Mid Coast Maine

Did you know that lobsters—those tasty crustaceans synonymous with Maine—used to be considered garbage?

“They were first fed to prisoners,” explained Captain Melissa Terry on board the Good Return, a 50-foot passenger vessel. Melissa, an attractive 27-year-old brunette, owns Belfast Bay Cruises and takes visitors out on the Good Return to tour Penobscot Bay in Mid-Coast Maine.

On this brilliant fall afternoon as the Good Return motored gently across the Penobscot, Melissa shared her knowledge of lobstering, Maine’s most important industry. With the help of her assistant Adam, Melissa hauled up a lobster trap onto the deck of her boat. Though she had warned us, “No guarantees on lobsters,” a one-clawed lobster, called a cull, waited inside the “parlor” of the trap.

Melissa measured the length of its body using a special tool and announced, “It’s a keeper.” The green-shelled lobster waving its legs around wildly was the correct length to keep: not too big and not too small. The poor creature was just right.

My sympathy for the lobster vanished later as a bit into a juicy morsel from one of its kin during a lobster bake at the Three Tides Restaurant in Belfast, Maine. Dripping in butter, the chunks of lobster meat melted in my mouth as I sat on the outdoor deck overlooking the bay. Those were some lucky prisoners, I thought, as I cracked open a claw and withdrew another luscious bite of lobster.

Waldo County, comprising much of Maine’s Mid-Coast, is a peaceful oasis found between Bangor and Portland. Hugging the coastline to the east, the county stretches inland through rolling hills and charming countryside, where wineries, cranberry bogs, farms, and forests combine to offer visitors a Maine experience that’s like no other. This laid-back destination is perfect for families and couples who want to get away from the rat race for a while.

Waldo County’s largest city, Belfast, is the quintessential small town with a population of only 6300, a number that’s remained stable since the Civil War. The town itself has changed, however. As recently as the 1940’s, Belfast was not much of a tourist destination. Nearby poultry processing plants had polluted the harbor to the extent that sharks came up into the bay to feed on the waste the plants had dumped. In the 1970’s the town woke up and realized it needed to clean up its act. Today tourists who stroll the streets of this quiet town look out on a picturesque harbor dotted with sailboats, never dreaming it was once a polluted wasteland.

Boating is a wonderful way to experience the natural beauty of area. Besides Melissa’s lobster cruise, I also enjoyed a morning sail on the Amity, a 30-foot (?) Friendship Sloop owned by Stephen and Diane O’Connell. Built in 1907, Amity is one of the oldest surviving Friendship Sloops, a class of working sailboats originally used for lobstering. Stephen and Diane are true aficionados of this traditional working boat and delight in sharing her with visitors. With a gentle morning breeze filling the sails, the other landlubbers and I sampled Diane’s homemade muffins and coffee while enjoying the warmth of the September sun. Joining us on the sail was Diane and Stephen’s four-month-old son, a happy tyke who I predict will grow to love the water as much as his parents do.

Harvey Schiller also finds life on the water to his liking. A thin, wiry fellow with a friendly smile and boundless enthusiasm, Harvey runs Belfast Kayak Tours from late spring to early fall. Every day but Wednesday—unless the weather’s bad—visitors will find Harvey at the public boat ramp in Belfast ready to treat kayakers—beginners and experienced alike—to a paddle along the coast. “I go along with each and every trip for safety and instruction,” said Harvey, a registered Maine guide. He suggests kayakers schedule their tours in the morning when the harbor is much calmer. “The morning fog adds to the mystique of the bay,” he said.

I should have taken his advice. My kayak tour was in the afternoon and, as a beginner, I had to struggle at times to keep the kayak going where I wanted it to go. Not that the paddling part was hard; these kayaks glide quite easily in the water with a minimum of effort. It was the wind that challenged me, pushing my kayak hither and yon. In spite of the wind, I loved being out in the harbor, feeling the water rush beneath me and listening to the seagulls cry overhead. At times I just floated along, letting my paddle rest in my lap, inhaling the crisp, fresh air and enjoying the peaceful ambience.

Peaceful vistas await inland as well, where other Waldo County attractions beckon. One unique stop is the Bryant Stove and Music Museum in Thorndike, Maine, where a huge collection of antique cook stoves draws people from across the country. In addition to the stoves, the museum’s collection of antique autos, nickelodeons, and music boxes offers a glimpse into the past. But it was the Doll Circus that I found most intriguing. It’s a room full of the craziest mechanized inventions, all built by Joe Bryant, who owns the museum with his wife Bea.

The Doll Circus is a dazzling display of lights, music, and dancing dolls of all sizes and shapes. In one display Barbie dolls s do a hula dance, in another a wedding waltz. As I wandered around the festive exhibit, snaking slinkies, waddling wallerbies, tap-dancing dolls, and spinning carousels all competed for my attention while in the background a cacophony of spirited music played. I think it’s safe to say, Bryant’s Doll Circus offers visitors a multi-media experience that rivals the most sophisticated high-tech shows found in any modern theme park. Kids will love it!

