Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maine: The Way Life Should Be

I have been sharing my random thoughts on even more random topics with you all for almost two years now. I have dabbled in the "travel" blog sphere with my guides to Coachella, Sesame Place and London. But I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't at least begin to tell you about Maine. I say begin because it is an ongoing research project/labour of love for me, an annual revisiting in search of more fabulous finds for myself and my family... and now, by extension of this blog, you.

After many years of visiting Maine, I have a few places that I can't help but tell others to go to. My unofficial email guide lists have been sent to friends of friends and family alike when they make the best decision of their year: to visit Maine. Instead of me revising and resending, or in those instances where I have to completely rewrite it due to my own tech un-saaviness, here is my unofficial guide to Maine. It is unofficial mainly because it only deals with a tiny corner of Maine. Maine is a large state and there are many areas we have yet to visit, or that I have yet to find suggestible places in.

I should also probably qualify this list by saying that I am no expert on Maine. I am reminded of this fact every year when I return and find a new fantastic place that we add to our list of places we have to go back to that I am amazed we never went to before. So I will present this list with the caveat that I will most definitely be editing and adding places as I become aware of them. And I do look forward to my trips up there in order to discover new places and revisit the tried and trues. Apologies in advance for the length, but do you want a list or do you want the list? Exactly...

Maine is simply the best. It is laid back, easy, breathtakingly beautiful, casual, and lots and lots of fun. You go to Maine to detach and unwind. This doesn't mean excitement can't be found, of course it can. Maine can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you don't want it to be Miami. Aside from some hazy teenage nights spent in the raving cabins of the male staff of my camp, Maine has never been much like Miami.

But if you like beautiful beaches with frigid waters, gorgeous mountains and sightseeing, lobster and ice cream in offensive quanitities and the quaintest group of locals (Mainards, or Nards if you will), then you too will love Maine.

Maine is a little over a five hour drive from New York City and under two hours from Boston. Everyone seems to think it is much further because Maine is so large. Of course all points north are much further, but in my opinion you only need pass the sign to know you're in Maine. Any mileage past that sign is all part of your time in Maine and doesn't really count as travel time.
THE sign... sure I could re-use the same photo over and over, but instead I have to take a new one each year as we speed past on the highway

Before we actually get to Maine, there are a few places to stop at on your way up that you should know about. Specifically if you are driving up from points south of Connecticut. First, on I-84 there is super cheap gas off exit 1 as you cross into Massachusetts from Connecticut. It is a Pilot station and my husband didn't believe me when I told him it was so cheap. Since your next stop will be off exit 2 in Massachusetts, you might as well fill up on gas too. Time it so you are ready for breakfast or lunch when you hit exit 2, Sturbridge, or at least some heavy noshing.

Off exit 2 make a left at the former Hebert candy store (RIP) and a right either on the dirt road next to the Days Inn or on the proper road where you will find the Publick House, which dates back to 1771 (a note to my international readers... that's really old for stuff in America). The Bake Shoppe (you know it's good because it's spelled shoppe and not shop) has delicious baked goods and their own line of jams, jellies and relishes. If you don't have time to eat in their restaurant where they do yummy sandwiches and give you a basket of their muffins, sticky buns and date bread on the table, just stop into the Bake Shoppe and grab a coffee for the journey along with one of their famous sticky buns (I don't know if they are actually famous, or I just think they are because everyone I know loves them), pumpkin or blueberry muffins, mixed berry scones, custard danish rings, whoopie pies, corn sticks (ok, those may be just from my childhood, but they should bring them back if they no longer make them!) and if you aren't dining in, definitely get some of their clam chowder to go. It ranks in my all time top 3 clam chowders. Top 3 people... that's some seriously amazing stuff.

Ok, back on the road... As you hit New Hampshire you will see signs for the New Hampshire Liquor Store. It is a big red barn like building right off the highway with most brands of wine and alcohol at really good discounts. And when you spend over $100 (or $150, I'm not sure) you get a $25 gift card that can't be used that day, but can be used to pick up some alcohol on your way home. We did this and my husband not only got a very nicely discounted bottle of Johnny Walker blue to take home, but a $25 gift card to use next year on our ride up. It holds pride of placement in his wallet for 11 months until our drive up, lest he forget it somewhere at home.

