On this trip, we seem to have unwittingly saved the Best for the Last. Two days of dedicated lounging at the cottage topped off the batteries, and charged us up for a full day – a very full day – back up in Acadia: Paradise On Earth. We positively vaulted out of bed at 6:15am in order to avoid the Friday Traffic to parts north. Acadia is one of the most…intensely…visited National Parks, and the weather this week has been nothing short of sparkling. You know that the weather is fantastic when the farmers and the skippers are raving about it – this is possibly the first time I’ve ever heard a farmer talk about how good the weather is. Typically, farmers and skippers can always find something to complain about the weather – but the only thing even close to a complaint I’ve heard is that there haven’t been any bad-weather lay-offs at all in the last week.
I know that I, for one, and deeply and personally grateful to the spirit of good fortune that has provided this clear, dry, warm summer week for us here. It set the stage for a Fully Perfect Day. And – as with any perfection of man’s creating, the day had a Persian Flaw, when I stepped off a curb unexpectedly and sprained my ankle. Not badly enough to stop with the day, but enough to remind me of the transience of joy. The ankle was the Memento Mori I carried through the day, reminding me not to take any moment of it for granted.
Item One on our agenda was a Boat Cruise. The last one was on a four-masted schooner that used wind power to give us a tour of Frenchman’s Bay. This one was on a motorized tour boat that cruised the coast, took us out to a nearby island for a short visit, and then showed us the Houses of the Rich and Unfamous (aka, the Old Money with which this area is seasoned). There were porpoises, cormorants, gillimots, and a big shelf of harbor seals rolling in the sun. One seal had captured the highest, flattest point on the shelf, and took advantage of this position to sprawl on his back with his flippers in the air, contributing immensely to my perception that these animals are basically sea-dwelling dogs. The island was charming, perhaps not so much as Monhegan, but really, what could be the equal of Monhegan?
My favorite moment of the cruise came when the National Park Ranger who was our Guide started providing a more in-depth history of this treasure of a park, and some of the first words from her mouth were “Trustees of Reservations”. Now, The Trustees is my absolute favorite land conservation group. Roy and I contribute to a great many conservation causes, but The Trustees are the nearest and dearest, and the greatest beneficiaries of whatever largesse we have in a given year. The Trustees own an incredibly broad spectrum of properties in Massachusetts – anything from working farms to blasted and remote hillsides to formal gardens to historic homes with original contents intact. The Trustees owns the Old Manse of Nathaniel Hawthorne fame, from which the residents were able to watch the Revolutionary War breaking out at the bottom of the garden. It owns my favorite cross-country skiing areaever, which is also a splendid place to hike at other times of the year. It owns cascading waterfalls, swamps, oddly-shaped hillocks, dinosaur footprints on a river bed, and what seems to be about a third of the island of Chappaquiddick. Each property is marked with a highly distinctive sign by the road, and it never fails to give me a thrill when we drive down some remote country road or backwoods path and encounter that sign. We are Trustees, and proud of it.
So when the ranger uttered those magic words, I was unable to repress the urge to say “WOO! Trustees!” at which point she stopped and said “You guys are members of the Trustees? Me too!!” and then went on to let the whole boat know that it was a Maine-based offshoot of The Trustees (the Hancock County Trustees) that developed the idea for the park and got the ball rolling in the same way it had been done in Massachusetts.
So, a boat cruise, seals, an island, and finding out that my Pet Conservation Group was also indirectly responsible for my Favorite Natural Destination outside of the state. How great is that?
It only got better when we went to lunch. There is a lobster pound on Mount Desert Island (where most of Acadia is), on the opposite side of the island from the one infested by the Ravening Hordes of Bar Harbor, that we’ve been wanting to try since we first saw it five years ago. It looked Promising, and I can say that it delivered on every atom of that Promise, plus an exponential amount more.
So there we were, sitting at a wooden picnic bench painted green and shining in the speckled sunlight falling through the pine trees. The lobster cooking at this place takes part in a different spot than the restaurant – the restaurant captures the panoramic view from a hillside and looks out over the water, while the cooking shack is at the base of the hill, where it won’t interfere with the air conditioning for the restaurant. Interesting approach, not one I’m used to from a lobster pound, certainly. Then again, this lobster pound had waitresses. That’s a first for me. Typically, a lobster pound has a college student at a window behind a cash register, and five hot and red guys next to an open pit filled with water kept on the boil by gas piping. You shout your order to the cash girl, pay, pick your lobster, and then take a seat at a picnic bench and wait for something that sounds like it might possibly be Your Number to come garbled out of the tannoy. You might be able to go to a different spot and buy a beer from a bartender, or you might have to BYOB.
Notable, here, is the absence of frills.
At this lobster pound, the cooking operation was well out of the way, but easily available to the Interested Party, of which there were quite a few. It was an open-air structure that would have looked at home on any Colonial Living History site in the region. The cooking pit was manned by a couple of guys who gave an impression of Professionality – contrasted with the impression of College Student Summer Jobity yielded by the cooking staff of other pounds. And the equipment was quite different from any I’d seen before. In place of the vast welded pans open to the air while the gas-fired heat causes the steam to boil away constantly, this pound had a cast-iron kettle suspended in a superstructure of ancient cinderblock over a wood fire – open to the air on one side for regular stoking – and what could have been a three-hundred year old wooden lid with handles to cover the kettle and let out only a discrete, controlled amount of steam. Which, happily, the Professional Lobster Steamer did for me as soon as he saw my camera come out.
