Want to join the hordes of folks driving around Maine with kayaks perched on the roof of their Subarus? L.L. Bean (888-LLBEAN1; www.llbean.com/outdoorsOnline/odp/paddling)runsaclassthatwillhaveyoupaddlinginnotime.TheFreeportoutfitter
's Kayak Touring Essentials will get you in a boat, in the water, for a full day of learning.Registered Maine Guides will teach you basic safety, strokes, turns, and stops, and even touch on the finer points, like wet exits. By the end of the day you'll have a good sense about whether the sport is for you. And if you want to continue your studies there's always Kayak Essentials II-VI to help you master it. Classes begin at Bean's Flying Point Center in Freeport, everything's provided, and they're offered every couple of days through early September. The course is $95. (You're on your own for the Subaru.)DiningOgunquit's Restaurant RoyaltyWith MC Perkins Cove, the owners of the acclaimed Arrows restaurant have found a way to cut loose.
If Maine has a restaurant royalty, then Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, who brought us Arrows, Ogunquit's premier restaurant, are certainly two princes in the running for the crown. That restaurant — elegant, formal, and where the cuisine and service recall a nineteenth-century refinement not often found in this country — has risen to the very pinnacle of American gastronomy in reputation. But what does royalty do when it wants to play?
At MC Perkins Cove the duo have let loose in more ways than one, creating in a spectacular seaside setting their version of a bistro with a one-page menu and a décor consisting mostly of plain wood, copper-topped tables, and many, many windows. Each of the two floors has its own bar at the back and dining space on the cove, and each also has a slightly different atmosphere, upstairs being, on a Saturday night, a little louder, a little younger, perhaps if only because the bar dominates and, this being Ogunquit, space is at a premium.
The menu is a three-sided puzzle, but one whose pieces nearly always come together if you follow the waiter's advice. At first glance, traditional surf and turf has a big part here — raw bar-based offerings joined by tuna carpaccio and house-cured gravlax, as well as fried calamari, fish chowder, and crabcakes, and, farther down the menu, steamed lobster, shrimp brochettes, and grilled tuna. This being Gaier and Frasier, for whom quality ingredients are a religion, the "surf" comes, as much as possible, from the same waters beating the beach two hundred feet from your table, and the "turf" shows up in a trio of prime cuts, even a burger of Kobe beef. Happy surprise for those who know Arrows, too, is the migration of a few well-loved touches from that precinct — a vinaigrette here, a glazed pecan there, the homemade breads, some of the salad greens and herbs that come from the bountiful and lovely gardens of that restaurant.
Look at that single sheet of parchment again, however, and the East beckons: in a first course of cockle clams with coconut milk, lemon grass, kaffir lime, and crispy noodles; in entrées like meltingly tender duck confit with orange, ginger, and star anise or a whole, deep-fried rainbow trout. That trout is delivered to your table curled in an S and swimming in a rich, slightly sweet rice-wine sauce with tomatoes, scallions, and Chinese black beans. The crispy, sesame-encrusted skin — don't neglect to taste this marvel, too! — hides neatly boned flesh delicately flavored and perfectly cooked, the whole representative of the kind of interesting but not overly fussy presentation you'll find here.
The third influence you perceive is summed up by one word, "Mom." It's there on the menu, entries like "Mom's sauce" or "Mark's Mom's Corn Custard," and playful headings like "Evil Carbos" and "Virtuous Vegetables." It's in homey sides like white beans with herbs or creamed spinach or cauliflower gratin or the spectacularly crisp and flavorful French fries and onion rings — "the best I've ever had," said my wife of the rings. It's the plain white or humble blue-printed china your food is served on. Most of all, and this is the biggest difference between the Cove and its sister restaurant, it's the relaxed smiles and easy banter of the waitstaff attending to a crowd that has come, not so much to worship at a temple of gastronomy, but to have a good time eating good food in a grand setting.
Lurking down there at the bottom left of the menu is another heading — "Sauces," and the words, "Choose me . . . ," directing you to agonize between six choices, an olive and sage hollandaise, an aioli, a gremolata butter among them, to top your eight-ounce filet mignon — or your Beijing-style duck confit. This is where the unwary might make a bad marriage of two things lovely in their own right, and where it pays to ask the waiter.
The desserts carry over this mixed theme, hometown favorites like an apple-blueberry turnover, a rich banana bread pudding of just the right consistency, and a brown butter brownie with vanilla ice cream alongside funkier alternatives that don't always hit the mark. Three mini whoopie pies with three fillings and three milks arrived on a rectangular china tray, rich cakey chocolate with vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate insides and a miniature flavored milk to match. The offering promised more than it delivered, the flavors of filling and milk oddly muted.
