Landing in Portland, Maine, I quickly stopped wondering if this would be another shopping and stuff-your-face vacation. I was happy to note boats, sloughs, masts, traps, seafood signs, varnished wooden spars, and sea smells…back in my personal natural element on the Maine coast.
Fortunately, there are many things to interest my wife at the same time; great food, interesting local shops, and historic B&B offering outstanding gardens. We would soon board an historic 1871 schooner for a 3-day sail around the local islands and wine tasting underway. It may surprise you; all these neat things to see and do just south of more famous Camden area.
Rockland, Maine, is the storied place you could smell before seeing, as it had the seafood processing industrial base for the area. Around 1900, it was a major US port for the shipment of limestone and granite. This working town atmosphere persisted into the late 1980’s along with being a place you went to “get a beer and a beating.” Now, Rockland is becoming decidedly upscale but not too snooty.
On the way in to Rockland from the Portland Jetport, we stopped at the Cold River Vodka distillation plant and tasting room. Make a note to stop here because this is a definite treat. They use batch distilling of potato mash and multiple-pass distillation to produce the smoothest vodka I’ve ever tasted. Larger producers use continuous process distillation that just cannot attain the same quality of fluid. Try the blueberry vodka. Pack a bottle in your checked bags; it’s worth the extra weight.
We stayed at Victorian-era B&B The Berry Manor Inn. What a history this place has. The original builder was so rich he built closets with doors, supposedly to display his disdain for expense as the door constituted a room which was taxed. Hardwood floors are different in every room as an exhibit of wealth. I marveled at the finish work and the old metal grates built into the floor.
In 1899, The Berry Manor once operated a state of the art heating system that is really the same as used by the Romans. A ruling-class home in the Roman period had floor heat provided through stone ducts as part of the foundation. Slaves kept a fire and forced hot air into the duct, maintaining a constant heat flow below the stone floor. Berry Manor once had a coal-dust fired boiler for heat exchangers located in a huge stone chamber. Stones and chamber rise to a high temperature and then fresh air is ducted through; filling the vacuum created by the hot chamber venting to the floor grates – no slaves with bellows required. Back in the day if it was too hot – the house staff would go down to the basement and slide in the baffle plate of the incoming air duct. Overall, it is ingenious but was unlikely to have heated the third floor rooms. Many solar systems today use the same heat retention techniques like the old-stone chamber.
We came in a day early to check out Rockland. From our Inn, we walked past other marvelous old estates and arrived on downtown Main Street. We discovered a truly great exhibit of artifacts from the sailing days. The Sail, Power, and Steam Museum caught my interest with original bubble-balance load planning tables for vessel stability (Graphical Stability Calculator), hull design models at scale used in building ships, and even Nathaniel Bowditch’s personal navigation instruments. I asked how a small model hull is used to build a real ship. I was told to visit the The Apprenticeshop school where wooden boat building is still taught as an art.
The Apprenticeshop is a nonprofit trade school for learning about making wooden boats. Young people (and a few older types) learn the art of making boats by scaling up from plans and models. Several boats are available each year for purchase and they are truly beautiful objects to own. Students enroll in the full two-year apprenticeship program or take more focused instruction with shorter sessions. I loved visiting this place. Because I believe in the program and fear these skills will be lost, I made a small donation to preserve the time-honored trade of working with your hands.
At our next stop, I got a tip to see the Owls Head Transportation Museum and the stunning display of classic cars and airplanes. The 1935 Duesenberg J is a paint, leather, and chrome visual treat. There are also steamers, electrics, and touring cars from over 100 years ago. On the airplane side are original and reconstructed from original plans (including a Wright Brothers 1903 model). Like out of a cartoon, there was also an original 1900 Clark Biwing Orinthopter – a machine you’ve seen in old film clips trying to fly by flapping or jumping. The red 1923 Fokker C.IVA with passenger and luggage space is also fascinating, but I think my cramped-coach seat flight home is far better than where we started in air transportation.
Since my wife and I like wine, we decided to do a short wine trip offered by the All Aboard Trolley & Limousine out to the mid-coast wine country. The company operates a regular wine tasting trolley service from Rockland and Camden. It is the kind of trolley with the old look outside but inside is open, cushioned seating so everyone has fun. What did I think of Maine wines; cold and rainy as the place is noted to be? These Maine wines are from vines selected for the limestone soil and climate. Most wine under production, however, is produced from imported grapes or juice. It is fun to experience a fledgling area and participate in their growth. I tasted local brandy from an old-time still, and cranberry crush wine that is astoundingly pleasant. Cellar Door Winery facilities could be transported to California and not miss a beat, while others were small family operations with a well-experienced winemaker producing novel wines while enjoying the Maine lifestyle.
In the late afternoon we had Captains Call aboard the 1871 built schooner Stephen Tabor. This introduced the crew and safety issues before getting underway in the morning. I sensed, rather than noticed, the ship’s smell was different from my experience. It has no engine and oil smells because there is no engine!
This historic ship sailed in freight service right through World War II. It is a centerboard design (I did a double-take on the centerboard for such a large vessel) so that access to piers or sloughs is possible given the 8-10 foot tidal range of the Rockford area. Now, the fine ship is an entertainment platform with top-drawer food cooked on an old wood-fired stove, wine tasting cruises, and anchorage in stunningly beautiful island coves of Penobscot Bay.
Crew and Captain Noah Barnes handle the ship with obvious experience, but the hosting of sails or weighing anchor is a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate as if it is 1880 again. If you feel healthy and able, be an added hand; but be ready to breathe hard at the end. Once the schooner gets the breeze filling the sails, Captain Noah lets passengers take a turn at the wheel and feel how a 100’ schooner responds to helm. I can attest that this ship moves deliberatively compared to the prompt fiberglass sloops of my California recreational boating.
Captain Noah grew up aboard the Stephen Taber as his parents operated the ship for over 25 years. He knows all the best anchorages and the interesting history of the island homes you will pass underway. Seeing other schooners underway with large white sails filled and the colors up, gives an idea what life aboard ship was like in the now distant past.
Maine has 5,300 miles of shoreline when all the islands are included. It reminds me of Washington’s San Juan Islands for boating fun with places to anchor away from the crowds, fish-lobster-crab galore, and shore excursions with interesting walks. I am looking into bareboat charters but everyone I asked warned me of the rocks danger to novice boaters. I am not a novice boater… famous last words? Keep an eye out for my next Maine report.