48 Hours in...Boothbay Harbor
October 2011 | By Melissa Coleman | Illustration by Josh Brill
48 hours of our favorite places to explore, browse, stay, listen, and eat
One summer soon after graduating from college, I met an Englishman who invited me to cruise down the Maine coast aboard his trans-Atlantic sailboat. Being then of the footloose persuasion, I accepted, and since we were sailing we headed, of course, for Boothbay Harbor. Never was a harbor a more welcome sight to a seasick maiden. I remember not just the blessed solidity of the small town on a hill but the divinely peaceful water that allowed me to sleep, at long last, at our mooring.
As the foremost boating port north of Boston, Boothbay Harbor has long been a haven for sailors of all persuasions and destinations, not to mention the summer folk who own many of the old Maine cottages. Sandwiched between the Sheepscot and Damariscotta rivers, the Boothbay peninsula is capped by the Atlantic Ocean, and its harbor is sheltered by the landmasses of Southport Island and East Boothbay. As you might imagine, this wealth of shoreline makes for a boater’s and vacationer’s nirvana.
With the bustle of the summer months behind us, savvy travelers can enjoy the more languid, but still warm, days of fall. However, since some businesses in town are shuttered after Columbus Day, this is also a good time to dream of and make plans for next summer.
The Boothbay area may be best explored by boat, as it has been since its days as an English fishing camp in the 1600s. But there’s no need to bring your own vessel. Stroll Commercial Street from Memorial Day to Columbus Day and you’ll find many a salty captain willing to take you to sea. Captain Wodan Vanderlaan and his wife, naturalist Mechele Vanderlaan, are your hosts on the 100-foot, 149-passenger Harbor Princess at Boothbay Whale Watch on Pier 6. The three- to four-hour tours include sightings of minke and humpback whales, dolphins, harbor seals, and sharks. Captain John Fish of Cap’n Fish’s Sightseeing and Whale Watch Cruises also offers daily whale-watching excursions from Pier 1, as well as puffin and Kennebec River/Bath cruises and other tours from Pier 7, on his 75- to 100-foot vessels Pink Lady II and Island Lady. At Pier 8 there’s Captain Bill Campbell of Balmy Days Cruises, which offers day trips to the island of Monhegan on the 65-foot Balmy Days II, as well as harbor and lighthouse tours on the 47-foot Novelty, mackerel-fishing trips on the Miss Boothbay lobster boat, and sailing on the Bay Lady, a 31-foot Friendship Sloop. Two-time global circumnavigators and authors Herb and Doris Smith of Schooner Eastwind also welcome up to 28 passengers onboard their 65-foot vessel for daily two-hour tours around the Burnt and Ram island lighthouses (bring your own booze and snacks).
As for me and my sensitive stomach, I made the most of a complimentary launch ride from Spruce Point Inn to town and back, which provided great views of the harbor and surrounding islands without too much swell, thank you very much. If you prefer to captain a craft of your own, you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Tidal Transit Kayak or join their half- or full-day tours to the Sheepscot River and the outer islands. And there’s the Maine State Aquarium, where you and the kids can reach into simulated tidepools and safely touch sharks, all with your feet solidly on the ground.
Further explorations on terra firma include the renowned Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, one of the biggest non-nautical draws in the area and a delight to both my botanical sensibilities and my desire to keep the children happily occupied. The kids took to the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden like Sal to blueberries, especially the replica of the Tidely-Idley boat made in honor of Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man by Robert McCloskey and the three spraying rock whales from Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen. You can easily spend the good part of a day walking the trails of the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, the Rose and Perennial Garden, the Burpee Kitchen Garden, and my favorite, Bruce John Riddell’s Vayo Meditation Garden. So resistant were the kids to leaving, we almost got locked in behind the gates, which apparently close promptly at 5 p.m. (Plan accordingly for closing time and for the no-dogs rule.) Children also love the nearby Boothbay Railway Village’s 1.5-mile ride behind a classic narrow-gauge steam engine and the antique vehicle collection. Ask about annual visits by Thomas the Tank Engine.
When walking around town, you will quickly find that, despite the ballooning population of 50,000 people in summer, the area’s 5,000 year-round residents and business owners tend to know each other on a first-name basis and enjoy Boothbay Harbor’s strong sense of community, welcoming returning visitors year after year. I’m not what you might call a pleasure shopper, but I did enjoy browsing the many well-appointed home-decor stores (while wishing I had such savvy myself), especially Casual Interiors, which sells ceramics, pillows, and old-fashioned lobster-buoy chandeliers and lamps designed by owner Carol Hartnett. In the store, she helped convince me to finally buy a grown-up toiletries bag, with separate organizational compartments made from recycled milk cartons, by Scout. There’s also Molly’s, which specializes in pillows enhanced with your favorite family pet photographs; Sweet Bay’s popular recycled sailcloth and coffee-bag totes; Mung Bean, which is celebrating its 37th year selling handmade crafts, many made in Maine; and Coco Vivo Fine Art and Design, a three-story haven featuring 14 nationally known artists and a wide range of tasteful coastal-themed home accessories.
