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Breaking from the herd to smalltown Maine

By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2008
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HANCOCK, Maine - With the economy taking a nose dive, this seems like a smart time to explore do-it-yourself options: things we could make, raise, or grow less expensively than we can buy them. We thought it might be instructive, even entertaining, to spend a few days on a farm during fall harvest.

So we were delighted to discover Three Pines Bed & Breakfast and Farm. The off-the-grid solar home on 40 acres was recently named by the state a leader in environmentally responsible tourism - the perfect place, we thought, for recession-conscious ecotravel.

When we arrived, co-owner Ed Curtis was bent over in his backyard, picking stems from a tub of Concord grapes from a small arbor near the main house. "Yesterday was apple cider day," said Karen, his wife and the farm's other co-owner, pointing to a cider press out by the garage. "Today is grape juice. Next comes grape jam."

She showed us to our room: a second-floor, gabled unit with an unusual ceiling that forms an inward, eight-pointed star. "It's like being inside an orange juice squeezer," my companion quipped. The room is small with no TV or phone, but it's cozy, reasonably priced at $115 a night, and has a private bath, private entrance, and an attractive view overlooking Sullivan Harbor and Frenchman's Bay.

After we settled in, we toured the main house, with its beautiful post-and-beam construction and elaborate power system. A huge Russian fireplace and a passive solar setup with wide, south-facing windows heat the main house, while photovoltaic solar panels on the rooftop provide electricity, supplemented by a propane generator. "But we only use that about 120 hours a year," Karen said. In the basement command center, solar power charges batteries with inverters that convert it for household use.

Everywhere there are signs of industry. On one deck by the main house, fishnet bags with beans dried in the sun. Nearby is a small kitchen garden, the grape arbor, a henhouse with exotic chickens raised for their eggs, and a sugar shack where Ed makes maple syrup. There's also a system to treat and filter water from their well.

The Curtises are aerospace engineers who spent much of their professional lives working on jet turbine engines. But they wanted "to take better care of ourselves," Ed said. They aimed to be as self-sufficient as possible. They had no experience in farming or innkeeping but were eager to give them a try. They bought the Hancock property in 1994 and began work on the home, which they designed themselves. They built it in 2001 and opened for guests in 2002.

Now, both at 51, they're the ultimate do-it-yourselfers. Roaming around their farm is like visiting a huge science fair, with mini-projects at every turn.

The farm includes a solar-illuminated barn with a solar-powered water pump, a flock of sheep, and a llama. Those animals are raised for wool, which Karen spins and knits. There's a small orchard, a large vegetable garden with a hoop-style greenhouse, even some beehives to supply honey. They also make honey-oatmeal soap, yogurt, and several kinds of cheese. Ed shows us a homemade cheese press fashioned from an old coffee can, part of a broomstick, some scrap wood, and a few bricks.

They run the whole operation themselves; Karen even cleans the two guest rooms. She also cooks a mean breakfast. On both mornings of our stay, we ate on a sunny deck overlooking the water. One breakfast featured fresh-laid eggs scrambled with broccoli picked that morning, blueberry and raspberry muffins, their own apple cider, and their own elderberry jam on toast. Another day Karen served grape juice Ed had just made and apple pancakes with their maple syrup. We ate listening to the calls of loons and marveling at the local bounty.

One highlight of our stay was a visit to the barn for the evening feeding. As soon as the animals caught sight of Karen, there was a small stampede. We met the sheep (Karen knows all 23 by name), two Muscovy ducks, an ornery rooster, and Spotlight, the llama, who guards the flock. We managed to feed two or three sheep, but most of the animals seemed unnerved by our presence.

The sheep are exotic breeds - Jacob, Shetland, Navajo-Churro, and Soay. When the Curtises began raising them, they thought they would breed and sell them, keeping a few as pets. But the market wasn't there, and they had difficulty parting with them, Karen said. Now they sell the fleece, but this doesn't cover their costs.

Other projects, however, have been cost effective - especially the gardens and the orchard, all organic, and the B&B. In any case, said Ed, "We're glad to open our home to like-minded people who want to pick our brains."

A short walk leads to water's edge, where a kayak and canoe are available to guests at no charge. Some pleasant footpaths traverse the property, including an old railroad bed that forms a trail through the woods on either side of the house. To the south, the path leads to Gull Rock Pottery, with a shop selling locally made arts and crafts, a charming sculpture garden, and great views of Mount Desert Island and Cadillac Mountain. To the north is Tidal Falls Preserve, with picnic tables in a landscaped park and views of a reversing falls. In the autumn air, the changing colors formed a canopy over our heads as we walked along, crunching leaves.

Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor, with fabulous trails and shops and restaurants, are a short drive away. Karen suggested a back-roads route.

The Curtises are vegetarians, but Karen recommended two restaurants nearby that would satisfy any omnivore. The Crocker House in Hancock is an 1884 inn with classic, traditional fare in a charming country setting. Cleonice in Ellsworth is a Mediterranean bistro with more imaginative fare, including a tapas menu, and produce supplied by its own farm. We tried them both and were impressed.

After grilling Ed on his cheese-making operation, we said goodbye, full of plans to make ourselves more self-reliant. As we left, Ed was storing potatoes and squash in the root cellar, and he and Karen were planning a cranberry-picking expedition to make holiday relishes.

Judith Gaines can be reached at gaines.judith@gmail.com.

If You Go

Three Pines Bed & Breakfast and Farm

274 East Side Road

Hancock, Maine

207-460-7595

www.threepinesbandb.com

Rooms for two on a farm that rocket scientists created; $85-$115 with vegetarian breakfast.

Where to eat

Cleonice

112 Main St., Ellsworth

207-664-7554

www.cleonice.com

Adventurous Mediterranean cuisine in a comfortable bistro with an open kitchen. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m. Lunch $5.75-$9.50; dinner entrees $18.50-$29; tapas $3-$9.50.

The Crocker House

967 Point Road, Hancock

207-422-6806

www.crockerhouse.com

Classic fare stressing local ingredients in a charming old country inn. Daily for dinner May 1-Oct. 31, Friday-Sunday in April, November, and December. Entrees $27-$33.

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