Damariscotta By Land or Sea
June 2010 | By Chelsea Holden Baker | Photographs by Michael Heiko | Illustration by Karen Gelardi
Every June Damariscotta is invaded. The alewives come first, beginning in late May. The small “river herring” are anadromous, the kind of fish that return from sea to spawn in the fresh water where they were born. They are the namesakes of Damariscotta, a derivation of an Algonquin word that roughly translates as “meeting place of many fish.” But Damariscotta is also the meeting place of a more nefarious sea creature: pirates. June 13 marks “The Pirate Rendezvous,” when swashbucklers aboard the 55-foot topsail yawl the S/V Must Roos sail up the Damariscotta River, and charge ashore at high noon in search of their treasure hidden somewhere in town…
It says something that the two anchors of Damariscotta’s downtown are Maine Coast Bookshop & Café and Reny’s. There’s nary a Walmart or Borders within a half-hour’s drive, and that’s because Damariscotta fought to keep it that way. In 2006, when Walmart was making plans for a new 187,000 square foot Supercenter, the town voted on a measure to ban stores of more than 35,000 square feet. Eighty percent of Damariscotta voters turned out to successfully stymie Walmart’s “astroturf” efforts at lawn signs and guerilla campaigns.
Damariscotta not only prizes independence in an abstract sense, but actively supports it through patronage. The town pride in the not one, but two, Reny’s stores (including the original location opened in 1949) is one example; the longtime popularity and success of the Rising Tide Community Market—now in a spiffy new store that celebrates local farmers with rockstar portraits on the walls—is another. It’s no wonder that although Damariscotta is nearly twenty miles upriver from open ocean, it still attracts the most independent of archetypes: the pirate. In the words of one: “There are a lot of nice towns around here, but the problem with all of them is…they’re not Damariscotta.”
For a front-row seat of the alewives’ run, there’s no better chair than the Adirondacks at the Mill Pond Inn, which sits at the height of the fish ladder in Damariscotta Mills. For “a little slice of heaven” (an actual sigh of one visitor), Oak Gables Bed & Breakfast offers 11 acres of a bucolic life lost in time, complete with an apple orchard. Accommodations range from traditional rooms to a small cottage, but everyone gets to enjoy the heated pool. Next door in Newcastle, The Flying Cloud B&B is the pristine white farmhouse you’d hope it would be. Take your morning coffee on the large wrap-around porch, watching mist rise from the river as you prepare for your feast of a breakfast—one of the Flying Cloud’s hallmarks. Or just get lost on your way to Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and see where the evening takes you. Lincoln County abounds with B&Bs of all shapes and sizes.
The pirates are not to be feared. The town holiday is one of the most festive days of the year because buccaneers and families alike have their run of Main Street without car traffic. Many restaurants feature specials, and everyone joins in for the treasure hunt that winds through local businesses. It’s worth it to embrace the spirit and dress up along with the reenactors and shanty singers. You could even win the costume prize.
The Woodturning School in Damariscotta is a unique workshop where practiced hands return to hone skills and beginners are welcomed right alongside. Dilettantes are guided to a finished piece on their first try—which takes about three hours. The school not only gets high marks for its atmosphere and instruction, but for the meditative aspect of the experience.
Throughout the summer, Midcoast Kayak offers a unique way to see around the many bends of the Damariscotta River. Although kayaking might seem like a daytime activity, their “full moon” tour is an unforgettable experience, and their three-day camping trips to uninhabited islands allow you to see the full spectrum of wildlife, from bioluminescent plankton to bald eagles.
Stop in to pick up a brochure at the Damariscotta River Association and spend an afternoon exploring the 100-acre farm on the Great Salt Bay. It’s one of the few places in Maine where you’re apt to find horseshoe crabs. For a deepwater experience, take a scenic southeast drive to New Harbor where you’ll discover Hardy Boat Cruises. Mid-June through August is puffin season, and Hardy Boat guarantees sightings with their Audubon guides. If you don’t spot Maine’s most exotic bird, you get a second trip on the house. New Harbor is also the starting point for a trip to the famous artist community of Monhegan Island—you can visit for a five-hour “layover” or make it a vacation in itself.
