One of the things we love about Maine’s islands is that you can walk down the middle of the street and not worry about getting hit by a car. Our recent trip added North Haven to our favorites list along with Peaks and Monhegan islands.
These are places where you relax with the first step off the ferry and enjoy surprisingly good food, comfortable lodging and awesome views. If you’ve never vacationed on a Maine island, do it next year!
If you want to do that at Nebo Lodge, make your reservation early — they open reservations in January. The lodge is owned by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and managed by her daughter Hannah, a former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. (Chellie Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, a financier, philanthropist and prominent political donor to progressive and Democratic causes. Sussman is also majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Portland Press Herald.)
When I saw Hannah at the State House last spring, she invited us to visit and write about the lodge. That sounded great to me, but our room requests from the lodge’s opening in early May through September went unfulfilled — because the lodge was full all spring, summer and fall!
We just made it, getting a room two weeks before they close for the season at the end of October. It was worth the wait, and we were actually lucky to get the room because Liz, the lodge’s innkeeper, was getting married that weekend and the island was packed with celebrants.
Our room, located in the historic lodge’s annex, is handicapped accessible and was comfortable and spacious. The main building has 8 rooms: 4 with private baths and 4 with shared baths. Chellie and some friends bought the historic inn in 2005 — at that time a private residence — and substantially renovated it, maintaining much of the old beauty of the building and reopening it as an inn.
The Pingree’s commitment to the environment, their staff and the island as a community is impressive. The staff is super friendly and eager to make your stay remarkable. Hannah even loaned us a truck so we could drive around the island’s 30 miles of roads and enjoy the stunning views. The inn also has bikes for exploring the island, for the more vigorous among us.
After our tour of the island and a nice nap, we were ready for dinner. Having read many reviews of Chef Amanda Hallowell’s cuisine, we knew we were in for a treat.
The lodge’s front room and bar were jammed with locals and visitors gathered for the next day’s wedding. The interior room, saved for those with reservations, was nearly full when we arrived at 7 p.m. As soon as we were seated, I started swooning over the Italian background music, until Lin informed me it was French!
When I asked our server, Hannah, the island’s pre-K teacher, what her favorite “First Tastes” item is, she said the Roasted Squash Salad. So I ordered it. The roasted squash was the star of the salad, and the wonderful variety of greens, crispy bacon, onions and cheese all added flavors to the lightly dressed dish. A good choice, indeed.
While I appreciated the “Light Suppers” menu, featuring interesting preparations of tacos, burgers and pizza (something you don’t often see in fine dining restaurants, and an obvious tip of the chef’s hat to those who prefer less expensive dinner options but still want creative food), I wanted Amanda’s best, so I focused on “Main Courses.”
Amanda changes the menu often and, on this night, offered just five entrees. Still, it was a hard choice. A couple of pan-seared rosemary-marinated steaks; a bouillabaisse with Maine shrimp, cod, mussels, tomatoes, chili peppers, garlic, white wine and thyme; an organic duck confit with herby lentils, roasted baby carrots and a marmalade glaze; or Maine lobster bohemienne in cognate cream sauce with parsleyed fingerling potatoes and a French roll.
Yes, I wanted it all! After a lot of dithering, I chose the duck confit. The duck was soft and tender, the black lentils tasty, the carrots crispy, the marmalade sauce not to sweet or overpowering. Delightful.
While I begged for the Black Pepper Affogato for dessert, Lin said “no, afraid the espresso topping would keep me up all night.” So we shared a couple of scoops of ice cream for dessert. Unfortunately, eager to grab the last spoonful, I dribbled it down my shirt and onto my pants. When we visited with Chellie and her husband, Donald Sussman, on the way out of the restaurant, they were kind enough not to make mention of my stains.
How is it possible to grow up in Maine and never have visited either Vinalhaven or North Haven islands in my 60 years? Quite possibly, I am not the only one, so let me try to paint a picture of North Haven for you.
We began this adventure on the ferry. Be aware that there are separate tickets for the trip to North Haven and the return trip to Rockland. I was glad I inquired how much the tickets cost because George got a funny look on his face and said, “Oh, I think I only bought one ticket.” Otherwise, I might have been left on the mainland!
Located just 12 miles off the coast of Rockland, this 8-mile-long island sits so close to its neighbor, Vinalhaven, that it looks like you could swim over. Approaching the ferry landing, my first impression was of a lobstering community, from all the bays filled with lobster boats. But the mix of pleasure boats let us know that this is a prime destination for many.
While walking the island streets, we discovered Waterman’s Community Center, where kids and adults were playing card and board games in the front room. A pre-K classroom is located at the back of the first floor, beyond the cafe.
The importance of community is crystal clear here. Everyone says hello as you walk, and every single driver waved at us as we drove the roads. It’s part of the culture here, making me feel as if I was welcomed into their world, rather than intruding.
The views of open fields, rural living and ocean are stunning. A short climb up Ames Nob revealed breathtaking views of the Camden Hills, Vinalhaven and the open ocean. We discovered many small beaches, some lined with shells and most open to the public.
Nebo Lodge’s restaurant is causing quite a stir with recent articles in “Yankee,” “Downeast Magazine” and “Food and Wine.” North Haven native Amanda Hallowell is the chef here, and prefers to call herself a cook. I’m not sure I agree with that.
Everything we tried at dinner — and breakfast the following morning — was delicious, elegantly presented and featuring the freshest of locally grown ingredients. At dinner, I was so glad I’d ordered the cream of celeriac soup. Smooth doesn’t begin to describe the texture. The subtle flavor of celery accented with the nutmeg made this the best soup I’ve tasted in a very long time. It as a simple dish, yet one that will linger in my memory. This is probably why Amanda is getting noticed by foodies.
This is a lovely restaurant, simply decorated and inviting with antique tablecloths and china. At night the soft lighting enhanced by candlelight bounces off the cream-colored walls and wood ceiling to create a cozy atmosphere.
I chose the island-raised beef dish — Rosemary-grilled ribeye steak served with a bright Italian salsa. The perfectly cooked tender beef was extraordinary, and the herbed salsa was so flavorful. Truffled French fries accompanied the dish — a very unusual and tasty presentation.
George was ready to try all the delectable desserts, but I talked him into splitting their house-made ice cream. Two scoops gave us a chance to try ginger and a malted chocolate ice cream. Wow! I absolutely loved the ginger.
A continental breakfast is included with the room, featuring freshly baked muffins or scones, yogurt, cereals, juice and Rock City coffee. Made to order breakfast choices are also available. My farmer’s egg scramble included swiss chard, red peppers and goat cheese — a very nice combination. George’s baked egg dish with fresh herbs, cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano was very tasty as well.
After breakfast Sunday morning, we sat in the warm sun on the lodge’s porch, writing this column. We talked about the 350 Maine islands where people once lived year-round. Today, only 15 islands are occupied year-round.
The 350 year-round residents of North Haven maintain a vibrant community, including the state’s smallest K-12 school of 62 students. We felt very blessed to have experienced this community, if only for 24 hours.
Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.