48 Hours In…Rockland
May 2010 | By Chelsea Holden Baker | Photographs by Amanda Kowalski | Illustration by Karen Gelardi
“God gives a reward to Industry”
When the town of Rockland drops the docks into the water at the public landing on May 15th, it’s a green flag for summer. Each year, the town of 7,900 souls swells to 75,000 during the summer’s most popular event: the Maine Lobster Festival (August 4–8). In addition, the Lobster Boat Races in June, the North Atlantic Blues Festival and Friendship Sloop Days in July, plus the Boats, Homes, and Harbors show in August keep the town on its toes throughout the tourist season.
In Rockland, you’ll still hear the old saw, “Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell,” but now it’s in the context of what folks used to say. In the last twenty years, parallel to the Farnsworth Art Museum’s expansion and the renovation of The Strand Theatre, downtown Rockland has been revived by business owners who gave hardscrabble storefronts a go—not necessarily based on economic projections or population but on the character of an industrious harbor town that had hung on to its roots. Like a starlet or art darling who is all the more endearing because of her working-class past, the beauty of Rockland is that, as much as her present is about galleries and meals that make national news, she’s still a Maine town defined by her relationship with the water and enhanced by a close community.
On an early morning in The Rockland Cafe, a woman ribs a man, asking if he’s got Allen’s in his coffee cup. There’s chatter about who’s fishing where, and everyone sings when a little girl’s pancakes arrive with a birthday candle in the center of the stack. It’s the kind of place you’re happy to come home to, even when you’ve never been here before.
If you’re headed south down Route 1 between six and noon you must stop at the little Willow Bake Shoppe. I’ve only had a better sugar donut in my grandmother’s kitchen. And when it comes to Rockland, you can run with that nostalgic theme. As of May 9 you can leave your car in Brunswick, Bath, or Wiscasset and ride the rails to Rockland aboard the Maine Eastern Railroad, in vintage cars that give a better vantage of the coastline than any auto route. For those who have time to stay: the Samoset Resort is a family-friendly self-contained playground of 230 acres, and its remove from town on Brewster’s Point, means it offers a more commanding view of Penobscot Bay. From your room, you can walk down to the famous Rockland Breakwater Light.
The granite pilings stretch nearly a mile out to the lighthouse. Beware: the way out is always shorter than the way back (in the past, the Coast Guard has come to the rescue of parents who couldn’t get their 10-year-old to walk any farther, but its patience may be wearing thin). In town, lodgers benefit from the collective competition of the “Historic Inns of Rockland.” The four inns participate in the yearly “Pies on Parade” winter festival, started by the Berry Manor Inn, where the moms of the married owners bake a multitude of pies for the “raidable” guest pantries each day. Limerock Inn is off the beaten path, and its quiet nature is complemented by a wraparound porch and big soaking tubs. The Captain Lindsey House Inn is right on Main Street, and the innkeepers—who owned and operated the Schooner Stephen Taber for 25 years—are experts on the area. The Granite Inn offers a view of the water and an updated take on the B&B experience, including WiFi. It overlooks the Vinalhaven-Rockland Ferry Terminal, the starting point for a visit to the islands.
There’s also the adrenaline route: Vinalhaven and Matinicus islands can be reached by Penobscot Island Air in Owls Head. A seat on a “mail flight”(yes, they’re really delivering the mail, and you may get bumped in favor of boxes) is $50. For some old-fashioned “flightseeing” try Coastal Biplane Rides, which departs from the quirky Owls Head Transportation Museum. While you’re out there, you have to try the humdinger-of-a-hamburger from the Owls Head General Store on your way to the park at historic Owls Head Light. Europeans first visited Owls Head in 1605, and the lighthouse on the promontory has marked the entrance to Rockland Harbor since 1825—on a dark day it’s spooky (find the miniature girl!) and on a clear day it’s breathtaking. For a water-skimming experience of the area, call Scenic Helicopters of Maine, or if you’re willing to get salty, take the Captain Jack Lobster Boat Adventure and “see um caught” any day but Sunday, when the law prohibits hauling traps. You can also explore the harbor at your own pace by renting a kayak from Breakwater Kayak.
