Theyâ€™re not pretty, but they are delicious.
Homarus americanus, the lobsters found off Americaâ€™s northeastern coast, are some of the most delectable foods on the planet. Nowhere can you find more tasty â€” and bargain-priced â€” lobsters than the sweet, soft shell ones found at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland. So thatâ€™s where weâ€™re headed.
We begin our lobster safari in Boston. With gas prices soaring, we hop an inexpensive flight from Portland, Ore., to Boston and rent a motorhome.Â
Once in Beantown, our mouths are already watering and we begin sampling lobster pizza at jail-turned-restaurant Scampo, lobster scampi at iconic Union Oyster House, and lobster rolls at Bostonâ€™s new Island Creek Oyster House. With taste buds primed, itâ€™s on to the lobster festival.Â
Maineâ€™s coastline is rugged and spectacularly beautiful. Just 12,000 years ago, glaciers retreated and sculpted the stateâ€™s rocky coast into 3,000 miles of bays, coves, inlets and peninsulas. Roads on these coastal fingers tend to be winding, two-lane affairs choked with traffic during high season. We avoid the crowds by driving north on Interstate 95, a toll road ($2.50 for RVs) that zips us to Kennebunkport.
Like many quaint villages in Maine, Kennebunkport has plenty of cafÃ©s, galleries, souvenir shops and ice cream parlors. The problem is that the streets are tiny and not RV-friendly, especially for larger rigs. The solution would be a dinghy vehicle or shuttle. The Red Apple Campground offers a free shuttle to and from Kennebunkport. After snugging the motorhome into a shady space, we shuttle into town. When weâ€™re ready to return, we just call.
Later, we enjoy another perk â€” fresh, hot Maine lobster delivered right to our motorÂhome by the parkâ€™s owner. Sitting at our picnic table, we experience our first soft shell summer lobster in the rough (boiled). Itâ€™s incredibly sweet and delicious.Â
The next morning, we explore the coast, finding breathtaking views around every corner. Some shorelines are carpeted with marble- to grapefruit-sized rocks. Others are crowded with square boulders the size of refrigerators, marching like penguins to the sea. Still others slope like immense, striated sheets of pulled taffy and plunge into the surf. Lighthouses wink tirelessly from rocky outcrops. Sailboats, powerboats, lobster and fishing boats ply the waters and everywhere small, multi-colored lobster trap buoys bob in the water. Itâ€™s as though weâ€™ve stepped into a painting.Â
Around one corner, weâ€™re surprised to see a large home with American and Texas flags flying. This is Walker Point, home of former President George Herbert Walker and Barbara Bush.Â
On Interstate 295, we exit for Perkins Cove, with its wharf, shops and restaurants and the Finest Kind I lobster boat. Captain Tom greets us as we board this working lobster boat outfitted with benches so we can watch the action. We motor into open water and spot a purple and white buoy that marks our first lobster trap. Each lobsterman is allowed 800 traps and they use distinctive buoys to flag them.Â
An electric winch hauls up the trap and two wiggling lobsters. The average take is one lobster for every three traps so weâ€™re doing well. Captain Tom measures the lobsters from eye to carapace (where the tail begins), ensuring theyâ€™re between 3.5 and 5 inches. Breeding females are marked with a tail notch and thrown back. This lobster fishery, managed by lobstermen, is so healthy that fishermen bring in record catches.Â
While we motor from trap to trap, first mate Stephanie fills us in on the natural history of the lobster. Within 40 minutes, weâ€™ve collected a dozen lobsters (the company sells them to locals and tourists) and itâ€™s back to port.Â
All this lobstering has made us hungry. We head to MC Perkins Cove for what turns out to be the perfect lobster roll â€” big pieces of lobster barely moistened with mayonnaise and stuffed into a soft, lightly grilled bun. As we watch the sunset transform the water and the boats into a picture postcard, weâ€™re content.
On To The Lobster Festival
The following day back on I-95, we get off at the Freeport exit to stretch our legs and check out the L.L.Bean outlet stores. Freeport has become a shopping mecca and has plenty of RV parking. Thereâ€™s also a nice campground here (Freeport Village Campground) with easy freeway access, but weâ€™re lobster-bound so we keep going.
We take the U.S. Highway 1 exit toward the coast and, as we pass through Thomaston just outside of Rockland, we spot the Salt Water Farm Campground sign. We donâ€™t have reservations, but this off-the-beaten-path park overlooking the St. George River proves just right â€” grassy, quiet and within a couple of miles of terrific lobster. (Most Maine RV parks are open from mid-May to mid-October.)
