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The Maine of My Dreams

Summer in Maine is like the best of fall everywhere else. Sunny days start off crisp; against an enameled-blue sky, the evergreens look that much deeper. By midday the air softens and the scent of pine, sprinkled with salt from the coast, rises. It's heating up. Go ahead and strip down to a long-sleeved shirt, cuffs pushed back. And then there are the foggy spells when no sandwich of shirt-sweater-slicker can shield you from the damp. In other summer places, one day spent nose in a novel, toes to the fire, suffices. In Maine, for me, one foul-weather day is never enough—because for every lobster in a pot, there is an antiques shop in a barn, a flea market in a field, a yard sale moved to a porch. From Route 1 to country byways, all roads lead to treasure. To set off on them, equipped with a good map, a bottle of Poland Spring, and a big box of tiny wild blueberries, well, nothing could be finer.

Bath, where I started a four-day jaunt through the mid-coast region, has a handful of more-fun-than-educational antiques shops on Front Street. Its finest showcase, though, is the town itself. Founded and still famous as a center for shipbuilding, Bath is a primer of noble American architecture, elucidating mid-19th-century New England as Williamsburg does 18th-century Virginia, only here, as in the rest of the state, authenticity rules. Take it from the Bath Middle School eighth graders who last year published a historical walking tour taking in Federal sea captains' houses, the granite Customs House, and the Greek Revival Swedenborgian church.

I picked up a copy of the guide in Cobblestone& Co., a cooperative of eight dealers from which I also came away with a stack of mercury glass lampshades and a turn-of-the-century kite-string winder. Left behind but not forgotten was a wonderful if useless object: an all-wooden Sam Spade telephone, presumably made as a stage prop. By rights it should have gone to my Maine friends, who keep the wires between us humming with news of their latest excavations of Down East booty, making me pine for the state year-round. It was they who put me onto Grey Havens, a 1904 inn on Georgetown Island, 20 minutes from Bath, believed by its owners, the Eberhart family, to be the only Shingle Style hotel on the Maine coast still in operation. Since Mainers, if anything, lay it on thin, I booked two nights in an ocean-view room.

North of nearby Brunswick, the Maine coast breaks up into peninsulas, bony fingers poking into the chilly Atlantic, each with a few veins of access roads. Route 127, which leads to Georgetown, parallels the road to Boothbay Harbor, except that cars on the former are just a trickle, on the latter a steady stream. Boothbay Harbor is a fishing village gone resort, meaning folksy signs have given way to oval announcements in gold-leafed lettering, equally illegible on clear or foggy days. The only glitter on Georgetown Island comes from the spangles of sunlight bouncing off boat windscreens. Its main attractions are the since-forever Five Islands lobster pound at the end of the road; the since-last-year Robinhood Free Meetinghouse Restaurant in nearby Robinhood; and a sandy beach, rare in rocky Maine, at Reid State Park. The same Reid who donated the park built Grey Havens, a barn of a house on the National Register of Historic Places.

Even before passing through the screen doors to the entry-hall desk, I was won over. Porches should be required by law, especially on houses that command a view of tides raising and lowering little islands. The porch at Grey Havens wraps wide and long, half-screened and fully rockered. It is all things to all guests: welcome mat, reading room, lookout, base for games of tag that zigzag around the lawn below.

Wide too are the interior hallways. They accommodate bookcases and glass-fronted cupboards, stocked for guests with wind-up alarm clocks and old boxes filled with toiletries, which extended my dart from dormered bedroom across to dormered bath into a journey. At Grey Havens, squint and you'll picture modest bathing costumes and ghostly guests in white linen. But then you open wide again, relieved that in fact it's the chairs in the dining room and on the lawn that are white and that, thank God, you don't have to wade through salt water in heavy woolens. Did those suits of old ever completely dry out all summer?

I set out early on a house bike for Reid State Park to bare my feet to the soft sand and maybe the water, though not the surf. For me, more flamingo than polar bear, a shallow tidal puddle is as cold as I will go. A sign dangling from a chain across the park entrance announced the 9 a.m. opening hour. I hesitated—who would see me anyway if I breached the barrier?—but turned back. Maine's honor system was too powerful a force field.

Back at Grey Havens, breakfast was in full swing. Between trips to the bread baskets and juice pitchers, one couple plotted a bike route on a map, while another mused about the possibility of keeping to any schedule in light of their role as parents of a toddler. Their coffee cooled as they retrieved wayward blueberries criminally picked out of warm muffins by their son. They needn't have worried about offending the innkeepers. Bill and Haley have five children of their own, the eldest still at a tender-enough age to bus dishes enthusiastically.

