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July 07, 2011

Summer Travels: Blue Hill, Maine

Amy Archer

The many pleasures and coveted secrets of Blue Hill, a small, charming village on the coast of Maine.

The best way to reach the Blue Hill peninsula is by boat. If natural beauty were food, you’d put on a hundred pounds a day in the world-class cruising grounds of mid-coast Maine. Of course, when you do arrive at Blue Hill, you are presented with some challenges. Deep water anchorage at the head of the bay is limited, and the town dock can be accessed only at certain tides. There are a few guest moorings at the Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club (be sure to reserve), where launch service is available from eight in the morning to six in the evening, June 15 through Labor Day. Once ashore, you will probably have to walk the two miles to town as there is no local taxi service, but after days on a boat you’ll be glad for the exercise, unless it’s raining. But as my cousin Ben says, “There’s no bad weather in Maine.” The rain will be beautiful, and someone may stop to offer you a lift.

Lacking a yacht, you’re most likely to arrive by car, one way or another. The nearest airports, in Bangor and Trenton, are about an hour away, so you can either rent a car there or take a sensationally expensive taxi. Driving yourself is the better option, as it frees you to stop at the Big Chicken Barn on Route 1 between Bucksport and Ellsworth (worth a special trip if it’s off your route). As its name suggests, this indoor antiques and collectibles market is housed in a large relic of the golden age of Maine poultry farming. The ground floor is packed with castoffs from discontinued Down East industries like glove-making and the China trade, as well as textiles, glassware, high button shoes and Gyro Gearloose homemade furniture hauled out of the barn when someone sold the farm. The second floor is a festival of secondhand books and periodicals. Back issues of The Modern Priscilla from 1910, anyone? Utter bliss for collectors as well as social historians.

Nobody would call Blue Hill convenient; that is its secret glory. It’s on an elbow of road not on the way to anywhere else, so if you go, it’s because you’re visiting friends in the area, you’re a lover of chamber music or you’re in the mood for a lobster roll from the Fish Net. You can’t miss the Fish Net: It’s right on Main Street at the corner of the road from Surry, just below the Blue Hill Co-op, a haunt of organic food fans and locavores. In one stop you can buy quinoa, gem-like lettuce fresh from the earth and a plate of local scallops that have won accolades in many a fried-fish smackdown.

Blue Hill is a blink-and-you-missed-it kind of village with that austere beauty one finds on the shores of the Baltic: spare, dignified and somehow pure. On a triangle of land in the center of town sits Blue Hill Town Hall, where downstairs you register your cars and boats or lobby the selectmen, and upstairs attend town meetings or performances by the New Surry Theatre (last summer they did Damn Yankees). Leave Town Hall to port and you’ll find Merrill & Hinckley, which will sell you groceries or liquor and even deliver them (and you) back to the yacht club if you are reprovisioning the boat. Leave it to starboard and you’ll come to the award-winning public library, often referred to as the town’s living room, whose steps and lawn are dotted day and night in fine weather with visitors and locals communing with their laptops on the library’s free WiFi stream. (High-speed Internet access is iffy everywhere but in the town center.) Upstairs at the library there are often art exhibits, more than worth seeing, as the local summer colony was founded in the late 19th century by musicians and their patrons and has always attracted more artists, writers and academics than Maine’s other Gilded Age resorts, like Bar Harbor or Seal Harbor.

The pullout section of the local paper, The Weekly Packet, lists places in town to buy art, antiques, crafts and books, but cruising them all will hardly take up the lion’s share of your day, and if you’ve come for ice cream and t-shirts, you’ve been misinformed. Perhaps you’ve come for sport. Misinformed again. Follow the bay along to the south and you’ll soon pass the Country Club, which boasts a supremely beautiful, if tiny, nine-hole, par-three golf course, plus four tennis courts. Can you use them? No, unless you’re the houseguest of a member or are prepared to establish a permanent address and languish on the waiting list for three or four years. You could rent a kayak in town and go skimming around the inner harbor, seeing what the otherwise invisible shorefront houses look like, or to the outer harbor to visit the seals. That’s assuming you can find a public place to launch your boat that won’t be a tidal mudflat by the time you return. There are bikes to rent as well, but no paved shoulders to the roads, let alone bike lanes, so proceed at your peril and be prepared to find mildly frustrated motorists on your tail.

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Perhaps you have come to run the rapids of Blue Hill Falls, which change direction with the tides twice every 24 hours. Excellent plan, especially if you have your own white-water boat and permission from the abutting neighbors. There’s also the Farmers’ Market at the Fairgrounds on Saturday mornings, where you can visit the scene of the climax of Charlotte’s Web. Allen Cove, where E. B. White lived and wrote, is between Blue Hill and Brooklin, the gem of a hamlet that’s home to Brooklin Boat Yard, where E. B.’s grandson Steve White builds some of the most beautiful yachts in the world. Nearby, at the WoodenBoat School, you can build your own sailing dinghy, then sign up for sailing classes and learn what to do with it.