In an otherwise well-orchestrated meal, there were a few off notes. When you're paying $7 for mineral water, $3 for a single oyster, and $38 for wine that wholesales under ten bucks, that genial waiter really should know that the restaurant does, in fact, offer Prosecco by the glass, what's in the sauces, and how to pour that wine without dribbling it on the table. But Perkins Cove is not yet a year old, and Gaier and Frasier are two very smart, very talented people. My advice is to give them a chance, and, when the bill arrives, take a deep breath, contemplate the soothing ocean waves, and remember that life is too short to eat badly. MICHAEL SANDERS
MC Perkins Cove is located off Shore Road in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. Lunch and dinner are served every day. Closed the month of January. 207-646-6263. www.mcperkinscove.com AdventureDiver Down
When you run a scuba diving business in Maine, you need to be a bit of a salesman. The state's waters have a reputation for being cold and dark, not to mention lacking the color and vibrancy of life in the tropical diving hotspots. Dennis Dorsey says this isn't exactly true. "We have almost as much wildlife as Florida or Puerto Rico," he says. "Maine just doesn't have the colorful coral reefs to show them off." With his Perry-based company Downeast Diving (207-263-8251; www.downeastdiving.com
), Dorsey offers the same sort of trips you might expect to find on a Caribbean island — everything from shark dives to wreck dives to night dives and photo tours. The outfit also offers a raft of educational opportunities, rental gear, and services. Dorsey calls it "scuba diving the way life should be," and he's won some converts. According to Dorsey: "Some of the most world-renowned divers come to Eastport or Monhegan to dive." You can, too.BooksThe Next GenerationIn The Birthdays, news of several new additions enlivens a coastal Maine family reunion.
Each summer seems to bring an addition to the subgenre of the family novel set in Maine. It is as if the archetypal Maine experience is etched into the American DNA, calling us back each year to the seashore, the lakeshore, or the piney woods as the thermometer edges into the seventies.
Beth Gutcheon, a master of the domestic drama, created Dundee, a fictional summer colony established in the late nineteenth century, as the backdrop for her two recent novels, More Than You Know (2000) and Leeway Cottage (2005). Justin Cronin's absorbing 2004 novel by contrast, The Summer Guest, is set on a lakeside fishing camp four hours north of Portland.
The newest entrant is Heidi Pitlor, who is a less experienced writer than Gutcheon and Cronin (this is her first novel), and not quite as masterful at weaving together the many strands of character and the potent injections of Maine weather and landscape that make this subgenre so appealing. Still, her first effort, The Birthdays (W.W. Norton, New York; hardcover; 288 pages; $23.95), shows that she has a remarkable gift for delving into the complex feelings of siblings and parents.
The Birthdays revolves around the stormy weekend of a family reunion. The occasion is the seventy-fifth birthday of Joe, who travels to the gathering from Boston with his wife, Ellen, and his emotional sidekick, his pet turtle, Babe. Pitlor depicts their long marriage, with its ebbs and flows of passion and shared comfort, with great nuance. Ellen's blooming relationship with the widower of her best friend creates an interesting picture of what might have been.
The dramatic core of the book is the coming of the next generation of the family. Pitlor gives us a chorus of viewpoints — Joe, Ellen, each of their three children, and a couple of spouses to boot — as they converge upon son Jake's house on an island off the coast of Maine. Daniel, the eldest, an illustrator recently rendered paraplegic by a car accident, travels from Boston by car with his wife, Brenda, whose pregnancy by a sperm donor is problematic for them both. Jake, the middle child who always tries to outmaneuver the others, is frantically preparing to play host at his ostentatious new summer place and also trying to figure out when to announce that he and his wife, Liz, are expecting twins after several years of fertility treatments. (Privately, he also is trying to reinvigorate their sex life.) Hilary, the free-spirited baby of the family, now in her thirties, expects to shock everyone with the news that she is visibly pregnant by one of two men she has been sleeping with. Within hours of her arrival on the island, she ends up in bed with a local fellow who works at the Books & Beans — "one more little adventure before her life changed completely," she thinks.
This multiple pregnancy plotline seems contrived at first, but Pitlor pulls it off with her empathetic perspective and the idiosyncratic details she builds into each sibling's story. Still, she's a bit slow getting all the pieces of her storyline geared up. In the novel's opening scene, Daniel watches with disapproval as his wife devours pancakes with an appetite made stronger by her pregnancy. "He felt his whole body frown," Pitlor writes (one of the few truly awkward lines in the novel). Only at the end of the scene do we learn Daniel is in a wheelchair. And the book bogs down in the comings and goings of all the characters on the ferry to Jake's summerhouse.
Pitlor's pacing gets better by midway through the book. Even before the family is all gathered, tragedy strikes. As the family's reactions unfold, Pitlor reveals flaws and strengths in each character. The growing tension over Joe's birthday dinner — and the surprising choices each sibling makes afterward — accelerates the emotional power of the book so decidedly that each character lingers in the imagination long after the final chapter has ended.
How will it all turn out for the yet-to-be-born children? By the end, I was hoping there is a sequel in the works.
