All of Maine’s coast is spectacular, but Penobscot Bay is considered one of boating’s Holy Grails. If a boater makes it this far Downeast—and all boaters should—just keep going to Mount Desert Island and cruise up Somes Sound. Maine may have occasional fog, rocks and cold water, but in the summer and early fall, Penobscot Bay’s marine life, deep-blue skies, cool nights, ever-changing-scenery and picturesque harbors make it a boater’s paradise.
Just ask Dave and Deb Ludlow, who run Hiram Blake Camp on Penobscot Bay’s Cape Rosier. They use their Eastern 20 to explore the bay and its many ports and islands. “For 10 to 12 weeks a year,’ Dave says, “this is the best place in the world.”
Boats fit inside Camden’s inner harbor like sardines inside a can. Things get tight in high season, but for dining, shopping and roaming through a beautiful town, Camden is the place to be. In July and August, it may be tricky to get a dock or mooring inside the naturally protected harbor, but the outer harbor is huge and almost everything is within walking distance of the docks.
The town has grand 19th-century homes, a beautiful public library and the Camden Opera House that features film, music and dance. Foodies can try Boynton-McKay Food Co. for breakfast, and Long Grain for what some say is the best Thai food outside of Thailand. To quench your thirst, head to The Drouthy Bear, a Scottish pub that serves classic comfort food like fish and chips, and a highly regarded burger.
For waterfront views, Marriners has harborside seating, or you can take your sandwich to the waterfront park for a picnic. Rhumb Line offers dining and a fun bar scene at the Lyman-Morse Wayfarer Marina, which provides dockage, moorings, launch service, maintenance and repairs. Camden also offers plenty of fine dining opportunities. For dessert, River Ducks Ice Cream has a fun atmosphere.
For shopping, Camden has upscale shops, to antiques stores, galleries, general stores and oddball shops. You can get quality wool products at Swans Island Company, locally grown lavender products at Glendarragh Farm (supposedly, its lavender insect repellent even works on Jersey mosquitos), and candy of every stripe at Uncle Willy’s Candy Shoppe, which is a kaleidoscope of color with barrels full of sweets.
Provisioning can be done at French & Brawn Market Place, which will deliver to your dinghy or dock. For washing clothes, you can do it yourself at Clean Bee Laundry or have them do it for you. If you want to get some exercise, Camden Hills State Park’s 5,700 acres has 30 miles of trails, and Mount Battie is the spot to catch a spectacular view of Penobscot Bay, a sunrise, sunset or fireworks. Every summer, Camden is home to the annual Camden Windjammer Festival. The Harbor Arts and Camden Jazz festivals feature local artists and musicians.
If Camden is too busy, Pulpit Harbor on North Haven, Lincolnville, Belfast and Rockport are all nearby ports worthy of a visit, especially if large crowds are not your cup of tea.
Rockland is Camden’s hipper, grittier cousin. It has an active waterfront with dock slips just a short walk from Main Street, and offers dozens of dining options and killer art museums. The Farnsworth Art Museum houses more than 15,000 works from some of America’s greatest artists, including Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Fitz Henry Lane. With a focus on Maine art and artists, the museum also has one of the largest collections by the three Wyeths: N.C., Andrew and Jamie. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art has a spectacular 11,500-square-foot building across from the Farnsworth. It has year-round exhibitions featuring artists with ties to Maine, and offers educational programs, including gallery talks, performances, film screenings and hands-on workshops.
Looking at all that art will make you hungry. Cafe Miranda is a funky bistro with eclectic dishes and the Fog Bar and Café serves gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. Hard-core gourmands should travel a half mile south of downtown for the farm-to-table cuisine at Primo, where two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Melissa Kelly uses acres of pastures, organic gardens and greenhouses to raise chickens and pigs, keep bees and grow the produce and edible flowers for her Maine-influenced, Mediterranean-style menu.
Many of the windjammers are based in Rockland, and during the annual Maine Windjammer Parade, the fleet sails past the mile-long Rockland breakwater. Lighthouse buffs can walk out to the end, to the publicly accessible Rockland Breakwater Light, or go to the Maine Lighthouse Museum on the waterfront in downtown Rockland.
The North Atlantic Blues Festival is held at the oceanfront Public Landing every July, and the Maine Lobster Festival in August features a lobster cooker that cooks 20,000 pounds of lobster.
If Stonington is your next destination, then Vinalhaven and Pulpit Harbor are quieter stops along the way. Be sure to pass through the Fox Island Thoroughfare between North Haven and Vinalhaven. It is one of the lovelier features of the bay.
As the Gulf of Maine continues to warm, lobsters are slowly crawling north to colder water, and Stonington is now at the epicenter of the lobster industry. Last year, Stonington’s hundreds of lobster boats landed almost 15 million pounds of the crustacean, more than any other port.
To get fresh lobster, dinghy to Greenhead Lobster, which sells it right off the dock. If boiling your own lobster is not your thing, then head to the town dock and get a lobster roll or lobster chowder at the Fisherman’s Friend. Eat it on the back deck and watch the fishermen zip around in their skiffs.
Stonington was a major producer of granite and supplied the stone for the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The small but excellent Deer Isle Granite Museum has a unique working model of a granite quarry that shows what life was like in the early 1900s.
The Stonington Opera House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features occasional films and live performances.
