Savor early spring's simple pleasures - ramble along peaceful coasts without the crowds
Reid State Park has about 800 acres of salt marches, sand dunes, deep woods, and almost two miles of sandy beaches. (Jonathan Levitt for the Boston Globe)
April on the Maine coast is mud season. The thaw. The drip. The sun shines, the wind blows, the snow melts. Dirt roads wash out and cars get stuck. Hiking trails flow like brooks. At night the dripping drips faster than seconds. And in the morning there is more mud. No spring. Just mud.
To leave the mire and catch a glimpse of the season to come, head to the sandy beaches. The tide washes away the ice, the sun is up early, and the twilight lingers. Close your eyes and it feels like summer, except for now the beaches are clear not only of snow, but of summer campers, day-trippers, kite fliers, and sunbathers. Walk and you'll be hungry. In Maine there is no better time of year to eat well, make a few lazy rambles along sandy beaches, and eat well again.
158 Pickett St. Café makes gnarly, blister-crusted bagels. In South Portland, a paper airplane ride away from the harbor, it's in an old boatbuilder's shop that looks like a pirate clubhouse. Sit in the back near the stove and fill yourself with coffee, sweets, and chef-owner-surfer Josh Potocki's macho egg sandwiches with smoky bacon and local eggs. Then head to Scarborough Beach.
Drive south along Shore Road past the mansions and cliffs and crashing waves. Stop at Higgins Beach to watch the surfers. Scarborough Beach is halfway down Prouts Neck on Route 207, Black Point Road. Walk down the long gravel path through the marsh and over the sand dunes. Hear the waves long before you see them. Stand on the dunes and look east to Richmond Island, south to where Winslow Homer painted his seascapes, and north toward Casco Bay. In the summer the parking lot will be full by noon with boogie boarders and beach readers but for now it's just the surfers and saunterers.
Leave the beach and drive through the marsh, back to Route 1, to stock up on sandwiches and snacks at The Cheese Iron in Scarborough. Walking all day is a pleasure with cheese, bread, and good chocolate in your pockets.
Vincent Maniaci and his wife, Jill Dutton, age their cheeses in a pine-paneled, straw-mat-lined, sauna-like "cave" kept at 47 degrees and 90 percent humidity. Maniaci rotates, turns, cleans, and then tests his wheels of cheese for ripeness with a cheese iron, a metal plug that pulls out a core sample.
When the cheeses are ready, they go in the display case to be cut to order. "It's the way it should be done," says Maniaci. "The wheel is a living and breathing thing. As soon as it is cut it starts to die. It loses flavor and goes bitter."
For lunch, Dutton and Maniaci make sandwiches with their ripe cheeses, cured meats, and crusty breads from Standard Baking Co. in Portland. Piled high on the counter are stacks of Cubanos with porchetta, Tuscan grilled ham with grain mustard and fontina cheese; Reubens with Maine-made sauerkraut; and sandwiches of tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella. Taste some cheese, buy a few sandwiches, a cup of coffee, some cookies and chocolate, and head up the coast.
Point the car toward Reid State Park at the tip of Georgetown Island. The drive is epic. Half an hour on the highway, and then onto the Sagadahoc Bridge over the Kennebec River with the Navy destroyers of Bath Iron Works below. Cross another bridge over the Sasanoa River to Arrowsic Island and try to spot the ospreys' nests. Drive past Sewell Pond and maybe the last of winter's ice shacks and the many lines bobbing up and down for pickerel. Drive past miles of endless marshes. In the summertime you can pull over and hear the mosquitoes drone, but now it is quiet. Then another bridge, this one old and made of steel. Look down at the Back River. Soon the cormorants will stand frozen on the rocks drying their wings, and striped bass will wait for the tide to turn, mouths open in the quiet eddies. Keep driving, past the Post Office, the general store, more tidal mud and swampy woods, and at last, almost 14 dead-end miles from Route 1, you're at the beach.
Reid State Park is about 800 acres of salt marshes, sand dunes, deep woods, and almost two miles of sandy beaches. From the granite outcroppings of Griffith Head you can see out to lighthouses on Seguin Island and The Cuckolds. Walk the sandy beaches and the hiking trails. Watch the tide and eat your sandwiches and your chocolate. Take off your shoes. Watch the sunset. Turn around and drive back to town.
From the outside, El Camino Cantina is long, low, yellow, and looks like a gentlemen's club. Inside it could be a set from a Quentin Tarantino movie. "Recycled Mexican low-rider chic," says co-owner Eloise Humphrey. The Mexican Day of the Dead flags, orange lights, glittery vinyl booths (upholstered by Humphrey's mother), fake Christmas trees, chrome hubcaps, steering wheels, and The Lone Ranger on black velvet make the place feel a long way from the Yankee coast. The food, however, is as local as it gets. All the meat comes from Maine farms. Wild mushrooms are foraged by Humphrey, and local organic vegetables fill the coolers and chest freezer all year long. The regulars are local organic farmers, Bowdoin College professors, and ornately tattooed hipsters. The soundtrack is Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg, and Dolly Parton.
Humphrey and her twin sister, Daphne Comaskey, cook together during the day. Paul Comaskey, Daphne's husband, runs the floor at night. He's English, and his band The Nervous Kind once toured with Duran Duran and UB40. Humphrey was married to alternative country star Richard Buckner. Now she lives in an Airstream trailer attached to a cabin on a 200-acre saltwater farm in Woolwich. Most of the restaurant's decor comes from her flea market rambles and the farm's rust heap.
Before El Camino, the sisters owned Kate's Kitchen, a breakfast and lunch place on Haight Street in San Francisco. Humphrey moved to Maine nine years ago and says that she opened the restaurant because she missed Mexican food.
Stuffed with enchiladas and high on margaritas step out into parking lot. Ignore the ice and dirty snow. Think of the beach. Or go to the movies. There are three theaters in town.
Jonathan Levitt, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.