As undergraduates at one of Maine’s finest universities, we shared an appreciation for the beauty of that state’s coasts and a tolerant understanding of the oft-repeated claim that lobsters from those pristine waters were the best of the best, with meat that was sweetly succulent, tasted of the ocean and was unmatched anywhere. The merits of this Great Maine Lobster Hypothesis came up again last summer at a landmark reunion, leading to the idea that a re-examination of the hypothesis might be a savvy excuse for some late summer cruising and a chance to catch up on what had been learned on and off the water in the decades since our graduation. Since both of us had recently exited full-time careers, a cruise to the Grand Rockland Lobster Festival, one of Fodor Travel’s top 10 summer food events, quickly emerged as the best idea for the reunion.
We were regular boat mates in our earlier days, and both of us had soloed “wet” long before legal highway driving — Paul is from Woods Hole and Peter is from Newport. So with a bit of rust and partial recall of semi-competence, we agreed to meet on Mount Desert Island for the 45ish-nautical mile run across deep, azure, largely calm waters to the lobster festival in Rockland aboard Paul’s 38-foot Sabre Bald Eagle.
Mount Desert is quintessential Down East Maine, a popular summer destination with spectacular outdoor activities — think Acadia National Park — as well as resorts, restaurants, golf, and shopping. It hosts a sizeable year-round population, with facilities such as the renowned Jackson Research Labs and College of the Atlantic, not to mention the many skilled craftsmen creating masterworks from the likes of Hinckley and Morris. Following the short drive from Portland, we provisioned at the lovely village close to laid-back Northeast Municipal Marina before partaking in a proper night’s culinary send-off at Asticou Inn.
The next morning we departed early into lingering fog, heading out toward the popular Western Way and the fields of lobster pots and floats that demand slow and careful navigation. A bow spotter and perhaps shaft cutters are helpful in this situation, but if you catch a line be sure to re-tie it: Lobster pots are how they make a living here. Our route through Casco Passage and the string of more than 60 islands that mark Merchant Row was simply beautiful. After that it was easy motoring across Penobscot Bay to a mooring in North Haven’s protected Pulpit Harbor.
It was a full day’s run, but thanks to a chance encounter with Eileen, a cruising friend who’d charmed a kayak’s load of little “chicken” lobsters from a passing lobsterman and then graciously cooked them up for both our well-worn crews, life got seriously better. It was a great first taste of the journey’s prey, perfectly coupled with a California white wine and a beautiful sunset.
The next day we were off from Pulpit Rock to Rockland. We made fast at a reserved-well-in-advance berth at Journey’s End Marina, a welcoming, comprehensive facility that’s a frequent base for CCA cruisers and New York Yacht Clubbers alike and an ideal home from which to enjoy the lobster festival.
Unfortunately our arrival coincided with a warm rain, so rather than catch the crowning of that year’s festival Sea Goddess, we found a patisserie for coffee and sweets and then visited the wonderful Wyeth and American Impressionist collections at the Farnsworth Art Museum. Afterward we took a quick trip through the historic Lighthouse Museum, then headed back to the marina for onboard libations and dinner.
The weather for the rest of our stay was, fortunately, bright and cheery. The festival is truly a communitywide, all-volunteer enterprise that celebrates not just the mighty lobster but many of the state’s other treasures as well. Support from corporate sponsors, vendors, and modest admissions fees help maintain the town’s maritime facilities and many municipal, medical, and senior services.
For us, highlights included our rigorous sampling of various preparations of the cold-water critters; checking out the lobster cooking contest; and enjoying the wide range of musical events, from rock to country (Willie even made an appearance not too long ago). Each morning there’s an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast while the world’s largest lobster cookers are busy preparing lunch and dinner. More than 20,000 pounds of “bugs,” brought in fresh daily, are steamed throughout the festival. Traditional accompaniments include corn and slaw, and the buttered rolls stuffed with pure luscious claw meat were the best we could remember.
Between meals, there are carnival rides, 5K & 10K races, a parade, and many arts and craft exhibitions. Without a doubt, the star attraction for pure fun was the Great Lobster Crate Race, for which fearless youths race across a string of floating lobster crates until they hit one of the foot-tripping rope loops, fall into the drink, and are pulled to safety by the waiting skiff captains. A hoot!
The Rockland Festival is a lobsterlover’s fantasy, piles of fun wrapped in he welcoming spirit that pervades this close-knit community. It gets our vote as one of the best reasons for late-summer New England cruising. The 2015 Festival is from July 29 to August 2, and a detailed agenda is posted at mainelobster festival.com. And oh, as for the hypothesis: Confirmed! The lobster was as good as it ever gets.