Oysters. These little-bivalves-that-could are strange, fastidious creatures that are highly partial to the Damariscotta River’s cold waters. The area produces a variety of oysters (although they’re often all labeled under the appellation “Damariscotta”), including one of the rarest oysters in the world: the Belon, a feral version of a French oyster that was imported here in the 50s. Another standout is the Glidden Point. Known for their size, heft, clean finish, and dense meat, they are a great beginner’s oyster. To get a feel for them, visit the Glidden Point Oyster Company’s small store on River Road in Newcastle and try to catch Barbara Scully. Or, if you haven’t tried an oyster before and feel finicky about raw food, make your first foray in a more familiar way: Stop in at the Newcastle Publick House for the Fried Oyster Po’Boy. If you’re feeling courageous, go for a half-dozen, complete with requisite horseradish and a mignonette dressing made with leeks. Of course, a beer could also help you warm up to the idea. Cozy up to the Oyster Bar at King Eider’s Pub. The owner calls the bright, tiny space full of adult beverages a “grown-up’s version of a treehouse.” While the pub itself is a town favorite, this is the spot to sit, as the shells are shucked in front of you, and there’s an education to be had if you’re interested.
Friday night also brings free oysters at Schooner Landing, the place to go for a breeze and a scenic view. It’s the summertime gathering spot—with a deck big enough for dancing to the live music—and next to the public boat launch (reliable entertainment in itself). For a quieter dinner with a focus on food try the Damariscotta River Grill. It’s the rare restaurant where you hear the chef’s name—Rick Hirsch—almost as often as the establishment’s. His name comes up not only because he is the Maine Restaurant Association’s 2010 Chef of the Year, but also because he serves consistent but inventive twists on Maine favorites that hit the spot, like “steak and cakes” (lobster cakes, that is). Hirsch and his partner Jean Kerrigan created their first legion of fans with their scenic Anchor Inn Restaurant in nearby Round Pond, the hamlet that is also home to Muscongus Bay Lobster Company, where dining is done on picnic tables over the water. The catch is so fresh that on occasion you’ll see your supper pulled from the ocean. BYOB and top it off with an ice cream cone from the classic Granite Hall Store, and you have the makings of a summer night’s highlight.
However, you haven’t completed a trip to Damariscotta without a taste test at the Round Top Ice Cream Stand. The best ice cream cone in Maine is a hotly contested issue, but this is one name that consistently comes up in the debate. Start with their best-seller, vanilla, then choose your own adventure through the rest of the forty-plus flavors. For a wind-up to your cone, try Grill Zilla BBQ nearby. Secret sauce has never been as funky as from this old school take-out truck. But if you’re downtown in search of satisfying cheap eats, drop in to the lunch crowd’s favorite: Paco’s Tacos. Or make it a liquid lunch with one of Waltz Pharmacy’s famous frappes. They’re created in the classic aluminum container, which means they’re big enough to sink two straws into, just like the owners did on opening day in 1948. They also serve classic lunch counter items like hot dogs and grilled cheese. Finally, for morning coffee and to catch up on the news of the town, everyone in Damariscotta seems to be thrilled by the return of S. Fernald’s Country Store. Formerly a Damariscotta gathering spot, the store spent the last ten years in Waldoboro. It was quickly adopted back into the fold as a great place for a light meal talking with friends or a place to delight your kids with classic candy. With the equally popular North Cottage Coffee Shop on the other side of the street, the easiest way to make a choice is to stick with the side of the road you’re on.
Shopping in Damariscotta is a rich experience. The downtown area is full of fun stores, many containing items you had no idea you needed: like the darling two-dollar toothpaste keys at Weatherbird that allow you to roll up a tube as you use it. The shop is an ideal place to pick up a hostess present or indulge in something for yourself. Likewise, Darling and DeLisle has an amazing collection of accessories, from scarves to inventive headbands. Women of Substance, on the northern end of Main Street, caters to sizes 12 and up, a rare find made more remarkable by the fact that they carry only all-natural fibers. If you’re interested in making your own style, Alewives Fabrics is known for their modern prints and innovative undertakings, from books to blogs, free patterns, classes, and a “sushi and sewing lounge” on Friday nights. For those lucky enough to have a home in the area, Sproul’s Furniture is a favorite stop, both for cottage furnishings and for catching up with the family that’s owned the store since 1939.
Damariscotta is also a hot spot for jewelry. From high-end creations at the venerable Star’s and Holly Hamilton or the do-it-yourself experience at Aboca Beads, there’s something to suit every taste, age, and budget. In Round Pond, you can visit the gallery of jewelry artist Ronna Lugosch, the “chief peasmaker” of Peapod Jewelry, who works with the disappearing art of wax casting to create silken-looking pieces in gold and silver.
