What I love about Blue Hill, Maine
A Kitten’s Guide to Blue Hill, Maine
“Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven doesn’t make them biscuits.” Even though I was born in Ellsworth (the Blue Hill Hospital doesn’t do twins), and even though I’ve lived in Blue Hill off and since then, I’m definitely not local. Nor are my children or m theoretical future grandchildren. Nor are the summer people whose families have been coming here since the mid 1800’s. Nor is the fisherman who moved here from Gloucester to dive for sea cucumbers in the ‘80’s and stayed.
So now that we’ve established that unless your name is Denny Robertson, you are not a biscuit, I’m calling this post the Kitten’s Guide to Blue Hill. Basically, this is a random ramble about the things I like about living in Blue Hill, Maine. I’m going to leave out a ton, so if you’re looking for a less personal, more inclusive guide to the area check out Melissa Coleman’s 2010 Maine Magazine article – just be aware that many of the eating establishments listed there no longer exist.
Let’s start with a typical summer day here on this eastern edge of the Avalonian Island Arc . The climate here is not as tropical as it was back when our bedrock was forming but because Blue Hill is slightly tucked in away from the Gulf of Maine it tends to be warmer and less foggy than neighboring Bar Harbor and Deer Isle. Somewhere in July or August we get at least one week of heat and humidity. Made more so because of the lack of air-conditioning on most of the Peninsula. But why would you want to cool off during the one week a year it gets over 80 degrees? I say soak it up kittens, you’re going to want that heat come January.
The sun is up early in the summer and I try to make the most of it by getting out on a bike or run before I teach my morning classes. Friends often tell me they are scared to bike on the shoulderless roads here. But early morning traffic is very light, especially on the weekends. Also, it’s good to stick to the roads that have good clean pavement so you can fully own your three feet – don’t move over onto broken pavement or a soft shoulder to make way for cars or you risk loosing your balance and falling perilously into the traffic you’re trying to avoid. The road around Brooklin was freshly paved last year and heading out that way from the center of Blue Hill makes for a scenic low-traffic 20-40-mile loop (add Naskeag, Flye Point and Harriman Point for additional quiet, gently rolling, scenic miles). The East Blue Hill Road was also recently paved though it is a hillier and curvier road. Novice bikers will love the flat and slow-traffic stretch on Newbury Neck, and I bike Toddy Pond Road a couple times a week because I love the pretty blueberry fields, views of Bald Mountain and light traffic. Beware of Route 15 between Blue Hill and Sedgwick (a.k.a the Mines Road), the visibility is terrible, the road is narrow and overburdened lobster trucks barrel by carrying their loads between the Stonington Dock and Bangor airport leaking rivers of fishy effluent as they go.
Trail Running and Hiking
Some mornings I start with a trail run instead of a ride. I live close to Turkey Farm Road, so I like to run up the 1.5-mile Becton Trail on the backside of Blue Hill Mountain to the 934 ft. peak, then down the front side past the Mountain Road and into town via the Post Office Trail, then back up again the same way for a round trip of eight, mostly shaded trail miles. All these trails and several more are maintained by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust. You can purchase a guide to all the trails on the Peninsula at their office on the corner of the Mountain Road and Route 15 (Pleasant Street).
I do a couple of long swims a week in the summer. The ocean water is cold enough that I try to time my swims with an afternoon high tide when the water is warmed by the shallow mudflats and beach rocks. I often launch from the big rock off the Blue Hill Town Park and swim a circle around the middle part of the Harbor. This doubles as a nice DIY tour of the pretty wooden boats and summer houses along the Parker Point shoreline. I have several friends who swim an hour or more out into the Bay relying entirely on their winter blubber supply, but I’m a little wimpier and usually supplement my own insulation with a wetsuit. If I’m feeling ambitious and brave (great white sharks, also not biscuits, have recently discovered the Maine Coast . . .) I love swimming around the seal rocks or out to Long Island (~2 miles away), where my family meets me to ferry me back in our tin boat.
