Paddling Down East From Inn to Inn
THE tides and wind were against us and the sun was in our eyes as we paddled into the harbor at Rockland, Me. My friend Kira and I emerged from the marina in our life jackets and spray skirts, lugging paddles, nautical charts and clothing across the street to the Old Granite Inn, our shoulders sore and heads aching from two hours of paddling in the heat.
Herb Swanson for The New York Times
Herb Swanson for The New York Times
We were so tired we thought about going straight to sleep — but then someone told us about a local restaurant, one of the best in Maine. Within the hour, we were seated at its elegant copper bar, drinking strawberry-and-rhubarb cocktails, mixed with ingredients from the garden out back.
We had paddled a quarter of the way up Penobscot Bay, starting about 60 miles northeast of Portland, because I wanted a sea-kayaking journey on the Maine coast. But I also wanted hot showers and a warm bed. I didn’t mind doing some of the hard work (the paddling), but I didn’t want to do all of it (the cooking). The answer: an inn-to-inn kayaking trip.
Finding help in arranging such a trip wasn’t easy. Water Walker Sea Kayaks, based in Belfast, Me., is a rare outfitter leading guided and guide-supported inn-to-inn trips on the Maine coast for beginner and intermediate paddlers. We opted for guide support, which meant that the owner of the company, Ray Wirth, devised an itinerary and provided us with nautical charts, compass, guidebook and radio, and accompanied us for the first hour to give us safety tips and paddling pointers.
Our route went north from Tenants Harbor, stopping for one night each at bed-and-breakfasts a few miles apart in South Thomaston, Rockland and Camden. In kayaks, we could dip into coves and inlets and circumnavigate small islands, exploring a seldom-seen side of Maine.
We started on a late-June day at the town dock in Tenants Harbor, adjacent to Cod End, a seafood restaurant whose backyard is littered with stacks of lobster traps and bushes of wild roses. A gusting onshore wind flooded the entire harbor with the smell of roses as we pushed off past moored lobster boats and the occasional white-clapboard house.
The wind sent a ripple of whitecaps across the ocean’s surface and kicked up some waves, which washed over the tandem kayak Kira and I were paddling. There was also the issue of the tide, which can be quite strong because it is linked to the extreme tidal fluctuations of the Bay of Fundy, and the fact that the water was a biting 53 degrees. But Mr. Wirth had told us that in eight years of guiding, he had never seen a tandem capsize.
To be extra safe, we headed for the leeward side of Whitehead Island, three miles out from Tenants Harbor, surfing the waves into the calmer waters of a small channel, then cruising alongside gray granite slabs surrounded by rosebushes. Our boat skimmed a couple of feet above boulders covered in weeds that looked like the sea’s answer to shag carpeting, and we glided around the island until we popped out at the base of the magnificent Whitehead Island Lighthouse, at the southern entrance of Penobscot Bay. Seeing that lighthouse felt like an official Maine welcome.
We continued on through Seal Harbor and into an inlet where, according to our chart and itinerary, we would find our lodging for the night, the Blue Lupin B & B. As we searched the coastline for the inn, a great blue heron flew past us, and a plump seal sunbathed on a rock.
THE Blue Lupin is a white two-story house on a grassy bluff beside a pier. We dragged our boat up off the beach and set it under one of three hulking maple trees on the lawn. Inside the house, we found the innkeeper, Helen Mitchell, a 55-year-resident of the property, sitting on her living room sofa finishing up some sewing.
Staying at the Blue Lupin was like stopping in for a night with your great aunt — if you were lucky enough to be born into a family with a stunning oceanfront plot of land and one of Maine’s best lobster shacks as a neighbor. To get to the shack, Waterman’s Beach Lobster — recognized a few years ago by the James Beard Foundation for its lobster roll — we walked out of our rooms, across our private decks, a hundred yards through the grass to the beach and up a set of stone steps beside the pier.
We ate lobster, of course, and rhubarb pie (both to die for) as we watched lobstermen on the pier pulling traps and a group of local kids on the beach skipping stones. Later that night in my room, I listened to waves breaking outside and studied the chart, planning the next day’s route.
At breakfast, Ms. Mitchell quizzed us on our Maine trivia.