Off the well-traveled road is a place worth visiting for any furniture lover: Cherry Gallery. With a fresh, uncluttered interior as a backdrop, the owners have taken any of the pejorative out of the word “rustic,” which is how they describe their collection of crafts that range from snowshoes and canoes to chairs, rugs, art, and old signs. Damariscotta has a lively art scene all around, supported in part by River Arts, a gallery but also an organization dedicated to cultivating appreciation for art through lectures, classes, and free letterboxing adventures for kids. Another way to broaden their horizons is a stop at the Inka Urpi Galeria of Andean art.
The Lincoln County Community Theater & Orchestra hosts everything from blockbusters to indie movies, Met Opera performances, and of course, plays and concerts. At one time, it was also a popular place for roller-skating, which accounts for the circular pattern of the wood floor that you see today. It’s next door to the beautiful new Skidompha Library, a building made possible by the librarian’s “patron saint,” Damariscotta resident Barbara Cooney. The children’s book author of classics like Miss Rumphius and Island Boy (which she called “her hymn to Maine”) kicked off the capital campaign with a $550,000 gift a few years before her death in 2000. Skidompha is a model of what every town library should be (they have the National Medal for Museum and Library Service to prove it), but for Barbara Cooney fans, it holds an added treat: her two Caldecott medals are on display with ephemera from her life.
And then there are the fish! Whether or not you catch the alewife run (roughly between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day), it’s worth it to take a peek at a structure that speaks volumes about the alewives’ journey. The
Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder, in existence since 1807, is the final 42 staggered feet before the migratory fish reach the fresh
water of Damariscotta Lake. Along the way
they are picked off by seagull, osprey, and eagle, adding more drama to a mesmerizing event. The Maine Eastern Railroad makes a special stop on Mills Road for the run—“basically in someone’s back yard”—during regular service on May 29th and 30th (the train also stops on Academy Hill Road during The Pirate Rendezvous).
Finally, as many Maine school children could tell you: Damariscotta is home to several rare archaeological sites: middens, the trash heaps made mostly of oyster shells discarded by native people 2,000 years ago. While the huge white mounds are somewhat harder to appreciate today than 125 years ago (when they were mined for calcium), the walk down to the state historic site behind the Round Top Arts Center, through the apple orchard, and to the river’s edge is beautiful. You wind up looking across the river to the Glidden Midden while standing on the remains of “Whaleback.” When the site was mined, a local antiquarian named A. T. Gamage cataloged artifacts as they were unearthed. He was paid two dollars a day by Harvard University and uncovered remains preserved by the alkaline environment, among them: 14 humans, several dogs, and a great auk—an extinct flightless bird. Gamage’s records show oyster shells of more than a foot long in the leftovers of the ancient feasts. After the walk, and the realization that oysters are a way of life in this town, you may be inspired to make a midden of your own.
Our Facebook fans speak up about their favorite spots in Damariscotta:
Damariscotta River Association trails thru the fields and along the river!
Love the Rising Tide Coop—the best organic, green grocery/produce store in the whole area! Staying away from Alewives Fabrics and Aboca Beads—too tempting.
The Tipsy Butler B&B (technically Newcastle).
Stable Gallery, River Arts, Nick’s Mediterranean Kitchen, Alewives Fest, seafood, Damariscotta River Grill, Round Top Ice Cream, Maine Coast Books, the best public library in Maine, Linda Morkeski, Rolf Wilkes. The LIFE of this town, 24/7/365.
Saltbay Cafe, Damariscotta River Grill, Newcastle Publick House, and Zampa’s Italian restaurant.
Two Fish is my favorite place to shop in Damariscotta. I love the jeans and the dresses are the best for summer events! Great prices for quality clothes that last!
It’s got to be King Eider’s Pub. Great “untraditional” fish ’n chips or haddock sandwich.
The Skidompha Used Book Shop is amazing! I also love the Damariscotta River Grill. Chef Rick Hirsch plans wonderful menus & they have a terrific wine list.
You should check out the Salt Bay Chamberfest. Aboca Beads are the best beads! For a little outdoor activity we love Midcoast Kayak.
—Elizabeth Henkel Poisson
North Cottage Coffee is a hidden jewel. The best coffee in Midcoast Maine!