When we go up to Southwest Harbor in June, it’s a tradition to wake up around 4AM and drive over to Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise. We wake the girls up in the dark, bundle them into socks, sweaters, long pants, and jackets, and then we throw blankets in the car as well. Occasionally we manage to make some coffee in the dark and we bring that too.
It’s the furthest point east in the US that you can watch the sunrise (or so I whisper to myself, when we’re up there, very nearly so, though an island of Maine is out further).
Watching it climb up so slow, shivering just a tiny bit no matter how many layers you have on, you remember the sun doesn’t come up in one instant dark-light switch, but slowly, with lots of color streaking through the sky before the lip of red appears.
But this year we came one month later, in July, and the parking lot at the top of the mountain was full! It was amazing. So, so many people up in the misty cold hours of the morning, to watch this special event that happens every single morning.
This year was also the first year Lux caught on to how awesome and exciting it was. From the moment we woke her up, she was thrilled to be a part of it. Her excitement spread to all three of them.
Grouchy, chilly, two-year-old Lux was a distant memory, albeit an equally sweet one.
Because of the National Park anniversary this year, Downeast Magazine put together an issue solely about Acadia National Park. One of the issue’s tips suggested visiting the Park Loop road at sunrise, an easy sidekick drive after watching the sunrise, but one that had never occurred to us.
So we tried it. There were one or two other cars on the road, the entry kiosks are closed–Drive Forward, they read–and the light was like a film set. Thunder Hole, a spot that is usually mobbed, felt as if it was open only for us in our pjs.
Adulthood is when you make your own vacations and decide what they will be from the beginning. So much about vacation is inherited or shared with family, which is a great thing. But it’s nice to see the thing that evolves when you decide to make your own vacation. Book it, schedule it, pay for it, anticipate it all yourself.
We caravanned up after first stopping at the Palace Diner just outside of Portland, where we stop as often as we can and have astounding good meals. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Palace Diner, the thing that leaves you dazed when you finally wander out, is that their menu appears very standard when you read it through, other than canaries like brown butter banana bread and caramelized grapefruit listed casually under SIDES. Their french toast is listed on the menu as challah french toast, no details added, but once it is set in front of you, you realize the two enormous square pieces have been bruleed, and the crust cracks as you cut into it, the eggy custard of the challah softening around the crisp dark caramelized pieces. But it’s also the type of place where you swear to yourself that next time you’ll order lunch, as you watch the waitress place a triple decker burger or a lush freshly-made-tuna melt in front of someone down the bar.
David and I texted about the meals a little bit ahead of time. We stopped at Whole Foods in Portland on the way up and already had a good list in mind before we got there. Joe and I lived with David during one of our summers on Nantucket, he and I often traded off who made dinner, along with our other roommate Pete. Years later I still have a good idea of what type of thing he enjoys cooking–namely impromptu, very satisfying dinners, tossed together with experience savvy instead of a recipe. And he knows I can manage a more complicated dish using my obsessive devotion to recipes. We spent an enormous amount on supplies for the week, splitting the groceries between us. That was perfect because it left us able to make pretty much anything—squash pie, mussel and bean soup, meaty spaghetti, biscuits and gravy, fresh whipped cream, pie crust—once we were up there. We got take-out one time from the local burrito spot, but all the rest of our meals we made together in the big kitchen.
You know, I’ve started buying those tubes of Immaculate Baking Co. cinnamon rolls and they are just stunningly good. I’ve made cinnamon rolls from scratch, and I don’t think it is worth it when you can have these ready in 20 minutes with your eggs. And I’ve certainly had much worse tasting cinnamon rolls bought fresh from bakeries. Treat yourself.
Dave made fresh pasta noodles and Joe carved a pumpkin to look just like Darth Vader, as Lux had hoped. I bought ribeye steaks for Joe’s birthday, salted and peppered and unwrapped them when we got to the house, and let them age for two days in the fridge. I’m not accustomed to ordering $70 worth of meat from the meat counter, but when four people get to settle down to an amazing steak dinner, it all becomes clear. I did that steak house trick of putting a stick of butter on a plate, flinging salt at it, piling shredded parmesan and chopped parsley on it and then mashing it together until it was one pale green flecked soft pile of butter. We put half loaves of baguette on the grill for a few minutes and then spread all the amazing butter magic over it.
