Along the coast of Maine, the inns are as prevalent as the steamed lobsters -- although perhaps not so well known. We are just back from five days of inn-hopping, a pleasant way to explore the state's historic seashore villages while sampling fresh lobster again and again.
One evening we stayed at the friendly Blue Hill Inn in Blue Hill, a tiny waterside village of Federal-style white-frame homes and steepled churches. In the resort village of Bar Harbor, we slept in an elegant room at the Bayview in which Winston Churchill reportedly was a guest when the inn was a private mansion. In Boothbay Harbor, where the lobster traps are stacked high on piers, our choice was the Spruce Point Inn, a nearly century-old cluster of cozy cottages -- many with private porches facing the water. And in sophisticated Portland, where we began and ended our trip, we picked the spiffy Pomegranate Inn, where the walls are hand-painted in Matisse-like swirls of color and the furnishings are wonderfully offbeat.
Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia National Park, the most scenic stretch of Maine's lengthy, rockbound coast. We spent much of one day in the park, alternately driving the 20-mile Loop Road, which edges the shore and ascends Cadillac Mountain, and hiking wooded trails to nearby natural attractions, including one of Maine's rare sandy beaches. At the park's Jordon Pond House, an inviting restaurant that sits alongside long, slender Jordon Pond, the lobster rolls -- fresh lobster chunks on a bun -- are excellent, and filling. I had to pass up the house specialty, a large warm popover stuffed with homemade ice cream.
Not an hour north of Portland on our 400-mile round trip, we pulled into the village of Freeport, home of L.L. Bean, the famous sporting goods and outdoor apparel firm, which is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The main store is enormous, and it is perhaps impossible to step inside and not be tempted to buy something -- be it a tent, canoe or hiking boots. I picked up a guidebook to the Maine coast and, because rain was threatening, the new umbrella I've needed for a year. The store is the focal point of the dozens of factory outlets and other shops -- such as Boston Traders and Brooks Brothers -- that have made Freeport one of New England's premier shopping destinations. It is also one of the prettiest, in large part because the easily walkable complex retains the look of old Maine.
In Camden, we stopped for lunch in the bustling town center, which overlooks Penobscot Bay. While we were snapping up platefuls of fried Maine shrimp at the Village Restaurant, a banner flapping from the mast of a small vessel anchored in the harbor caught our attention. It was the flag of the Lewis R. French, a century-old Maine windjammer on which we had sailed for a week some 16 years ago. Camden and neighboring Rockport and Rockland are home ports to several of the windjammers. When we were aboard, the Lewis R. French carried a maximum of 22 passengers in tight quarters. I remember the cruise fondly, but I had forgotten just how small the ship is. A few miles to the north is Searsport, Maine's coastal antiques capital. Large roadside flea markets flourish on the outskirts of town.
Freeport and Camden, like practically every community through which we drove, boast a number of inns, some of them stately Colonial Revival-style mansions dating from the 19th-century seafaring era. Having so many choices of where to go has its drawbacks, however. Using guidebooks to New England inns, we reached a decision systematically. Visiting Acadia National Park, 160 miles north of Portland, was a primary goal, so we wanted to stay in Bar Harbor, the northernmost point of our trip. Between Portland and Bar Harbor, we planned a night's stopover in each direction. Northbound, we picked Blue Hill because a guidebook described it (accurately) as one of Maine's most perfect villages. Southbound, we could not pass by famous Boothbay Harbor, a touristy but still lovely old village with great ocean and harbor views and reasonable proximity to the Portland airport.
Three of the inns in which we stayed serve dinner -- one of the requirements we set. The exception was the Pomegranate in Portland, where finding a good, convenient restaurant is no problem. In all four inns, breakfast is included in the price. Off-season rates are quite reasonable -- we paid just $130 for an ocean-view room, dinner and breakfast for two at the Spruce Point Inn over Memorial Day weekend. But from about now into September is the high season. In July and August, the same room will cost $280 a day. Pomegranate Inn
Our flight from Washington was late in arriving, so we didn't show up at the door of the Pomegranate Inn until almost 9 p.m. Obviously, innkeeper Isabel Smiles had been looking for us, because she stepped onto the porch to welcome us almost as soon as we pulled up in front of the 1884 Italianate-style mansion in the heart of Portland's historic Western Promenade neighborhood. We were hurrying to keep a dinner reservation, so she handed us the key to our room and sent us on our way. It was a hasty beginning, but we had plenty of time the next morning to discover that we shared a coincidental Northern Ireland link.
Smiles, who operated an antiques and design shop for many years, runs the inn with her husband, Alan, a former linen dealer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has decorated the eight-room Pomegranate with an eclectic mix of antiques, hand-painted furniture and crafts that are both whimsical and avant-garde, all of which give the inn the delightful look of a modern-art museum. To add to the ambiance, the walls of each of the guest rooms have been hand-painted with impressionistic flair. The third-floor blue Matisse room, the most colorful, was already taken (although I specifically had reserved it), but our alternate room, aswirl in green and cream grape clusters, was almost as dramatic.