A quick drive through New Hampshire brings you to the Piscataqua bridge... whether my husband remembers the name or not is a favorite trivia question as we ride up. Over the bridge, through the toll and you are in Maine... Look for THE sign on the right side if the road. Take a picture, send it to me, it never gets old. This place truly is the way life should be.

Just over the border is Kittery and some outlet shopping. If you like outlet shopping, I suggest heading further up to Freeport or over to North Conway, NH instead. Just a personal preference... Freeport is actually a cute little town and has a huge LL Bean, and you are in Maine after all. Do as the Nards do and suit up at LL Bean. (Yeah, I don't know if Nards actually wear LL Bean stuff, but I think they should. Flannel lined jeans make sense in the midst of a Maine winter.)

Take the Maine turnpike up to exit 7 for York beaches. Straight off the highway, literally straight through the traffic light on Route 1, is the Stonewall Kitchen store. This is a great place to stop for lunch, or just snacks and fun browsing. In addition to all of their yummy jams, sauces, toppings, mixes and marinades (most of which can be sampled while you walk around) they have a great selection of home goods, gadgets, accessories and serving pieces organized into vignettes throughout the store. If you have time for lunch, they have a cafe and indoor and outdoor seating available. I suggest the lobster BLT... You're in Maine, let the lobster eating commence! As I mentioned, in order to consume offensive quantities of ice cream and lobster, you gotta start early and keep em coming. The cafe also has lots of sandwiches (on delicious thick country bread), salads, baked goods, etc. and since I haven't said this yet, if you're on a diet, this guide is not for you. Don't go to Maine on a diet. It's like going to a waterpark in a full body cast... You won't be able to enjoy it the way it's supposed to be enjoyed. In the case of Maine, you are meant to enjoy it with your mouth full of good bad food.** (Just a reminder to all my readers: "Good bad food" is amazingly delicious food that you should absolutely eat, it just might not be the healthiest thing you ever put in your body... so not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good... just not good for you.)

Ok, got your garlic salad dressing and blueberry syrup? Artichoke piccata and polled pork simmering sauces? Great. Let's move on. We leave the Stonewall Kitchen store and head north on Route 1, turning right off of Route 1 towards York beach. If you're still full from lunch, walk around the village of York. There's some casual beach town candy and t-shirt shops. Just make sure you pop into The Kettle Boys popcorn place. Their flavors will overwhelm you with their variety. They do sample a selection of flavors each day, so try some out. Helpful tip, don't feel like you have to choose between salty and sweet, go for the "Sweet Cheeses" cheese covered caramel popcorn. It's better than the caramel covered cheese... don't ask me why, it just is. Oh, and get a packet of the Rocky Road out of the front glass case. It's sticky. I repeat: it's sticky. But so, so good. Another family favorite is the salt and vinegar. But as I said, try the ones they are sampling that day and choose your favorite: bacon, dill pickle, hot wing... lots to try, just make sure you get the ones I mentioned too.

Still a bit full? Time to drive up to the Nubble lighthouse for your traditional Maine photo shoot with a lighthouse and the sea in the background. It is a beautiful backdrop and at low tide you can climb down onto the rocks and take pictures down there.

Don't even think about leaving York without the main event: Brown's ice cream. Right around the corner from the lighthouse is Brown's ice cream. The ice cream is so delicious and comes in a silly amount of flavors. The servings are beyond generous. A small is anything but, and I am not sure which kiddies the kiddie cone is meant for, but even my ice cream lover needed a little help. Personally, I am a raspberry with chocolate chips kind of gal when I'm in Maine, but have obviously tried many of their other flavors. You seriously cannot go wrong.
Kiddie size!
Ok, now that you're good and stuffed, you can leave York.

Hopefully you made sleeping arrangements long before you decided to head up to Maine because July and August are pretty busy and most places book up months in advance (though it is always worth calling and checking for last minute cancellations/date gaps between bookings).

We split our stay between Kennebunkport and Ogunquit. Kennebunkport is every bit the quaint, preppy village one would expect with the Bush family compound just down the road. Ogunquit is not quite as polished, but every bit as fun (considering the gay nightlife, it is arguably way more fun!)

