Eat, drive, and be merry

Seaside villages and a nearby island fill a weekend itinerary in Maine

Email|Print| Text size + By Doreen Iudica Vigue
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2004

ROCKLAND, Maine -- Leave it to Andy Warhol to turn up in the most unexpected places.

As we were strolling through the Wyeth Center, a wing of the Farnsworth Art Museum here devoted to the Wyeth family of painters, we came upon two huge Warhol pencil drawings. They felt out of context amid the Wyeth watercolors depicting stark Mainers and even starker Maine landscapes.

The drawings turned out to be of James Wyeth, part of Warhol's famous factory of artistic friends, and a New York socialite named KK Larkin.

Warhols in Rockland -- I'll be darned. This would not be the only pleasant surprise on this trip.

Rockland was one of two destination spots on this long weekend trek last month; Camden was the other. Part of the appeal of traveling to these small, seaside villages was to get to them before the summer crowds arrived. The other was to simply get away from the city and hear the roar of the ocean. Rockland, with its hard-working harbor and quaint Main Street, is best known for the waterfront lobster festival it hosts every August. Camden is more serene; its harbor fills in summer with the boats of the well-heeled and its pretty, lace-curtained bed-and-breakfasts vie for attention along Route 1.

We decided to stay in Camden and, for the most part, play in Rockland, towns only about 10 minutes apart in the off season. Side trips to nearby Isleboro Island and Owls Head also figured into the itinerary, which began in earnest with Friday afternoon lunch in Portland.

We chose to eat at a new place called Blue Spoon, where the motto is ''food from friends, family, and travels." The tidy 10-table restaurant had its own arty appeal with several black-and-white portraits of mod-ish looking women as the decorative focal point.

We started with the red pepper puree, a velvety delight that warmed us on this rainy, chilly, spring day, with a house salad on the side. The BLT was a tasty take on the ordinary, with thick-cut bacon, mesclun greens, and tomato on home-made bread with rosemary mayo.

Refreshed, we climbed back in the car, and although we loved our lunch, we knew the ultimate Maine eating experience was about an hour away: Red's.

Red's Eats is a clam shack right on Route 1 in downtown Wiscasset. It is not to be missed, especially if you are a lobster roll aficionado. Red's are a study in simplicity: A hot dog roll overflows with the succulent meat of one whole lobster, a sheet of aluminum foil holds it together, and a plastic fork is your key to heaven.

We arrived at A Little Dream on High Street at about 3:30, stiff and overstuffed. Owners Joanne Ball and Bill Fontana have transformed their 1888 Victorian home into a welcoming oasis filled with beautiful antiques.

After catching up with our hosts, who treat returning guests like longtime friends, we took a quick catnap, then hit the road again for a little local exploring.

At the observation tower atop Mount Battie at nearby Camden Hills State Park, the breezes were brisk and the views breathtaking: the town and harbor, tiny islands off the coast, and Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, a 90-minute drive north.

Next stop, downtown Camden. We browsed the aisles of the French & Brawn Market Place on Main Street for nothing in particular. Opened in 1868, French & Brawn is an old-time local grocer where everyone wears an apron, the butcher knows how you like your chops, and a wheel of aged cheddar sits under a plastic dome ready to be cut into hunks. There's a large array of Maine-made products, including ice cream, pasta, and condiments, plus a variety of out-of-town newspapers.

By this time, it was cocktail hour and Cappy's Chowder House on Main Street is a favorite for spicy Bloody Marys served in canning jars, and ice cold beer on tap. This evening, the Red Sox were leading the Yankees, the Boston-born bartender was encouraging loud cheers for the home team, free popcorn was flowing, and all was right in our little world.

Nonetheless, dinner beckoned. So, we were off to Rockland to dine at Caf Miranda, a tiny eatery on a side street near the Farnsworth, whose quirky decor is heavy on the pink flamingos, extra heavy on the Elvis memorabilia, and whose motto is, "We do not serve the food of cowards." On this night, there were 32 appetizers, with names like 50 m.p.h. tomatoes and squash o'rama. The 33 entree offerings included pasta mush 'n' blue and big bacon unit.

Open for 11 years, Caf Miranda now sells some of its foods at local markets. We had seen the delicious-looking pizza earlier in the day at French & Brawn and were eager to try some for dinner. Problem is, it isn't on the menu. It's made for retail sale only. But our fabulous waiter did not want us to be disappointed, so he opened up a packaged pizza, had chef Kerry Altiero put it in the brick oven and, voil, dinner.

Saturday mornings are a good time to take the 20-minute ferry from Lincolnville to Isleboro Island, directly across the bay from Camden. Isleboro's center, Dark Harbor, has some of the most beautiful summer ''cottages" in Maine, built at the turn of the last century by wealthy off-islanders, whose descendants still occupy many of the homes today.

We grabbed provisions from a deli in Camden and had a picnic on a rocky beach looking back at the Camden Hills. The serene island is worth the trip just for its solitude and pristine beauty.

After Isleboro, head to Rockland and the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center, filled with works from Maine artists and others in all forms. The Maine in America collection includes landscapes and portraits by the biggest names in 19th-century American art: Winslow Homer, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Gilbert Stuart among them.

Rockland's reborn Main Street is worth a stroll. Old, closed storefronts have been renovated in recent years and occupied by all manner of shops, including The Store, which has the feel of an old five-and-dime, but is an upscale gourmet cooking shop that also sells cards and children's toys. The cozy antique shops are also fun to poke around in.

Still hankering to get closer to the ocean, we drove to Owls Head just south of Rockland and wended our way down side roads lined with simple capes with lobster traps piled high on front lawns. The bay views are spectacular and give credence to the Maine motto: the way life should be.

The next morning, Scottish oatmeal hit the spot and fortified us for the drive home, which took us by Red's Eats again -- OK, the true reason I passed on a lobster omelet. If Warhol had known about Red's, I'm convinced he would have painted a series of lobster bibs in homage.

Doreen Iudica Vigue is a freelance writer from Franklin.

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