Better in Boothbay

by Annette Lucido

Maine lets you wind down. You need not do anything. You can eat, wander, relax and escape the pressure. This is doubtless why FDR summered at Bar Harbor, and President Bush opts for Kennebunkport. Far be it from me to argue with presidential choices, but our last visit reinforced the strong impressions from prior trips that it is indeed "better in Boothbay."

Kennebunkport collected more gawkers years back when President Bush was is in residence. Bar Harbor and Arcadia National Park collect more tourists who pay higher prices and find more crowds. Boothbay Harbor delivers more for the day and dollar. It seems, according to one grizzled local lobsterman "more Maine." It's also a dandy place for some casual summer fluke, striper or cod fishing on a fine family vacation.

The reason for this is simple. Boothbay Harbor is just far enough off Highway 20 to avoid the drive-through gawkers. Like most other Maine harbor towns it sports an assortment of docks, saltbox homes, mini museums and other visual delights, but the whole seems somehow greater than the parts.

Not that the parts are bad. Lodging, food, shops and a full range of tourist attractions are quite first class, if on the plain side. Accommodations range from cottages and cabins with kitchens through bed and breakfast inns to three A accommodations like the Smuggler's Cove in on Linekin Bay. The Samoset Resort offers a nice set of special packages such as the Maine Lobster vacation which moves you from lobster omelet for breakfast, lobster roll at lunch to a complete lobster shore dinner. Two extra lobsters are packed to take home.

You can also camp on the ocean at Gray's Homestead, or on a lake at Lake Pemaquid Campground -- check the smallmouth. Some spots, such as the Lawnmeer Inn, have been in business for a nearly a century. Cottages and B&Bs seem to fit the relaxed atmosphere here. The range is astonishing. The huge Captain's Quarters house runs thousands a week, but sleeps 16 and has its own deepwater dock and boats. Thompson Cottages are right on Townsend Cut, one of the more picturesque waterways in the area. The Victorian Five Gables Inn or the 200 year old Kenniston Hill Inn let you select your era and avocation. The former overlooks Linekin Bay. The latter is a short walk from country club golf.

Contact the Boothbay Harbor Regional Chamber of Commerce, Box 356, Boothbay Harbor, Maine 04538 (207) 663-3535 for complete lodging and other listings.

After we check in, it's time to eat. Nothing beats fresh Maine seafood on arrival. My wife has been known to eat lobster for breakfast! I compromise with a lobster omelet. Maine lobsters and clams need little preparation. They won't, unless slathered in butter, kill diets. So some of the best seafood comes out of less formal sources such as lobster shacks.

The "Co-op" -- officially the Boothbay Region Lobstermen, Inc. on the east side of the harbor lets you pick your own lobsters. They also serve copious buckets of clams. Both are available "to go" for beach picnics. A host of other restaurants come with views of the water. Boothbay Schooners Restaurant and Tavern, Brown Brothers Wharf and China by the Sea -- the last a source of both Hunan and Szechwan delights -- offer solid values.

You might also try the Cabbage Island or East Boothbay clambakes on the beach. They add sweet summer corn and other delights to wonderfully fresh seafood. The three star Ocean Gate Restaurant on Southport Island offers a more formal presentation.

"Walk around" food is exceptional in Boothbay too. If you tire of seafood, Brud's Hotdogs might suit. The Crunchy Snail and P&P Pastry shops specialize in Danish. The latter opens at 5 a.m. -- it's worth getting up for the fresh sticky rolls.

However the three biggest blows to those with a sweet tooth are the Daffy Taffy, and Fudge and Ice Cream Factories on the By-Way, a shopping area near the pedestrian bridge across the harbor. The Downeast Hot Fudge sundae made with coffee ice cream should fill even the hungriest teenager.

Since shops don't appreciate visitors who drip hot fudge, we lick cones by the bay, then try the special shopping in and around Boothbay Harbor. It's divided in half by a pedestrian bridge across the bay. It is fortunate that streets away from the waterfront have what one native called, "a bit of up and down."

Maine shopping is quite diverse. Classic items include Lovell pewter and Blueberry Pottery. Wood, some rather rough hewn, some, like the Margonelli's hand-made furniture, deserves the most elegant setting. Shells and bird drawings do turn up in all sorts of things. Mussel shell vultures, for example, aren't to everyone's tastes. Local puffin note paper is delightful.

Walk first, buy later, seems a good approach. Prices and quality vary with some of the best values away from downtown. Don't overlook the wonderful hand-blown art glass at shops like the Kraftworks.

Enjoy pottery? "Seconds" at the Andersen Studio in East Boothbay, on the way into town from Route 96 east off Route 37 from Highway 1, would be "firsts" anywhere else. Special ceramic animals, birds, pots and bowls repay the detour into town.

Maine without antiques would be like New York City without panhandlers. Glass seems big in Boothbay. The Palabra Shop displays a host of Moses Bottles and some decent scrimshaw. Bay Studio has decent art glass and pottery and some furnishings. The Basket Barn, on River Road, has more baskets than most Indian tribes.

Antique music boxes and the atmosphere at the Merry Music Box that's tucked away on McKown St. deserve special mention. It has more kinds of music boxes than you might imagine. If you enjoy it, ask about the Musical Wonder House 12 miles away in Wiscasset. Their collection of player pianos and the special "Evening to Remember" concerts on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during July and August are worth the trip.

On any orientation walk around town, stop at the Oceans East Aquarium on Pier 30. It hints at the diversity of Maine marine life. At this point it's time to turn to the water. There must be 50 different types of boat rides in and around Booth Bay.

The best of the lot, if you like old sailboats, is a sail on a 31' Friendship sloop like the Bay Lady or Eastward. This puts you in contact with the sea and bay. Sail cruises on the 85' Appledore run every three hours from nine to six. If you would rather try power you have a host of choices. The Argo III and Linekin II run all over the place, from the Kennebec River to a shore lobster feast. There is even a lighthouse cruise after dark.

Fishing boat cruises to inspect fall foliage, puffin rookeries or to watch seals or whales are available. One of the more interesting options is the Miss Boothbay Cruise that takes you out on a lobster boat to watch lobstermen haul traps. The Monhegan Ferry from Pier 8 lets you spend a half day exploring the rocky beaches and deserted island shore. Pack a lunch and bring your fishing gear.

Fishermen can also try day, half-day and charter trips for mackerel, striped bass, cod, sharks, bluefish, tuna and bay fish. Reservations are recommended during the summer peak periods. You can expect a variety of species on most trips. Rental tackle is available. If you demonstrate reasonable skills, you can rent all sorts of power and sail craft for fish or fun trips. Shore fishing is also good in Lineken Bay and off Cape Newagen. Surf sticks or light tackle both work.

After a day on the beach, nightlife doesn't seem too appealing for most Boothbay visitors. The Boothbay Playhouse and Theatreside restaurant offer summer productions. Their summer clambakes with traditional singers and fiddlers seemed more fun, and less forced. The Carousel Music Theatre runs to old-time Broadway and Vaudeville from May to October. One suspects videos fill winter entertainment needs. However, one old Lobsterman noted that, "we spend all winter talking about last summer's tourists." Given the superb scenery, bracing sea air and uniquely "Down East" chance to relax and recreate, it's certain that the tourists -- even those who don't fish --will continue to school in Boothbay each year.