We cruise into Rockland, park the rig on the street and follow the crowds to the lobster festival. With carnival rides, live entertainment and vendors hawking everything from cotton candy to sunglasses, the festival looks like any county fair. That is, except for the flatbed trailer with the giant plastic lobster, the otherwise ordinary looking people sporting lobster claws on their heads, and a huge tent where people happily don plastic bibs and chow down on boiled lobster.Â
The Maine Lobster Festival (Aug. 1-5, 2012) is an all-volunteer event celebrating the spiny crustacean. They boast the largest lobster cooker in the world and, during the five-day festival, cook more than 20,000 pounds of the clawed creature.Â
At the food tent 20 people are ahead of us, but the line moves quickly as volunteers fill orders for one-, two- or three-lobster dinners, complete with corn, roll and cups of melted butter. We gather our one-lobster dinners (a bargain at $14), grab a seat overlooking the water and happily dig in.Â
Itâ€™s the best lobster weâ€™ve ever tasted. In the summer when lobsters come close to shore to mate and molt, the shells are soft and the meat is especially sweet. Visiting Maine is the only way to experience this summer treat.Â
Thereâ€™s more to explore in Rockland, including the Farnsworth Art Museum that houses the largest collection of paintings by the Wyeth family, well-known American artists. For a small additional charge, visitors can tour the Olson House, the lonely farmhouse made famous by Andrew Wyethâ€™s iconic Christinaâ€™s World painting.
Another must-see in Rockland is the Maine Lighthouse Museum. To guide ships along its treacherous coastline, Maine built 70 lighthouses. Docent Marla Rogers lived at Owlâ€™s Head Lighthouse as a youngster and spins tales about the hardships lightkeepersâ€™ families faced. She leads us through exhibits of brilliant Fresnel lenses, maps and photographs. Afterward, we drive a short distance to Owlâ€™s Head Lighthouse for terrific views and a few photos.
North To Acadia
The following day, we head north to Acadia National Park, the first national park created east of the Mississippi and one of the most visited. We climb slopes covered in birch, fir and pine, and crest bare-rock granite summits, stopping to stare awe-struck at mountains plunging into the sea.Â
We hike the parkâ€™s famous carriage roads. In the 1930s, wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed a 50-mile network of gravel carriage trails, 17 granite bridges and two gate lodges. As we stroll the shady paths, weâ€™re reminded why this area has long been a vacation favorite.Â
The park offers two no-hookup campgrounds in forested settings. However, at two nearby KOAs, you can have all the amenities and use the free shuttle to the park. Maybe itâ€™s because Clayton the Lobsterman boils lobsters for KOA campers that we decide to camp here.
The next morning, we head to Bar Harbor, one of the stateâ€™s iconic fishing villages. With its clapboard New England-style homes and inns, shady central park square, shops galore and on-the-water locale, Bar Harbor is cute. Itâ€™s also jammed with tourists and RVs arenâ€™t allowed to park except in designated areas. I buy a lobster sleep shirt and we make a quick escape.
Itâ€™s a two-hour drive between Bar Harbor and Camden, but we meander. Just outside Ellsworth, we scamper over granite ramparts at Fort Knox. We pick up Maine wild blueberries at a roadside stand. While Albert boxes our berries, his wife Maudine tempts us with free slices of blueberry pie. We also spot a bakery sign and bump down a gravel road to the Bread Box Bakery where we load up on cinnamon bread for breakfast. Half the loaf disappears before weâ€™re back on the highway.Â
At Searsport, we stop at Penobscot Marine Museum, an impressive, three-acre complex of turn-of-the-century buildings filled with boats and maritime memorabilia. The Fowler True-Ross House is an original captainâ€™s house loaded with antiques, including a piano with mother-of-pearl keys.
Just before Camden, we turn at Camden Hills State Park and climb up Mount Battie for a commanding view of the town and Penobscot Bay from the stone viewing tower. Mount Battie and Acadia National Park are the only two places in Maine where the mountains march straight into the sea and itâ€™s an impressive sight. The parkâ€™s big, forested campsites convince us this is another place to call home.
Weâ€™re on the road early, keenly aware this is our last day. We pull into Boothbay Harbor, another quintessential waterside village. Yearning for one more taste of lobster, we breakfast at historic Spruce Point Inn where I order lobster Benedict â€“ two farm fresh eggs, big chunks of lobster and lemony hollandaise sauce on English muffins.Â
Heading toward Boston, we pass through the famous shipbuilding town of Bath and make one last stop at the Maine Maritime Museum. We only have time for a few exhibits, including the massive sculpture of the Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built. Rain has settled in and we brave the wet for a quick tour of a working cod schooner that gives us a glimpse into the hard lives these fishermen lived.Â
As we climb back in the motorhome, we take one last look at Maineâ€™s coastline. We know weâ€™ll be back. Weâ€™ve barely tasted coastal Maine and summer means more sweet, soft shell lobster.Â
For More Information
Acadia National Park 207-288-3338, www.nps.gov/acad
Bar Harbor KOA OceansideÂ 888-562-5605,Â www.koa.com/campgrounds/bar-harbor-oceanside
Bar Harbor KOA WoodlandsÂ 888-562-5605,Â www.koa.com/campgrounds/bar-harbor-woodlands
Maine Lobster FestivalÂ 800-562-2529,Â www.mainelobsterfestival.com
Maine Office of TourismÂ 888-624-6345,Â www.visitmaine.com
Red Apple CampgroundÂ 207-967-4927,Â www.redapplecampground.com
Salt Water Farm CampgroundÂ 207-354-6735,Â www.saltwaterfarmcampground.com
Shore Hills Campground, Boothbay HarborÂ 207-633-4782,Â www.shorehills.com