In Kennebunkport we stay at Hidden Pond. It is a resort/compound/camp-like setting with a bunch of free standing cottages/bungalows throughout the wooded grounds. It feels like camp, if camp was air-conditioned with every amenity you could ever need and more. The main house has a pool, bar and is the site of the nightly campfire/s'mores making. Most of the cottages have two bedrooms, full kitchen, washer/dryer, outdoor shower (along with the indoor ones, not instead of), screened in porch, living room, tv/cable, etc. The bungalows are meant for two people and also have screened in porches.

They truly have thought of everything and do their best to make you feel like you need nothing. They leave the fridge stocked with water, juice, milk, butter and cheese and every morning drop off a basket of freshly baked goodies along with a thermos of coffee and the newspaper. It is full service in a way some fall short. The spa is spectacularly set into the trees. They have a functioning garden where you can pick carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, etc. for your own personal consumption or flowers for your own personal enjoyment. They have a bike shed where guests can borrow bikes on a daily basis. They offer yoga, art classes, kid craft classes and paddle boarding, along with other daily activities.

The restaurant on the property, Earth is a literal interpretation of the whole farm-to-fork thing with the garden's produce featuring nightly. Weather permitting, there are some great pond-side table options for dining at Earth, although inside is quite beautiful too. It is a good looking restaurant with food to match. Don't miss the snacks on the menu; shishito peppers, meatballs, chicken wings and also the crab toast and nudi. If you're imbibing (and why wouldn't you be? Even if you couldn't manage the short walk back to your cottage, they can send the shuttle for you) don't miss the Moscow Mule cocktail or for those wanting to be a bit tamer, the white sangria.

If the luxury-camp setting isn't for you, they have plenty of other sister properties to choose from including the Grand Hotel located in the town of Kennebunkport or the Tides, their beachfront property. Hidden Pond provides shuttles to the Tides for a great day down at the beach. Goose Rocks Beach is not only a spectacular Maine beach, but you just can't beat not having to lug all your chairs, towels, etc. Full service exists for a reason people... treat yourself! For some of their other properties: KRC. I'm not saying these are the only places to stay, I'm just saying that I've stayed here and it rocked.

After dinner, if the Moscow Mules haven't kicked your butt, hop in the car and head around the corner to Goose Rocks Dairy, open daily til around 10pm. Their ice cream is delicious, and though I was heartbroken that they didn't make their Purple Cow flavor last year (black raspberry with white and dark chocolate chunks), the salted caramel chocolate pretzel made me forget all about that silly cow pretty quickly. We get pints to-go with cones and jimmies (that's what I call sprinkles when I'm in Maine... deal with it), and bring them back to the hotel for late night sundae sessions.

Definitely set out some time to explore and enjoy the town of Kennebunkport. Every year we discover a new (to us) place that we then add to our list of places we HAVE to go to each year. This is why each year we extend our trip by one day, just to fit it all in. Last year we discovered the Clam Shack... seeing all the awards on their wall, it's pretty obvious we're a little late to this party, but better late than never. They do some damn tasty fried clams (whole belly all the way!) and a magnificent round lobster roll... that's right, it's round. Why more people haven't caught on to this round thing is beyond us. I am the kind of person that ranks lobster rolls, and this one is way up near the top of my list of faves.

Another great lunch or casual dinner in Kennebunkport is at the Ramp. It's a bit more out of the way, but well worth it with generous portions and a charming (that means cozy, which also means small) setting right on the water. Good picture taking down the dock by all the lobster nets while you wait for a table.

Another new place we tried last year was 50 Local, in "downtown" Kennebunk, which is a bit further inland. It is a true neighborhood joint, which is good once you get over the initial shock of not feeling like you're at the beach anymore.

Kennebunkport has your obligatory slew of t-shirt shops and candy stores, and they also have several cute boutiques so leave yourself some time to walk the town. Right in the center of town is the Kennebunkport Inn and their restaurant One Dock which is yummy and way more kid friendly than I was expecting, which is always a very nice treat.

