Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Presque Isle, Maine

Our summer trip through Maine continued farther north in the state and into Aroostook County.  Talk to a Mainer about traveling up to Aroostook and you will realize they have a few nicknames for the county.  Being the largest county in the state, and greater in size than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, Mainer’s pay homage to its size by simply calling it “The County.”  Aroostook also garners the nickname “The Crown of Maine” because of its location sitting prominently at the top of the state touching Canada to the east, west, and north.  The name Aroostook is an Indian word meaning "beautiful river."  Whatever Mainer’s call it, we called the agricultural-dominated landscape beautiful with amazing color contrasts and simplicity.

Aroostook is the agricultural region of Maine.  Fields of waving grains and green tufts with plump potatoes under them replace the typical Maine scenes of coastal harbors and rocky shores.  Back in the 1940’s, Maine was the largest potato producing state in the country.  Sorry Idaho, you were not always king of the spud!  Maine now ranks tenth in the country in potato production covering 63,000 acres.  Family farms are still in existence and every fall, kids get a two-week break from school to help in the potato harvest.  The harvest is a great way for youngsters to stay attached to the land, help out the family farm, and earn money.  Other major agricultural entities in the region are broccoli, hay, and small grain rotation crops. 

Instead of fresh lobsters from the ocean, we enjoyed fresh “new” potatoes from the ground.  We were curious, what really is a “new” potato?  The term wasn’t new to us, we grew up hearing our grandparents mention new potatoes, but admittedly we had no clue exactly what they were.  “New” potatoes are potatoes picked before maturity that have been freshly dug and brought to market without curing.  Since they are dug early, they have delicate thin skins, lower starch content, high moisture content, and tend to have a sweeter flavor.

Delving into the “what is there to do in Presque Isle” we found some interesting oddities.  Quickly, we discovered Presque Isle was the launching site of not one, but two, transatlantic balloon crossings.  The first one occurred in 1978 when three people inflated a balloon and set out for a 137-hour, six-day flight traversing the Atlantic Ocean and landed in a barley field near Paris.  The night they landed, one of the pilots Larry Newman was allowed to sleep with his wife in the same bed where Charles Lindbergh slept after his historic transatlantic flight five decades earlier.  The second crossing was the first Transatlantic Solo Crossing occurring in 1984.  Their launching sites are commemorated with monuments for the public to see.  Ironically, hot air balloons were developed in the late 1700's but it took nearly 200 years and 14 failed missions before an ocean crossing was completed.

But the oddest thing we found in Presque Isle was the scattering of large balls resembling planets.  Turns out the folks of The County got together and built the world’s largest scale model of the Solar System.  Yep that’s right, they like their planets in Aroostook.  The model strings along 40 miles of Route 1 from Presque Isle to the town of Houlton and all the planets are on the side of the road so you astronomic geeks (or curious tourists like us) can stop and admire.  The model of the Sun is inside a building at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and tiny Pluto resides down south in the town of Houlton.

And yes, there are plenty of things to do in the outdoors around Presque Isle.  We spent a morning hiking Aroostook State Park, Maine’s first state park.  There are miles of gentle cross-country ski trails you can hike or select one of the many paths up Quaggy Jo Mountain for a great view of the agricultural expanse that we came to appreciate in northern Maine. 

Another nice, short but steep hike is up Haystack Mountain.  It only takes about 10-15 minutes to ascend the half mile (round trip) moderate trail where you are rewarded with some beautiful views and grasp the diverse landscape of Aroostook County.  

Driving to the hiking site, we spotted a gorgeous field of sunflowers that dazzle the landscape.  Come to find out the sunflowers are grown for birdseed but they also sell them to passerby’s that stop to admire them. Pick as many as you want and leave your money in the box.  Gotta love all the honor systems in Maine! 

We hung our hats in the town of Presque Isle at Arndt’s Aroostook River Lodge and Campground which we liked immediately.  Our site had a nice large grassy yard with a shade tree and there were a few miles of hiking trails on the grounds for Spirit to run.  There is lots more to do in the vast county and plenty to explore just across the river in Canada.  Maybe another year.  