Stonington is home to artists who draw their inspiration from the local area. The Kingman Gallery specializes in the work of Maine fine art photographers, and the gWatson Gallery features a diverse collection of museum-quality paintings. The gWatson also offers a few live musical performances during the summer. The Jill Hoy Gallery features the artist’s bold, colorful Maine coastal landscapes. At the Marlinespike Chandlery, owner Tim Whitten sells his quality nautical rope work, artifacts and antiques.
Stonington has about 1,000 full-time residents. It offers a slower pace, and oozes legitimate nautical charm. However, it will not be quiet on Sunday, July 7, when Stonington holds its lobster boat races. More than 100 competitors will fill the air with the scent of fuel and salt, and the races attract a large, loud, fun-loving crowd.
Castine is off the beaten track. If you cruise up the western side of the bay to check out Belfast, head east across the top of the bay, and Castine is the next safe harbor on the way to Mount Desert Island. Because Route 1 slices right across the top of the Blue Hill peninsula, the hordes of tourists bound for Acadia National Park drive right by Castine without even realizing it’s there.
Home to Maine Maritime Academy, a four-year public college founded in 1941 to train merchant marine officers, Castine sits at the mouth of the Bagaduce River. Dennett’s Wharf, Eaton’s Boatyard and Castine’s town docks all offer places to dock or moor your vessel. If there is no space available, there is excellent protection across the harbor in Smith Cove, a popular hurricane hole with good holding ground.
Castine was settled in the early 1600s and for the next 200 years the French, English, Dutch and Americans fought over its deep and strategic harbor. The water is deep enough at the town dock, for the Maine Maritime Academy training ship, the 500-foot State of Maine, which is available for tours.
Roam the streets of Castine to see the classic town green, antique homes, church, stone library and 19th-century schoolhouse. If the weather is foul, besides Maine Maritime Academy, the Castine Historical Society and the Wilson Museum are worth visiting.
A little farther afield, Fort Monroe, closer to the river mouth, offers a fine vista of Penobscot Bay, and one of the more unique sites in town is the little league baseball diamond inside Fort George, an old British fortification.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, there are plenty of eateries in the heart of the village. Castine Variety does breakfast and lunch, and T&C Grocery is right by the dock for provisioning. For fine dining, the Pentagoet Inn and The Manor Inn are highly regarded.
If you’re headed for Mount Desert Island from Belfast and decide to bypass Castine, a lovely alternative port is Bucks Harbor at the western end of Eggemoggin Reach, which provides a scenic easterly route, or stop in Brooklin once you pass through the Reach.
Brooklin is the self-proclaimed boatbuilding capital of the world. Considering the town has only 800 residents and lots of highly regarded boatbuilders, plus a wooden boatbuilding school, the claim has serious merit. It also explains why Brooklin has two anchorages full of classically beautiful boats.
Center Harbor is a small cove on the north side of Eggemoggin Reach and home to Brooklin Boat Yard. Yacht designer Joel White, the son of Brooklin resident and Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, founded the yard in 1960. E.B.’s grandson Steve White now runs the yard, and the anchorage is home to the Center Harbor Yacht Club and the annual Eggemoggin Reach Regatta for classic wooden boats.
Just east, in Great Cove, the WoodenBoat School offers one- and two-week courses on boatbuilding and other nautical skills, and has dozens of drool-worthy wooden boats in its anchorage.
Brooklin is a quiet village with limited amenities. It is a half-mile walk from Brooklin Boat Yard to the crossroads where you will find Brooklin General Store for provisions, and The Brooklin Inn, which has a pub and restaurant scheduled to reopen June 15. Stick your nose inside the award-winning Friend Memorial Library, which was started by, among others, Colonel John Powell, the first man to explore the Grand Canyon. And if you’re in town on the Fourth of July, do not miss the parade.
Even if you do not set foot on land in Brooklin, both harbors are worthy of an onboard lunch stop, just for their sheer beauty and eye-popping boats.
If you’re looking for a harbor with amenities that are closer to shore, Bucks Harbor on the western end of Eggemoggin Reach and Blue Hill to the north are wonderful towns with safe anchorages.
Bar Harbor may attract most of the tourists headed for Acadia National Park, but Southwest Harbor is for those who arrive by boat.
Home to legendary boatbuilders including the Hinckley Company, Southwest Harbor has a huge waterfront, ample moorings and a wide variety of dining options. It also sits at the entrance to Somes Sound, which splits Mount Desert Island nearly in two. Somes Sound is a fjard—its sides are not steep enough to be considered a fjord—and is one of the most scenic boating experiences on the Eastern Seaboard.
Getting around Mount Desert Island is free and easy. Island Explorer uses propane-powered buses to connect the villages and all the sites in Acadia National Park.
If you’re hungry and want to do good, The Common Good Soup Kitchen is a volunteer organization that serves organics soups and other healthy foods, and sometimes offers live music. You pay what you can to help those in need through the cold Maine winters (10,000 free bowls of soup are served each year). The restaurant is also popular for breakfast with coffee and oatmeal, and serves great popovers that help fund the operation.
For lobster, Beal’s Lobster Pier is the classic place to go. For a higher-end dining experience, there’s Red Sky and Xanthus.
If you have boating needs, Hamilton Marine is well-stocked, and gasoline, diesel fuel, water and repairs are available at the wharves.
Northeast Harbor sits right across from Southwest Harbor. Both provide access to Somes Sound, which, when you’ve come this far, should not be missed.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.