By Debra Spark
I don’t know the origin of the lines or when they were first uttered, but the sentiment must date back to the century when Camden was a prosperous port town turned cute tourist destination, and Belfast and Rockland, though also on the ocean, were not so charmed. Belfast’s thriving chicken processing industry dumped entrails into the bay. Rockland had malodorous waterfront fish processing plants. By the time I moved to Maine, in 1995, the Midcoast was being transformed; industries were departing and tourists arriving.
Here’s a rhyme about Midcoast
Maine that once made sense:
CAMDEN BY THE SEA,
ROCKLAND BY THE SMELL,
AND IF YOU WANT TO
GO TO HELL FAST,
THEN YOU GO TO BELFAST.
For years, I liked Belfast best. Back-to-the-landers, weary of the rigors of their off-the-grid lifestyle, and artists in need of space, moved to Belfast to take advantage of cheap rents. The town had a latter-day hippy vibe with a food co-op, active community theatre, and Green Store selling “earth-friendly” goods. Now, though, as a lover of all the arts and married to a painter, I find Rockland is my go-to town. The Farnsworth Museum, historic Strand Theatre, and Center for Maine Contemporary Art are central institutions on (or just off) Main Street, which has galleries, restaurants, shops, and, at its northern end, a ferry service to three of Penobscot Bay’s beautiful islands.
My own ideal visit to Rockland starts at the Farnsworth, with its substantial holdings of work by Louise Nevelson (born in Russia but raised in Rockland) and the entire Wyeth family (well-known Andrew, but also his son, Jamie, and father, N.C.). The museum’s emphasis is on artists with a connection to Maine, and the shows and permanent collection are always a treat, given the talents who have lived or summered here over the years, including Fairfield Porter, Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, and Berenice Abbott. The Strand Theatre has a full calendar of HD showings, art house movies, and live music or comedy acts, often of the national touring variety. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) recently moved from its former location in Rockport, just north of Rockland, into an uber-contemporary building with a sawtooth roof, designed by New York architect Toshiko Mori. It’s worth visiting just to see how the exterior of the building uses both glass (around a public courtyard to welcome outsiders in) and corrugated metal (to reference Rockland’s industrial past). Th at said, high on my own summer to-do list are CMCA’s one-person shows by Maine-based artists with international reputations: painter Tom Burkhardt, sculptor John Bisbee, and photographer Jocelyn Lee.
From the Farnsworth, you can walk north on Main Street and dart into clothing and gift shops as well as numerous art galleries. A whopping two dozen are clustered on or around Main Street. Dowling Walsh and Caldbeck Gallery are two mainstays representing well-established Maine artists like painter Lois Dodd and photographer Joyce Tenneson, as well as newcomers.
When I visit or pass through Rockland, I always visit hello, hello books. In an earlier guise and neighboring location, it mostly sold used books, and I remember a young woman seeing my then-little-boy’s head dipped into a Calvin and Hobbes book, exclaiming, “The tradition continues!” Now there is a mix of eclectic used and beautifully curated new books, at the back of a storefront that otherwise houses Rock City Café, a popular spot with coffee, soups, sandwiches, and baked goods.
For a quick meal, I often go to Café Miranda. It’s a small restaurant, off the Main Street, decorated with Elvis and pink flamingo kitsch, and truly one of the longest menus in the world, featuring inventive, locally inspired comfort food. Out-of-towners always want a lobster pound, but since buying and boiling a lobster is a no-brainer, if you are going to drop some cash, farm-to-table is the way to go. Primo is a restaurant located in a house on the southern end of town with its own greenhouse, gardens, and animals, just outside the door. (If it’s light out, you could go first to the nearby Owls Head Lighthouse for expansive views of the ocean.) And this is the sort of dinner that you want to make a whole evening of—no nipping in for a bite and out. Primo and chef Melissa Kelly are always mentioned on lists of best restaurants in the state and frequently on best restaurants in the country. Another way to make an evening of dinner is to sign on for Nebo Lodge’s dinner cruise, which involves a round-trip boat ride to the island of North Haven, 12 miles off the coast of Rockland, for a barn dinner at Turner Farm, the organic outfit that supplies the small inn and restaurant with vegetables, pork, flowers, and other items. In years hence, there will be a dock right at the farm, but for now the cruise boat arrives at the town landing and guests are transported to the farm, where they can wander with cocktails and horsd’oeuvres before a multicourse sit-down dinner that feels (given the 75 diners typically present) almost like a wedding. Chellie Pingree, who just happens to be one of Maine’s two representatives to Congress, owns Nebo Lodge and Turner Farm, but daughter Hannah manages the operation and family friend Amanda Hallowell is chef for the inn’s restaurant and the barn dinners.
A Turner Farm dinner will involve some planning ahead, as the dinners are limited to one or two nights a week in the summer, and the boat takes only 25. A final pleasure is the post-dinner ride to the mainland: a chance to see the Camden Hills from Penobscot Bay. The Hills have always attracted visitors—either hikers to the state park or people who like to drive to the top of Mount Battie for the view. Now all the harbor towns draw vacationers as well. And maybe soon a poet, eager to write a new quatrain, will drop by to update the record. E