“Guess how much the most successful lobsterman makes around here?” She said. “Four hundred thousand dollars!” she answered her own question proudly.
She showed us a newspaper clipping about the rare yellow lobster that was caught just offshore last year, and pictures of blue lobsters that are discovered a little more frequently in the bay. She asked if we’d seen the eagle fly overhead at dawn, and she pointed out a nest atop a white pine on Tommy Island.
Soon it was time to get back on the water. We packed the boat and paddled past dozens of colorful lobster buoys, headed for the Muscle Ridge Islands, an archipelago a couple of miles offshore, where underwater ledges serve as a breeding ground for harbor seals. We reached the archipelago within an hour, landing our boat on Birch Island for a short hike.
The cries of an osprey protecting its nest on the far side of the island grew more urgent the closer we got, so we backed off and returned to the boat, swishing past tufts of daisies and roses. We pushed off again into shallow, rocky water crammed with mussels. A seal popped its head up, and then disappeared at the sight of an oncoming lobster boat.
It was a long paddle to Owls Head, where we would have our choice of a few stony beaches with good shelter for lunch beneath the 1825 lighthouse that marks the entrance to Rockland Harbor. We stuck close to shore, examining giant maples and pines rising up from a thin layer of soil covering slabs of rust- and brown-colored igneous rock. The rock, blocky and jagged, reminded me of a brooding Picasso painting.
When you reach it by road, Rockland doesn’t look like your quintessentially quaint Maine town. But because we approached it from the water, we missed the Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut most people drive past. My visit to Rockland started with the Old Granite Inn — an airy bed-and-breakfast with a meticulously kept garden and a front porch overlooking the harbor.
When Kira and I walked into the Black Bull, a bar two blocks from the Old Granite Inn, we were so exhausted we’d given up on dinner. Kira had been attacked by black flies at Owls Head and her forehead was now bulging with a welt the size of a Ping-Pong ball.
The bartender came to the rescue with ice for the welt, dinner reservations at Primo and a taxi to take us there. Even though the Black Bull serves food (including a delicious burger, according to our innkeepers), he was adamant that we have dinner at Primo.
“People fly in just to eat there,” he told us. I wondered how many people had paddled in.
THAT’S how we wound up having fresh-fruit cocktails from the garden of Primo’s owner, Melissa Kelly, a James Beard-award-winning chef who trained with Alice Waters and grows most of her ingredients in Primo’s backyard. We went on to order a delicious halibut caught just offshore in Vinalhaven that was served with steamed clams, mussels and sweet shrimp gnochetti.
Our last day of kayaking was leisurely, the wind and tides pushing us all the way to Camden, about 25 miles from our starting point at Tenants Harbor. We beached ourselves just below the Camden library, to the right of a waterfall. Mr. Wirth met us there, we hauled the boat onto his trailer, and he dropped us at our final stop, the Hawthorn Inn, a massive Victorian where king-size beds and Jacuzzi bathtubs awaited.
We still had to drive back down to Tenants Harbor to pick up our car. But first, we stopped at Camden Cone for a scoop of Maine blueberry ice cream, filled with enough whole berries to rival the flavor of those heavenly strawberry-and-rhubarb drinks we’d had, the ones that tasted so good after a long day’s paddle up the coast of Maine.
WATER WALKER SEA KAYAKS (207-338-6424; www.touringkayaks.com) runs guided and guide-supported inn-to-inn sea kayaking trips in Penobscot Bay in June, July and August. A guided tour, including kayak rentals, costs $100 a person a day (food and lodging not included).
Blue Lupin Bed & Breakfast, in South Thomaston (207-594-2673; www.bluelupinbandb.com), has rooms for two from $85 to $155.
Waterman’s Beach Lobster (207-596-7819), in South Thomaston, is open Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The lobster roll costs $14.95.
Primo Restaurant, on the south side of Rockland (2 South Main Street; 207-596-0770; www.primorestaurant.com), serves dinner nightly. Dinner for two with wine runs about $150
The Black Bull, also in Rockland (420 Main Street; 207-593-9060, www.blackbulltavern.com), serves local beer and pub food. Sandwiches from $7.95.
By CLAIRE MARTIN