Now, that is service with a smile.
And this brings me back to a slice of perfect heaven, as we’re sitting in the shade of the pine trees, drinking our draft blueberry ales with real blueberries floating up and down on the currents of bubbles in the glass, looking out from the hill over the Sound, with a light afternoon breeze moving the air about, air that is perfumed by an intriguing and delightful mix of the pine needles underfoot, the saltiness of of the ocean, the steam from the cooking lobsters, the woodsmoke from the fire. Possibly every Favorite Outdoor Smell Available To Mankind was in that aroma. As I watched the sparkling of the fire under the kettle, a sudden cloud of steam boiled up to fill the hut, and out of that cloud emerged the cook with a shiny metal bucket – obviously very hot – with a number clipped to the handle, and as I watched, he ran right up the hill with that bucket.
Yes. The lobsters are cooked at the base of the hill, and when they are done, someone runs them up to the kitchen so they don’t cool down on the way.
And that is why this place has been in continuous operation since 1939. Dedication to Customer Satisfaction.
Equally astonishing was the sight of a waitress, laden with a heavy tray of hot crustaceans, making her way down the hillside on a dirt path covered with pine needles and nobbly roots, not losing a drop of anything. I don’t know where they get these people, but I wish we could make some more just like them.
And just when I thought this could not get any better, our order arrived. I wasn’t in the mood to dismantle a lobster for lunch, so settled for a cup of the lobster stew. Lobster stew is always milky, usually buttery, and typically involves several pieces of lobster meat that cannot be identified until consumed (meat from the claws has a different texture than the tails, etc.).
This cup of lobster stew, however, hadan entire claw sitting right on top. Not in the shell, mind you, but a claw that had been removed in one single piece. With any luck, the pictures will come out well…
After lunch, I went to wash my hands in the restroom which was – as typical for lobster pounds – located outside of the dining area. What was not typical was the boutique-style decor of the restroom, nor its pristine and sparkling cleanness. It left me with more questions than answers…until I passed the windows of the indoor portion of the restaurant, and saw table after table after table of sexagenarians with Expensive Hair. Then I realized where the inhabitants of the 60-room cottages we’d seen from the harbor go for lunch.
A lobster pound that caters to Old Money is roughly indistinguishable from a lobster pound designed and executed by Disney.
After lunch we went into Northeast Harbor, which is evidently where the Old Money kills a few hours by shopping. It had antique stores filled with actual priceless antiques, unlike the usual stock for these places. A Junk Shop by any other name… it had boutiques. It has a “grocery” filled with gourmet treats and a sizeable wine cellar being worked by a guy whose parents obviously think that Having A Job is a Very Good Idea for a young man home from Harvard. Builds character, you know. The on-street parking was a peculiar combination of Luxury Sport Utes and battered and ancient station wagons. And I mean ancient – the kind I remember my mother driving when I was 8 years old. I’d be willing to bet that the Wine Kid’s wheels were one of those battered old wagons. And I’d be willing to bet that his perfectly coiffed mother also uses that battered wagon to get around the island too…when it’s not just easier to take the boat, that is.
We had an hour to kill, so we took the car up Cadillac Mountain, which offers perfectly splendid 360 views of the lakes, the ocean, the harbors, the islands, a few very large sailboats, and – yesterday- a large cruise ship anchored in Bar Harbor.
The final expected thrill of the day was our carriage ride up the carriage roads to the top of Day Mountain. What can I say about this ride? The rhythm of the carriage is not the steady forwardness of a car. It’s step-forward-pause, step-forward-pause. It rocks, like a ship or a hammock. The only sound is the thumping of the horse’s hooves on the broken stone road, the jingling of the harness, and a surprising amount of squeaking from the carriage itself. The pace is steady, but slow enough to fully take in the surroundings. It is an entirely different experience than driving, hiking, or cycling. It is restful, engaging.
And – after the thought of icing on the cake – there is a particular smell that hangs about the Maine coast. It’s ocean spray and blooming flowers and pine needles and balsam. It is nothing short of intoxicating. And it comes in waves, on the breeze. When out in the woods on the coast, one is assaulted with this perfume unpredictably, which leads to hiking bands making a halting progress across the landscape between wafts, and pausing stone still with noses in the air and lungs working like a bellows to take in as much as possible before it moves on.
If they could bottle this, there’d be no more depression in the world, I’m sure of it.
I don’t even get the full benefit of this – decades of concentrated assault on my sense of smell by hay fever and other allergies – have left me with what seems to be half a nose. For people like Roy who has a very acute sense of smell, the scent is literally intoxicating. At one point we got a wave of it through the car while we were moving, and I thought he was going to drive us right off the road.
I don’t think, before yesterday, that I could have imagined anything that could possibly be added to this bouquet that would improve it. Now I know, though, and should have known all along. It’s horses. The existing forest aroma, overlaid with the smell of horses, leather, and sweat rockets past Intoxicating and moves directly to Controlled Substance. I wish I could do this justice, but the only thing I can say is Try It.
Dinner closed off the day with another trip to the Luxury Lobster Pound. This time we had indoor, mosquito-free, ringside seats for the sunset, which I watched unfold in cotton-candy pink and blue, as I demolished a final lobster. And – happily – the restaurant came through with one final delightful surprise at the end of the meal. Instead of the de rigeur wet-wipe in a foil package?
Afinger-bowl with a slice of lemon and sprig of mint floating in it.