Aside from my own exercise-recreation, our whole family spends most of our time outside in the summer. There is a very popular and scenic swimming beach in East Blue Hill but since it is technically on private property, I won’t mention it by name. It, along with every other rocky, muddy, fir-lined beach in Maine, is optimal kid habitat. Unless there are explicit private property signs (uncommon and unwelcome), we freely wander the beaches around Blue Hill Bay. We mindfully avoid marring the view sheds of weddings and summer-people cocktail parties that take place in August. As a general rule, for 11 months out of the year, our beach is your beach. Or rather, your beach is our beach. We thank you. Those of us who can spend whole days on your (our) beaches with the kids running in a wild, salty, muddy pack, parents coming and going to and from work, trading off kid-watch, feeding and towel-wrapping duties. The kids bury jelly fish under rocky piles, hum to snails, sport rockweed wigs, dig up clams, engineer complex hydrological experiments and collectively threatening to blow out to sea on inflatable turtles, inner tubes and rafts. It’s a good life.
We have seen some wonderful restaurants come and go over the years (Pie in the Sky, the Left Bank . . . sigh . . .) and everyone I know has a vision of the perfect Blue Hill café. Mine is a warm, comfortable space with sunlit tables and a couch for the kids to play on. The food is heavy on flavor and freshness and light on Sysco . . . Alas, the combination of a low year-round population (2,600) and the annoyingly inflated cost of commercial and private real estate make it hard if not impossible to sustain small local businesses that don’t rely on national/corporate food distributors. Ideally Blue Hillers will get it together and figure out a comprehensive town plan that can keep downtown rent reasonable, prevent crappy dollar stores and fast food drive thrus and support local family businesses that cater to and thrive on the local income bracket. But too many people think that kind of planning would incite (another) kitten-biscuit war and no one wants to go there.
In the meantime there are places making it work by working harder than anyone should. Visit them often and tip them well . . .
Breakfast and Coffee
After I teach my yoga or Pilates classes I head to the Blue Hill Co Op Café for a cup of vegan soup or a warm gluten-free muffin. The baked goods are overpriced and the quality is variable, but the fact that there is a gluten-free, whole grain, kale salad option in this area makes the Co Op a miracle worth supporting. Another miracle is Anya’s brand new Greenspeed juice bar on Water Street (next to the tatoo parlor, and beneath the yoga studio!). At the moment she’s making fresh pressed green juice and real, whole food smoothies and there’s talk of adding some fresh, raw food options too. Three years ago the nearest espresso was in Ellsworth, but currently there is a gluttony of choices. I love meeting my girlfriends at Black Dinah’s for a latte made with 44 North beans surrounded by the sweet scent of Fairwinds Florist flowers. Or I head up to the Blue Hill Wine Shop where Max will make you an espresso while you nibble on one of their delicious little sandwiches made with Tinderhearth sourdough bread and real cheese combined with the smell of tobacco, old wood and coffee beans. Sometimes I just want to go loiter in the Wineshop without needing to buy anything (Max would undoubtedly be fine with this as long as you lend your ear and something of worth to add to the conversation). Sandy’s Provisions in Brooklin is similar and I often make up reasons to head that way so I can stop in for a cup of Bucklyn’s coffee and a homemade cookie. Having pretty much dedicated his life to the cause, there is no doubt that David makes the best espresso on the Peninsula.
After my Saturday morning yoga class I head over to the Blue Hill Farmer’s Market to grab the last bunch of broccoli or a pint blueberries before they close up at 11:30. One can make a pretty good brunch out Farmer’s Market fixins’.
Lunch and Dinner
My family rarely eats out for lunch or dinner because we tend to be picky and high maintenance. So when we do go out it is more for the social aspect. And Barncastle fills that need nicely. It has a cozy, family appeal and almost meets all my qualifications for the ideal local restaurant with the only problem that most of my family can’t eat dairy or gluten and Barncastle’s main gig is wood fired pizza. I suspect most of my friends eat one or more Barncastle pizzas a week. (They also serve nachos, ribs, salads and mussels).
The Fishnet (aka the Fishy Snack) is another glutenous-dairy-filled venue. Every spring on opening day they offer free soft serve cones and people emerge from the woodwork like carpenter ants on a warm day. The Fishnet is the place for authentic Maine fried and rolled seafood. When I was pregnant with my first daughter I was consumed by morning sickness. I would go into the hospital to get rehydrated and they would give me this medication that briefly allowed me to contemplate eating without barfing. The only thing I could think of eating during those few sober hours was a shrimp roll from the Fishnet. So, every June, on Lucy’s birthday and in honor of being un-pregnant, I order a Fishnet shrimp or crab roll and it is really, really tasty, white bread hotdog bun and all.
