Road Trip Through Maine

  • Menu blackboard at Eventide seafood restaurant.

    Menu blackboard at Eventide seafood restaurant.

  • Duck Fat french fries.

    Duck Fat french fries.

  • Fishing boat heading to sea, Harpswell peninsula.

    Fishing boat heading to sea, Harpswell peninsula.

  • The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine.

    The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine.

  • Congregationalist church, Harpswell peninsula.

    Congregationalist church, Harpswell peninsula.

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After our lobster roll lunch, we make our way back onto Interstate 95 and head north toward real Mainer territory. When we finally exit onto Route 202 and then follow the 106 in the direction of Androscoggin Lake, I spot fewer out-of-state SUVs and more battered pick-ups with local plates. The red maple, ash, oak, and birch trees of southern New England have given way to spruce, fir, and white pine. The Maine wilderness is immense: of the state’s 80,000 square kilometers, 90 percent is forested.

Our friend Kevin’s cabin is deep in the woods. It’s a longstanding tradition for locals to “go up to camp,” camp being anything from a log shack with an outhouse to a cushy cottage equipped with a hot tub. Though Kevin is technically “from away”—what Mainers call out-of-staters—his family has summered on Androscoggin Lake since the 1920s; when he takes us on a tour, he points out house after house rented or owned by cousins and siblings.

The surrounding towns of Wayne and Leeds are suitably quaint: 19th-century farmhouses, antiques shops, clapboard town halls advertising weekly bean suppers, and old family cemeteries with tilted, weathered gravestones. But the primary lure is the lake —placid, fringed with sandy beaches, silver maples, and the occasional imposing summer home, and dotted with small, rocky islands.

Beavers, once hunted to near extinction for their pelts, have built impressive lodges around Androscoggin. Gliding over the water in kayaks, we also see ospreys, great blue her- ons, common loons, and at least three bald eagles. With their red eyes and haunting call, the loons are particularly intriguing, and we stalk them until they dive for minutes at a time. Acid rain, pollution from the mills, and insecticides dramatically drove down these bird populations in the first half of the 20th century, but they’ve since recovered thanks to conservation efforts. Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, a 1962 book that exposed the dangers of pesticides and galvanized the environmental movement, built a summer cottage on the coast. Leaning back in the kayak, I thank her silently while gazing at an eagle perched on a tree.

**

Unless you favor church-baked pies and burgers with fries, food is not a draw around Androscoggin Lake. With that in mind, we steer south a few days later toward Portland, a good-looking little city of 66,000 people with handsome Victorian mansions and a buzzing seaport.

A decade ago, lured by cheap rents and a sophisticated population, young chefs began opening the kind of informal joints with exposed brick walls and seasonal menus that were popping up in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and the other Portland, in Oregon. These days, Maine’s largest city probably has more locavore restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country.

After checking into the gracious West End Inn, we wander downtown to Fore Street restaurant, where chef Sam Hayward lists the provenance of nearly every item on his menu. While a team of cooks fires up in the open kitchen, I quiz our friendly but earnest waiter on what Atlantic Day-Boat Halibut is exactly. “It means it’s been caught this morning and brought in this afternoon,” he says, pointing out the window toward the nearby wharves, “on one of the boats out there.” When we praise the sauerkraut that accompanies a perfectly roasted pork loin, he enthuses about the staff field trip to the delicatessen that makes it. “It’s so amazing to actually see the source and meet these small producers,” he gushes.

Effusiveness aside, the food is spot-on, from the slices of crusty Italian bread with Maine butter to the salted-caramel bonbons. Fore Street sets the tone for the rest of our time in Portland. At Duckfat, we devour thick-cut fries cooked twice in the eatery’s namesake and served in a paper cone. At Five Fifty-Five, every single dish hits the mark: heirloom tomatoes with house-made mozzarella; meaty mussels drenched in chive butter; beef carpaccio with pickled mushrooms, horseradish crème fraîche, and truffled pec-orino; and the tastiest braised baby octopus I’ve had outside Spain.

But the best meal comes the day we leave. Opened just months before our visit, Eventide Oyster Co. expresses its intentions with a bar-top granite trough that’s filled with bivalves on ice. We opt for a dozen oysters from nearby West Bath, Casco Bay, and the Damariscotta River. The waitress gives us some frozen Tabasco on the house, but I opt for just a squeeze of lemon and hold each morsel in my mouth for an extra beat to savor their briny perfection.

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