After a few glorious days in Kennebunk, we decamp (pun intended) down to Ogunquit. Ogunquit has a ton of hotels to choose from. There are options from extremely kid friendly to adults only. We stay at the Anchorage, not because it is the nicest hotel in Ogunquit, but because it marries all of our priorities: great location (between "downtown" and Perkins Cove), pool on site with a restaurant, and rooms that have slowly been updated over the past few years and will hopefully continue to be over the next few years. Stay on the Ocean side. No offense to the Towers, but it's all happening on the Ocean side. Now, the layout is extremely motel like in its execution, in fact I should probably call it a motel, but I feel that there is a stigma attached there, and it's definitely nicer than what most would expect from a motel. That being said, the rooms all run in a row (wait, don't all hotel rooms do that?) and if you get saddled with two rooms of a particularly loud family on either side of you, you're screwed. Hopefully that won't happen to you, or anyone really. That really sucks.

But first we must get there, and while you could take bendy side roads down from Kennebunkport, I suggest Route 1 for all your dining needs. First there is the Maine Diner, which has been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, so it's hardly a best-kept secret. It is, however, as any restaurant featured on DD&D, a good place for a good feed. Amazing breakfast options, delicious chowders, and depending on the time of day you're there, well it's a diner, they are sure to have something for you.

A bit further down on Route 1 between Kennebunk and Ogunquit you will find Congdon's donuts. Like lobster rolls, I am also a bit of a donut ranker. These guys are good. Go early in the day to maximize the selection, as they offer over 30 flavors and varieties. They also have cinnamon buns, whoopee pies, muffins, etc. So get your baked good on here. There's a restaurant for those that want to linger for breakfast or a drive-thru for those that need their fix on the run. I suggest going in and waiting in line as that gives you ample time to eye-up all the flavors on offer that day. I'm not gonna tell you what to do, as only you know what flavors you like, but I will just say this: blueberry, butter crunch, chocolate coconut, apple fritter, bavarian creme, maple creme, powdered creme... ok, any of the cremes, and chocolate crunch. But as I said, go with what appeals to you... if you're allergic to coconut, don't get the chocolate coconut and then come complaining to me. Run your own race buddy.

Heading back down to Ogunquit on Route 1 you will hit the Ogunquit Lobster Pound. This is my favorite place to get whole lobster. Yes, I said it. I didn't cushion myself with a Top 5 or Top 10 ranking... my favorite. Possibly there is weight given to nostalgia, and since I've been coming here since before I can actually remember, there is lots of that mixed in. But the whole experience, from getting to hang by the lobster tank while you wait for your table to going and picking your lobster (a tradition that is both barbaric and sweet, assuming you are not Vegan and would do such a thing to begin with) is perfect. If you are the type of person that does not squeal at the notion of condemning a lobster to death (or also having the incredible power of pardoning a lobster for being too small), this is THE place for lobster. It's not fancy, although it's pretty highbrow for Maine. There's wood chairs and tables, the better for messing up as you slather melted butter on your river water steamed red gemstone (trust me, the secret to their tastiness lies in that there water, no matter how gross that actually sounds). Their only misstep, and one I can only chock up to stubbornness disguised as tradition, is that they don't do corn on the cob as a side. I have considered bumping them down to a Top 3 ranking for this offense, but the lobster is just so damn tasty, I can't bring myself to do it. Instead find a combo of baked beans, cole slaw, fries, veggie or baked potato (yawn!) that works for you. But save room for the blueberry pie a la mode. It's probably not the best you will find in Maine, but it is the perfect dessert after lobster, so do it.

The last place you hit on Route 1 before the turn onto Shore Road in Ogunquit is Bintliff's. This place seems to have lost their mo-jo in recent years, as I never think they're as crowded as they should be. But that could be in part due to the fact that we're not really early risers and probably "brunch" timing isn't the done thing up there... people actually do breakfast. Regardless of timing, this place has a cute boudoir-y feel to it and the food is noteworthy. Since I'm in the mood to be doling out "favorite" tags, I will say this is my favorite corned beef hash anywhere. The beef is corned in-house and they give you hearty chunks atop a veggie laden, well-salted potato hash. No mini-cubes of questionable origin here. It's all real food and real delicious. Their veggie hash is also really good, and has the unique distinction of being one of very few veggie dishes I have ever recommended. For the "sweet for breakfast" people, you can sample the oatmeal encrusted cinnamon raisin french toast and the gingerbread pancakes with lemon sauce, but please, for the love of all that is sweet for breakfast, get the creme brûlée french toast. It is fairly unbelievable as the entire surface is covered in the creme. It might be too much for you, but there's only one way to find out... find out. And to help balance all that sweet, treat yourself to one of their bloody Mary's. They are good. Possibly too good. Definitely too good if the four adults at your table have a few too many despite the three kids they have to look after... but that's an "if." Who would actually let that happen?

