Maine Street

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By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 4, 2003

My first encounter with the historic inns of Camden, Maine, was a fleeting one: I spied them as we sped north out of town on our way to a rental house farther up the coast. We'd lingered too long in "downtown" Camden, transfixed by its spectacular location on Penobscot Bay.

Camden tends to have that effect on people. The approach along U.S. 1 is unremarkable until you reach the town's sloping threshold and behold a captivating, quintessential New England scene. To the east, 19th-century windjammers and modern sailboats skim past each other in the narrow harbor. Backing up behind the town to the west are the undulating green haunches of Camden Hills State Park. Between harbor and hillside is the sliver of village, lined with small shops and waterfront restaurants, with white church spires poking through trees on the periphery, and graceful village greens bookending the north and south ends of town.

We had succumbed, poked about, eaten our fill of the Waterfront Restaurant's gazpacho and lobster rolls, then finally settled into the car and accelerated northbound up High Street. That's when we discovered that just up the hill from the village lie the most handsomely beguiling vintage houses, one after the other, each with its own pretty garden and towering trees. A number of these were bed-and-breakfasts, I realized, hastily scanning signs as we zipped by them: Abigail's, the Hawthorn, the Whitehall Inn, the Maine Stay, A Little Dream, and pow! at the end, a veritable castle called Norumbega.

That first glimpse of Camden inns occurred in 1989. We -- Jim and I and our daughter Caitlin, and Lucy, too, when she came along -- have returned to midcoast Maine nearly ev ery summer since. Our routine is the same: We rent a house for two weeks in August in or near the little town of Bayside. And we know every twist and turn of the 16-mile stretch of Route 1 between Bayside and Camden, where we always head for more dillydallying. I can report, with some authority, that the Camden Deli is a must-stop for sandwiches (its chicken salad and Italian cold cuts are terrific); how to negotiate the side streets to bypass traffic in the center of town; that Laite Memorial Beach on Bayview Street is the best version of what passes for a sandy beach, in these parts; and that Cappy's is where locals go for drinks.

I even know where Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Camden resident Richard Russo lives, but I'll never tell.

As a house renter, however, my knowledge of Camden's inns had remained tantalizingly out of reach. Finally, last August, Caitlin and I decided we were no longer content to cast admiring backward glances on our way to Bayside, and we spent an afternoon exploring several High Street inns and talking to innkeepers. I returned in fall on my own for a more personal inn-side scoop at four of the properties that first caught my eye.

Turns out, High Street is an official historic district, with 63 homes listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including eight B&Bs. Once the dwellings of wealthy merchants, ship captains and builders, most of these homes were constructed during the 19th century, when "Camden Town," which had been incorporated in 1791, prospered in shipbuilding and anchor production. By the beginning of the 20th century, word of Camden's natural beauty had spread, and the town flourished as a vacation spot for the well-to-do.

Enamored with Camden, some of these vacationers built magnificent summer homes, established a yacht club and encouraged the area's arts and aesthetics through contributions to the public library, the Public Landing, the Camden Opera House and other attractions.

For a visitor like me, who likes her scenery not too far from civilization, Camden offers the perfect combo. You can hike to the top of Mount Battie, which overlooks the village (you can also drive up), and then climb down and dine at the top-notch Hartstone Inn (we spotted Julia Child here a couple of years ago). Or cruise the bay on a schooner, looking out for eagles, seals and ospreys, before returning to port for a beer at the Sea Dog Brew Pub and an afternoon of shopping at art galleries, gift shops and clothing stores.

Not far from Camden are other noteworthy spots. Seven miles south is Rockland, home to the Farnsworth Museum -- and its fabulous collection of American art and Wyeth works -- and the restaurant Primo, whose creative regional cuisine (with Italian and French influences) garners rave reviews. Twenty miles north of Camden is little Belfast, where hardscrabble old-timers and hippie-type newcomers co-exist peaceably, as do their ventures: The Belfast Co-op and the Gothic Coffee House sit on the same street as Colburn's Shoe Store (circa 1832) and the Old Stuff junk store.

But for many travelers, Camden and the inns of High Street may be enough. All of the inns present picturesque views, as windows facing east overlook Penobscot Bay and those looking west offer looming vistas of Mount Battie and Mount Megunticook. At the same time, the individual stories, personalities and styles of the innkeepers and their inns make a visit to each a singular pleasure.

Norumbega

Camden's inn de resistance, and my first stop, is on the eastern side: a grand castle, complete with fieldstone walls, many angles and arches, and a pointed roof turret. Norumbega sits on a swell of three acres overlooking the bay, about a half-mile from the center of town. A wealthy inventor, Joseph Stearns, built the mansion in 1886, modeling it after his favorite European castles and naming it for a magical city said to have existed nearby in the 16th century. Its prepossessing appearance ("eclectic Gothic- and Victorian-style architecture," general manager JoAnne Reuillard calls it) regularly lures the curious in for a closer look, with as many as 100 cars a day stopping by in season. Used as a residence for most of its life, Norumbega was turned into a bed-and-breakfast in 1984, then purchased in 1987 by its current owners, the Keatinge family, who have thoroughly restored it.


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