The Merry Midcoast
With its villages, harbors, and historic homes, Maine's midcoast is a gift in itself as you cruise past farmhouses, fallow fields, and along the crags of Penobscot Bay. Rockland and Camden, the main shopping centers, offer extensive Christmas celebrations in downtowns decked with white lights. Some of the state's finest restaurants and most elegant inns dot the coast here along with unique gift shops, memorable museums, and the ever-enticing, but admittedly brisk, wharves and waterfronts.
Known for its scenic peninsulas and sprawling town green as well as the recently relocated Maine State Prison, Thomaston sits at the entrance to the Penobscot Bay region. A few coffee shops and a bustling bakery [see "Where to Eat," page C26] make up Main Street, but just before the center of town, the Maine State Prison Showroom, Route 1 (207-354-9237), warrants a stop. Inside this sprawling gift store you'll find woodwork crafted by inmates — "From the big house to your house" — through the prison's job-skills program. The program goes back centuries to the state's first inmates, who were employed building wooden wagons, buckboards, and sleighs. Today they make everything from blanket chests to model ships. For dad or granddad, take home a square ash stool with a rush seat, $49.75. Kids will get a lift from a wooden dump truck, $22.50, or a two-story, unfinished pine dollhouse with garage, $99.
A few minutes north of Thomaston, Rockland is inviting any time of year, but at Christmas it really shines. Tired elves will find relief at Planet Toys' Santa-sized emporium, 318 Main Street (207-596-5976). The store stocks the latest collectibles, such as Brio and Playmobil, as well as Maine gifts. Give kids a jump on college with a University of Maine plush jersey blanket, $34, in pink or blue. They'll ace Maine literature with Make Way for McCloskey, $25, the new Robert McCloskey treasury with eight full-length children's favorites along with author information, photos, and previously unpublished sketches.
The Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center, 16 Museum Street (207-596-6457), is one of the best-loved reasons to visit this busy town. The museum is nationally recognized for its fine collection of American art, and it also boasts a first-rate gift shop. You'll find children's art kits, Maine prints, and an extensive collection of books for mom and dad showcasing Maine art. Wondrous Strange, the Wyeth Tradition, $45, is a fanciful, if sometimes startling, collection of 123 color illustrations by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth along with Howard Pile. Maine in America, the American Art of the Farnsworth Art Museum, $55, by Pamela Belanger, takes a broader look at two centuries of art housed in the museum, from the abstractions of John Marin to the sculptures of William Zorach, and includes the museum's history.
For mom, Lyn Snow Watercolors, 369 Main Street (207-594-3090), offers an extensive number of prints and original watercolors, which delicately capture the flora and fauna of the state. Maine blueberries gathered in a twiggy bouquet, luminescent lady's slippers surrounded by curling ferns, a crystal vase filled with wine-colored lilacs — these are just a few of the images you'll find in this gallery showroom, with prints starting at $29.
A brisk walk down Main Street, past brick storefronts and cozy cafés, will lead to the headquarters of the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization helping preserve Maine's offshore and coastal communities. Its eclectic gift shop, Archipelago, 386 Main Street (207-596-0701), includes the work of more than 200 Maine artisans, most of them from among Maine's fishing communities. Gorgeous, thick, wool-lined mittens in colorful and traditional knits are $25 for kids and $40 for mom and dad. Or entertain grandparents with a walnut and cherry inlaid backgammon board, $240, by Bruce Babb of Pemaquid. Whether you find pottery, paintings, fiber art, or a string of clamshell Christmas lights, your money benefits coastal communities.
Another ten minutes' drive north on Route 1 will bring you to Camden. Tucked between Mount Battie and the coast, the side streets of this stunning little town are lined with stately nineteenth-century homes, while its downtown is brimming with boutiques and bistros. Russell's of Camden, Main Street (207-236-4367), has a gift sure to ignite mom's Maine memories, whether it is original beach stone jewelry with sand-smoothed oval stones set in silver, a Maine schooner, or lighthouse pendant, $32 and up, designed and crafted behind the jeweler's counter.
Maine Gathering, 21 Main Street (207-236-9004), represents more than 100 Maine artists from well-known jewelry designers and potters to photographers and candy makers. The Maine balsam tapestry neck roll pillow, $26.50, is an elegant and relaxing gift for a friend. Or for a stocking-stuffer-sized scent, select a four-inch-square pillow printed with Maine birds, flowers, or wildlife, $7. Hand-forged bronze bells from U.S. Bells in Prospect Harbor are dandy for dad, with the small, clear Winter Bell with an African mahogany fin, from $54.
For knitters and knit wearers, UniqueOne Sweaters & Yarn, 2 Bay View Street (888-691-8358), has a complete line of locally loomed cotton sweaters with rows of black Labs or red lobsters, lighthouses, moose, fishing boats, and coastal scenes galore, from $29 for kids. It also stocks a full selection of knitting supplies, patterns, and kits, as well as Scandinavian wool sweaters, hats, and socks and New Zealand mohair socks.