Once down in Ogunquit proper, feel free to pahhk the cahh (yes, it's not just a Masshole thing, the Nards do it too) cause it's all within walking distance, or assuming you've eaten too much, a fun trolley ride. The trolleys in Ogunquit all rhyme with Polly, yet Polly is the most elusive of the breed. I learned this the hard way when I put "Find Polly trolley" on a scavenger hunt I made for my nephew when he was 7 and had to deal with a heartbroken kid when, despite three rainy-ish days where we took the trolleys everywhere, and despite seeing Rolly, Molly, Holly and Jolly up the wazoo, that little temptress Polly never showed her face, and by face I mean name plate on the front end of the trolley. Damn you Polly!

But how to attack Ogunquit? How about logistically. The "downtown" portion of Ogunquit that I refer to is the intersection of Route 1 (Main St.), Shore Rd. and Beach St. Beach Street takes you to, duh!, the beach. Shore Road takes you to Perkins Cove. The beach is great but SUPER crowded. There's also a massive tide meaning you have to actually be aware of high tide when planning your beach outing and be prepared to move if you're too close to the water when the tide is heading in.

On Main Street there is a delicious bakery called Bread and Roses that does great breads, pies, cakes, pastries, cookies, bars, etc. I don't know if they do gluten free stuff. This isn't that type of guidebook and I'm not that kind of guide. For those gluten tolerant of you (that I haven't made intolerant after Congdon's donuts), this place is ripe with gluten-filled goodness.

On that same stretch of Main Street is a supermarket... well it's a market, and it's super for a beach town. Good place to stock up on water and more snacks for the room. Yes, somehow, despite spending my days going from bakery to ice cream place to lobster shack, I'm pretty big on snacks for the room. For this and many other reasons, I have come to accept that I will never be a size 0. Or 2. Or 4. Or 6 or 8. Ok, you get the point. There is also a fancy schmancy candy store and a toy store that is a nice way to suck two hours of your trip away from you if you make the mistake of letting your kids inside. Just kidding. It's a great store. Just give your kids a quick hit of Ritalin and proceed. They may have even managed to pick something by dinnertime.

Heading down the Shore Road, past the Anchorage (which does some tasty frozen beverages by the pool, I should add), you will come across Cafe Amore... no, thats what it used to be called when it was in its shack-y other location across the street. Now it's all swanky in shiny new digs at the big bend in the road and it's called Amore Breakfast. They give you coffee while you wait, but I think they might charge you for it now (ah, the times they are a changin'). The breakfast here is good and walking distance, though I would rank Bintliff's and Maine Diner above it. If you don't feel like schlepping though, it's yummy and nearby most of the Ogunquit hotels.

There are actually two ways of getting from Main Street to Perkins Cove: Shore Road and the Marginal Way. The Marginal Way is a sidewalk set atop the cliffs and bluffs that runs along the shoreline, behind the hotels and houses and is the most scenic, picturesque route there. It could take up to an hour, depending on your walking speed, but I feel like I've given you more than enough food which you should have to walk off by now, might as well do it.

For those of you sticking to Shore Road either on foot or via trolley, head past the bend all the way down into Perkins Cove. Barnacle Billy's will appear on your left and is a great restaurant with several al fresco options. Delicious lobster rolls, onion rings and blueberry pie. They have two restaurants side by side, Barnacle Billy's and Barnacle Billy's etc. I don't remember the difference, but I think it's the breadth of the offerings exceeds one or the other. Ask at the door to be safe. They also have an ice-cream window around into the cove by the trolley stop. Their ice cream is delicious and overlooks the boats. Hey, why not.

Across the parking lot is Oarweeds, another lobster pound style (wood tables, wood benches) place. This is where you will hit Perkins Cove if you walked on the Marginal Way, or conversely, this is where you can begin your walk from Perkins Cove on the Marginal Way to either Main Street or the beach. The food is good, family friendly. It really depends on how many days you're there and how much lobster you can truly handle. They do a baked lobster dish that I find too dry, but some of my traveling partners enjoy for being "not steamed lobster" at the end of a long haul of a trip.