If it’s the lay of the land you’re looking for, All-Aboard Trolley Company offers a narrated forty-minute trip for cheap. There are also plenty of ways to relax into the weekend. RHEAL Day Spa, Skin Klinic & Day Spa, and Synergy Massage & Body Work all offer a variety of treatments as well as traditional massage—play Goldilocks and find the one that best fits you. If you feel like getting gussied up for date-night, Black Parrot has the kind of clothing I might call pieces, rather than just a dress or sweater, along with amazingly soft T-shirts, beautiful blankets, and modern items for the home. FourTWELVE, owned by Maine native and New York–trained designer Beth Bowley features her designs along with others. For the right person, this is a revelation: usually you have to make your way to Nordstrom or Anthropologie to find Beth Bowley’s designs. Caravans is another option when you’ve under- or over-packed.As for dinner, romantic options abound. Primo is the much-lauded destination restaurant recently visited by Anthony Bourdain and run by James Beard Award–winning chef Melissa Kelly. It’s housed in a Victorian mansion, but it’s an out-of-the-box experience where the food is as much about what’s on the plate as what’s growing in the stone-walled gardens and greenhouses outside. This includes Tamworth pigs that recycle kitchen scraps all summer until they come inside in the form of pork, prosciutto, and more in late fall. Back on Main Street, In Good Company is ideal for solo travelers to dine at the marble-topped bar of the former bank, couples looking for a delicious but relaxed dinner a deux, or for larger groups of friends seated in the warm lounge out back. Their specialty is wine, but the food will live up to any bottle you choose, and the kitchen will stay open longer than other restaurants in town. I went during Maine shrimp season and had piquant shrimp cakes with a chipotle mayonnaise and fresh greens that will forever make crab cakes seem soft and sad.
Right nearby, the lively Lily Bistro and Rustica will satisfy a desire for well-done French and Italian comfort food respectively. For an unadulterated taste of cold Maine waters, try Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, where they serve seasonal local catch as fresh as the attitudes of the connoisseurs it attracts. The omakase (chef’s menu) receives regular overtures from locals and visitors alike (it doesn’t hurt that the two sushi chefs, Keiko and Uki, are beautiful women). Café Miranda not only has an eclectic menu that will satisfy everyone in a nuclear family—but even better—you can sit outside in warmer months, and the kids are welcome. For a casual meal, try Sunfire Mexican Grill. The restaurant is more formal than its food truck origins, but just as good. For seaside dining, Amalfi On the Water has made the most of the grandiose space left by MBNA’s departure (and it’s open for a Sunday jazz brunch). Another option for taking in the ocean breeze and oysters at the same time is the Boathouse Restaurant & Raw Bar, also right on the water. For an after-dinner treat on Main Street stop in for a waffle cone at Thorndike Creamery.
Rock City Books and Coffee is the heart of downtown, and not just because it’s the main artery of caffeine running through Rockland. Part cafe and coffee joint, part used bookstore, and part event space, Rock City adds some soul to Main Street. It’s a feel-good place to start the day. The trouble is deciding on treats from here or the Pastry Garden across the street, which has confections I’d never seen or tasted before, like a delicate, creamy cinnamon tart. Owner Carol Thompson is a Rockland native with Balthazar Bakery and Waldorf-Astoria experience, and she creates works of art for her European-style bakery’s window each morning, giving the venerable Atlantic Baking Co. a run for its money. Atlantic is the place to round out the morning pastry tour, especially if you’re getting closer to lunch, when you can sample some more savory treats like quiche, panini, and focaccia.
Saturday is a great day to tour Rockland’s galleries. AIR (artsinrockland.com) offers a free downloadable walking tour of them all. Standouts include Dowling Walsh Gallery, for its formidable, museum-like collection; Assymetrick Arts for pushing Rockland’s boundaries and supporting up-and-comers; Harbor Square Gallery for its appreciation of craft; and Eric Hopkins Gallery, for combining product and process in one gorgeous, accessible space. Rockland is also home to America’s largest collection of lighthouse artifacts and ephemera. Former coastguardsman Ken Black began collecting items like Fresnel lenses and kits from life-saving boats—what many regarded as “trash”—just ahead of the curve of appreciation. His collection became the Maine Lighthouse Museum, where docents bring fascinating big lights, bells, and boats to life. I marveled at what is essentially the earliest GPS system, wondering how Maine—and not the Smithsonian—got so lucky. To top off your trip, take a stroll down to Conte’s. Don’t ask questions beyond directions,
Just up the street from the museum is the Brass Compass Cafe, home to “The King of Clubs” sandwich that lured Bobby Flay to town for a “Throw Down”—which he lost to owner Lynn Archer. It’s a rite of passage only fulfilled if you order it on the house-made white bread. Sharpie’s Lobstah Shack is a casual way to get at whole bugs in a scenic setting, down on the Snow Marine Park, next to the Sail, Power, and Steam Museum. You can walk off the butter along the four-mile Rockland Harbor Trail from there, or continue the feast at the reborn Black Pearl, now called The Pearl. Picnic provisions—from fine cheese to Maine-raised water buffalo meat—can be found at the south end’s gourmet Sweets and Meats Market. They’ll deliver in a 2-mile radius, including “dockside” if you’re pulling up in a boat. For all picnics north, stop in at the Good Tern Natural Foods Store on the other end of Main Street. For hearty sandwiches and subs on the fly, The Brown Bag specializes in lunches fit for a blanket spread, with homemade bread and house-roasted turkey. If you’re after DIY seafood, see what’s come off the boats at Jess’s Market. And to top it all off, The Wine Seller has an extremely neat and well-curated stock with meticulous descriptions of every bottle.
