By Allison Tibaldi
Rockland, Maine is a once blue-collar town that has welcomed an influx of artists, intellectuals and foodies without shying away from its essential grittiness. It has plenty of the dramatic nautical scenery that coastal Maine is prized for, so expect lighthouses, rugged peninsulas and panoramic harbors dotted with windjammers. Talk to the locals and they will tell you that Rockland was previously best known for its powerful odor, courtesy of its thriving sardine canning industry.
21st century Rockland has proudly preserved its maritime heritage while blossoming into an unassuming culinary starlet of northern New England, with a smattering of cultural offerings thrown in for good measure. There’s no need to wait for warmer winds to enjoy a weekend in Midcoast Maine. Many attractions are open all year, with the benefit of lower rates during the quieter months of October through May. Pack your long johns and see why this town of 8,000 inhabitants is charming visitors in every season.
Where to Eat
The lobster industry is a vital employer in this town and visitors reap the benefits with the sweetest hard-shell crustaceans served at fair prices. The Rockland Café is a diner with plenty of local color. Don’t expect much in the way of décor at these Spartan digs, but the lobster roll, seafood chowder and fried haddock sandwich are treats for your taste buds. Adventurous eaters have met their match at Café Miranda. Owner/ Chef Kerry Altiero holds the title of Maine Lobster Chef of the Year and hungry folk from around the state crowd into this cozy bistro to sample his irreverent cuisine. Kerry lives on a farm outside of town and much of what he serves is inspired by the daily harvest. Though the restaurant is pocket-sized, the portions and flavors are huge. The interpretive menu is global and effortlessly jumps from Thailand to Mexico, while keeping the flavor profile legitimate. Wood-fired pizzas (the wood is chopped from Kerry’s own trees), hand-rolled pasta with Port Clyde crab, plus loads of veggie and vegan options makes deciding what to order a potential brainteaser. Dinner reservations are necessary, even in winter.
Primo is Rockland’s most applauded and picturesque dining spot, thanks to its Maine-meets-Mediterranean cuisine, Victorian setting, manicured gardens and accomplished Chef Melissa Kelly. If you’re going the nose-to-tail route, commence with crispy pig’s tails and a variety of house-cured charcuterie before moving on to liver cooked three different ways. The delicate Bolognese sauce is made with a combination of local veal, beef and pork and served over pappardelle noodles, cooked to al dente perfection. The jam-packed wine list is a thing of beauty. Primo is located just outside of downtown, a worthwhile walk.
Rockland shines bright in the casual burger arena at L&H Burgers. Select a beef, chicken or mushroom-heavy veggie burger and customize it with your choice of tasty toppings. Sweet potato fries are shoestring-shaped magic. Everything is fresh, fast, inexpensive and delicious. To satisfy your sweet tooth, head over to Atlantic Baking Co. The delectable pastries, muffins, breads, pies and cakes are all made from scratch using unbleached, unbromated flour and whole grains, so you can indulge with minimal guilt. For coffee lovers, Rock City Coffee Roasters is a sip of heaven. The beans are roasted on-premise and you are invited to watch the small-batch roasting process. Downtown Rockland has a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in Downtown Brooklyn. Fog serves up an international selection of wine by the glass, vintage cocktails and Maine craft beers. The atmosphere is suave with soft lighting, a soothing jazz soundtrack and sophisticated small plate offerings.
Directions: Have your cooled pie shells ready to go. In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Melt the bittersweet and semi sweet chocolate in a double boiler and beat into butter and sugar mixture. Add eggs one at a time beating five minutes after each addition. Pour mixture into the pie shells and chill for at least four hours.
Pie is the Thing
One of New England’s best comfort food events takes place in the dead of winter. Pies on Parade is a celebration of all things pie and lovers of flaky crusts, fruit filling and Americana crowd the town annually one Sunday in late January. Time-honored favorites such as lemon meringue, chocolate silk and blueberry will have your sugar craving in overdrive. For lovers of savory flavors, pie is broadly interpreted to include Cornish pasties, Shepard’s pie, chicken potpie, focaccia and a dynamite pizza rustica based on the classic Roman Easter pie. The four Historic Inns of Rockland, local restaurants and businesses participate by baking and serving dozens of delicious offerings. One $25 ticket buys you a recyclable fork and all the pie you can eat. You can walk to all venues, or hop on the free trolley. All proceeds go to the Area Interfaith Outreach food pantry. Buy your tickets in advance, as Pies on Parade always sells out.
When You Can’t Eat Another Bite
Painters have been drawn to the Penobscot Bay for generations, as the combination of tranquility and arresting beauty practically assures a prolific sojourn. The Farnsworth Art Museum offers an incomparable opportunity to view art related to this state. The museum is particularly rich in the seascapes of Andrew Wyeth, whose reputation was established by the works he did in this area. Lectures, concerts and film screenings crowd the calendar all year.
The Maine Lighthouse Museum highlights the traditions of lighthouses, so deeply connected to the identity of this region. Anyone who enjoys boating shouldn’t miss a visit. There are many seafaring artifacts, but the exhibits that focus on the lighthouse keepers themselves really stand out. The museum is closed in January and February, except during the Parade of Pies. If a visit here has inspired you to see the real thing, there are two lighthouses just out of town, the Rockland Breakwater and Owl’s Head.
To catch a glimpse of a dwindling lifestyle, visit one of the islands that support small year-round communities. Rockland’s ferry terminal is the departure point for Vinalhaven and North Haven. Sparsely inhabited except in summer, they are delightful to explore on foot or bike. If you want to experience a truly rugged way of life, take the ferry to the remote shores of Matinicus Island. Life here continues to move at a pace set by wind, weather and tides, just as it has for centuries.
If you come in late spring, summer or fall, don’t miss experiencing Maine from a windjammer. Rockland is a handy departure point for a day sail on one of these graceful tall ships that are berthed in its harbor.
Where to Shop
Main Street is packed with art galleries, antique shops and bookstores that proudly feature local authors. If you are intrigued by regional crafts don’t skip Archipelago. It is housed inside the headquarters of the nonprofit Island Institute. This group is dedicated to preserving Maine’s 15 year-round island communities. The gallery exhibits the work of some 200 Maine island artists and the shop sells their sea-inspired crafts.
Where to Stay
The Historic Inns of Rockland provide the perfect pillow to rest your head on. The four charming Inns are located downtown, making a vehicle redundant. They are all certified Maine Environmental Leaders, meeting stringent eco-standards. If you’re coming for the Parade of Pies, they offer weekend packages that include special events such as a wine and pie pairing. The Lindsey Hotel has nine guest rooms that are loaded with individual personality, without lacking in amenities. The fire is always ablaze in the communal parlor, and it’s the ideal place to partake in late afternoon port wine and a bounty of home-baked goods. Owners Ken and Ellen Barnes are both captains, and together with their son Noah own the oldest sailing vessel in continuous service in the country, the schooner Stephen Taber. Book a multi-night cruise for the definitive Maine experience.
How to get there
Concord Coach leaves from Boston’s South Station and drops you off at the Maine State Ferry Terminal in the heart of town four hours later. See oM’s Boston Transportation Guide for the best car-free options from NY. If the weather cooperates, pedaling historic U.S. 1 is a popular way to see the nearby sights. Bike Rentals are available on Main Street at Sidecountry Sports (207.596.1004).