To understand the quest described below, you have to cast way back to December 2013. Remember? Barack Obama was president, “Breaking Bad” enthralled the nation and Washington was the place that snow forgot.
It may be hard to recall, but before the polar vortex descended in January and February, we had been years without a snowman-worthy winter. It was a good run for commuters, but a bummer for kids and romantics, both of whom hold key positions in my family. The last time Washington saw snowfall on Dec. 25? The great 0.2-inch blizzard of 2002.
That’s how we came to set out for 10 days last December, pointed north, loaded to the dome lights with bales of presents, a box of lights, a crate of skates, a stack of sleds, two kids, two dogs and a deep yearning for the season’s chilliest charms.
ISO: a fail-safe white Christmas.
We went in search of snow, and found it. But we also found warmth, the wood-fired welcome of a Maine fishing village settled in for its long winter’s nap filled with sociable locals, slow speeds and white coastal wonderlands. Add a side trip to Vermont’s Green Mountains for even deeper drifts of the white and powdery and — spoiler alert! — our holidays were made in New England.
East Boothbay, Maine – and its big brother around the point, Boothbay Harbor – are well known to summer travelers. Tourists fill waiting lists for the cottages surrounding Linekin Bay and crowd the taffy shops and clam shacks between Memorial and Labor days. But when we pulled up in the twilight of Dec. 21, only seven or eight of the houses sent their cheery light dancing across the glossy water.
“A few of the summer families come to spend Christmas here, but mostly it’s dead-empty during the winter,” said Ron Serina as he helped me hoist boxes and bags and bundles down from the roof rack. The only sound was the lap of water and the distant screech of a gull. A noiseless snow fell on our caps. “It’s growing slowly, but it’s pretty much just us around here.”
Ron is a big, bearded Santa of a man who long ago ditched a New York advertising career to be a carpenter in Maine. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, own Seanook, a former lobsterman’s depot that was to be our home for the holidays. Remade as a window-and-woodwork-filled three-bedroom cottage, the house is not so much on the water as of it. The cove licks at three sides of the foundation when the tide is high. Huge fields of kelp, lying in limp profusion across the wet black rocks, surround the deck when it’s low. The smell was briny and clean, and a thin crust of ice marked the tide line – the rime of the ancient mariner.
Back in the day, lobstermen tied up at the house’s back door for gas and bait and cigarettes and beer. We newcomers trooped down the narrow path to stock the house with eggnog and Mini Wheats, red wine and pecan twirls, board games and cookie cutters, all the fixin’s that make Christmas, no matter where you hunker down. By the end of the day, presents would be piled under a potted ficus that wore our twinkling lights with pride.
Those were our presents to one another. Ron assured Harry, who was 8, that Santa knew the way to Boothbay and how to negotiate Seanook’s skinny stovepipe.
Ron stoked the wood stove fire he had started for us earlier that day. Mary Ellen pulled out a vast bucket of old-fashioned Legos, and Harry got to work on a sleigh and reindeer. Tyrie, 14, ran up to claim the snug room with the sloping walls, nesting it with books and her miniature speakers. Ann and I went from window to window, delighting in the view of a harbor town under a crimson winter sky that filled three compass points of horizon.
In the run-up to Christmas, we would explore nearly every acre of that panorama. When the tide was out, we scrambled out to one of the tiny islands, collecting sea glass and shells until the returning water threatened to strand us. We hauled our collections back through evergreen woods and the deepening snow. Pip the Pomeranian, our tiniest member, gamboled gamely from boot print to boot print. He would pause, a tiny panting face peering from the snow, and we would take another five or six pictures of him.
On our second morning, Harry and I suited up for a long walk into the woods behind the house, through snow that was settling on the peaked New England gables of the houses along the cove. The conifers were spectacular in their white trim, bowing down under the snow as if nodding good morning. We found a promising open field and let ourselves fall flat backwards. The snow angels, one tall and one small, were good. But when we tried to roll out a snowman, the snow proved too wet and heavy.
“I know you’re disappoin- ” I was saying when he got me square in the neck with a snowball. Then it was game on, a running battle through the trees until we skittered down the icy steps of Seanook to a lunch of Ann’s Greek chicken soup.
At least once a day we made our way through the docks and houses of the quiescent village to the East Boothbay General Store. The racks of Maine-themed place mats and lobster oven mitts had no takers, but we made use of the seasonal supply of bright wool scarves and slippers, along with the hot sandwiches, the blueberry soda and the woman behind the counter who told us about McSeagull’s.
McSeagull’s, we would learn over the next several days, was Boothbay’s faint pulse in hibernation. Most of the downtown shops, dependent on tourism, were shuttered for the year. The excellent Sherman’s Books, a Maine institution, was open, as were a few places selling hardy outerwear.