Friday, August 28, 2020

A Visit to the "Eastern-most City" in the Continental U.S.

Eastport, Maine is a small fishing village appropriately named as it truly is the “eastern-most city” in the United States.  Just a short distance away across the Passamaquoddy Bay is Canada. Eastport is the terminus of the Bold Coast Scenic Byway where the Atlantic Coast bears a dramatic look and small towns bring the sea ashore.  It has been five or six years since we visited this quieter part of coastal Maine so we decided to pay it another visit.  (Click here for a post about our previous visit.)

Downtown Eastport is a National Historical District with architecturally significant buildings that once housed banks, sardine canneries, general stores, and more.  Now, these picturesque buildings house galleries, antique shops, restaurants, museums and a sweet smelling candy shop.  Just a short walk from downtown is the towns' Breakwater pier and working waterfront that is abuzz with fishing boats, whale watching tours, and a ferry service.  The busy pier was alive with locals fishing for mackerel which they were snagging by the dozens as we walked by.  We were curious why these anglers wanted so many of these little fish (which are much smaller than the Spanish mackerel we are used to seeing in Florida).  The fish were less than a foot long and we asked one fisherman what he does with them.  He said he smokes them for eating and sells the rest as bait fish.  Of course, where there are running schools of mackerel there are seals, dolphins, seabirds and an occasional whale even passes through so we kept our eyes peeled.

Eastport has certainly experienced the boom and bust like many towns.  In 1833, Eastport was

the second largest trading port in the country after New York City and the 25-foot tides and spacious harbor kept the water free of ice year round, thus making a busy port.  In the late 1800s, the sardine cannery brought Eastport its boom.  By 1886, the town contained 13 sardine factories, which operated day and night during the season.  About 800 men, women and children worked in the plants producing approximately 5,000 cases of canned sardines per week.  The town contained more than sixty wharves and seventy-five stores.  But like many towns that are built on the fisheries industry, it soon declined.  The canneries closed, residents moved away and the town declared bankruptcy in 1937.  Today, small-scale fishing still exists and seasonal tourism and small-scale cruise ships bring dollars to the area.  

When you are wandering around downtown and get start to feel a little hungry, pop into the Waco Diner - Maine's Oldest Diner which dates back to 1924.  Their haddock ruben is to die for and still on my mind.  Or if it is lobster you are craving, then Quoddy Bay Lobster for fresh delicious lobster rolls piled high and a great waterfront view.  Quoddy Bay also has a fresh fish market with live lobster, haddock, tuna, halibut and more.  

One Eastport business that has not faded away is Raye’s Mustard.  Raye’s is North America’s last remaining traditional stone-ground mustard mill.  The business started in 1900 when J. Wesley Raye, the 20-year-old son of a sea captain, founded the business in the family smokehouse to produce mustard for Maine’s burgeoning sardine industry.  In 1903, the business moved to its current location where it has been producing mustard ever since and serves as a working museum.  Most modern mustards are either cooked or ground by high-speed technology, but Raye’s maintains the traditional cold grind process using the original stones from France.  The company claims the cold grinding process preserves the volatile taste qualities of the whole seeds, enhanced by the flavor sensations of natural herbs and spices.  They must be right because Raye’s mustard is world-renowned and award-winning.  Raye’s trademark Down East Schooner Mustard won the Gold Medal in the Classic Yellow Mustard division in 8 World-Wide Mustard Competitions in Napa Valley, California, multiple times with 2015 as the most recent.