Tucked around the bend and down a brick sidewalk in what used to be a mechanic shop for schooners tied at slips in this former waterway, Spirit & Art Gallery East, 5 Bay View Landing (207-236-8346), offers an unusual collection of contemporary Native American crafts, books, jewelry, and woven clothing including collector's edition Pendleton blankets. Based on designs by Native Americans of the West, the Oregon mill has designed an entire series of wool blankets to commemorate each national park. The Acadian National Park blanket, $140, full-sized for mom or dad, has a field of midnight black, a border of sunset reds, oranges, and yellows, and a row of white, star-like squares. For a friend, pick up Voices, $18, a CD of traditional wooden flute music by Gouldsboro artist Hawk Henries, or buy your sweetheart a box of Indian Love Tea, $4.
On the south end of town, Once a Tree, 46 Bay View Street (800-236-0440), showcases the woodwork of more than 250 artists from across the country. The hand-turned and -finished serving bowls by Christopher Strassner are as provocative as they are functional. A sixteen-inch ash bowl, $250, for mom has a light poly-oil finish and is so minimally processed, the silvery waves of the tree's natural grains are visible inside and out.
Across the street and heading back toward town, the work of award-winning wildlife carvers draws collectors from around the world to Ducktrap Bay Trading Co., 37 Bay View Street (800-560-9568). Finely feathered decoys, prints, and paintings fill this original shop. A six-inch-tall painted carving of a preening Canadian goose, $140, by Boothbay artist Ted Hanks makes a fine gift for a bird-watching dad. Or show mom she's a honey with a two-foot tall, honey and charcoal colored, chainsaw-carved bear with a bouquet of red-painted roses, $210 and up, by Eliot artist Tim Picket.
Mined from maples, Maine gold dust, $13.75 for a one-pound sack, makes a charming stocking stuffer, hostess gift, or addition to any gift basket. Made by Maine Gold, 12 Bay View Street (800-752-5271), the crystallized maple sugar is one of dozens of maple treats in this unique sweetshop. Those who want to make it themselves can try with a set of five tin sugaring buckets along with taps and spiles (lids) for $75. Rink Mann's Backyard Sugarin' (The Countryman Press), $9.50, is just the gift to go with it. Inside you'll find instructions from selecting the right trees to boiling down the syrup — trees not included.
New just up the road in Belfast, and not to be missed, Lupine Cottage, 7 Old Searsport Avenue (207-338-4300), is easily visible from Route 1. But what you see on the outside, a rather plain white clapboard building, is nothing like what you'll find inside. The quality craftsmanship of more than thirty-five Maine artists who contribute to the cooperative make this a must-stop shop. For friends, the fabric quilt-topped, cedar keepsake boxes, $26 and up, are charmingly original in their designs — Maine lighthouses, birds, and traditional quilt block patterns. A cherry-stained shadow lamp, $49.95, makes a nifty gift for kids. Each comes with an interchangeable cutout scene — including animals or the Maine outdoors — and lights up when you turn it on. The shop carries textiles, jewelry, woodworking, photography, glass, and pottery.
Where to Eat
A favorite with locals and a destination for folks from away, the Thomaston Café and Bakery, Main Street (207-354-8589), can't be beat for its Sunday brunch, with delicacies such as lobster ravioli and haddock fishcakes. Its fresh-baked breakfast pastries are sublime, and its homemade soups and chowders with local ingredients make lunch lovely. Prices start at $3.25 for breakfast, and it is also open selected evenings for dinner.
For a lunch or dinner in a relaxed atmosphere, the Waterfront, Bay View Street (207-236-3747), offers fresh seafood bought at the wharves daily, along with a satisfying assortment for landlovers. Named for its on-the-water location, the brick-and-barn-beamed restaurant has been a local favorite for twenty-five years. Dinners are $11.95 and up.
At Anglers, Route 1, Searsport (207-548-2405), the food is hot, the service is fast, and the atmosphere is friendly. Open daily for lunch and dinner, the restaurant is well-known for its fried seafood dinners, which start at $9.99 for two generous, hand-battered haddock filets, a plateful of fried potatoes, and a side of homemade coleslaw. Don't forget the homemade pie.
Where to Stay
The 178-room Samoset Resort, 220 Warrenton Street, Rockport (800-341-1650), is a full-service resort with an award-winning restaurant, Marcel's, an indoor pool, fitness club, and spa. Set on 230 acres at the edge of Penobscot Bay, the resort offers water views from many rooms and is close to everything. Rooms are $189 and up.
Set near the center of Camden, the Hawthorn Inn, 9 High Street (866-381-3647), is a turreted, three-story Queen-Anne Victorian with gracious twin parlors, an inviting fireplace, and ten guest rooms. Room rates start at $120 and include a decadent, full breakfast.
The Alden House Bed & Breakfast, 63 Church Street, Belfast (877-337-8151), is a grand 1840s Greek Revival home set near the center of this historic seafaring town. With high ceilings, carved moldings, and a central circular staircase, the house offers gracious accommodations including seven bedrooms that are decorated with period antiques. A full breakfast with local ingredients and fresh-baked goods is included in the room rate, which begins at $99.