New Day, Boothbay
A summer colony for centuries, this harbor is just 60 miles northeast of Portland on a peninsula of coves, sailboats, islands, lighthouses, and ultra-devoted residentsboth natives and newcomers. For a couple of summer days, were exploring some of whats timeless and whats new on the Boothbay peninsula and the island of Southport.
From across the half-mile-wide channel, I watch whale-sized whitecaps line up and crash one after the other on the rock ledge surrounding the Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse.
Rain and high winds have been whipping up the coast of Maine for hours, and we’ve driven to where land intersects with those onshore gusts. To get here from Route 1 between Wiscasset and Newcastle, the direct route is to follow ME-27 all the way down the 10-mile-long Boothbay peninsula as it jags around yacht clubs and harbors. The two-lane road leads past seafood houses and shops for art, antiques, and candy, and the 121-year-old Opera House at Boothbay Harbor. We drive over the swing bridge that connects the mainland to Southport Island, and eventually, to the town landing at Newagen where the tip of the island stretches out toward the Gulf of Maine and its rocky islands—Damariscove, Squirrel, and Ram.
After pulling into one of the handful of parking spots to see the stormy view, I notice a man and woman in the car next to us who are looking intently at a map. They roll down their window and the woman calls out, “Isn’t there another bridge?” To which the man adds, “We’ve already crossed a hundred of them.”
No more bridges unless you backtrack, we have to tell them. We are as far as a person can go by land on this fringe of coastline. After watching the rolling sea waves awhile longer in the rainy afternoon, we turn around, too. Within a few minutes we arrive at our night’s destination, the white- painted Newagen Seaside Inn, located on a 20-acre point on the cape. The inn dates back to the early 1800s, and as soon as we step inside the main lodge (a colonial-style replacement for the original that burned down in 1943), I notice that the clerks are holding flashlights. The sense of remoteness is instantly underscored. We’ve reached the end of the road, and for several hours, there’s no electricity either. “We’re able to heat up chowder if you’d like a bowl,” the clerk offers warmly, “and we can always make drinks. The bar’s open, and we’ve got ice.”
It’s the perfect set-up for a spooky story, says another guest at the bar when we join him. Candles are lit here and there. Around a fireplace hearth in the next room, several dozen guests are standing or sitting in gathered chairs to hear a man and woman singing and playing acoustic guitar. I order a beer and soon hear them playing a rendition of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”
We mention having just seen Cuckolds Light in the blustery weather, and the 40-something man we’ve sat near explains that he’s lived much of his life here after his parents bought an old farmhouse on the island in the 1970s. He tells us of another nearby lighthouse, the late-1700s Seguin Island Light, and how it’s said to be haunted by the ghosts of former caretakers. “You can hear piano music sometimes if you get close enough,” he says of the still-active light station that’s about a mile and a half out to sea.
It’s just like Maine to be fodder for such around-the-campfire stories—even as we’re at the bar of a comfortable inn on an island of coves and woods and lighthouses blinking on the horizon. The Newagen, open seasonally and which just had about $1 million in updates, including a porte-cochère, gets even more accommodating as soon as its own lights flicker back on. We stay a bit longer in the bar and then walk outside and hear the ocean’s rushing waves. Our room is a few yards down the sidewalk in a new building of suites nicknamed the “little hotel.” At the door to ours, I look at a wall plaque and matching key and discover something I’d missed at check-in, probably because the name had little meaning to me at the time. The name of our suite for two nights is—oh, the coincidence—Seguin.
SEEING THE LIGHT(S)
What a difference the hours of one overnight can make. In the warm, orange way it does in summertime Maine, the sun is out early the next morning, streaking through clouds that have turned from dark gray to cottony white. All talk of ghosts has passed, and we walk the grounds to see bonfire pits and green lawns, a seaside swimming pool, and docks from which guests sometimes jump into the chilled ocean for a “polar plunge.” The sound of “the hollow boom of the sea striking against the rocks” here was remarkable to Rachel Carson (1907-1964). The writer and famed ecologist, who had an affinity for Maine, often visited the inn to write near the water’s edge and the tidal pools of Cape Newagen.
Our morning plan is to see some of the renovation and new construction happening at the 1920s-era Boothbay Harbor Country Club. The work there is one of the big happenings of the summer. Behind the project is Maine native, entrepreneur, and yachtsman Paul Coulombe, 62, whose family company created the flavored-vodka success story Pinnacle Vodka before selling the Maine-made brand to the makers of Jim Beam bourbon in 2012 for more than $600 million.
When he was a kid growing up in Lewiston, Coulombe visited Fisherman’s Wharf in Boothbay Harbor with his family to crack open lobsters and go on boat tours. He says he’s always considered the harbor to be Maine’s best. From his own boat, he remembers the “unforgettable, thrilling sight” of Cuckolds Lighthouse from the water in the 1990s. By 2011 he’d built a seaside mansion here, and the former liquor magnate of White Rock Distilleries continues to devote a large chunk of his entrepreneurial attention and dollars to Boothbay.