As with everywhere in Maine, the natural beauty abounds and begs you to venture outdoors.  Our interest was piqued when we learned of a place called “Reversing Falls” which is the largest set of tidal falls on the Maine coast.  Falling or rising an average of 20 feet every 6.4 hours, millions of gallons of water flowing into and out of Dennys Bay and Cobscook Bay (which is a tribal word for “boiling tides) pass through a narrow channel between Mahar Point and Falls Island.  A large ledge in the channel impedes the current creating the falls, deep whirlpools, and high swells.  On the outgoing tide, the process occurs in the reverse direction, hence the reversing falls.  There is a short half mile easy trail that runs along the bay and out to an island where you get a great view of the falls and rushing current which gives the appearance the water is boiling.

If you are looking for vast expansive natural areas, head to Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge.  This 30,000-acre refuge covers a cross-section of habitats from rolling hills, marshes, bogs, rocky coastline, and hardwood forest which provide an array of recreational activities for outdoor enthusiasts from wildlife observation, hiking, fishing, hunting, paddling, and more.  We opted to drive the auto tour road in the Baring Division of the refuge and stop for some short hikes along the way.  The tour road is a nice way to wind through some of the scenic areas of the refuge and hope to spot a moose.  None showed up on our drive but we enjoyed seeing the refuge and appreciating the vast expanse of protected green space free for our enjoyment.

On our way back, we drove through Calais and stopped at the St. Croix Island National Historical Site.  The site commemorates the attempt by French noble Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, to establish a settlement on Saint Croix Island in June 1604 under the authority of Henry IV, King of France.  This outpost was one of the first attempts by France at year-round colonization in the territory they called “l'Acadie.” During the first winter, more than half the settlers had perished due to what is now believed to be scurvy and the following spring the settlement was moved.  The visitor center provides information for the area and the history of Saint Croix Island and there is a short interpretive trail leading out to the viewpoint overlooking the island.

One day we took a drive to the town of nearby Lubec to enjoy their attractions and indulge in some of the best chocolate we’ve eaten.  Monica’s Chocolates is owned by Monica Elliot, a native of Peru, who developed a love for the culinary field from her parents and brothers who all enjoyed sharing time in the kitchen. Monica's father specialized in desserts and taught her how to create the traditional Peruvian filling used today in her bonbons and other chocolates.  It was at Monica’s where we had the most amazing hot chocolate which is made with only the finest chocolate flavored with spices.  Even if it were 90° outside, we would still order a cup of hot chocolate from Monica!

After lunch downtown enjoying the harbor view we went to the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse – which is the eastern most point in the United States in the lower 48 states.  Since 1808, the light has been guiding mariners through the channel with its bright light and attracting lighthouse lovers with its whimsical red and white striped tower.  There is a nice 1-mile trail (the “Coast Guard Trail) that runs along the bluffs where you get confirmation as to why they call this area of Maine “the Bold Coast.”  Towering rock cliffs, crashing waves and bobbing lobster boats are sure to dazzle any visitor.  There are a total of five miles of trails if you are looking for more walking enjoyment.  The park boasts having some of the best wildlife viewing where summer visitors may spot humpback, minke and finback whales, rafts of eiders and old squaw ducks and plenty of other migratory songbirds and shorebirds.    

Just a few miles away from Lubec across the bridge into New Brunswick Canada is Roosevelt Campobello International Park.  Campobello, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s magnificent summer home, is preserved here in a combination indoor museum and outdoor nature park on the island.  We could not visit because of Covid-19 restrictions but it truly is a must see with years of history being told.  Click here for a blog post we wrote about a previous visit.

Eastport and Lubec are wonderful coastal Maine towns that are just far enough off the beaten path that they are quiet and less crowded but retain their charm and realness.  We stayed at SeaView Campground and Cottages which is right on the water in Eastport and provides beautiful sunrises and expansive views of the Passamaquoddy Bay and Canada.   

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Welcome to Maine!

