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Maine

Pretty in white

Camden wears its winters well, reading, eating, sleeping, sporting, museumgoing and going shopping

Windjammers in the harbor. Windjammers in the harbor. (Tom Nangle for The Boston Globe)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2010

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CAMDEN - The usual image of this town is cheek-by-jowl sailboats and motor yachts crowding its snug harbor where Maine’s spruce-clad mountains meet island-salted Penobscot Bay. It’s an image captured in native daughter Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Renascence’’: “All I could see from where I stood, / Was three long mountains and a wood; / I turned and looked the other way, / And saw three islands in a bay.’’

Snow isn’t usually part of such dreamy thoughts, but blanketed in white, Camden is still a looker. Ski and snowshoe trails lace the hills, boats slumber in the harbor, and unusual shops and galleries beckon. In winter, Camden is a place to wind down, dine well, and savor the season.

To ramp up the action, plan a visit coinciding with one of Camden’s winter wingdings. Winterfest, a daylong community-oriented event with ice sculptures, skiing, crafts, carriage rides, and music, marks its ninth year next January. The US National Toboggan Championships, Feb. 5-7, attracts hundreds of competitors and more than a thousand spectators. Far more serious is the Camden Conference (877-214-8579, www.camdenconference.org), Feb. 19-21, which this year focuses on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Even though it’s winter, don’t show up without a room reservation. Camden has perhaps Maine’s best concentration of inns with fine dining, so culinary travelers will be especially rewarded. Both the elegant Hartstone Inn (800-788-4823, www.hartstoneinn.com, $105-$185, including full breakfast and afternoon hors d’oeuvres) and the European-chic Camden Harbour Inn (800-236-4266, www.camdenharbourinn.com, $175-$375, including choice-of-menu champagne breakfast and 24-hour snacks; reopens Feb. 10 after a winter siesta) are in town. The Hartstone also offers cooking classes on some weekends. In Lincolnville, about 5 miles from downtown Camden, the Youngtown Inn (800-291-8438, www.youngtowninn.com, $159 with full breakfast) delivers a taste of France; rates including dinner are available.

If food isn’t your focus, the downtown Camden Riverhouse Hotel (207-236-0500, www.camdenmaine.com, $109-$149, including expanded continental breakfast) has an indoor pool and a hot tub. Children under 16 sharing a parent’s room are free, and pets are $15, with advance reservation. For a classic B&B experience, look no further than the Camden Maine Stay, (207-236-9636, www.camdenmainestay.com, $115-$170, including full breakfast and afternoon sweets). Prefer a cabin in the woods combined with stellar fitness facilities? Point Lookout Resort (800-515-3611, www.visitpointlookout.com, $129-$189), a former executive retreat, has one- to three-bedroom cabins with kitchenettes or kitchens.

Friday
After you have checked in, work out the travel kinks with a walk, taking time to browse the shops in town. If your plans include a good read, three bookstores and an excellent library are within steps of each other.

Stone Soup’s tiny, second-floor, two-room-and-a-closet shop is crammed floor to ceiling with good, used books, with an emphasis on contemporary literature. Across the street is Sherman’s, part of a small Maine chain, and out Sherman’s back door, in the Knox Mill, is independent The Owl & Turtle Bookshop.

In the Camden Public Library, peruse the original screenplay for Peyton Place, filmed here in 1957. Grace Metalious’s book was so controversial that it wasn’t even available in the library at the time. Walk across to Camden Harbor Park, designed by the Frederick Law Olmsted firm and recently restored, where a statue of Millay is tucked into the greenery. The views from there aren’t as lofty as those from Mount Battie’s summit, which inspired “Renascence,’’ but they are exquisite nonetheless.

Planet Toys is fun central, with games and thingamajigs for all ages. Also fun to browse are Ducktrap Bay Trading, chock-full of Maine-related art and craft and Once a Tree, where wood rules. Don’t miss Theo B. Camisole for lovely lingerie. On a budget? Serendipity rules next to First Congregational Church at Heavenly Threads, a quality thrift store benefiting local nonprofits, and at Reny’s, a bonanza of discounted brand-name goods and clothing, in the plaza on the southern end of town.

For a taste of local color, have a cocktail at Waterfront Restaurant, overlooking Camden’s sleepy harbor, or a brew at lively Cappy’s Chowder House.

It may be the offseason, but you still need reservations to land a table at Francine Bistro (55 Chestnut St., 207-230-0083, www.francinebistro.com). Brian Hill is increasingly garnering national attention for his creative use of locally sourced ingredients and seasonal fare. The menu isn’t broad, and it changes daily. Don’t expect fancy; tables are tight and it can be noisy if the locals get yammering across the tables.

