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The lights, sights and sounds of Maine

Rockland offers a quaint sample of the coast.


Highlights

At first glance, you wouldn’t think of this as the Arts Capital of Maine.

Weathered old salts in knit caps stride amid tourists peering into red-brick colonial buildings in this working harbor off Penobscot Bay. Just a stone’s throw south of highly manicured Camden, Rockland is more low-key and casual.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think of this as the Arts Capital of Maine, but it earns the title it has bestowed on itself. Its Farnsworth Museum, home to a comprehensive Andrew Wyeth collection, lures many visitors, and its downtown galleries attract buyers. It’s a picturesque village (what Maine village isn’t?), so you’ll emerge with plenty of your own photographic art. Throw in good food and the seafaring vibe, and Rockland’s a good spot to enjoy coastal Maine.

We start our visit at the Farnsworth, where there’s always a major exhibition of Andrew Wyeth’s work — the artist was a Pennsylvanian but summered here in midcoast Maine — along with exhibits of other artists, including Robert Indiana, Louise Nevelson and Alex Katz, who has become a financial backer of the Farnsworth’s contemporary collection. (For even more contemporary work, visit the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, just a block away.)

A Farnsworth ticket also gets you into the nearby Wyeth Center, which features Andrew Wyeth paintings along with a few selections by his son, Jamie Wyeth, and father, N.C. Wyeth.

Add another $5 and you can visit Olson House, the home that inspired a good deal of Wyeth’s work, including “Christina’s World.” The real Christina Olson, who lived in the house with her brother, suffered from a degenerative muscle disorder; hence, her house was her world. The house, located in Cushing, is about half an hour’s drive from the museum, and it’s a lovely drive.

On the way back to town, we stop to enjoy the view at Owls Head Light State Park.

Poking out into the water where Penobscot Bay pours into the Atlantic Ocean, Owls Head is a squatty 1852 lighthouse on a cliff still in use by the Coast Guard, and only the Coast Guard can go inside the structure. But you can hike up to it (maybe half a mile; it’s quick) and enjoy the prime view of the water and surrounding forest. Next time, I’ll take a picnic.

Having explored Rockland’s art, I’m keen to check out its maritime aspects.

A handful of other visitors are peering into the Sail Power and Steam Museum when I arrive, looking dubiously at a sign on the door that says, “Ring bell.” I feel like I’m in “The Wizard of Oz.” It takes us a good five minutes to locate an old dinner bell on the side of an adjoining building. We ring it. It’s loud. Five minutes later, we ring it again.

Before long, a man appears in a golf cart, apparently surprised to see his museum has guests. This would be Jim Sharp, a former schooner captain whose personal collection (“My wife wanted me to get it all out of the house”) makes up this museum: old boats and vast collections of everything seafaring, including sextants, compasses, ropes, buoys, lobster traps and steam engines. Sharp happily demonstrates a Foucault pendulum he made himself by melting down 285 pounds of lead.

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Next up: the Maine Lighthouse Museum, near the bay, telling the story of Maine’s 70 lighthouses with maps, pictures, lighthouse models and dozens of lighthouse lenses. One of the great things about Maine is that it has so many working lighthouses, and no matter where in the state you are, you’ll probably be able to find one, as we did at Owl’s Head.

A few blocks away, I’m intrigued by a sign: “Project Puffin.” Inside, I find not puffins but a happy Audubon Society volunteer who offers to show me a 20-minute film about puffins and Dr. Stephen Kress’s project to re-establish their colonies on islands off Maine. Their numbers were depleted in the early 1900s because their feathers made pretty hats. The movie’s fascinating, the cause moving, the birds cute. I wind up making a donation.

We eat very well in Rockland. In fact, extraordinarily well. Sure, you can find the fried seafood and the lobster rolls that Maine’s famous for, but we enjoyed more interesting treatments. Our favorite lunch was at Café Miranda, where my husband dug speechlessly into a huge, rustic haddock chowder, creamy with big chunks of fish, smoky bacon and plenty of corn. (Maine corn is especially sweet and winds up in a lot of dishes.) My Wee Meat Pies were little pouches of pork and veggies, served in a mild salsa with sour cream and avocado — a tasty cultural mix, and a small lunch, which I like.

This cute little village actually has a Beard Award-winning restaurant — in fact, it’s won best Northeast restaurant twice — called Primo, headed by chef Melissa Kelly. Our meal started with a melon and prosciutto featuring a tender, sweet cantaloupe grown on property. I followed with lobster, but it was in the form of an exquisite, hearty risotto loaded with not just lobster, but also both chanterelles and truffles, along with corn, all stirred into a creamy mascarpone risotto. Any lobster should be proud to wind up in such a risotto.

Our base for this two-day trip is 250 Main, a hotel opened about a year ago by a local ship builder who wanted a nice place for his ship buyers to stay. At five stories, it’s the town’s tallest building, and it’s beautifully constructed, with odd angles, distressed-wood lobby ceilings and tables made of wood salvaged from boats. Gallery-like halls are filled with art, all for sale. Rooms are deftly decorated in blues and greens (nothing cheesily nautical) with one of the comfiest beds I’ve ever slept in, as well as a lot of room for clothing stowage — always a welcome sight.

The room rate (starting at $144; Rockland’s a bargain) includes a breakfast of first-rate pastries and granola-yogurt-fruit parfaits, as well as an afternoon wine reception. We take our glasses up to the rooftop deck to gaze at Rockland Harbor while we sip. Others have done the same. Nobody talks to anybody else. That’s not the way Maine works. But we all have smiles on our faces.



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