When the state of Maine opened camping to non-residents, we were there and back in a place we love - the Portland area.  Just south of Portland is Bayley’s Camping Resort (in Scarborough) and a place we have hung our hats many times.  Usually when we are in the area, we hit the Portland Food scene.  Portland was named Bon Appetites Best Food City 2018 and garnered many other foodie accolades.  The recognition is well-deserved with the tremendous pool of chefs and restaurants that bring dining to life.  From the succulent tender meat at the casual Noble BBQ to pretty food at the long-tenured Fore Street Restaurant to the freshest seafood on the downtown Commercial Street wharf, Portland has a wonderful gastronomic pool.  But, here it comes again, the ever-present 2020 spoiler … COVID–19.  Maine clamped down quickly when the pandemic hit and, as a result, they have some of the lowest positive case numbers in the country.  Still, we just didn’t feel comfortable going to the city and eating outside.  Besides, dishes like BBQ are not really eat-in the car kind of meals and who wants IPA steamed mussels with chorizo for carry-out?  So we avoided tight spaces, crowds, and opted to abstain from visiting our favorite food city. 

A mere few miles down the road (or a walk down the beach if you take the scenic route) from the campground is the throwback beachy town of Old Orchard Beach (OOB).  The town boardwalk was named as one of the 19 most "awesome" boardwalks in the United States by Fox News.  It has the rides, the arcade, the pier, the food, and the promise of sand and water that lures people back year after year.  In fact, Betsy used
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to come to OOB as a kid and it always brings up good memories of summer fun for her.  This year, the arcade and rides were closed but the town still seemed to draw people once the hotels and motor inns opened.  Yep, it's that kind of town that still has the one-story motor inns with two kitschy chairs outside your door and a pool in the middle of the parking lot.  The summer fun beach town vibe is enforced by the food.  This year, we fell prey to the temptation of the “famous pier fries.”  These babies are the kind that are fried up crisp and served hot in a paper cup, or for you really hungry visitors, a box!  The pier fries compete hard with the other local favorite – fried dough.  Yes, that’s right a blob of dough gets dropped in a deep fryer and served up hot on a paper plate with powdered sugar.  Other places in the country jazz up the name and call their fried creations "beignets" or "funnel cakes," but at OOB, it's just "fried dough."  None of these foods help your beach body, but who cares, we'll just blame it on Covid-19. 

Another beach town even closer to our campground is Pine Point.  Pine Point is a little spit of land that juts into the Nonesuch River and abuts the Atlantic Ocean.  Pine Point Beach is open to dogs so it was our place for a morning walk and swim for Spirit.  Pine Point also has a favorite lobster pound of ours - Bayley’s Lobster Pound which is our go-to for fresh lobster and crab meat and it is home to the Bait Shed Restaurant.  The restaurant has always had outdoor dining on picnic tables so the only difference caused by the pandemic is that the tables are spaced farther apart and the servers were wearing masks.  The restaurant has a great view of the river and Scarborough Marsh (the largest saltwater marsh in Maine).  A couple of evenings we drove down to the pier for sunset pictures with a sundowner (that's another name for a cocktail, in case you didn't know) in our hands and watched the amazing sky light up behind the lobster boats dotting the harbor. 

The beautiful early summer weather beckoned us outdoors (and for other reasons than eating French fries).  One of our favorite things to do is hike, and fortunately, there were plenty of hiking opportunities in the area.  Ferry Beach State Park has some nice trails and abuts the ocean with a large stretch of beach.  There is an admission fee so we opted to purchase an annual senior state park pass for $45 knowing that we would be repeat visitors and were planning on visiting other Maine State Parks. 

Other hiking options included the trails provided by the Scarborough Land Trust.  A handful of beautiful preserves were set aside by generous land owners for public enjoyment.  The trails are usually short (less than 2 miles) and offered pleasant hikes through meadows, woods, and along gentle brooks.  Completely free and open to all for outdoor enjoyment!

What’s a visit to Maine without seeing a lighthouse?  One of Maine’s most famous is the Portland Head Light standing proudly on a rocky point in Portland Harbor.  The head light attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually because of its majestic appearance and location.  This year was eerily weird in that there were very few visitors due to the pandemic.  The lighthouse and museum were closed but the surrounding park and trails were open but way less crowded than previous years.  We actually really liked it without the crowds.  