One of the pleasures of a Pomegranate stay is studying the design touches throughout the inn, including the bold, gold-colored hallways. A painting of a bowl of chrysanthemums hung on the wall of our room, and on the dresser beside it stood a similar bowl of mum-like paper flowers. Abstract glass sculptures decorated the stairway, and the sitting and dining areas on the first floor were separated by classical columns painted green.
We took in these scenes only after we had returned from the Back Bay Grill, a small restaurant about five minutes away. Occupying an old storefront, it is regularly listed among Maine's best. I began with a salad of arugula and herbs tossed with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. For the entree, I ordered grilled tuna on a bed of baked fennel, accompanied by tortellini filled with white beans and garlic. This was, as it turned out, my only day without lobster in some form.
Alan Smiles, the chief chef at the Pomegranate, greeted us the next morning with a breakfast of juice, fresh fruit and blueberry waffles. In the course of getting-to-know-you chitchat, we learned that he hails from Northern Ireland, and told him about our recent trip there -- discovering we had briefly met one of his old Northern Ireland friends. With this common link, we lingered over breakfast much longer than we had planned. And we were as tardy departing as we were arriving.
A room for two this summer is $125 to $155 a night. For information: 800-356-0408. Blue Hill Inn
I could smell the fennel baking as we stepped inside the Blue Hill Inn, reputedly the oldest inn in continuous operation in New England, dating back to 1840. The 11-room inn may be old, but with fennel on the menu its kitchen is obviously aware of current dining trends. Very professionally run, the Blue Hill nourishes a country-house style in which guests gather before dinner in the sitting room for drinks, hors d'oeuvres and conversation and then dine simultaneously in the garden-view dining room. We chatted with a young couple bicycling inn-to-inn from Portland to Bar Harbor.
A two-story white clapboard structure, the Blue Hill is located in the heart of the tree-shaded village, itself a lovely reminder of an earlier era, situated on beautiful Blue Hill Bay. A short uphill walk from the bay, the inn faces not the water but 950-foot-high Blue Hill Mountain rising above the town. Mill Stream splashes down a rocky hillside through town to the bay. To complete the bucolic picture, a hammock hangs between two trees in the inn's garden and orchard. The setting seemed so blissfully serene, we wanted to stay for a day or two more.
The inn is furnished attractively with 19th-century antiques, and its wide, pine-board floors are original -- which is apparent from their slant and squeak. Our bathroom presented a claw-foot tub that had been fitted with a modern shower. While my wife settled in with a before-dinner book, I explored the town's small assortment of shops and art galleries -- Belcher's Country Store has a nice collection of crafts -- and then sat for a while in the city park absorbing the gorgeous views of the bay.
Dinner is included in the room price, and the five-course menu on the night we were there included a delicious appetizer of mushrooms and fennel in a puff pastry, grapefruit sorbet, a filet of beef, a mesclum salad and chocolate mousse for dessert. Innkeeper Mary Hartley noticed that my wife was not eating much because she was suffering from a slight bug. When we returned to our room, where the bed had been turned down, Hartley had left a glass of creme de menthe and a note saying it was her self-treatment for an unsettled stomach. It was a thoughtful gesture.
Breakfast proved a hearty affair that began with popovers, coffee cake and a fresh fruit plate and was followed by juice, scrambled eggs with leeks and tomatoes and a huge slice of Canadian bacon. I had been spared the bug, and was able to down both my own breakfast and part of my wife's. I should have been the one cycling to Bar Harbor.
A room for two with dinner and breakfast this summer is $150 to $165 a night, which is a real bargain. For information: 207-374-2844. The Bayview A portrait of Winston Churchill beamed down at us from above the mantel as we stepped into the room in the Bayview in which he reportedly stayed during a transatlantic visit in the midst of World War II. So many years later, the room remains -- I'm happy to say -- a place befitting a touring prime minister or other potentate. For one thing, it is enormous, as is the walk-in closet and the modern bathroom. For another, its windows open onto a lovely view of Frenchman's Bay. And, just as appealing, it is one of only six upstairs guest rooms that share access to the elegant parlor, library and dining room on the first floor. We were in awe, particularly because such sumptuousness came at a start-of-the-season rate of just $108 a night (with a 10 percent American Automobile Association discount). Between now and Oct. 23, the rate for the Churchill room ranges from $150 to $260 a night.
Built in 1930 in a French Mediterranean style, the well-preserved inn -- which takes adults only -- sits on eight wooded acres about a five-minute drive from the visitor center of Acadia National Park and a 20-minute walk from the shops and restaurants of Bar Harbor. Docked just a few hundred yards to the north is the Bluenose, the auto ferry shuffling regularly between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The 8 a.m. toot of its departure horn was our signal to get up. Part of a private estate until 1983, the inn still houses many of its original paintings and art objects.
We had no trouble imagining ourselves the masters of the mansion, because the inn still looks very much like a private home. The check-in desk and other hotel-like facilities are located at the Bayview, a 26-room hotel that shares the property but is just distant enough not to spoil the illusion of exclusivity. It offers a small swimming pool overlooking the bay, a dining room where we ate one night (a very good baked haddock with lobster sauce) and a bar. A continental breakfast of fruit, cereals, rolls and juice (for inn guests only) was set up in the inn's dining room, where French doors opened onto a bay view. In the morning chill of late spring, a fire blazed in the fireplace.