Walk down past the rocks and parking lot and you're in Perkins Cove. Another enclave of ice cream, t-shirt, and toy shops. There are also art galleries, the nice restaurant MC and my favorite candy shop in Ogunquit, Perkins Cove Candies... look for the trumpeting jockey outside. Nostalgia may again play a large part in my choice of favorite, but so be it. I used to fill those plastic buckets with "penny" candy in my youth, seeing how far I could make my $5 day-trip loot stretch on Mary Janes, candy buttons (before I realized that I was eating paper with my candy and it was a waste of my precious time), candy cigarettes (before we stopped pretending to smoke to be cool), taffy, those stale cones with an even staler marshmallow inside that looks like an ice cream, blow pops and if you managed to eek it out, maybe also a tiny sliver of fudge. Yummy. It always blew my mind how they would dump the bucket and the lady ringing you up would do the math (.10 + .05 + .20....) so quickly and ring you up coming precisely to the pre-determined amount you had spent an hour selecting candy to get to. Anyway...

Appealing to the gourmets out there (and well done to you folks for making it so far into this list of good bad food), there is MC restaurant. The menu does a better job at describing their spin on farm-to-table, gourmet beach dining, so I will let it. It's a scenier restaurant, but they are still kid friendly, at an appropriate time of course. Another way to fit more lobster in when you're sick of lobster rolls and fresh steamed lobster: lobster mac and cheese... genius, and delicious. And my old love chicken under a brick, for those of you that have passed your fill of lobster. Tasty apps, wonderful sides, a great view over the rocky bluff of the cove, it's just a great restaurant.

There is more to Maine than just those southern beach towns. Portland is a fabulous town. It's small, despite being the main city, yet packs a lot into those city streets. The Old Port is the "cute little area you should definitely walk around." There are also boat trips that leave from the bottom of the sloped streets. Great shopping, good bars... what more could you want?

Portland is so up and coming of a gourmet scene that I believe it is up and has come. Portland is what most people talk about when they talk about Maine (hence why I felt the need to shed some good bad foodie light on all the other spots), but if you're heading to Portland, do not miss Fore Street. It is an amazing open kitchen restaurant with hella-good (yup, I just used that phrase) mussels. I mean, skip the basket and bring us the whole damn loaf so we can soak up every last drop of that mussel broth stat. So good.

There are a ton of James Beard recognized and nationally celebrated chefs and restaurants that make up the Portland scene. I haven't been to most of them, but I have been to Duckfat, a tiny cafe offering up soups, sandwiches, milkshakes and Belgian fries fried in what else? Duck fat. But skip the fries and homemade mayos and go straight for the Poutine. I'm not Canadian, I don't know what Poutine is truly supposed to be, but if it's not this then they need to re-name this as something else that is freaking amazing and everyone loves. My guess is, it's pretty good Poutine.

For those of you with a kid at camp in the Sebago Lake region (Naples [or if you're me at camp when I was 11, "Nipples"], Bridgton, Windham, Casco, Saco, Standish, etc.) that have to travel route 302 to get there, leave a few minutes early so you have time to stop at Chute's, a family-run country kitchen serving the un-fanciest, most delicious breakfast sandwich out there. Egg and cheese with bacon or sausage (or if you're my husband and me, one of each... naturally!) on their round country toast. Sounds so simple, so I must implore you to try to prove how un-simple simple can taste. They also do a whopper of a cinnamon bun that I always manage to forget about, but thankfully my sister always remembers to order. We tend to go "to-go" since we're usually on our way to visiting day, but dining in will not leave you disappointed as the hashes and items that don't travel quite as well as the sandwiches are delicious too.

Every year we look at the bevy of "ethnic" restaurants and make the joke of: how many days would we have to be here to go for something other than lobster/American food. Last year we got pizza one night, which was crazy. Who knows, we might have a great Thai or Mexican place to add to the list next year as we are staying one additional day. I have two new restaurants we will be trying out this year, so always check back as this list will be ever-evolving.

Please feel free to pass it on to anyone you know heading up to Maine that you believe may like it.