Cape Elizabeth is an upscale bedroom community of Portland with beautiful stately oceanfront homes and scenic views.  “Cape E” is also home to a beautiful lighthouse of its own and another great lobster pound.  Win, win!  With the backdrop of the towering white cylindrical light, we enjoyed our lobster rolls outside feeling the cool ocean breezes, listening to the waves crash on the rocks, and watching the eiders bob up and down.  

Portland and the surrounding towns have always been a draw and we were looking forward to spending more time there than in previous years.  Our original reservations were supposed to start late April but Covid-19 cut that short and we only had three weeks so we made the most of it and know that we will always come back.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Bites Along New Hampshire's Seacoast

The state of New Hampshire is 190 miles in total length but really shrinks as you get near the coast and only claims 18 miles of Atlantic Ocean.  We always like spending time here because the beach is beautiful, the food is great, and the neighboring towns of Portsmouth and Newburyport (click for a link to a previous blog) are charming coastal New England towns.  Plus, you are not far from the Maine border and their pretty towns of York and Kittery. 

Once again Covid-19 dictated what we were, and were not, going to do.    Portsmouth has a number of great restaurants, many of which sport plaques and framed accolades from food magazines and the James Beard Foundation.  This year we focused our eating on seafood joints and not fancy dining since the state restricted restaurants to curbside and outdoor dining and we decided seared scallops and beurre blanc would not taste as good in a cardboard container as on a plate.  So we dug out our Lobster Shacks book and set out to check off a few more boxes at places where outdoor dining is best.  Just down the road were Ray’s SeafoodRestaurant and Petey’s Summertime Seafood and Bar

Driving along coastal Route 1A, Ray’s bright blue two-story building stands out, but they are most famous for their 12-foot tall wooden lobster chainsaw sculpture.  Ray’s owner owns two lobster boats so there is a constant supply of fresh lobster.  Steamed whole lobsters and lobster rolls are popular items but there are also a half dozen other lobster dishes like lobster baked stuffed mushrooms, baked stuffed lobster meat with a Ritz cracker topping, and lobster pasta.  We opted for lobster rolls and clam chowder.  Lobster rolls come either hot (sautéed in butter) or cold (with a bit of mayo) and were very good. 

Just down the road you can’t miss Petey’s with its brightly colored buoys and other lobstering paraphernalia hanging on the sides.  They claim to have more lobster buoys than any other lobster shack in New England.  There is a full bar and outside dining on the second story which boasts a great view of the marsh in back and the beach across the street.  Petey too is a lobsterman and splits his time between running the restaurant and lobstering.  The menu is simple with lobster and deep-fried items.  Petey’s is famous for their chowders (clam, haddock, and seafood) and have won several local awards, so of course we had to try.  Most lobster rolls come on a split top bun characteristic of New England but this one came on a hamburger bun. 

For years, we have been hearing about Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine.  On the main drag (coastal Route 1) is Bob’s roadside stand that has been serving up fried clams and other coastal favorites since 1956.  Bob’s fried clams were the best Betsy claims to ever eaten.  Dipped in condensed milk before frying helps keep them sweet and juicy but costs more.

The New Hampshire seacoast may be small but it definitely is beautiful.  The beaches are beautiful and wide.  Unfortunately, they were all closed when we were there due to Covid-19 restrictions but the drive along coastal Route 1A is beautiful and has stately mansions that grace the coast and boast fabulous views.  One morning when my eyes popped open at 4:30, I decided to venture to the harbor at Rye Beach for the sunrise.  It was the perfect morning with broken clouds to magically light up the sky.  It started red with the first glow and then progressed to orange and bright yellow.   On my way home, I spotted a beautiful barn with an American flag standing proud among the cows and sheep that couldn’t understand why they were being photographed at such an early hour.

There is something we love about coastal New England and the simple charm that appears to be everywhere.  Between the beautiful Federal style homes, Atlantic beaches, seafood, and fresh cool air there is a lot to love about this area.