For divine thin-crust pizzas, as well as pasta, soups, and salads, seek out Paolina’s Way (10 Bayview Landing, 207-230-0555, www.paolinasway.com). Expect authentic Italian, with everything made from organic or all-natural ingredients. It also serves lunch.

Saturday
Ready to play? The community-owned Camden Snow Bowl (207-236-3438, www.camdensnowbowl.com) has fun down pat. Alpine trails ebb and flow from a summit high enough to see Penobscot Bay. Not a skier or snowboarder? Head to the tubing hill or brave the toboggan chute, which shoots sledders out onto frozen Hosmer Pond. There’s ice-skating on the pond, and there are trails for snowshoeing. It’s all quite retro, right down to the pricing.

For cheap eats, grab lunch at the Snow Bowl or at Scott’s Place, a take-out stand near Reny’s. For more atmosphere, venture into Boynton McKay (207-236-2465, www.boynton-mckay.com) or the Camden Deli (207-236-8343, www.camdendeli.com), two downtown order-at-the-counter gems with tables. The deli has seating overlooking the harbor; for the best views head upstairs.

Then follow your whims. At the Chamber of Commerce, at the Public Landing, pick up a copy of Historic Downtown Camden, an illustrated map and brochure detailing historical sites and businesses in and around downtown. Extend the tour by looping out to Rockport Harbor on the back roads.

Or mosey north on Route 1 through neighboring Lincolnville for some fine ocean views and two noteworthy shops. Just beyond Lincolnville Beach, where the ocean waves all but lap on the road during a stormy high tide, is Windsor Chairmakers (800-789-5188, www.windsorchair.com), where you can tour the workshop and view the handcrafted chairs, cabinets, and other furnishings. Housed in an 18th-century barn in Northport is Swans Island Blankets (888-526-9526, www.swansislandblankets.com), source of heavenly, soft, hand-woven and hand-dyed blankets. If it’s a clear day, turn into the Point Lookout resort and drive to the summit for gull’s-eye views over Penobscot Bay.

For a weatherproof alternative, visit nearby Rockland’s trio of museums. The Farnsworth Art Museum (207-596-6457, www.farnsworthmuseum.org) has a splendid collection of 19th- and 20th-century Maine-related American art that’s the basis for the permanent “Maine in America’’ exhibition. Winter exhibitions include: “Achieving American Art: American Art Between the Wars’’; “Andrew Wyeth Winter’’; and “Elegantly Attired: Victorian Apparel and Accessories in Coastal Maine.’’ A couple of blocks away is the Maine Lighthouse Museum (207-594-3301, www.mainelighthousemuseum.org), home to the nation’s largest collection of Fresnel lenses along with a boatload-plus of lighthouse, Coast Guard, and maritime-related artifacts. Just south of Rockland is the Owls Head Transportation Museum (207-594-4418, www.ohtm.org). If it has wings or wheels, it’s probably here.

Make this the night to splurge on dinner at one of the three inns that double as culinary destinations. The Hartstone serves a reservation-only, five-course set meal ($45, you can preview the menu a week ahead online). Youngtown serves authentic French fare. Natalie’s, at the Camden Harbour Inn (reopens Feb. 10) has both a la carte and prix fixe menus, including one that’s all lobster. For lighter fare, snag a window or fireside seat in the lounge, and dine off that internationally inspired menu.

Sunday
The only way to enjoy the views from the summit of Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park (www.parksandlands.com) in winter is on foot or skis. Also part of the park is the Tanglewood forest (www2.umaine.edu/tanglewood/park.htm) in Lincolnville, with 7 miles of trails open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.

As you wend your way homeward, stop in the Cellardoor at the Villa (207-763-4478, www.mainewine.com), the year-round store and tasting bar for the Cellardoor Winery located at the corner of Routes 1 and 90 in Rockport. Check out the wines, food pairings, and wine-related gadgets and goodies.

Make a mandatory detour into Farmers Fare (207-236-3273, www.farmersfare.com), on Route 90, just off Route 1. Opened late last year, the combination market and cafe is a delicious addition to the local food scene and has an emphasis on Maine products. Stock up on nibbles for the way home, and indulge in any samples offered. Brunch is served on Sundays until 2, but the longstanding local brunch fave is wallet-friendly Thomaston Café (154 Main St./Route 1, Thomaston, 207-354-8589, www.thomastoncafe.com). Don’t miss the wild mushroom hash, a nice counterpoint to the mimosas made with freshly squeezed OJ.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilary@hilarynangle.com.

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