Originally created 02/23/03

Maine attractions



MILBRIDGE, Maine - Ah, Maine. Nicknamed Vacationland and touted as "the way life should be," it's a state full of spectacular scenery, pure air and endless hordes of tourist-laden minivans, SUVs and RVs, their occupants intent on finding the perfect Kodak moment, fried seafood and, if possible, a public bathroom in the next 10 miles.

Having grown up in Downeast Maine, the state's northern coastal area and the easternmost point in the country, I know the pattern by heart: Every year, from late spring to mid-fall, vast numbers of out-of-staters descend on coastal Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park for kayaking, hiking, whale-watching and even lobster ice cream - yes, made with real pieces of lobster.

As one of my father's co-workers, Milbridge-born Sharon St. Claire, puts it, "It's like they tip the entire country up on one end and everyone falls into Maine."

One weekend will tell you why. Coastal Maine summers feature warm, breezy days, cool evenings, the sharp, salty scent of the ocean permeating everything. As a teenager I was desperate to escape the state's intense isolation; having now experienced one too many oppressively hot, smelly, dirty New York City Augusts, I've come to appreciate the charms of a place where air conditioning is not a necessity, pavement is scarce and berries of all kinds grow free for the taking along most roadsides.

There is, of course, only one real problem: the crowds. For those willing to take the road less traveled, Maine's quiet splendors await. And you don't have to trek hundreds of miles into the deep woods to find them; less than an hour away from overrun Bar Harbor, life is considerably slower and less crowded. Simply take Route 1 as far east as you want - there are plenty of quiet places along the way to stretch your legs.

McClellan Park is a modest, 10 1/2-acre piece of land surrounding a rocky headland. White spruce and fragrant juniper yield to steep granite cliffs and sea-dulled boulders that, in turn, give way to the Atlantic's expanse, uncluttered save for whitecaps and a few small, densely forested islands.

A gift to the town of Milbridge from George B. McClellan, a former New York City mayor and son of the famous Civil War army general, the park hasn't changed much since the 1960s, when Sharon St. Claire and her friends used to bike down there to drink Kool-Aid and sit on the red picnic tables scattered about.

McClellan cannot equal Acadia National Park's dramatic grandeur, but it has a wild loveliness of its own, and a feel of contented neglect - the picnic tables may warp with age, but the park's important assets remain undisturbed. My father and I spent an afternoon there last summer. As we scrambled over the lichen-covered rocks and watched crabs scuttle across tidal pools, we saw only three people: a couple who hastily went in the other direction and a lobsterman (perhaps Ms. St. Claire's 87-year-old uncle, who went lobster fishing every day last summer) tending to his traps in a small motorboat.

After leaving the park, we headed for lunch at a tiny Mexican restaurant consisting of a takeout window in the side of an old RV. Run by one of the many migrant families who have come to the state in increasing numbers for seasonal work such as blueberry raking, the restaurant had been highly recommended to us as an authentic taste of Mexican cuisine - a rare treat in Maine.

Sadly, the restaurant was closed, the ramshackle homestead deserted. Giving up on any hope of the exotic, we headed instead for the Red Barn, a seafood and burger joint with a menu typical of many Maine eateries - fried, fried and more fried food.

I thought wistfully of the Kitchen Garden, a gourmet restaurant in the neighboring town of Steuben. Run by husband-and-wife team Alva Lowe and Jesse King, the organic prix fixe menu changes according to the local fish available and what's in season in the couple's impressively extensive garden, which produces everything from kiwi and plums to coriander and lavender. On a typical night, diners choose between spinach and ricotta roulade, fresh broiled swordfish with garlic scape pesto and jerked chicken prepared with Jamaica-native Ms. Lowe's own jerk sauce.

It's a far cry from the roadside lobster shacks frequented by many tourists who, according to Mr. Lowe, "just want that plate of fried food for $5."

While I am certainly no stranger to the tawdry charms of a fried chicken basket, the Kitchen Garden is not to be missed, both for the food and the setting. The charmingly renovated 1860s home sits on a quiet side road, surrounded by a standing army of tall fir trees. Mr. Lowe's wooden sculptures adorn the walls of the cozy dining room and intriguing knickknack collections beg exploration throughout. Outside, in addition to herbs, fruits and vegetables, the garden houses a dazzling variety of flowers, attracting as many hummingbirds as diners.

Maintaining the garden is a full-time job, but one that the couple calls a great gift.

"After winter, when you can first smell the soil again, it's incredible," Ms. King says to me early one morning over tea. She laughed. "We love our dirt."

Attachment to the land comes up often when you ask people why they live in Downeast Maine. This is often particularly true of nonnatives - like Ms. King and Mr. Lowe, and George B. McClellan - who fall in love with the area's natural beauty or pace of life. Whether parks or businesses, their contributions are almost always worthwhile places to visit.

Lunaform is a perfect example of this. A small studio tucked into a densely forested quarry system in the nearby town of Sulivan, Lunaform produces a wide range of steel-reinforced concrete planters and urns. The gorgeous creations are handmade through a process developed by founders Phid Lawless and Dan Farrenkopf.

Mr. Lawless, who grew up "all over the place," from Nigeria to Connecticut, moved to Maine in 1976 with his wife, Sharon. He settled in Bar Harbor but, wanting more land and fewer people, eventually bought the land in Sulivan that now houses both Lunaform and his home.

"I wouldn't want to move anywhere," he says. "Maine operates at a pace that suits my personality."

Mr. Farrenkopf, a Massachusetts native who attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, agreed, adding, "It's nice to be in the woods, for sure. This is the place I want to be."

Their shared feeling of peace and purpose is evident in the works Lunaform produces, which manage, improbably, to feel both fresh and classical. Whether the 1,300-pound, statuesque Borghese urn or the diminutive Carini planter, the pieces lend their settings an instant sense of elegance.

But even if you are not looking to buy, the studio is worth a lazy afternoon visit. Describing the allure of pots, Mr. Lawless says the ancient human tool satisfies "a longing people have for the beautiful, unpolluted life" - an apt explanation for the appeal of Lunaform itself.

The cluster of buildings sits tucked into dense undergrowth at the end of a long gravel drive. Designed by Mr. Lawless, who modeled it after rural Japanese architecture, the airy wooden structures showcase the small Lunaform crew as they turn out an astonishing variety of vessels. Take a moment to sit on one of the low stone benches scattered about, or wander down the covered walkway connecting two of the buildings. Listen to the incessant scolding of red squirrels and blue jays. Breathe. You won't be disappointed.

aIF YOU GO

  • Reservations are required at The Kitchen Garden Restaurant. The dining room fills up in a hurry and in advance, especially in August. Call weeks ahead, if possible: (207) 546-2708.
  • For directions and operating hours of Lunaform, call (207) 422-0923 or check out the studio's Web site, www.lunaform.com. In addition to a handy map and photographic catalog, the site includes staff biographies and an impassioned defense of concrete.