I’m your Maine man

Irish Independent – Saturday October 22 2011

The north-east of America is home to the wonderfully diverse Maine. Thomas Breathnach paid a visit.

Pack the break-down kit and the binnacle! I’m hitting the i95 for a road-trip of the Pine Tree State. Nestled between leafy New England and the Canadian Maritimes, its local motto is “Maine is the way life should be”, so I’m all set to put that to the test.

The east coast of America’s most remote seaboard draws millions of visitors each year, but this state isn’t all about lighthouses and lobster. It spans blueberry-laden forests, pristine lakelands and a vast eerie wilderness, which inspired native horror writer Stephen King.

My friend Katie and I arrive in the misty city of Portland in the dead of night. As we drive through its rain-soaked streets of abandoned cobbled lanes and red-bricked façades, downtown feels like some spectral streetscape from a Wes Craven film set. The Portland Regency in the town’s historic Old Port district is our cosy refuge.

With warm fabrics in cream and rust, and olde-world mahogany furnishings, what a dandy New England inn this is. But wait… “For your own protection — please bolt the door”? Maybe this really is ‘Murder, She Wrote’ country after all.

We wake the following morning to find the largest city north of Boston has morphed into a bustling village. Portland’s old town is a charming network of antiquarian streets brimming with artisan pottery stores, jewellers and galleries, and, as “America’s foodiest small town”, a mass of trendy eateries.

Along Commercial Street, the city’s marina is lined with wooden wharves of bait houses and lobster shacks. It’s a real-life Cabot Cove.

We soak up the laid-back vibe before popping into Mornings in Paris café for coffee and cookies — and to suss out the local folk. Next to me, a young woman sips on a tea, while drawling into her iPhone: “it’s good, but it’s no Barry’s”. What better calling card to turn the moment gold and sniff out a life-story? Rita, I learn, is a mom of two, who upped sticks from Virginiayesterday to begin a new life on one of Portland’s islands. “There’s just something about Maine that draws you back”, she tells me, “I guess it’s the closest thing to Ireland we have.” That’s figuratively and literally then.

When we take a spin out to Cape Elizabeth to visit the nation’s first lighthouse, at Portland’s Old Head, we’re pretty much as close to the Blaskets as you can get, stateside. With more coastline than California (that’s 5,597kms), Maine’s nooked and crannied shores offer infinite exploration. Our trip continues north along the Mid-Coast region as an Atlantic storm of blackened clouds and forked lightning glooms above us. Bath, “the city of ships”, is our port in the proverbial, and it’s a moody Maine scene of chugging fishing trawlers and howling fog horns.

At the Bath Maritime museum — (something of a Bunratty for boat-lovers, which showcases the state’s proud lobster industry) we hop aboard the Schoodic for a river-cruise of the Kennebec River ($24, around €17); bathmaine.com). Our tour takes us along a network of inlets and islets before the river flows out to the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic beyond. Ospreys soar above forested river banks, wooden lighthouses dot the coast, and jetties lead up to secluded shingle mansions. I’m starting to see Stephen King’s inspiration already.

With the coast behind us, we verge inland, and cruising the lonely north on Route 201, what better road-trip accompaniment than 92 Moose FM — central Maine’s hit music station. Beyond the milling town of Snowhegan and the state capital of Augusta, we traverse up the Moose River valley, before arriving at our destination: “The Forks: population 34”. To put our fingers on the local pulse, we head to Berry’s General Store — “If we don’t sell it you don’t need it”. Cherry coke, skunk pelts and shooting licenses — this really is your one-stop shop.

Outside, a goateed senior wearing a “rock, roll, and bowl” t-shirt kicks back on a rocking chair. We ask his advice on spotting moose. “Drive 20 miles north, turn your lights off and wait for the bang”. With little assurance my Ford Focus has passed the elk-test, I’ll be sticking to my highbeams.