After a couple nights of watching us eat mussels, the girls realized they too loved mussels, loved plucking out the small cooked creature out and flinging the empty shells into the bowl with a tiny clang. Lux ate faster than everyone and adapted a strange third person request, “Any more mussels for Luxy?” eyeing the plates of the adults with desire. I stopped giving her the mussel broth because she wasn’t using it, and we all added more unplucked shells to her pile.
I cannot get over how it feels to wake up in the trees. With tree branches fully surrounding you, like you’ve been suspended in a soft down blanket of pine boughs. Our room was freezing when we woke up each morning. Of the four cabins, the girls’ cabin has the best insulation, and for the the three other cabins, the adults wake to a room that is fully 45 degrees. No matter if you made a fire at midnight, no matter if you plugged in the supposed space heater. If your arm snuck out while you were sleeping, it now feels like a different entity from your body, and you tug it back under the blankets with alarm.
We told the girls to knock on their cabin door when they wanted us to come get them in the morning. It was the first time they shared a double bed. Welcome to your vacation setup for the rest of your life! I wanted to say to them, thinking of the hundreds of beds my sister and I shared growing up. Joan probably woke Lux up earlier than she otherwise would have, but it was swooningly sweet to watch them snuggle in together each night. Joe has been reading Lux The Hobbit (in fact, they’re on their second read-through of it) so he would build a fire and then read them nearly to sleep each night. Then we would wake to the sound of their chipper knocks pounding on the glass across the deck from us. Joe would bound out of bed, out from the warm covers and into the freezing room, to go check on them. A funny switch-up, as of the two of us, he usually wakes the slowest back in Boston. I would force myself to change into some of my stiff freezing clothes, pick out some warm clothes for them to put on, and then we all tramped over to the main house together. The main house has the kitchen and the living room, and the coffee maker!, and is fully heated.
It was so wonderful to have the company of two non-parents, two people who could comment on the weather, the day, the water, and make plans for general amusement. Two people who haven’t rote-memorized the strange rhythms of their children’s moods and begun to anticipate them at certain times of day with vague dread. Probably the best part was the presence of two adults who wanted to play board games after bedtime or tell old stories, instead of slump on the couch as Joe and I typically do. It was really good to watch the girls play and scheme with someone else who could delight in them. Not to mention help them craft face masks, help them climb rocks, help them get a snack, answer a question.
As for the four of us, the adults, there were times when it felt like—oh yeah, college! Here we are, just kids, we’re all the same and together again. And other times when I felt so different and far away from them, the three men—I’m not drinking, not smoking an occasional celebratory cigarette, not skinny-dipping into the ocean jumping from the sharp rocks, not staying up late into the night to watch stars fall. I’m sleepy and oversized, preoccupied and awaiting the next small child’s request, remembering the soft tang of whiskey with bemusement, remembering the self indulgent rush of a nicotine drag with, well, I can’t remember it at all anymore. It’s been so long; maybe five years? I’m grumpy for no reason other than persistent thud of a small heel against my rib cage. The girls are mine and they cling to me when they’re sleepy, and want me to hold their hand, and arrange their food, and nod in affirmation every single time when they say they need to go potty. you don’t need me to do this, anybody can do this for you, I think to myself here and there, but it’s not really true, is it? Not true in the satisfying nearly trademarked way that mom does it. And the next girl is mine too, and I think about her when I make almost any decision for my day. It was that time, 31 weeks. She’s gone from a quiet swimmer to a nearly omnipresent tangle of limbs, waking me up with her flips and kicks, settling into odd positions that makes my abdomen feel like a couch too full of elbows.