One of his efforts has been to refurbish an old post-and-beam barn into Oliver’s at Cozy Harbor, next to the Southport Yacht Club. Opened in 2013, it’s a modern take on a lobster shack and ice cream bar on the public wharf, which was rebuilt and expanded as part of the project. (We go the next day and sit outside to watch sailboats and share a plate heaped high with fried clams.) Coulombe’s donations helped invigorate the fundraising for the Inn at Cuckolds Lighthouse, which is now open; the two rooms sell out most nights. His largest, most visible project on the peninsula, though, is the golf course—he reportedly spent more than $30 million on the country club, and the project is already employing about 100 people. Renovation work has included ample use of dynamite to blast rocks and reconfigure the course with waterfalls, bridges, and a ninth-hole stone grotto with a cafe and bathrooms of marble and stone. We meet him on a patio overlooking the rolling course and the 32,000-square-foot clubhouse that’s under construction.
Coulombe, who’s instantly affable with us and gives a warm hello to every staff member and golfer we see while talking, admits that as “the new kid in town,” his ideas are sometimes met with skepticism around Boothbay Harbor and Southport. “People accuse me of trying to change things, but really, I actually want to keep things—to maintain and enhance them.”
He describes the craftsmanship and beauty of the exterior and guest rooms at Cuckolds Lighthouse, along with the Oliver’s project. Coulombe’s purchase of the golf course, meanwhile, saved it from foreclosure. Yes, he says he’ll eventually tear down the existing “modest, log cabin” clubhouse that’s decorated with trophies and plaques and has wood floors pocked over the decades from the wear of golf cleats. As we talk, the construction crew is busy behind him at the job site for the new clubhouse, to be opened in 2016. I see steel beams and a curved wall of stone in the massive hilltop project. This new-generation country club, Coulombe explains, will be more accommodating for golfers and all club activities (a cocktail bar, swimming pool, social memberships). The clubhouse is being built with stone and gray shingles and other New England features “so it looks like it’s always been here.”
LOBSTER, KITTEN, GARDEN, COVE
Having just gotten a glimpse of Boothbay’s future, we go to another one of the region’s old standbys, Robinson’s Wharf. Open for decades, the landmark lobster restaurant is perched on a cove just beyond the swing bridge. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards remembers coming here on childhood trips to Maine in the 1980s and 1990s. He says the concrete floor looks familiar, but everything else in the rooms and on the deck of wooden tables and nautical flags is larger and more polished, if you can say that about a casual Maine pub with TVs on the wall. Lobster is the story here. Lobster tacos, lobster skewers, lobster rolls, and a half-dozen other preparations are on the menu. We order the lobster stew and a steam pot to share that’s piled with corn, potatoes, crab claws, mussels, and a whole lobster, all pooled in a salt and herb butter sauce that I can’t help licking off my fingers and the shell as we eat. I think of that meal again when we go to another of Peter Frank’s remembered places, the Maine State Aquarium in West Boothbay Harbor. In one of the tanks in the one-room aquarium of touch tanks and interactive displays, I watch the claw-waving and bubble-blowing of one of those rare creatures that I’d only previously seen in pictures—a living lobster with a shell that’s as naturally bright blue as a tropical fish.
Next stop is Hendricks Head Beach, where the seawater of high tide surrounds Kitten Island, the small, approximately two-story-tall rock island that’s centered perfectly in the cove. (At low tide people come to walk on the sand and climb atop the rough rock of the tiny island.) We see a Boothbay Region Land Trust sign across from the beach and follow a hiking trail into the woods. The forest path is covered with fallen needles and springs back with each step. Further in, we see lichens and moss and smell pine and spruce and ocean air. Peter Frank tells me this is the kind of coast and forest scenery that gave him his first and lasting impressions of Maine.
A more cultivated natural beauty is what’s amazing the next day when we visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Begun in 1991 and spanning 270 acres, this is another of the peninsula’s treasures. Bees are busy pollinating and people are buzzing through the grounds. A Five Senses Garden of 20-foot-tall lilac trees, fragrant lavender, strawberry plants, and ferns makes sure sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing are well covered. Large-scale, shimmering metal sculptures by artist George Sherwood look like whimsical windmills on lawns and in flower beds. The Children’s Garden is filled with so much color, with winding paths, grass-roofed cottages, pecking hens, and a tea room, that it reminds me of both Dr. Seuss and Alice in Wonderland. I’m charmed by it all.
Before checking out of Newagen Seaside Inn, we stop at the town landing once more and happen to meet Gerry Gamage on the dock, who’s Southport’s longtime fire chief and chair of the board of selectmen. I understand that people call him the “unofficial mayor.” I don’t know if he’s always a man of few words, but when I ask the lifelong resident what’s so captivating about his hometown, he doesn’t speak for a moment but smiles broadly. The sun is bright now and waves are still splashing wildly across the rocks at Cuckolds Light. The roof is red atop the boxy white-painted lighthouse quarters. A few boats are moored between here and there, floating near Cape Newagen’s rocky islands. Gamage spreads both arms out toward the water behind him. “Speaks for itself,” he says. “Speaks for itself.”