The robust art scene features not only a First Friday Art Tour, hosted by the 65-year-old Boothbay Region Art Foundation, but a Second Saturday Art Walk by the newborn Boothbay Harbor’s Fine Art Dealers Association, which means that on either night different galleries will be open, with wine and cheese. On the way over to town from Spruce Point Inn, I stopped at Joy to the Wind on Atlantic Avenue to find a diverse range of paintings by husband and wife John Michael Thomas and Lynne Seitzer, and the nearby Head of the Harbor Gallery, where artist Roger Milinowski enjoys just about the best view from a working studio that an artist could ask for. Although he’s painted 570 nautical scenes, he didn’t have one of his own view—but says he would be happy to paint one on commission. Next was Studio 53 Fine Art, an eight-artist collective that specializes in contemporary paintings and sculpture. The first time around, I missed The Creative Turtle tucked down Granary Way, but I returned to find an eclectic assortment of nature and animal paintings by Pamela Creamer and Maine beach-stone jewelry by Anita Roelz. One of the few year-round galleries, Gleason Fine Art represents two of my favorite contemporary Maine artists: Andrea Peters and Tom Curry. The gallery had a lively opening for local artist and gallery manager Christine Peters Hamilton’s fine-art jewelry. Further downtown, the 38-year-old Gold/Smith Gallery was showing the floral watercolors of 90-year-old Jean Swan Gordon, and at the Maria Boord Gallery I found Maria herself working on one of her dramatic seascapes.
With four locations across the state, Sherman’s Book and Stationery Store is Maine’s own homespun Borders, except that it has been happily solvent and independent since 1886. In addition to books, the store sells gifts and toys. Ask about the Books in Boothbay event in July for an opportunity to meet Maine authors and purchase signed books. Last but not least, any tour of town begs a stop at Romar Bowling Lanes, the old-style candlepin bowling alley located in the log cabin on Bridge Street.
Nowadays, organized trips with my husband and children have taken the place of whimsical cruises with English sailors, and alas, sleeping on couches and sailboats has given way to the desire for well-appointed lodgings at the end of the day. With this in mind, the twins and I were lucky to stay at the Spruce Point Inn Resort and Spa on Friday night and the Topside Inn on Saturday (see the Lodging page for details).
Other resort options include the lodges and cabins at Linekin Bay Resort, which boasts a heated saltwater pool overlooking the ocean and ready access to moorings and Boothbay Region Land Trust trails. There’s also the Ocean Point Inn Resort and Restaurant about ten minutes from town on the East Boothbay peninsula. The Newagen Seaside Inn, also ten minutes away, at the tip of Southport Island, and the Hodgdon Island Inn, just a mile past the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, are both said to be lovely. For a year-round option downtown, try Welch House, located next to the Topside Inn. And The Thistle Inn has great dining and six lovely rooms within walking distance of town.
On my next visit, I hope to check out the surprisingly abundant musical entertainment in the area. This past summer, the Boothbay Playhouse’s musical theater shows included Suessical the Musical and off Broadway’s Nunsense, all put on by talented actors from around the country. The Carousel Music Theater features a dinner cabaret and an after-dinner show such as Murder a la Moliere, which is described as a murder mystery/comedy with folk music from the 1970s. The popular Boothbay Whale Watch Music Cruises depart from Pier 6 on the Harbor Princess and include a Reggae Cruise with Dani Tribesman on Sundays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and a Classic Oldies Cruise with Cahoots on Thursdays, also from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. And, of course, there’s the amazing Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, the year-round cultural mainstay that hosted concerts this summer by Tim Sample, Jonathan Edwards, and Leo Kottke.
As in many seaside vacation towns, Boothbay’s cuisine walks the line between tourist-pleasing seafood fare and discriminating menus by accomplished chefs, which has resulted in a plethora of dining options. While taking some time off from the kids, I started my evening with a glass of wine at Amore Bistro’s outdoor bar, where I took in the peaceful boat-dotted harbor that ended at the edge of my table. Then I barhopped to the artfully decorated Thistle Inn for the great menu at its Dory Pub, which features a bar made from an 18-foot dory. Next time I’m coming back for what everyone says is one of the best dinners in town. We enjoyed a classic surf-and-turf dinner with the kids at the popular McSeagull, which overlooks the harbor and hosts live acoustic music on summer nights. Back at Spruce Point Inn, I had a nightcap at Bogie’s, the inn’s casual bar and restaurant, sister to the dressier 88, where we enjoyed the breakfast buffet the next morning.
On the way in to the Topside Inn, we picked up sandwiches at Mama D’s Cafe, a homey place for breakfast and lunch. There’s also a great local coffee shop, Moosehead Coffee and Ice Cream, located across from the post office. That evening we ambled from the Topside to the Boat House Bistro Tapas Bar and Restaurant, where the twins and I sat at the terrace bar on top of the multistory downtown establishment. After devouring the lemongrass-cured salmon and wild-mushroom ragout, I plotted ways to eat one of each of the many delicious hot and cold tapas plates. There was no need to touch the children’s menu, as the girls were happy to have steak Madagascar instead of burgers, and chicken-parmesan skewers instead of chicken fingers. I was hoping in vain that I would have room left over to continue on to the highly recommended Ports of Italy, which is enjoying its second year under the Italian finesse of Sante Calandri, who honed his skills as maitre d’ extraordinare at Bici in New York City—but that will have to wait for next year.
When I come back, I also plan to try the Chowder House overlooking the harbor, with its outdoor boat bar made from a sailboat and its popular chowder and seafood menu. And there’s Robinson’s Wharf on Southport Island for lobsters, corn, steamers, and prime rib, not to mention live music on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Or sail out to an island with Cabbage Island Clambakes for a traditional clambake.
From May to October, the much loved Boothbay Farmers Market sets up on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon with farmers and vendors from around the area. And you can pick up fresh fish, local meats, fine cheeses, wine, and beer at Oak Street Provisions, where Doug Roberts supplies full-time residents and visitors alike with quality local and gourmet products year-round. We also grabbed last-minute snacks for the drive home at Rivers End Cafe and Specialty Store.
On any trip into or out of town, look for Miss Piggy, an upright pig statue on the side of Route 27. She’s been dressing up in seasonally appropriate outfits for as long as anyone can remember, and cheerfully welcomes or bids adieu to everyone driving to or from Boothbay Harbor.