Our woodland base is Northern Outdoors — one of the largest adventure havens in New England. We drive up a hilly gravel trail on the edge of the resort, where we arrive at our charming log-cabin called “the widow-maker”. Home sweet home! Peering over dense forest, it’s alive with woodpeckers, grey squirrels, and, are those claw marks on the veranda? With 20,000 black bears in Maine, the odds were high.

Northern Outdoors is known as a mancation magnet in this neck of the woods, with buck hunting, ATV trails, and bass fishing the testosterone-boosting pursuits on offer. But with Maine having the best white-water on the East Coast — we’re here for the rafting.

Mike, a Rhode Island transplant who moved to Maine for its remote beauty (and lack of cell phone coverage), is our capable guide. Under the massive barrage of Harris Station Dam, we’re released into wilds of the Kennebec’s “class IV” rapids.

The sight of a guide being thrown overboard from the raft ahead is perhaps not the best omen.

Gushing down the river, the names say it all: after ‘Bang in the Alleyway’, we ricochet off ‘Big Momma’, before shooting over ‘Magic Falls’. It’s a freshwater rollercoaster of exhilaration.

Halfway through our journey, we pull into a bank along the gorge for some helpings of cowboy coffee and trail mix, before our guides cook up a feast of steaks, salmon, rice and greens. For the afternoon session, it’s out with the inflatable kayaks, and Katie and I float down the riffles and ripples of the Kennebec like Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon in ‘The River Wild’.

That evening, we wrap up our trip with a drive north in search of those abundant, yet elusive moose.

As we set off towards Johnson Mountain like eager storm-chasers, only the occasional Winnabago guzzling down from Quebec crosses our path. With our moose calls falling on deaf ears, we change tack, and wind high up a woodland pass until we reach a clearing of lumbered forest — it’s the perfect cue call for Annie Wilkes from ‘Misery’ to pass and ask us if we need directions. But she doesn’t, and nor, sadly, do we see hide nor hair of the moose — but hey, look, chipmunks!

As we returned to the car, leaving a vista of the Appalachian mountains folding across to dusky Canada, our trip to Maine had left us exalted. The Pine State’s rugged wilds and Yankee quaintness, melded with prim Portland, means we won’t be coming back just for the moose-shot. We’d even survived Pine State without providing inspiration for Stephen King’s next book.

Still, one more night in the log-cabin to go.


Getting there:

Aer_Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Portland, ME (via JFK) from €269 one way. Considering its remoteness, car-rental is often the best, if not the only travel option for getting around in Maine – ours came to €35 per day incl. GPS (carhire3000.ie)

Outside of Alaska, moose collisions are most frequent in Maine, so do take caution when driving.

For more information, see visitmaine.com

Staying there

Located in the heart of buzzy Portland, a room at the historic Regency costs from €55pps B&B (001 207 774 4200; theregency.com)

For Bath’s mix of Mainers and mariners, cozy up with the jacuzzi and river views of the Kennebec at the Hampton Inn. €47pps B&B (001 207 386 1310; hamptoninn.hilton.com)

Wake up to the sounds of the wilds with a cabin at Northern Outdoors. And don’t worry, widow-maker turned out to be a logging term. From €32pps; rafting from €52 incl. lunch. (001 207 663 4466; northernoutdoors.com)

Five great things to do:

-Indulge in a luxury picnic at Portland’s marina. With lobsters boiled fresh, along with a bottle of chardonnay and crusty baguette, you’ve got the perfect Maine main for $20.

-Enjoy Maine’s fall foliage by going on a “leaf-peeping” trip across the state. Keep track of the kaleidoscopic hotspots on mainefoliage.com

-Celebrate Halloween in Casper the Ghost’s backyard. A native of Friendship, ME, his home state is suitably spooked up for the season with ghoulish events galore (visitmaine.com).

-Head to Aristook County and take in the “vive le Maine” vibe of the nation’s largest French-speaking towns (acadianfestival.com) .

– Explore New’s England’s only national park at Acadia. Located on Mount Desert island, where stone carriageways trail towards the East Coast’s only fjord, this is Acadia by name and nature. ($5; nps.gov/acad)

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