By DAN SCHLOSSBERG
It happens every fall. Shortly after summer tourists depart, and the leaves start changing: red, yellows, and oranges form a cornucopia of color, replacing the greens of summer with shimmering rainbows. For the trees, normally competing with rocky seascapes and Victorian structures for photographic attention, this is their season.
Maine is merely magnificent after Labor Day. Awash in lighthouses, inns, and lobster shacks, it is the seventh biggest state in area – larger than the five other New England states combined – but is also the most sparsely populated state east of the Mississippi.
But that’s not counting the lobsters who love its 5,500 miles of craggy coastline, cool Atlantic waters, and the 2,000 offshore islands pock-marked by coves, inlets, and tidal pools. String them together and Maine’s 32,000 miles of rivers and streams surpass the combined length of the Mississippi, Amazon, Yangtze, and Nile Rivers.
Lobsters love it, but so do the state’s 5,700 lobstermen, who rise daily at 4 a.m. to check their traps, replace the bait, and sell to a myriad of lobster pounds that sell directly to restaurants. The hot lobster served at Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a favorite of George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, might have been lurking in the cool ocean waters just hours earlier.
In Maine, the words “fresh Maine lobster” will never be confused with false advertising. The state provides 90% of all lobster consumed in the United States, although it comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes before it lands on a plate. The lobster roll, featuring chunks of meat wrapped in a hot dog bun, is often served cold, but lobster pie, the specialty of the Maine Diner on Route 1 in Wells, is always served hot. Gourmet lobster recipes are specialties of the house at the White Barn Inn, home of the only five-star restaurant in Maine. Barbara Bush has celebrated several birthdays there.
Patrons of Mabel’s consume 1,000 pounds of lobster per week – no mean feat for a modest-looking place that seats only 45 people inside and another 20 outside. Owner Robert Fischer, who bought the restaurant from Mabel Hanson nearly 20 years ago, has changed only his prices.
“The place opened in 1953 but hasn’t changed much at all,” he admitted. “It’s the same menu to some degree, and even a lot of the same wood paneling from the old place. We even play some oldies music from the ‘50s and some music from the war years. People love it.”
A Secret Service detail precedes a Bush visit, which otherwise lacks drama. “He comes in like a normal Joe and enjoys himself in the corner,” Fischer said. “Maybe that’s why he likes it so much.”
Now that he’s nearly 90, Bush can’t walk the distance from the Walker’s Point estate to Mabel’s but curious tourists meander along Ocean Drive hoping for a glimpse. He waves to onlookers from his boat, which is invariably accompanied by several rafts marked SECRET SERVICE. So much for the “secret” part if they’re going to announce themselves! Mabel’s, which gets its lobsters from a pound across the street, operates on a seasonal schedule, usually April-November, but stays open for the fall foliage season that starts in October.
Local competitors include the Cape Pier Chowder House, at the tip of the Cape Porpoise peninsula 10 minutes from Dock Square in Kennebunkport, and the Maine Diner, where the lobster pie landed on the “TODAY” show after the vacationing Al Roker dropped in. Up the road in Freeport is Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster, right in the heart of a working local marina. And it’s not that much further to Red’s Eats, a 74-year-old treasure that is little more than a roadside shack at the corner of Main and Water Streets in Wiscasset. Their lobster rolls, sandwiched into toasted, split-top buns, contain the meat of a one-pound lobster.
Between meals, Kennebunkport visitors have a wide variety of options ranging from sightseeing boat rides (some on actual lobstering boats) to shopping (antique shops abound). They can take pictures of the Wedding Cake House, a Victorian built by a sea captain as a gift for his daughter, or take rides on genuine streetcars at the Seashore Trolley Museum, three miles out of town.
Tourists can not only see historic homes, but stay in them. The 49-room Kennebunkport Inn, built by a wealthy tea merchant in 1899, not only has a piano bar and full-service restaurant but also proximity to Dock Square, marked by a giant flagpole rising out of a circular flower bed and a multi-arrowed sign pointing the way to local attractions. The inn is also the centerpiece of a six-hotel collection that includes properties of all sizes and descriptions – even a grouping of 16 cottages in a cove-side setting. Guests of the Cottages at Cabot Cove have unlimited access to canoes and kayaks that make perfect vantage points for shooting the foliage of the season.
Less than two hours up the road, the 25-room Black Point Inn was cited by Yankee Magazine as having the best ocean views in Maine. Built on a peninsula in 1878, it features rooms with private decks, all-weather wicker furniture, and the oceanside Prouts Neck Cliff Walk, which winds past the studio of renowned landscape painter Winslow Homer. The nine-acre property also has proximity to the air gateway of Portland, just 15 minute away by car.
Fall foliage may be all over New England but only one place mixes leaves, lobster, and less crowding. That’s why Maine has more autumnal appeal than any of its neighbors. The tiny town of Kennebunkport, where presidents and world leaders have held summer summits, is only five hours northeast of New Jersey by car and even closer for those who choose the comfort of train travel or the adventure of flying. ‘Nuff said.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg is travel editor of Sirius XM Radio’s Maggie Linton Show, host of the weekly Travel Itch Radio podcast, and founder/president emeritus of the North American Travel Journalists Association [NATJA].
Leaves & Lobster:
A Maine Event