via a magic wardrobe or a Volvo, this is a moment as nostalgic and fun as it is quietly heartbreaking.
Getting there: Fly into Portland or Bangor (there are more non-stops to Portland). It’s a 30 minute drive from Bangor, and a two-hour drive from Portland.
Where to Stay:
Barncastle Hotel: This newly renovated old summer “cottage” turned five-room hotel has all the modern amenities, including flat-screen TVs and wifi. Its spot on a main drag is uninspiring, but the luxurious interior, the restaurant’s wood-fired pizza oven, and the convenient Blue Hill location more than compensate for this downside.
Coastal Cottages: Families sometimes find it easier and more comfortable to just rent a house; this site specializes in the Blue Hill peninsula.
Oakland House Seaside Resort: This funky hotel, which has been operated by the same family since 1889, is on a quiet back road between Brooksville and Deer Isle. The 50-acre property has both a waterfront inn and individual cottages (definitely recommended for those who prefer vintage-style accommodations). On-site activities include badminton, volleyball, croquet, tetherball, and kayaking.
Where to Eat:
The Bagaduce Lunch: This roadside takeaway joint is situatied on a hill that sloes down to the famed “reversing falls”. Kids can climb on the rocks and look for horseshoe cras while the adults eat too many fried scallops, fried clams, lobster rolls, and onion rings. (Be ready for the food coma that follows.) Not recommended for rainy days, as save for the Porta-John, there’s no indoor seating. 19 Bridge Rd, Brooksville
The Blue Hill Co-op: It turns out a delicious, healthy-ish organic-egg sandwich with cheddar on buttery multigrain bread. Top it with hot sauce and you’re good until lunch. 4 Ellsworth Rd., Blue Hill
Cleonice: Located near the Blue Hill peninsula in llsworth, this is the area’s only “fancy” restaurant that’s worth sampling (kids are allowed). Most of the ingredients are local, and it really knows what to do with them; a hangar steak will arrive bloodily rare if you want it that way. 112 Main St., Ellsworth
Eaton’s Lobster Pool: The ideal Maine-coastal-quaint location makes this worth a visit, even if the food is average (of the boiled-lobster-dinner variety). A stone fireplace heats the all-windows dining room on cold summer nights. Little Deer Isle, (207)348-2383
El El Frijoles: Get it? This cute, family-run restaurant offers the first example I know of Maine-Mex cooking —lobster tacos, for example. Seating is outdoors and bugs are fierce, but spray is supplied; the lucky family gets to eat inside the mesh tent. 41 Caterpillar Hill Rd., Sargentville
What To Do:
Blue Hill Fair: September 1-5, 2011
Blue Hill Hikes: At the center of Blue Hill villages rises its eponymous hill; the easy trail hike to the top, about a mile one way, has fantastic views of the peninsula and Mount Desert Island.
Mail boat to Isle au Haut: You can take the boat on a jaunt (about 45 minutes) from Stonington to the beauitfully wild, 12 square mile Isle au Haut. On the island, stretch your legs around the town landing before hopping back on the boat, or commite to a full day of hiking at Duck Harbor (partof Acadia National Park0. Back in Stonington, make sure to check out the Granite Museum and grab some homemade ice cream at the Island Cow.
Four Season Farm: Run by organic gurus Elliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, this farm is about 45 minutes from Blue Hill on the stunning Cape Rosier. Most Maine farmers’ markets don’t get rolling until mid-July, but because it has greenhouses, Four Season has strawberries and tomatoes months before the rest of the state. You’ve never tasted or seen produce this gorgeous. Combine the trip to Four Season with a visit to the Good Life Center, where you can tour the organic gardens, and to the Holbrook Island Sanctuary nature reserve for a beach picnic and a hike.
Photos by Bobby Fisher