Bar Harbor is very much a tourist town filled with its full share of T-shirt shops, but it is nonetheless a pretty place with numerous inns and large summer homes. The Shore Path, a 100-year-old trail along the rocky coastline in front of town, passes by several of them. While exploring the village streets, we chanced upon the Porcupine Grill, which occupies a small frame house. The menu in the window intrigued us, and we made a dinner reservation. That night I began with a salad of warm grilled pears and mixed greens tossed with a blue cheese and walnut vinaigrette. For an entree, I couldn't resist the grilled Maine salmon in a red wine sauce served on a bed of smoked fish hash and topped with crisp fried leeks. I'm sure Churchill would have enjoyed the meal as much as we did.
Afterward, we returned to the inn and sat for a while in the large parlor, which we had to ourselves. Through the windows we could see the rays of the moon skipping over the water. It was one of those perfect moments that make a trip a success. All that was lacking was a butler nearby who could be summoned to bring a nightcap. I guess for $108 a night, one can't have everything.
From now until Oct. 23, other rooms in the inn with breakfast range from $100 to $275 a night for two people. For information: 800-356-3585. Spruce Point Inn Spruce Point Inn was not our first choice in the Boothbay Harbor area, but it should have been. Seduced by glowing guidebook descriptions, we had booked an inn up the road a bit in the town of Newcastle. But nothing had warned us that our room there would look out onto a view mostly of the parking lot -- the sort of view you might expect in a budget motel. And to our surprise and disappointment, the inn was not serving dinner that evening, the major reason we chose it. So we abandoned our deposit and went looking elsewhere. At the Spruce Point, we checked into a comfortable cottage room with a private porch facing the Atlantic. In the distance, a windjammer on a day sail glided by. A memorable view is a much better way to conclude a trip.
With 70 lodgings scattered over 15 landscaped acres, the Spruce Point Inn qualifies either as a small resort -- it offers tennis courts and two swimming pools -- or a large inn. Nearly a century old, it began as a hunting lodge, and although recently renovated it still retains the old-fashioned ambiance of an earlier era. We stayed for only a night, but I got a fine taste of those legendary summers by the sea that have drawn visitors to Maine for decades. Befitting its origins, its style is more rustic than elegant.
The inn sits on a water-ringed point about a mile and a half out of Boothbay Harbor, which, like Bar Harbor, is both bustling and pretty. We had just time enough to poke our noses into three of the most interesting shops we found on the coast -- Edgecomb Potters, Hand-in-Hand Galleries and Abacus, all of which sell contemporary American crafts. At Hand-in-Hand, we bought six hand-blown drinking glasses splashed with colorful abstract designs.
And then it was time to hurry back to the inn to change for dinner, which is a somewhat dressy affair presided over by a skilled maitre d' in tuxedo. Dinner and breakfast are included in the room rate, and the menus at both meals are extensive. For an appetizer, I chose a duck empanada (duck baked in pastry) with a hot corn relish. The salad course was mixed greens with tomatoes and cucumbers in a balsamic vinaigrette. For my entree, I ordered grilled filet of salmon topped with a green and black peppercorn and butter sauce. And I was tempted by the dessert, a light, slightly tart mandarin mousse in a brandy-flavored pastry shell.
As we had elsewhere on the trip, we left the windows open at night to catch the salt-scented breeze, and at Spruce Point I went to sleep to the lullaby of a foghorn echoing from somewhere out in the water. I thought the sound romantic, but of course the foghorn's function is practical. We awoke in the morning to its sound again, but now it was a warning broadcast to sailors amid fog, rain and a chilly wind.
It was foul weather indeed, our only day without sun. But then this is Maine too, and the tossing sea gave us a dramatic new view outside our window. We watched for a while, then dashed through the rain to breakfast -- an appropriately hearty meal that featured stacks of fresh blueberry pancakes. With the weather as an excuse, I dug into mine with gusto.
From now until Oct. 19, a room for two with breakfast and dinner ranges from $178 to $330 a night. For information: 800-553-0289. Continental, Delta, Northwest United and USAir each serve Portland, Maine, from at least one of the Washington-area airports. United offers nonstops out of Dulles on commuter aircraft. United currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $269 per person on these flights. We stuck mostly to U.S. Route 1 from Portland to Bar Harbor and back again, a slow, sometimes congested route that parades through the heart of many coastal villages. But this was fine with us, because these are the places we wanted to see. CAPTION: Blue Hill Inn dates back to 1840. CAPTION: Blue Hill Bay, a short walk from the inn. CAPTION: Acadia National Park on the Maine coast. CAPTION: The foyer at Portland's Pomegranate Inn. CAPTION: The Winston Churchill Room at the Bayview Inn overlooks Bar Harbor's Frenchman's Bay. CAPTION: A room at the nearly-century-old Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor. CAPTION: The dining room at Spruce Point Inn in Boothbay Harbor.