Jane CiabattariBriefly Noted
- Looking for some fresh tastes this summer? Former Maine caterer Cynthia Finnemore Simonds shares some flavorful tricks of the trade in Fresh Maine Salads: Innovative Recipes from Appetizers to Desserts (published by our affiliate, Down East Books, www.downeastbooks.com
; paperback; 112 pages; $18.95). How about a pasta salad made with asparagus, chicken, and hazelnuts? Or spicy tuna wrappers on romaine lettuce? Seventy-seven recipes means there's something for just about everyone.
- If your Maine summer vacation this year starts and stops in the vicinity of Bar Harbor, there's only one guidebook you'll need. Moon Handbook: Acadia National Park by Hilary Nangle (Avalon Travel Publishing, Emeryville, California; paperback; 290 pages; $16.95) is the best available reference to Mount Desert Island and environs. Its recommendations — for restaurants, lodging, and shops — are particularly well chosen.
- Wake up, Bertha Bear! (Published by our affiliate, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; pages not numbered; $15.95) tells the story of Bradley Bear, who wanders out of the cave in which his mother is hibernating. When Bradley finds himself predictably lost and frightened, author Chad Mason and illustrator Chad Wallace employ a host of Maine's North Woods animals to seek out his mother. Blending educational details (each animal's duty on the mission reflects an adaptation; for example, Molly Moose is needed to ferry the other animals across the lake, an aquatic ability she usually employs to escape the flies that bother her) into a traditional tale of inclusion and cooperation is a success.Maine MadeJewels of the Sea
For jeweler Deb Panish, the draw of beach glass jewelry is perfectly clear. "My work is all about the colors," says the Freeport-based artisan behind Funky Pretty (207-865-0464; www.funkypretty.com
). "I don't even wear jewelry myself. I just like playing with all of these colors." Panish's playfulness has resulted in a line of elegantly simple, sea glass-inspired wearable art that blends beautiful hues with spiraling swirls of silver. When they're worn, her "Seascapes" pieces look for all the world like they were made from glass that's been tumbled by the sea. Up close, though, it's clear that the glass has been cut and worked by hand rather than by the forces of nature. It's evocative stuff that can now be found at hundreds of locations nationwide, including the following Maine shops: Earrings and Co. and Rapid River in Freeport; Wyler Gallery in Brunswick; Art & Soul Galleries, Ogunquit; and Pretty Marsh Gallery in Bar Harbor. Pieces, which vary in price from $28-$50, will bring you back to those halcyon days collecting beach glass at the shore.GetawayPooch-friendly PortlandMaine's largest city has unapologetically gone to the dogs.
Americans' love affair with their dogs continues to boom, and nowhere is that trend more evident than in downtown Portland, where dozens of businesses host canine helpers and many a shopper is trailed by his or her furry alter ego.SHOPS
The epicenter of Portland's hipster dog scene, Fetch (195 Commercial St.; 207-773-5450; www.fetchportland.com
) stocks earth-friendly, ergonomic toys, fashionable outerwear, and organic treats, not to mention an extensive supply of leashes and collars. Planet Dog (211 Marginal Way; 207-347-8606; www.planetdog.com
) uses its company store to test its products, as well as hosting the occasional singles night and puppy play-date. If you're in need of a china plate featuring a poodle or pillows embroidered with the face of a schnauzer, Agatha & Louise (399 Fore St.; 207-879-7297; www.agathaandlouise.com
) should be your destination. Like many of the city's bookstores, Longfellow Books (1 Monument Way; 207-772-4045) is extremely dog-friendly, with a basket of biscuits on the counter and, frequently, books on canine topics displayed near the cash register. Cineaste and audiophile dogs and their owners can browse the funky aisles at Videoport (207-773-1999) and Bull Moose Music (207-780-6424), both at 151 Middle St.CHEAP EATS
While your pooch waits outside, Beals Old Fashioned Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt (12 Moulton St.; 207-828-1335) will serve up a dish of vanilla ice cream with dog treats sprinkled on top for the same price as a kiddie cone. At the Porthole Restaurant (20 Custom House Wharf; 207-780-6533), dogs are welcome on the deck, but they have to order from the regular menu.LODGING
Your dog may be treated better than you are at the Eastland Park Hotel (157 High St.; 207-775-5411; www.eastlandparkhotel.com
), whose Pampered Pets program (cats are also eligible) includes a pet-friendly room service menu along with an edible treat at check-in for $25 per stay. The Hilton Garden Inn Portland Downtown Waterfront (65 Commercial St.; 207-780-0870) welcomes dogs for a $50 fee.HANGOUTS
To see and be seen — not to mention sniffing a million apparently delightful scents — Post Office Park (corner of Exchange and Middle streets) is the place to be, especially at lunchtime. If a dip in, or a slurp from, a fountain is your idea of a good time, head to Lincoln Park (corner of Congress and Pearl streets), which also has a wide expanse of grass that's perfect for rolling or other canine duties. Salty dogs may prefer a ride on one of the Casco Bay Lines ferries (56 Commercial Street; 207-774-7871; www.cascobaylines.com
), which welcome leashed dogs for just $3.25.