“The world stands out on either side / no wider than the heart is wide,” wrote poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in her breakout poem, “Renascence.” The lyric describes a spiritual rebirth and was inspired by Millay’s experience at the summit of Mount Battie as she gazed down at the swath of Maine where she was raised: Camden and its environs. Millay would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and be regarded as a free thinker able to dovetail modern perspective with traditional form.
The very same could be said about the area where Millay grew up. Like the poet herself, Camden, Rockport, and Rockland all fuse the natural world and contemporary sensibilities, and local perspectives with worldly ones. And while you can hardly blame the summer crowds for swarming in from all over to soak it up, I always prefer beating them to it by hopping behind the wheel and driving around the area in springtime, the better to experience Millay’s “Renascence” for myself—minus the crowds, the lines, and the seemingly endless search for a decent parking spot.
I usually start out in Camden. “The town has a very particular scent in the spring, with the ocean and flowering trees mixing together,” says Camden Harbour Inn co-owner Raymond Brunyanszki. He brings that same attention to detail and acute sense of place to running the Relais & Châteaux property. “We walk a fine line that reflects midcoast Maine but also offers outstanding service and unbelievable food,” Raymond explains. To that end, he’s just hired chef and French Laundry alum Joseph Nardo to helm the on-site restaurant, Natalie’s, where he’s conjuring up fare that’s equal parts traditional and innovative.
That same approach pivots to home decor, a three-minute drive away at Margo Moore Interiors. “Decor right now is about what’s personal,” says designer and co-owner Megan van der Kieft. Above the boutique’s creatively arranged first-floor displays—think classic shell-shaped Vietri bowls alongside cool sculptural Jamie Young lamps—sits the design studio where Megan works with customers to craft their visions. “Lots of people come in spring to refresh a bedroom or den,” she says. “I guide them to a mix of classic and newer ideas to make it their own.”
Time to head back to the center of town for some more inspiration, this time in edible form. At Long Grain, Chef Ravin Nakjaroen earns well-deserved high fives for his Thailand-meets-Maine creations: a bowl of soul-warming Pemaquid mussels in spicy coconut-lemongrass broth, for instance, or his ethereal rice noodles with farmer’s greens, free-range egg, and pork belly—all of it from scratch and directly from nearby oceans and farms, which are just starting to yield the season’s produce.
“Spring is a more intimate time here,” muses Liz Senders, owner of the nearby Once A Tree. “There are hikes on Mother’s Day, the harbor starts filling back up, and we welcome back people who’ve gone away for the winter.” Many of them gather at her unique shop to buy artisanal Maine-made wares, like intricately carved cutting boards and cavernous live-edge maple bowls. “We’re big on function and form,” says Liz. “Our wood products are beautiful but meant to be used every day.”
A five-minute jump across Route 1 and you’re in Rockport, its fishing vessels bobbing in the harbor and the Indian Island lighthouse standing vigil in the distance. Perched above is Nīna June. Chef-owner Sara Jenkins was born in Camden, then lived and cheffed in the Mediterranean before moving back. “Tuscany is very much like Maine,” says Sara. “In both there’s an obsession with fresh and local.” During spring she starts getting more eggs from farms. “They play heavily as a savory ingredient in Italy—like fresh carbonaras, or a spinach salad with a seven-minute boiled egg.” Those dishes shine thanks to both the ingredients and Sara’s vision. “When I was a kid here it was all fried clams,” she says. “Now we can be experimental, and I love the freedom.”
Local and worldly meet again on plates directly next door, at 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill. Witness Chef Patrick Duffy’s scallop and asparagus crudo with pea tendrils, radish, and black garlic mayo. Patrick owns and runs the place with his wife, Jessica Duffy. “I’ve seen a lot of springs here and love the newness of it,” Jessica says. That extends to the menu, of course. “Patrick loves spring vegetables, especially English peas.” The restaurant itself undergoes a rebirth each year, too, closing for a respite March 1 and reopening April 7.
Ten minutes down Route 1 you’ll find another renewal afoot at the Samoset Resort. “We’ve redone all 178 rooms, including 18 suites,” says General Manager Connie Russell, who describes the transformation as a “nautical refresh” that added kitchenettes and hot tubs on private decks to suites, with abstract design nods to the surf just outside. “April is when our golf course opens,” says Connie of the 18-hole, championship course. The oceanside pool (a focal point for most families) and seaside cottages also come back to life, featuring a mix of serene natural settings and cosseting modern amenities.
After a quick drive along Route 1 you’ll come to Rockland. The town’s superlative restaurants, distinguished art museums, and upwards of 20 galleries have all rendered the area a cultural hub. Exhibit A: the small but mighty Center for Maine Contemporary Art, dedicated, since it began in 1952, to spotlighting contemporary art connected to the Pine Tree State. This spring the building, designed by architect Toshiko Mori, will see “a massive installation on climate change,” says Timothy Peterson, executive director and chief curator. “And later, three solo shows, including a mid-career show on Reggie Burrows Hodges, whose career has exploded.”
Cross Main Street and you’re at the Farnsworth Art Museum, filled with American art (18th-century to present) focusing on Maine artists from Winslow Homer to Andrew Wyeth. The latter is central to a current exhibition, “Betsy’s Gift: The Works of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth.” Says Director Chris Brownawell, “Betsy Wyeth [who passed in April of 2020] knew our collection well and what holes we needed to fill to tell the full narrative of three generations of Wyeths. Her important gift does that.” This spring the museum also recognizes Ashley Bryan, the multifaceted artist who lived in Islesford and is admired all over. “People come to the museum from everywhere to have a memorable experience,” acknowledges Chris.
That applies equally to nearby (and renowned) Primo Restaurant, which reopens in early May. “The term ‘farm-to-table’ is used a lot, but when you have a restaurant on a farm, it’s really different,” says chef-owner Melissa Kelly, who’s racked up countless culinary awards for her artful Italian-centric masterpieces made with ingredients grown on the surrounding four-acre farm. “When our guests have a farmer’s salad, the egg on it came from our coop that morning,” says Melissa. “The bacon was made in-house from our pig, and the bread was made from starters I’ve been using for 30 years.”
Back on Main Street at fourTWELVE, owner and Maine native Beth Bowley fills her shop with her favorite finds—from sleek metallic evening clutches to peridot drop earrings—and then augments it all with the line of women’s clothing she designs. Her aesthetic, says the Parsons School of Design grad, is inspired by the simplicity and beauty of her childhoods in Maine. “I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ boat,” she says, “and blueberry picking.” And she adds, sounding not unlike Edna St. Vincent Millay in her element up at the top of Mount Battie, “It felt free and a little wild in a really good way.”