The other place to go in town if you are craving a fish sandwich, iceberg lettuce and thousand island dressing is Marlentinis. The only time I ever end up here is when the local Audubon chapter meets to go over our Christmas Bird count lists. There are times when it is the only restaurant open in town and it draws a steady loyal crowd, though it sadly lacks in flavor, freshness and atmosphere.
In downtown Blue Hill the De-li and Millstream bakeries are making a go at surviving the high rent/low traffic dilemma and both serve up sandwiches, coffee and baked goods. I admit I don’t visit either often, but they are great alternatives to the unmentionable chain venues that lurk on the edge of town.
A few times this year I’ve made the trip out to Jill’s new Millbrook Company Bakery in the old Country View building on Route 15. This is my daughter’s favorite place for special “Mom” dates (I think this is because unlike the Co Op Cafe, I am unlikely to know anyone at Millbrook so I will be free to pay full attention to them instead of chatting with my girlfriends the whole time). I like the fresh recipe ideas, the local ingredients and the sunny view. On weekend summer afternoons we like to swim in Walker Pond and then continue down the road to El El Frijoles which serves up fresh, fun, zesty, mexi-gringo grub. There’s always a local seafood option and my kids love the thick homemade corn tortillas, which resemble nothing I’ve ever had in Mexico but make a lovely platform for the refried black beans grown up the road on Horse Power farm.
There are two fancy dinner options in Blue Hill, the Blue Hill Inn and Arborvine – both serve Frenchish cuisine with attention to detail. The environment is a bit too tranquil for this family’s children so we tend to go next door to the Deep Water Brewpub where you can get Blue Hill’s local pint served by the cutest bartender on the Peninsula. Oh wait, that’s my husband. He’ll also serve you mussels, curried fish, a local grassfed burger and handcut fries. We eat there every couple of weeks to keep him company. We’ve never gone to the Boatyard Grill, but the Deepwater bartender reports that it has a good reputation.
In truth, most of our meals come from Tradewinds Market, which deserves a ton of credit for providing this area with a steady and decent supply of affordable, organic and often local produce. They also have a very generous section dedicated to gluten-free, organic and other pseudo-health stuff like almond milk, kombucha and goat cheese. What we can’t get there we get at the Co Op or Farm Drop.
The Blue Hill Library provides about 95% of my family’s non-outdoor entertainment. Just last night the kids went to a magic show the library hosted at the Bay School’s Emlen Hall. On Wednesday afternoons in the summer musicians from Kniesel Hall play in the Library’s Howard room and every week there are local authors and artists discussing and displaying their work. In lieu of a formal event there is always something waiting to happen in the comfortable, well attended kid’s section.
There is so much else happening here socially – the Weekly Packet is the best place to find information about upcoming plays, music, gallery openings and more.
I’ve heard visitors complain loudly about what kind of community “allows” a car garage and a firehouse to occupy the most scenic acres in town? And how is it that the library (i.e. the only place in town with public internet) doesn’t open until 10am? Summer people might be tempted to think of us year-rounders as unsophisticated, unconnected, unwashed bumpkins and might wonder what we do for fun with little to no media or commercial entertainment.
The truth is, most of what we do involves getting together to muck around – building, stacking, planting, killing, chopping, hauling and fixing, as well as sailing, swimming, knitting, singing, dancing and hiking. Unless it’s a funeral or a wedding, we rarely get together to sit still.
I’m not trying to overly romanticizing our little village. The truth is, most of us move here because of all there isn’t. But those of who stay, stay because of all there is. If you find yourself driving through or spending a week in a summer cabin nearby, just know that behind the shuttered windows on Main Street, the ubiquitous blue tarps, stacks of lobster pots, broken cars and decrepit backyard boats, there is a vibrant community of talented, happy people struggling to balance easy living with making a living. We don’t care if you’re a biscuit or a kitten, how much money you make or who you know. We care if you are kind and generous and willing to see what we see – a quiet village, surrounded by wild woods and coast. Nothing more, nothing less.