Main Stay, Rockland

The wind is blowing big, swirling flakes, and it feels like it's carrying us, too, right into Rockland.

We’re driving in from the Camden Hills and a sudden whip of wind creates a midmorning white-gray haze across the road. There’s no line of traffic today on Route 1, now that we’re far from the season of schooners, lobster, and sunshine. All’s quieter now. It’s March on the midcoast.

Turning at the sign for the Samoset Resort, we follow the road past windswept lawns that are snow-coated white, then stop near the parking area for the Rockland Breakwater, a jetty that stretches more than three-quarters of a mile into Penobscot Bay with the harbor’s lighthouse at the end. I have the idea to walk out there for seawater views in the wintry gusts, but we can’t even get close. A winter’s worth of snow from the roadway has been plowed into piles here, and there’s no clear way to get to the breakwater trail. It’ll have to remain, for now, simply a distant line out into the choppy gray bay.

We have started out again when we get a few texts from an old friend who’s been snowboarding up at Sunday River and wants to join us for some fun on the coast. “Sushi or a honky tonk?” he writes, and sends a picture of a Narragansett tallboy. “Either one’s perfect.”

“Get here!” I write back (my companion, photographer Peter Frank Edwards, is driving). By then we’re passing Wasses, and I picture warmer days past—the order windows open wide and me waiting in line for hot dogs in the sea breeze, getting enticing whiffs of onions grilling. (My go-to order includes a side of fries and a chocolate milk from the serve-yourself cooler.)

By the time we’re in the heart of downtown Rockland, a city of about 7,300, the fast front of blustery snowfall is finished, but the wind and chill continue. We loop around the one-way configuration of streets to scope out the stores and cafes of Main Street—some are closed for the season, but there are definitely signs of life. We pass the terminal for ferry boats to the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven. We’re not here for a boat ride this time, but we’re soon pulling up to the angular lines of a boatbuilder’s hotel.

Shipshape 250 Main

Our lodging for the next two nights is on the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets. Opened in 2016, this is 250 Main Hotel. A young man in a trim dark suit greets us, speaking in a British accent as he shows us around the lobby. Would we like a coffee? Manning the desk that afternoon, Orlando Johnson explains that the hotel serves Rock City Coffee—the longtime roaster is just next door. There will be pastries and yogurt here in the mornings, he explains, and wine will be poured at the daily guest social that begins in a few hours. (On warmer days, the social is held on the rooftop. We check out that vantage point later, carefully stepping across ice-topped snow to see the city and bay views.) Above the modern, low-profile couches and chairs in the lobby, the ceiling is lined with a mix of metal and wooden rafters. It’s a linear, calming backdrop for a collection of contemporary art originals— including a Sam Cady painting above the fireplace, of an island that looks real enough to be afloat. Our room for the next couple of nights is on the fifth-floor corner, with tall windows and views toward the bay and Owls Head. There are paintings and sculptures by local artists on display on every floor—a gallery of pieces that changes as art is sold.

The next morning, we have the chance to meet the hotel’s owner. “I don’t think this kind of hotel can get stale,” Cabot Lyman explains.

It’s the first such project by the Thomaston boatbuilder. Also the owner and founder of Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, Lyman has sailed the world with his wife, Heidi, and their three sons. They fitted out the hotel with yacht-style details, including fiberglass inserts for the showers that were made at the boatyard and that, Lyman notes, are “elegant and so easy to clean.” There’s reclaimed wood throughout, including plenty of mahogany, Lyman’s favorite. Just today he stopped by to see the delivery of a mahogany coffee table for the lobby, made from a beautiful piece of salvaged wood from the boatyard. Several yards long, it fits perfectly in front of the broad fireplace.

Smiling at the furniture addition, Lyman explains that, when he first came to this area some 40 years ago to start a boatyard, “You didn’t want to go out at night.” He considers Rockland “one of the most changed towns in the U.S. in the past 15 years,” as it’s evolved from an economy built around fishing, logging, and quarries to one focused on the arts and food. And he’s proud to be part of it. The building process was stressful, he admits, “But now that it’s done, it’s pretty cool.”

And for guests like us, the Main Street location means that we can walk to almost everything we want to do.

Art in the Heart

Back outside and on foot this time, we make our way toward the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) on Winter Street. The building is industrial looking, like a polished and glassy shorefront warehouse. Daylight flows in from windows on the walls and above. We hang up our coats and walk through. It’s nice to view art this way, with no time pressures or distractions. We take our time to sit and stand and look at the show’s realist paintings from Maine-born Sam Cady, who through much of his career has split time each year between New York and coastal Maine. Like the painting above the mantel at 250 Main, these were not created on rectangular canvases. Instead each canvas is shaped for a 3-D effect, so it looks as if there are ice-fishing shacks, floor cushions, and city fire hydrants suspended on the wall or that you could reach out and touch.

