Gal With a Suitcase
My love affair with Maine spans nearly three decades. As a child, my dad would drive our family here for endless days on the ocean (which isn't hard considering the 230 miles of coastline in the Pine Tree State) and nights filled with salt-water taffy in a thousand varieties. My memories are vivid: everything had sand in it and the water was as cold as ice. The nostalgia I have for New England runs deep. People often ask for my favorite destinations, half-expecting me to offer an exotic answer like Bali or Peru, but the real truth is simpler: It's Maine. Given the demands of life and travel, this isn't an obvious destination for business people, yet I have found an organization that plans their annual event in beautiful Camden. Once a year the social innovators and entrepreneurs that associate themselves with the renowned PopTech conference gather here. Five hundred people from all over America and parts beyond shuffle into the idyllic Camden Opera House. They feast on lobsters, ocean views, and world-changing ideas.
Camden is an affluent community about 90 miles north of Portland on Penobscot Bay. It draws artists, writers, and city folks that have a slight flair for the bohemian. By summer you sail, by autumn you leaf peep, and by winter you ski—incidentally, I'm told Camden offers the only ski mountain with a view of the sea. These days, people are stacking up to see the last of autumn's vibrant colors. If you hurry, you'll still find sun-kissed yellows, rusty reds, and an orange so piquant you'll want a bite out of it.
The community of Camden is utterly charming. Their motto is, "Where the mountains meet the sea." The downtown area has special boutiques for old books, fun galleries, surprisingly stylish clothes, and the requisite household ornaments, while the area itself offers a winning variety of inns, hotels, and mouth-watering restaurants. Whether you're in the mood for a $5 "cuppa chowdah" or a $32 surf 'n' turf, I'll bet that your blood pressure will lower given the easy pace of this stunning New England town. And dessert? Well, it will involve blueberries. Twenty five percent of all blueberries in North America come from Maine, making the state the world's largest producer. Grab a few snug layers, some winter/waterproof gear for the piercing wind, and ensure you have room to pack on a few extra pounds given that cream and syrup accompany nearly every dish.
To be within walking distance of the water and the town, GWS strongly recommends the Camden Harbour Inn. It is simple luxury befitting its surroundings. Rooms are all named after ports of call by the Dutch India Company and all offer Champagne breakfast. One-hundred-eighty degree views are the norm, and Natalie's restaurant is a reason in itself to drive north of Boston. New executive chef Geoffroy Deconinck has a Paris pedigree from Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. Rooms from $175 and suites from $235; check for deals. Right now they have a midweek package (through November) including a three-course dinner, starting at $109 per person based. You lose money skipping this. For a splurge, try the New Amsterdam suite.
Up the road a bit just over the border in Lincolnville is The Inn at Ocean's Edge. 32 rooms from $175 lie on this 22-acre nicely secluded property. GWS prefers the guest rooms in the main inn (18). You are right on the water here. Also on site are a fitness center, obligatory wireless access, and many common areas to take advantage of your surroundings. The Edge restaurant is outstanding. They make a spiced nut mix that I swear I dream about. Breakfast is included and the coffee is strong.
I've already mentioned Natalie's but it bears repeating. Go.
For simpler fare, try Bayview Lobster, right off of Bayview Street. The fried shrimp are succulent and the 'lobstah' rolls are divine. Dishes from about $12.
Cappy's Chowder House tends to be my first stop in Camden. It is incredibly local and wildly kitsch. Pay no attention to all this. The chowdah comes with oyster crackers and a buttermilk biscuit, and the beer is icy cold. Don't forget the blueberry pie or crumble. All in, less than $20 per person.
If you have a car (which you should) consider a drive to neighboring Rockland for the best local Italian-inspired cuisine at Primo. Chef Melissa Kelly is a decorated professional for good reason; her use of fresh seasonal ingredients is hard to refuse. Gingerbread croutons, arugula fettucini… yum. Main courses from $24.
And I will lose all local credibility if I don't clue you in to the newly opened Shepherd's Pie in Rockport. Chef Brian Hill has a long-admired haunt called Francine Bistro in town, and his new venue is most casual, louder, and just as delicious. With duck meat-infused hamburgers and hot dogs or the namesake pie, Chef Hill is onto something. Be sure to book.
When visiting Maine you have two options: curl up next to a fire and have the occasional outdoor stroll, or pack your hiking boots, kayak paddles, and golf clubs for an adventure.
Camden Hills State Park offers rigorous hiking trails that reward you with literally breathtaking panoramas. Maine offers some 30 state parks that contribute $100 million to the economy. This isn't bad considering the cost to you is a bargain at $4.50 for non-residents. Mount Battie should be on your list. Don't say I didn't warn you, though—I'm still huffing.
In the summer, renting a schooner for a sail around Penobscot Bay is a must. GWS likes Mary Day: they leave locally from Camden Harbor regularly, and offer a darling tour of the local lighthouses and islands. For the fishing enthusiasts, seek out a guided trip along Lake Megunticook with a licensed Maine angler to catch bass and varying trout (rainbow and brown, notably.) If you're really lucky, your concierge can help connect you with a local lobsterman to help cart in his traps.
In autumn, all you need is your car and a camera. Route 1 cuts through the state and you'll be hard-pressed to avoid the foliage.
Get acquainted with the Camden Snow Bowl on Ragged Mountain. In winter you can ski, snowboard, or partake in the toboggan chute. Incidentally, the national toboggan championships are held here in February. In better weather you can find mountain bike trails, tennis courts, and a youth program.
I'm hard-pressed to find many real avoids in Camden. A pet peeve of mine involves small inns and B&B's with their requisite bossy innkeepers. This is a throwback to my teens when I had to slink in after hours or hear the details of a neighboring bedroom. I can live without this and the lecture about door-locking. Stick to one of the larger inns and you'll be fine. Beware that there are many smaller ones that tempt you with their Victorian roots. Just say no.
The locals will tell you to avoid downtown in the summer due to crowds, but that's not a deal breaker in my estimation. Taxis are nonexistent in town, so be sure to rent a car. And even if you're prepared for brisk weather, it always seems to be worse than expected in Maine. Bundle up.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50 percent of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.