But there’s also that male-ambition thing? The thing that stirs men to memorize long ballads so they can play them at the foot of stone towers? To chop and haul wood, build warm fires, frame houses over their families heads? That infects them with the idea to teach themselves to fix a car when there is a mechanic just down the road? Meanwhile I’m puttering around, baking bread from the exact same recipe I’ve used 300x times? I don’t play an instrument, and I didn’t attempt to memorize the lyrics to Lava, as they did (pixar, look it up, it’s cute). I didn’t want to. I probably could have jumped into the ocean, had I told Joe I wanted to and asked him to stay with the girls. But I didn’t want to. What I’m saying is–don’t feel too sorry, or fall too much for my oh if only. And, I suppose, I was a little jealous of their drive and adventurous ambition? I picked up Annie Dillard’s The living while there, a novel of many stories framed around the families who settled the pacific northwest. What were they doing there? Women watching their children die from various freak threats, is what it felt like to me. It’s obvious the glass on my maternal goggles is rather dense right now, that I can’t even read a historical novel without being nearly flattened by the idea that these people risked their children’s lives for a new adventure.
I made a pie from this squash. It’s quite a satisfying thing to take a hearty heavy vegetable, so thick you can barely cut it in half with a knife, roast it until it’s weak, then blend with all sorts of good things and turn it into a dessert. Great recipe right here.
Well here we are first day of spring, and guess what? It’s the season to book your summer trip to Maine. Itty bitty rental agencies across the coast are turning on the wifi and posting their rentals. Most agencies take half at the time of contract, and half a week or two before your rental, so you can save up if need be.
With that on my mind, I dug up my photos from when we went to Deer Isle last October. Just a few hours north of famous Bar Harbor lies a land of charm and warmth beyond anything I’d encountered before. Deer Isle, a lovely spanning island just one green bridge away from the wonderful little town of Blue Hill. It was magical and we fell in love.
October is when rentals are about as cheap as they get. We are off-season-people who thrive with our sweaters and extra socks, when most things are closed and the nooks are quiet too. But you might want to think about visiting in August. That is true Maine glory time, blueberries, sailing, funny town fairs and no black flies (black fly season is May/June), with open ice cream shops. And just maybe, quite possibly, air that is just hot enough to make that freezing ocean look enticing.
We fell completely in love with the architecture of our rental house. It was a collection of four cabins surrounding one large main building that contained the kitchen and living space. It was the type of place that just grabbed your attention anytime you looked its way. Every perspective of it seemed better than the last. I found myself thinking of the architect constantly–how much thought and planning most had gone into creating such a careful collection.
We had a few days of lovely weather and then it became stormy and rainy for our last few days. We read books, bought the newspaper, and built lots of fire to stay warm in our cabins.
We ate oysters we’d bought on the way up, packaged cinnamon rolls, s’mores, mussels we pulled off rocks on the beach, and fresh bread from Tinder Hearth.
The pathways between the cabins alternated between dirt and stone slabs. The stone became the pathway—moss-covered and a little precarious. I didn’t pack the right shoes, so in the evening when I walked the girls over to the cabin to put them to bed, and then when I went back again to check on them, I would wear my slippers. The slippers soaked up water from the wet moss. So then I just went barefoot.
^Our friend David came up with us for a few days and built this blanket fort for the girls.
Just before we arrived at our rental the first night, we stopped by the Blue Hill Wine Shop. Shop of dreams! They made coffee in the morning, sold fresh bread, cheeses, salamis, and tons of beautifully affordable wines. They had wonderful front porch for watching the sunset and it was clearly a hub of love and conversation.
With all the enormous windows lining the main house, we couldn’t help but stare at the layers of ocean, then granite, then trees. Blue, stone, green. It was the most soothing sight.
Joe took outdoor showers in the freezing October rain. He promised me they were wonderful and warm despite the pummeling rain. It seemed unfathomable to me that was true, so I would watch from the window. The mist from the cold rain hitting the warm shower water seemed pick him up onto a cloud. By chance, he was reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin at the time and told me about Franklin’s daily naked “wind showers,” with admiration.
We took walks down to the damp shore, the girls delighting in collecting snail shells and stepping on the spongy seaweed. Often we would see lobster boats drive by to check on their traps. Thousands of cracked mussel shells mixed into the rocks and brightened the beach.
One morning David stayed with the girls at the house while Joe and I drove off to find 44 North Coffee. In the upstairs of a once stately building on a quiet island road, lies a coffee roaster. 44 North, with a jar of triangle donuts by the door, sold on the honor system. Their coffee is meticulous pour-over. Their coffee bags are hand drawn cartoons and nearly collectible. Joe and I brought donuts back for the girls and a big bag of coffee for the cottage.