In the afternoon, check out some of Rockland’s unique shops like Maine Island Rag Rugs (a store and braiding studio), Uptown Studio (a beautiful hometown secret on Maverick Street selling handmade items), Pasternak Antiques & Modern Design (a unique collection of vintage furniture), Archipelago —The Island Institute Store (which sells items from Maine makers and sends funds back into waterfront communities), Upcycle (where recycled products are transformed into new objects), and Trillium Soaps (where you can buy a whole loaf of gorgeous, handmade, organic soap and pick up a claw-foot tub at the same time). Or sign up in advance for classes at Playing With Fire! Glassworks and Gallery to walk away with your own memorable souvenir of Rockland.
Finally, one of the most surprising food finds in Maine is tucked away on Leland Street in the building where Oh Bento! used to be. MidCoast Asian Foods has a very humble setup of tables and chairs, but you are free to take the kind of food you would find on the streets of Thailand, Japan, and China out into a Maine evening. If you’re after a livelier atmosphere, the Waterworks Restaurant and Pub is often humming with local music and local brews. Rocklanders also congregate at the new Trackside Station restaurant, in a building that was alternately the town hall, city jail, and train station. Adorning the walls are blown-up pictures of the day in 1941 when Franklin Roosevelt came ashore after signing the Atlantic Charter off the coast of Newfoundland to board a train to D.C. at Rockland’s station.The food is crowd pleasing, and after dinner winds down, the local owners—one of which grew up down the street—push the tables against the wall for dancing. If you’re curious about Rockland characters and up for a nightcap, head down to the floating Mermaid Lounge aboard the M/V Monhegan. Captain Ray Remick, former rodeo trick rider, air force pilot, and engineer, is always hosting a party, even when tied up at the dock. His highly customized boat is a former Maine state ferry that goes out for tours and charters during the day.
Hole in the Wall Bagels offers the elusive crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside bagel baked on-site every day. For a full-plate breakfast, head to Home Kitchen Cafe. One year in, the huevos rancheros are already famous. The Rockland Cafe—which many know for its “all you can eat seafood dinner” (of four varities)—also offers a mean breakfast. The coffee is “drippin’ fresh,” the French toast is as fluffy as custard, and your name will become “Honey” or “Sweetie” as soon as you sit down.
Sunday is a slow day in town—the perfect time to explore offshore in a schooner or, in less-than-fair weather, the Farnsworth complex. Up the road a piece is the Oakland Park Bowling Lanes, a good place to introduce your kids to candlepins (and a supposed favorite of the Travolta family). Old-fashioned and tidy, it’s a fun first bowl for little ones.
Before taking off, tradition calls for a trip to Wasses. The stands claim to have served over two million hot dogs in the last 35 years. The one on Main Street is the perfumery of Rockland, replacing the old-school scent of sardines with frying peanut oil. The franks are made with natural casings, which give a satisfying snap. A hot dog done the Wasses way must include onions on the steamed bun. A visit to Wasses also sets you up to leave town headed south through Thomaston, where the last stop must be Dorman’s Dairy Dream, another throwback to a time when it seems like everything—but especially ice cream—tasted better. You’ll have to come back on another day, though—Dorman’s is closed on Sundays.
And finally, since Rockland has gotten under your skin, pick up a brochure about the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship or The Apprenticeshop. One of the oldest boatbuilding and seamanship schools in the country, The Apprenticeshop offers everything from lectures to community rowing and journeymen placement. The founder, Lance Lee, has said of the school, “The things we’re anxious to see restored are craftsmanship, human energy, a concern with the quality of whatever is being done, and the sort of long-range thinking that involves people in pride-creating endeavors.” Sounds like the makings of a town creed for Rockland itself.