IF YOU GO:
Where to eat
14 Wharf St., Boothbay Harbor, Maine
The Maine seafood platters start at $18, cup of clam chowder, $6.
255 Ocean Point Rd.
East Boothbay, Maine
A good selection of wine and craft beer and breakfast and lunch menus. Seasonal lobster roll, $16.
18 Main St.
High-end tavern fare where entrees start at $17.
What to do
5 Commercial St.
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
A vast selection of Maine and maritime history, local charts and selected fiction.
700 Trapp Hill Rd.
Rooms at the holidays start at $225, but we made a day’s use of the resort’s huge snow areas, sleigh rides ($30 per adult,$20 per child) and lodge dining room. And yes, it’s that von Trapp family.
But it was the dockside McSeagull’s that nurses the local citizenry through to spring, a warm haven of babbling voices, clam chowder and draft beer. A place that moves tourists through by the thousand at peak season was now filled with neighbors. The Saturday before, they had gone through 10 gallons of Bloody Mary mix for a downtown pajama-shopping party, said Alyssa the bartender. “Winter in Maine is not for the faint of heart,” she said.
On Christmas Eve, Ann and I left the kids snug in the cottage – Tyrie was making Jell-O, and Harry was building a Lego Santa and elves to add to his Lego crèche. We were on a combined mission: hike around the point and bag some fresh lobsters for the holiday pot.
According to Ann’s Fitbit, it was 15,000 steps to the lobster dock and back, about seven miles. We took turns toting the crustacean-filled backpack across the long pedestrian bridge that spans the harbor, up and down the sloped streets of the tiny downtown, through neighborhoods of small frame houses strung with colored lights.
On the way back, windows were lighting up and a closed-for-the-holiday stillness was settling over the town. From somewhere on the bay, a foghorn bellowed its mournful alert. We met a man locking up the Hodgdon Yachts workshop across from Seanook. He described the million-dollar tender boats they build for the $24 million yachts that they build on the other side of the point. It is good news here that buyers in Monaco and Dubai value craftsmanship enough to keep the shipwrights’ chisels sharp into their fifth century on this coast. Mainers are proud to have been well established when the laggard pilgrims finally arrived at Plymouth Rock.
Back at the cottage, we stoked the fire and allowed the dogs to go briefly berserk as the lobsters explored the kitchen floor. Ann and Harry lowered a bucket from the icy deck for the seawater we would need to boil them. I made a cheese plate in anticipation of Ron and Mary Ellen’s coming visit to toast Christmas Eve. They live on the ridge above, where Mary Ellen paints and runs Paradise Studios. (We brought home one of her winterscapes of the cove that captures its off-season splendor better than any of our iPhone panoramas.)
The next day would bring the usual maelstrom of presents and paper, along with leftover lobster and, per family tradition, a DVD showing of “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.” There was more snow, too, gorgeous, but our snowman attempt on the rocky slope failed.
Coastal Maine had delivered the white stuff in abundance, but we had built in a snow-certain two-night side trip just in case it didn’t. Two days after Christmas, we packed the sleigh, er, Nissan and headed five hours inland and upland to mountainy Stowe, Vt.
Stowe is a ski town; snow was guaranteed. But we eschewed the slopes in favor of homier winter fun. Basing ourselves at the family- and dog-friendly Snowflake Mountain Resort, we plunged through the steam clouds into the heated outdoor pool and hot tub. Ann and I hiked for hours along the five-mile cross-country path that connects the town with the ski fields up the mountain. We bought flannel wear we didn’t need at Shaw’s General Store and had our fanciest meal at the Whip, in the Green Mountain Inn.
But it was on the last day of our northern sojourn that we realized full wonderland saturation. Basing for the day at the Trapp Family Lodge, outside Stowe, we climbed into a giant wooden sleigh – still a working vehicle in timber season, the driver said – and dashed over the fields behind two massive draft horses in the company of a festive family from Mexico.
After a fireside lunch in the lodge, we walked out to a clearing beside an icy pond and dug our boot toes into the snow.
It was perfect.
We rolled and rolled. A base the size of a washing machine, followed by a midsection so big it took the four of us to wrangle it into place. We sculpted a mighty head, with a pointed hat (complete with fuzzy ball), and fashioned a pair of beefy arms. One of them, in a triumph of snow engineering, thrust above the big guy’s cap in a gesture of jovial greeting to the world.
By the time we were done, a couple of other families had gathered to watch, and one had started their own project. Breath steamy with work and cheeks flushed with cold-weather joy, we stepped back to look at our efforts.
Then, wiping our wet gloves, we walked back to the car, leaving behind a fleeting monument to our wonderfully white New England Christmas.
And our best snowman ever.