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A Tank Away

In preseason form

Small-town comforts, upscale food are a great warmup for the return of spring

Winter takes its time exiting Camden, making room for the boats that will line the docks. Winter takes its time exiting Camden, making room for the boats that will line the docks. (James Reed/Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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CAMDEN, Maine — Take heart: The sign you see posted all around this seaside town will soon be gone. “See you in the spring!’’ is about to expire as the tail end of winter wraps up, and Camden’s signature attractions — schooner rides on the sunny seas, strolls along the harbor with lobster roll in hand — come back in force. In the meantime, a host of low-key diversions will keep you toasty until the weather can do just that.

STAY

You feel like you are tucked into the French countryside at the Hartstone Inn (41 Elm St., 207-236-4259, www.hartstoneinn.com, $115-$195), where the spacious rooms are handsome and homey with gas fireplaces. (Or, better yet, warm up during the inn’s late-afternoon cocktail hour.) The Hartstone’s French restaurant is also highly recommended, and if you have some time to spare, consider a weekend cooking class with chef-owner Michael Salmon. For something more secluded, the historic Norumbega Inn (63 High St., 207-236-4646, www.norumbegainn.com, $105-$375) boasts that it is a castle by the sea, which is exactly the impression you get from its dramatic stone-and-wood exterior and elegant Victorian rooms. The water views are distant but still picturesque.

DINE

Mention upscale cuisine, and the locals don’t hesitate to tell you where to go: Francine Bistro (55 Chestnut St., 207-230-0083, www.francinebistro.com, entrees $18-$26). Never doubt the locals. The menu, which changes daily, features everything from one of the best steak frites you will ever have to a lobster risotto. Nestled among waterfront restaurants popular with tourists, Paolina’s Way (7 Public Land, 207-230-0555, www.paolinasway.com, pizzas $17-$24) is an overlooked gem serving wood-fired pizzas made with locally sourced ingredients (Cullan and Molly’s sausage and meatballs will change your life), pasta dishes, and an especially memorable Caesar salad. Blink and you might miss Long Grain (31 Elm St., 207-236-9001, $6-$15), a new and modest Asian spot specializing in comfort food including fantastic house-made noodles. Next door, the Old World Potato Co. (31 Elm St., 207-236-7783, potatoes $4-$10, depending on toppings) keeps it simple and inexpensive with a variety of tasty salads, hearty soups, and build-your-own potato concoctions. On the off chance that breakfast is not included at your inn, head to Boynton-McKay Food Co. (30 Main St., 207-236-2465, www.boynton-mckay.com, breakfasts $2.75-$6.50), a local institution where you can help yourself to coffee and pastries in the front or order breakfast (buttermilk pancakes) and lunch (Thai chicken salad) at the back counter.

DURING THE DAY

A harbinger of small-town charm, Camden’s Main Street is lined with mom-and-pop stores suited for tourists and townies alike; you can visit all of them in a few hours. Full of sophisticated home furnishings and would-be wedding gifts, Jo Ellen Designs (21 Main St., 207-236-0124, www.joellendesigns.com) is notable for owner Jo Ellen Stammen’s gorgeous, hand-hooked rugs and pillows that adorn the walls and shelves. Across the street, Glendarragh Farm Lavender (22 Main St., 207-236-8151, www.mainelavenderstore.com) is as sweet as the aroma that hits you as you enter, selling everything from soaps and perfumes to lotions and candles from a family-owned farm in nearby Appleton. Meanwhile, 10 miles north of Camden on a bucolic stretch up the coast, the friendly folks at Swans Island (231 Atlantic Highway, Northport, 207-338-9691, www.swansislandblankets.com) let you watch while they craft gorgeous wool blankets that they also sell in the showroom. A few minutes up the road is Windsor Chairmakers (2596 Atlantic Highway, Lincolnville, 207-789-5188, www.windsorchair.com), offering an array of custom old-world furniture. On your way back into town, drop by Cellardoor Winery (367 Youngtown Road, Lincolnville, 207-763-4478, www.mainewine.com), which will reopen in May for tours, tastings, and special classes.

AFTER DARK

Just as they are quick to recommend a restaurant, residents make no bones about Camden’s night life. It’s sleepy this time of year. But check the town’s website (www.camdenme.org/calendar) for an updated schedule of activities. In April, the classically renovated Camden Opera House (29 Elm St., 207-236-7963, www.camdenoperahouse.com) will host a production of “Romeo and Juliet’’ by the Camden Civic Theatre troupe (www.camdencivictheatre.com). Cuzzy’s (21 Bay View St., 207-236-3272, www.cuzzysrestaurant.com), a restaurant that turns into a nightspot after hours, has a pool table, two dart boards, and an Internet jukebox for spontaneous dancing. It’s a good place to get an earful about Camden’s history. Or if you’re willing to travel, the Strand Theatre (345 Main St., Rockland, 207-594-0070, www.rocklandstrand.com) is a solid bet for daily arthouse cinema, live music (Rosanne Cash on May 7), and comedians (Paula Poundstone on March 25).

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.