It was time to head for the flea market at Montsweag, where dealers are still setting up at the godly hour of nine every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Montsweag is the perfect flea: doable in an hour or two, sprinkled with things that don't so much attract as amuse (doll characters from Welcome Back, Kotter; a navy and red homburg labeled "Hillary Clinton's inaugural hat") and packed with good old stuff from Maine attics—chairs and trunks, frames and dishes—at bargain prices. Dickering here is soft-core. "If it worked, it'd be worth a few hundred," said one dealer about a clock. "You can have it for five." Instead, I picked up a wooden lamp (that worked) in the shape of a tassel for $8, a vase with an accomplished speckled glaze for $12, and a six-pack of maple doughnuts for a buck. Then I devoted a good 10 minutes to a rack of clothes home-sewn to fit American Girl dolls (you have to be the parent of a pre-adolescent girl to get it). Would that I had taken the lot for a year's supply of gifts for birthday parties.

After the flea market, it's hard to swallow shop prices. Still, I never skip Parkers of Wiscasset, a few miles up the road. It's where I found a painted wood daybed that satisfied the need for a less-than-obvious sleeper sofa and created the desire for a screened porch like the one I imagine my daybed used to call home. The 22-dealer group shop, in "nawth" and south buildings, has choice country furniture—a red blanket chest, a faded green stool, a hobnail bed—but mostly it overflows with what those in the trade call smalls, including items such as pressed cotton bedsheets tied up with satin ribbons, painted metal toy cars, and, in Barbara Thornjo's booth, a mother lode of vintage Halloween decorations. I asked Parkerite Dorothy Davis where customers, mostly dealers themselves, come from. "Oh, all over, Japan and such" was her answer. And was there a waiting list of dealers anxious to secure a booth or showcase?"Ayup." Bypass Parkers?Never.

Even with an appetite fueled by a day of hunting and gathering, I wasn't prepared for dinner at the Robinhood Free Meetinghouse Restaurant. To this simple and proud Greek Revival building, locally celebrated chef Michael Gagné has introduced excess. Over cocktails, my friends and I debated which was worse: putting 36 entrées on the dinner menu or refusing to arrange them in any sort of order, even by meat, vegetable, fish, or fowl. In spite of his hubris, Gagné is a good cook serving generous portions, and tastes—Szechwan swordfish, confit of duck on braised cabbage—you don't find just anywhere in Maine.

And what was once a half-abandoned hulk of weathered wood used rarely, and only by locals, is now a pristine white sentinel welcoming everyone at the big bend in Robinhood Road. Presented with the list of 23 desserts culminating in a "flight of six ports," we took off upstairs for a more satisfying treat: bench time in the meeting room. Voluminous and still, the space is as uplifting as a stand of pines, appealingly plain as an icebox cake.

At Five Islands lobster pound, in contrast to the Meetinghouse Restaurant, the only decision to be made is extra mayonnaise or not on your $7 lobster roll. Though it was hardly lunchtime when I checked out of Grey Havens, I wasn't going to abandon Route 127 without seeing it through to the end, straight to the pound's deck above the dock. The view was a page taken from Robert McCloskey's children's classic One Morning in Maine: steep ramps descending to floating platforms; a man standing in an aluminum skiff, one hand on the outboard's throttle arm; and, across the water, spiky pines barely rooted to boulders. McCloskey would have loved the lobsterman heaving traps who let his cap be his mouthpiece: "Damn seagulls."

From perfect little harbor, I moved on to Wiscasset, prettiest village in maine, or so declared its welcome sign. Not having visited every village in Maine—yet—I couldn't say. All I knew was that I loved my room, one of the two that make up the Marston House B&B, on the upper floor of a carriage house. Like its twin, the all-white room came with its own street entrance, a four-poster with a ticking-covered duvet, Truman Capote by the bedside, a pitcher of cosmos by the window, a corner fireplace, and breakfast delivered in a wicker hamper. Not your typical B&B, but Paul and Sharon Mrozinski are not your typical proprietors.

Nor are they native Mainers (she's from Arizona; he's from Chicago), though with Marston House Antiques, a shop they have run for 10 years, the Mrozinskis have defined New England style. Sharon has an eye for yellowware and redware, ironstone, textiles, and painted furniture—objects "so plain and utilitarian," she says, "they become contemporary." Why does the antique ticking and homespun piled on shelves look so familiar?Because it passes through the hands of New York design teams who have passed through Marston House more than once. Photo albums, Burt's Bees salves, Amish straw hats, and—why deny the connection?—bolt ends of Ralph Lauren striped fabrics for $16 a yard make up the small percentage of merchandise that is new. A 52-year-old Bordeaux is the oldest thing you'll find in Treats, a wine and fancy-food shop that is Paul Mrozinski's latest enterprise. With the addition this year of More Treats, a room at the back that has doubled the area of the store, fresh scones and tarts have joined the wine, cheese, coffee, and candy that Paul dispenses along with the local news.

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