For a calmer experience, consider a tour of Moody’s cranberry bog in Lincolnville, where visitors can see how cranberries grow. Moody’s Farm is a small family business owned by Fred and Margo Moody, who started growing cranberries a few years ago and do all of the harvesting and packing by hand. “We didn’t have a life the first four years we did this,” said Margo, as she showed us around her farm. Using a dry picker, Margo and Fred harvest about a hundred barrels of cranberries each fall and ship them out to nearby grocery stores just in time for holiday meals.

Not far away is another family business, Cellardoor Winery, owned by John and Stephanie Clapp. Growing grapes this far north can be a challenge, but the couple’s efforts are paying off. Now in their third year of production, they credit their success to hard work and a unique location protected from the winter winds in a hollow valley, where four thousand vines cover six acres of land. Cellardoor wines number about twenty, including an Estate Bottled wine, which means it’s grown, produced, and bottled on premises. Tastings are offered in the Clapps’ 1790 barn, its rustic European décor providing a perfect backdrop for sampling the tasty wines.

Visitors can experience the life of19th-century seafaring families in the Penobscot Marine Museum located in Searsport, a picturesque coastal village east of Belfast. Founded in 1936, the museum features a nine-acre campus that includes thirteen building, eight of which are on the National register of Historic Places. The museum celebrates the maritime past of the region and educates visitors about its rich history. You can explore a former sea captain’s house, a historic schoolhouse, and the First Congregational Church built in 1834. Collections include marine art, shipwright tools, and artifacts and furnishings from Penobscot Bay vessels. A traveling exhibit about Pirates was on display during my visit, and several hands-on activities invited children to learn more about these maritime muggers.

Another historic attraction that kids will enjoy is Fort Knox State Historic Site, Maine’s first and largest granite fort built in the late 1800’s at a strategic spot along the Penobscot River. “Children love the scary tunnels and the dungeons,” said Harry Webster, a Fort Knox guide, as he led us around the perimeter of the Fort in dark underground tunnels. Back outside a group of re-enactors set up camp on Battery B, periodically firing a cannon across the river. The fort cost the U.S. Government a million dollars to build, yet no enemy ships ever appeared on the Penobscot or threatened its towns.

Shopping opportunities abound in Waldo County, and I don’t mean Walmart. In the town of Belfast, cozy shops range from the Shamrock Thistle & Rose, where Irish gifts line the shelves, to Colburn’s, the oldest shoe store in America. During warm-weather months, Belfast Farmers’ Market features quality products from goat cheese and organic berries to hand-woven baskets and bouquets of fresh flowers. Just outside of town is Mainely Pottery, where 25 Maine potters display their wares. In nearby Searsport BlueJacket Ship Crafters, the oldest ship model kit company in the U.S., features fifty model ships on display and sells kits for first-timers up to seasoned modelers. Owners Jeff and Suzi Marger are proud of the fact that their kits are manufactured on premises. “And if you don’t have time too build a ship model yourself,” said Jeff, “you can purchase finished models built onsite by BlueJacket’s shipcrafters.”

Accommodations in Waldo County are plentiful and range from cozy B & B’s to modern hotels. I stayed in a charming roadside motel called the Yardarm owned by Economy McCormick and her husband Jay. The motel features clean, pine-paneled rooms, comfortable beds, and rocking chairs on the porch out front, perfect for enjoying a cup of coffee on a brisk fall morning. The Yardarm offers a complimentary continental breakfast in a cozy breakfast room, where you can pick up travel tips and compare notes with other hotel guests. Families will enjoy staying in Seascape Motel and Cottages, just down the road, where small bungalows come equipped with a full kitchen, separate bedrooms, and lush views of the Penobscot Bay. An outdoor heated pool and spa are also on hand for an invigorating dip.

If you’re a lobster fan, Waldo County will seem like heaven. Lobsters are king around these parts. Whether it’s a traditional lobster roll you’re craving or a pound-and-a-half soft shell, which Melissa admits is her favorite, you’ll find plenty to choose from in area restaurants. One stand out is the popular Lobster Pound Restaurant in Lincolnville, where I had a dish of sautéed lobster, truly a treat for the taste buds. A family-style restaurant, the Lobster Pound prides itself in serving the freshest available seafood. Behind the kitchen is a network of saltwater tanks where lobsters are kept until they’re cooked to order. You can’t get any fresher than that!

When you need a break from lobster, try The Chocolate Grille in Searsport. Their menu features a tantalizing array of appetizers, salads, pasta, seafood, and meat entrees prepared in a variety of creative ways. I chose a salad with featured herbed chevre, mesclun greens, and grilled shrimp. It was delicious! Make sure you try one of the Chocolate Grille’s fabulous martinis while you’re there. Instead of their signature chocolate-flavored martinis, I opted for one called The French Resistance with Grey Goose L’orange vodka and Grand Marnier. Perfectly chilled, it was delightful. Their dessert menu boasts chocolate concoctions designed to satiate even the most serious chocoholic, including a six-layer chocolate fudge cake, chocolate soufflé, and chocolate fondue. Alas, I was not hungry for dessert the night I dined at the Chocolate Grille, but I hope one day to return and try some of their mouthwatering sweet selections.

The fact is I hope to return to Waldo County for a number of reasons: its small town ambience, friendly folks, surprising attractions, great food, and inspiring natural beauty. All together they add up to the quintessential New England experience. Waldo County is well worth the trip.

For more information, please visit www.waldocountymaine.com or call 800-870-9934.