Meanwhile, what are the people who live here doing? Gardening. Painting. Reading books. Writing them. Singing. (If the Bagaduce Chorale or Ellacappella is performing while you’re there, don’t miss them.) They’re playing piano or cello or listening to faculty concerts on Friday evenings or Sunday afternoons at Kneisel Hall, the summer school for elite chamber musicians founded long ago by Boston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Franz Kneisel. The kids are bashing about the bay in Optimists and 420s at the KSEA junior sailing program (open to all, but sign up early), which has turned out more than its share of competitive sailors on the world scene. In August, the people of Blue Hill are on the bay in anything that will float, watching the crack sailors of the community racing Atlantics, surely one of the most beautiful one-design sloops anywhere. They’re paddling on inland ponds or up the Bagaduce River, or picnicking on Blue Hill Bay’s Long Island, which is part of Acadia National Park, so it’s public (except for some grandfathered cottages and camps). Of course, you have to get out there yourself. And mind the tides—they’re dramatic, and in only a few hours your vessel can be stranded very high and dry.

They’re cooking for each other. The local restaurants are beloved but few. Far more often than eating out, they’re dining with friends at home. If you’re invited, don’t forget to ask what you may bring and for how many, as the answer will often be “Salad for sixteen, if you don’t mind, and how about five bottles of wine?” Don’t worry, they’ll all reciprocate when they come to your house. The town is full of terrific cooks.

I haven’t made you feel unwelcome, have I? It’s true that the rewards of the place are far more available to those who are committed to it than to those just passing through. As with so much in life. So take the Surry cutoff after you leave the Big Chicken Barn and go see what you think. It’s a small place, but there are those who love it.

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Blue Hill: The Details

Address Book

Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques 1768 Bucksport Rd., Ellsworth; 207-667-7308; bigchickenbarn.com.

Blue Hill Co-Op 4 Ellsworth Rd.; 207-374-2165; bluehill.coop.

Brooklin Boat Yard Center Harbor Rd., Brooklin; 207-359-2236; brooklinboatyard.com.

Fish Net 162 Main St.; 207-374-5240.

Kneisel Hall 137 Pleasant St.; 207-374-2203; kneisel.org.

Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club E. Blue Hill Rd.; 207-374-5581; kollegewidgwokyc.com.

Merrill & Hinckley 11 Union St.; 207-374-2821.

New Surry Theatre 18 Union St.; 207-374-5556; newsurrytheatre.org.

WoodenBoat School 41 Wooden Boat Ln., Brooklin; 207-359-4651; thewoodenboatschool.com.

Hotels

Barncastle Hotel + Restaurant The restaurant is a real village scene, filled with locals and visitors. As a place to stay, it’s classic and convenient. Rooms start at $100; 125 South St., 207-374-2330; barn-castle.com.

Blue Hill Inn An 1835 Federal-style home with a contemporary addition. The restaurant was a favorite of E. B. White’s. Rooms start at $185; 40 Union St.; 207-374-2844; bluehillinn.com.

The Surry Inn Set in a former farmhouse from 1834, the eight-room inn is also home to one of the area’s top restaurants. Rooms start at $100; Rte. 172, Surry; 207-667-5091; surryinn.com.

Restaurants

Arborvine One of the fancier spots in town, it’s a comfortable place that serves excellent food. 33 Main St.; 207-374- 2119; arborvine.com.

Buck’s Harbor Market Restaurant The talented chef, Jonathan Chase, has deep roots in the community. 6 Cornfield Hill Rd., Brooksville; 207-326-8683.

Marlintini’s Grill A roadhouse a little way out of town, serving standard bar food. 83 Mines Rd.; 207-374-2500.

Activities

Blue Hill Books A first-rate selection, with a great collection of all things E. B. White and a terrific representation of local authors. 26 Pleasant St.; 207-374-5632; bluehillbooks.com.

Buck’s Harbor Marine For chartering sailboats or motorboats, with or without a captain. 684 Coastal Rd. (Rte. 176), South Brooksville; 207-326- 8839; bucksharbor.com.

Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) The weekly Island Explorers eco-cruise is a great outing for children. 55 Main St.; 207-374-2135; meriresearch.org.

Rocky Coast Outfitters In addition to bikes, canoes and kayaks, Rocky Coast rents backpacks and other hiking gear. 5 Grindleville Rd.; 207-374-8866; rockycoastoutfitters.com.

The Activity Shop A convenient spot for renting kayaks, canoes and bikes (reserve in advance). 61 Ellsworth Rd.; 207-374-3600; theactivityshop.com.