The visit refreshes my perspective, and when we return to the outdoors I notice that the edges of Rockland’s buildings look sharper and especially boxy against the steel-colored sky. A little way up Main Street we’re drawn into a storefront by sunny-bright yellow colors and penguins in the windows. Inside we see a familiar face. Orlando Johnson, who was the suit- wearer at 250 Main, is now sporting yellow trousers and a sweater and has opened the Black Hole gallery for open hours. It’s his gallery (a follow-up to an earlier one named Somewhere), and he tells us of his admiration for penguins, describing them as “stoic, great creatures, holding places for each other, huddling to stay warm.” Originally from Cambridge, England, the artist grew up spending summers in Maine and says he was strongly influenced by the works of Maine’s island-based artists, including Robert Indiana. His own paintings often include animals, and he also creates wearable and functional art, including shirts, scarves, and mugs, with repeating forms of land and sea creatures or with block lettering. I buy one of the artist’s shirt creations with the face of a laughing horse screen-printed across the front. It’s the kind of art that boosts the spirit, I think, when we’re all still wrapped in coats and waiting for spring.

Lobstah, Lunch Dumpling Dinner

We stop in the Landing Gallery and Dowling Walsh Gallery, and happen on artists hanging works for the Collective Bash, a one-night fundraiser for the Farnsworth Art Museum that’s part dance party, part pop-up art show. Between all of this rambling about for art viewing, we eat.

When our snowboarding friend gets to town on our second day, we meet up at 250 Main. He wants to know where we’ve already been to eat on this trip, and I run down the list of highlights so far. The Brass Compass, I tell him, has thick toast slices heaped with haddock or local crab, lobster in so many dishes I can’t count, and super-friendly staff who keep the hot coffee pouring. At In Good Company, we warmed up with big glasses of wine and shared a cucumber salad with sunflower sprouts and a whole head of roasted garlic with molten cheese—feta, brie, and blue. And we stopped in at Cafe Miranda for appetizers of focaccia bread and an FBOM—fabulous bowl of meat. (It’s actually not meat-heavy, but a lettuce-wrap situation with seasoned ground meat and plenty of crunchy vegetables.)

Tonight, we are all eager for Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, with its deep red walls and a handful of seats at the sushi counter. While we haven’t seen crowds many places, all of the tables here are soon full of customers. In a denim apron and a wool scarf tied neatly at her neck, chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger is in her zone behind the counter. Once food starts to arrive, I don’t want to put my chopsticks down. We feast on a shared meal of homemade noodles, sushi, and a dish I still think about: pork and scallop dumplings in a miso and soy milk broth with napa cabbage, all suspended over a flame in a paper bowl. It looks dangerously precarious, but apparently the broth protects the paper from igniting. The presentation itself is art.

Ruth Woodbury Starr, manager of 250 Main, grew up in Rockland, and earlier she suggested that we get to Time Out Pub for pool tables and the fishing crowd, and maybe karaoke. We head there next. A few guys halt their pool shots for a few seconds when they see us newcomers walk in and head to the bar. It’s definitely a locals’ scene— no singing or dancing this night, but there is some Bon Jovi playing on the sound system.

Soap and Owls

Morning comes with sun across the Penobscot Bay and warms our fifth-floor room at 250 Main. I smell the coffee downstairs and fetch a cup before venturing out onto our room’s private deck for a minute or two in the sunshine, navigating the windswept snow at my feet.

After breakfast at the hotel, we walk down the street to Trillium Soaps, opening the door to bright smells of citrus and spearmint. In a work apron, Peter DiGirolamo tells us he’ll be pouring batches of soap shortly, and we’re welcome to hang around to see. Meanwhile, I check out the shop’s inventory of wooden furniture, linen bed sheets, hair combs from France, teas, vintage silverware, and blocks and hand-cut bars of more than 20 varieties of Trillium soaps.

It’s like culinary cookery, I think, as I read the ingredients and smell bars with ingredients from the garden and kitchen, including poppy seeds, lavender, cinnamon, fennel, lime, and rosemary. Soon Peter’s wife, Nancy, arrives and they stir a thick mixture of olive, coconut, and palm oils, add a swirl of French green clay and the essential oils of lemon and sage, and then pour it like batter into long, rectangular molds to cool and harden before cutting. The couple met in Damariscotta and moved to Rockland, where they began soapmaking in 1992 to build a business together that could involve their two children. A draw, he says, was to be part of “a working-class town that’s a real place.”

After the soap factory’s aromatic warmth, it feels crazy cold outside. Temperatures are in the 20s, and it’s windy again when we round up our friend, get in the car, and drive out to Owls Head State Park. Peter says he wants to run on the beach, no matter the weather. The excursion is a quick one—a fast dash up the steps to the Owls Head Light in a howling wind, then down and along the curving beachfront of stones as I look for flat stones to skip. We have the ocean to ourselves, and the trees and rocks stand out in sharp relief.

And that’s how I’ll remember this winter-cozy getaway. From the fireplace comforts of our yacht-style hotel, we stepped outside into icy gusts, but that only added to the fun. Fewer people and chillier temperatures cleared our heads for experiencing the art, and made us hungry for the bayside city’s food and flavors. Let Rockland’s wintry winds blow us back in anytime.