It was the off season, yet it felt as if many things were open. Guided by our gps off the island and into quiet backwoods, we found Tinder Hearth Pizza. It was elegantly gourmet in a wood hewn way.The only time we saw a sign for the spot was when we finally pulled in front of the house. A table was stacked with plates, silverware and mismatched glassware. In the front of the room was an enormous brick pizza oven emanating a delicious smell. On “pizza nights” (best checked via Facebook) they welcome people inside to sit and eat. And during the summer, everyone comes to eat and sprawl on their back lawn! We watched as couples came in and picked up their pizzas to go, but all the families who stopped by sat down at the community table. In no time we had friendly local faces on all sides of us. It’s also BYOB which is the best—pulling out the great bottle you’ve picked out, with no upscaled prices.^ A #momlife travel moment for me. I envisioned us serenely draped across the boat watching the waves fly by, learning about the wildlife. Naturally everyone wanted to sit on my lap at the same time and I couldn’t hear a word. : )A few affordable rentals in the area for this summer that caught my eye while internet-hunting: a darling studio cottage for $495/wk, a cozy two-bedroom in Brooksville for $1150/wk, a rustic waterfront with a lovely dock for $1045/wk, and a modern two bedroom in Stonington for $1200/wk. And a pleasantly rustic spot on Deer Isle for $685/wk. All prices listed in August rates; other months are cheaper.
The house we stayed at last year is The Sunshine House.
I didn’t have much luck on airbnb.com for this area, Downeast Maine Rental Agency seemed to have the best spots.
We went to bed so early! What is it about being away from your living room, with its built-in suggestion of tasks and chores, and away from your laptop, that makes it so easy to go to bed?! The sun poured through our windows beginning at 5am and I didn’t mind since we’d gone to bed at 10pm.
We had lobster rolls on our first evening. I like a place that toasts the roll, assumes chips are included, and sells it to you for $11. Unheard of in Boston. Thurston’s also served potato salad with fresh dill, bits of red onion, and corn. And a corn and crab chowder that was almost entirely piles of shredded crab. We shared a pitcher of a breezy drinkable beer called Thurston’s Lobster Ale, of unknown origin.
We tried peaches on the grill. Flesh side down, they ended up tasting faintly smokey but wonderfully warm and mushy. We ate them with vanilla ice cream mixed with grape nuts. Apparently this is a standard flavor in Maine. Strangely delicious. “Like a perfectly soggy bowl of cereal,” Joe said. I wouldn’t agree with that since I don’t like soggy cereal, but it does describe the texture.
We went for exactly one hike to the top of one mountain. At the top there was a puddle full of silky mud that Lux fairly slithered into. She ended up coated in mud and had to be hiked back down half naked.
A soup kitchen was raising funds by serving dozens of popovers, four different kinds of jams, and coffee in small tea cups. Obviously we had to attend. Then we wandered out to the rocky shores to hunt for rocks to give our stone-carving friend (we didn’t find any good ones).
I started reading My Family and Other Animals because it was on the shelves of the cottage where we were staying. It’s a memoir of a family that moved to an island in Greece in the 1930s, written by the youngest brother. I love it.
Lux has an empty jar of almond flavoring in her mouth. The perfect size for sore gums to chew on.
Links for travel in Southwest Harbor & Bar Harbor: seriously spectacular ice cream at Mt. Desert Ice Cream, piled on lobster rolls at Thurston’s, a soup kitchen that also sells meals at Common Good Soup Kitchen, buy clams, mussels, and eggs only from Rat’s and always from Rat’s.
Joe and I are in Maine (Southwest Harbor, same island as Bar Harbor) for a couple days. I have a completely enticing stack of books, but I’m also trying to reacquaint myself with my laptop as a non-Internet-vehicle and write. There’s a yard framed with aging lilacs, a back porch, unrestricted sunshine access, and un-Thai-restuarant-scented breezes; things that make a city dweller purr and sprawl.
The midwife whispered to the baby yesterday, doubtfully asking if she was going to stay in there for another week or two, so it feels like a good time to write as much as possible.
Last night, an over-buttered lobster roll with fried pickles. Tonight, mussels from a man named Rat who does his own roadside marketing.