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Bayside, Maine: A Refreshing Reminder of a Simpler Time

By Suzanne Rico
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, July 20, 2009 5:03 PM

There is no grocery store if you run out of milk halfway through Sunday breakfast. The only gas station is a mile out of town. And if you want high-speed Internet access, a jury-rigged antenna hitting a relay beacon across Penobscot Bay brings spotty service at best. The tiny Victorian village of Bayside also has no movie theaters, tourist shops, restaurants or hotels.

That's what makes it the perfect vacation place.

On a cool, foggy June morning last year, I took a walk with my 3-year-old son down Cobe Road, both of us still in pajamas. A vibrantly green, vine-tangled forest guarded both sides of the unpaved road, with Boston fern, lupine and azaleas spilling down to the water in a cascade of color. We followed a sound that to my city ear sounded like a hungry moose. Instead, we discovered a tiny pond full of baritone bullfrogs the size of my hand, croaking in the mist that wavered and then disappeared into the still morning.

Nearby, in a copse of pine trees, a glistening gray stone angel kept watch over a tiny garden with a plaque that read: "John Coughlin Memorial Park, 1954-1999." I sat on one of the two plastic chairs there and wondered who else came to visit with ghosts. As my son poked around the water's edge, I realized that on this Monday morning I had not yet heard one car or seen another person sharing my perfect peace.

Bayside is a throwback to a less frenzied era. The village began as a Methodist camp in the 1850s, when thousands of faithful from around New England gathered each summer on 30 acres of oceanfront to eat, pray and socialize. Then, horse-drawn wagons clogged the dirt roads, steamers disgorged passengers at the dock, and the temporary campgrounds soon were built into permanent cottages. Now, village zoning regulations ban commercial development and the only businesses in town are a real-estate agency that was grandfathered in and the Northport Yacht Club, headquartered in a tiny, weathered, one-room shack next to the pier. There are no billboards, no stoplights and only one stop sign.

I did not come to Bayside as an accidental tourist. Jerry Savitz, one of the town's 50 or so year-round residents, is my husband's second cousin, and 15 years ago my husband's family bought a lovely old home built in 1917 called Bayview Farms. We now spend two weeks there every year. Each summer, Savitz watches this hidden hamlet's population swell to more than 300. The town, he says, stays in the past by choice. "We're very protective of the fact that we can have kids go down on the dock and don't have to worry about 'em," he said while eating homemade rhubarb pie in the house where he grew up.

The Bayside community, officially part of the town of Northport, is tucked away just off coastal Route 1, about 15 miles north of the bustling tourist town of Camden. The most picturesque way in is via Shore Road, with its gentle roller-coaster waves and arched tree canopy. While out for a run one day, I rounded a bend to find a pristine Model A Ford truck puttering slowly toward me. The driver was a senior citizen who gave me a nod as he passed. As I watched him disappear into the gauzy day, I felt, with my iPod and bright orange running shoes, like a time traveler from the future.

That aura of being frozen in the past is what pulls travelers back to Bayside year after year. Some of the 100-year-old houses have been passed down through several generations. Lori Burbank Darnell's grandparents bought the 1906 waterfront, blue-shingled Burbank Cottage in 1939 for $1,600, after her mortician grandfather struck up a friendship with a casket salesman who had married the owners' daughter.

Darnell, who lives in North Carolina, was watching her kids scoop giant hen clams the size of softballs out of the still water in front of her cottage the morning I met her. I asked her about the history of her house. "My grandmother left it to her kids and grandkids, so there are now seventeen owners," she told me. "The scheduling gets complicated, but we're just humbled to have it."

Darnell remembers both her grandparents' and her parents' 50th wedding anniversary parties at the cottage. Dozens of people camped on the lawn, a DJ played Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter, and four generations of Burbanks danced under the stars, fireflies lighting up the lawn that slopes to the sea. Life in Bayside, she says, feels simple. "Homemade ice cream, lobster feasts, gathering at the piano, playing hide-and-seek in the dark with flashlights, softball games on the lawn," she added, and turned to look with a particular kind of longing up the rickety wooden staircase leading to her home.

Inside the house, her grandmother's ancient piano, with several broken keys, was crowded against a wall, and the home's original leaded-glass windows refracted sunlight onto the well-worn wood floors. In the kitchen, an old, defunct sky-blue stove looked much more at home than did the two laptop computers on the dining room table.

Renting one of these "camps"-- the Maine term for a small cottage -- or the handful of larger, more luxurious homes in Bayside, is the only option for tourists, because the only hotel ever built in town, the Northport Inn, burned to the ground in 1919. The cottages' gingerbread trim, whitewashed wraparound porches and colors that look stolen right out of a rainbow are charming, but inside some of these tiny Victorian homes, washing machines are a luxury, old floors list or buckle, and original claw-foot tubs have squeaky, leaky faucets. The originality doesn't annoy, though; it simply makes Bayside feel authentic. So do the cottages' funky, funny names.

The bright yellow Sqeezed Inn has a wooden deck that hovers over the water, but just two feet of space on each side separate it from the next-door neighbors. Braking Wind is a small white charmer with forest-green trim whose name elicits giggles from kids and adults alike. The Aroostook is one of the grander cottages, named after Maine's northernmost county, but the locals joke that "Aroostook" means "really [expletive] cold."

If you're more than 5 feet tall, you will probably need to duck as you climb the Lilliputian stairways to the lovely attic rooms of these homes. The view from the dormer windows often includes huge hydrangea trees and rioting sunset-colored rhododendron, back-dropped by the deep blue of Penobscot Bay. The time-honored traditions of porch-sitting and visiting are listed as activities in some rental listings.

The village is laid out in neat squares, and walking is the preferred mode of transportation. Children jump off the end of the dock into the cold Atlantic, play tag in Ruggles Park in the town center and whip through the water on Sunfish, much as kids did half a century ago. The locals, the summer people and the vacation renters mix effortlessly, borrowing a lobster pot or an extra chair without hesitation for an impromptu dinner party.

"It's a 'we' community, not a 'me' community," said Malia Ott, a first-time Bayside renter from Boston, as she skipped stones into the mirror-flat Penobscot with her kids. "There aren't 500 SUVs with New York license plates sitting in traffic waiting to go somewhere. It reminds me of my childhood. It's slow and sweet, and that makes me want to come back."

As we talked, Ott let her kids run unattended down to the dock, secure in the knowledge that an entire community would be watching out for them.

Suzanne Rico is a freelance writer and an anchorwoman for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.

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