Monday, July 6, 2009

Greetings from Southwest Harbor, Maine

The Proper Bostonian's husband spent a month of his childhood summers in Bar Harbor, and when we and the PB got together, he was eager to take her up there. We spend a couple of weeks up there every year, broken into three trips: July 4, late August, and October. We've been coming up for more than a decade, and we always stay in the "Poolside Bungalow" of a mellow inn in Southwest Harbor, on the "quiet side" of Mt. Desert Island. The crowds, the fancier restaurants, and the tacky souvenir shops are in Bar Harbor. At Southwest, there's a grocery store with gourmet offerings, a wine and cheese shop, a casual clothing store called the Moody Mermaid, and a family restaurant/ice cream shop called the Quiet Side.

We were bracing for changes when we drove into town. Usually, Mt. Desert has a comforting way of staying the same from year to year, and even from decade to decade, but we knew the economy would have an impact here this year, as it has everywhere. And sure enough, our favorite bookstore, Port in a Storm, in Somesville is just an empty shell with a "For Rent" sign. No more dreamy afternoons on the second-floor windowseat with a small pile of design books and biographies. That hurt. The Higgins Store, which sold an amusing range of antiques as well as jam, is also empty, but we'd expected that. The storekeeper confided last year that he was in the middle of a divorce and closing his shop. We felt even worse about what happened to our favorite tree on the road to the inn, a very tall, shimmering larch (I think) that waved its silvery leaves at us as we came and went. For no reason we can figure out, it was sawed in half, leaving one shimmering branch sticking out at a 90-degree angle, which feels sadder than losing the whole tree.

Then I noticed that our favorite lunch spot in Northeast Harbor, the Tan Turtle, was not showing up in any of the seasonal island advertising directories that you find everywhere up here. A jolly bar/restaurant, it had a tabloid-sized menu that seemed longer than Bleak House. It was almost impossible to decide between all the paninis and poorboys, club sandwiches and quesadillas. Since several businesses in Northeast Harbor had burned in a freak fire last September, we suspected that the loss of those stores had hurt other businesses. Instead we found another giant hole where the Tan Turtle had been. It had burned in the winter. But the old-fashioned bakery, two doors away, had been rebuilt with a glossy wood facade, and was still selling hermits, crullers, and carrot cake just like the old days.

The rest of the trip held no surprises beyond a few new flavors at C.J.'s in Bar Harbor and higher prices ($5.99 for a box of linguini!) at Sawyer's Market and for the popovers at the Jordan Pond House. There are more vacancy signs at the Bar Harbor inns, but our cousin, who owns two galleries in town, says she's been having a great year already and has sold all the largest paintings of her most-expensive artists.

The reassuring thing about lakes, forests, mountains, and even the rocky shoreline up here (unlike the Cape), is that they never seem to change. Southwest Harbor still turns pink at sunset and the dinghies are always tied up in photogenic rows. There's lobster on almost every menu, and happy families and couples line the pavements in town. Our Australian innkeepers continue to make jokes, complain, make ambitious plans for improvements, change their minds, and keep the faith as they always have.

The one that I wish would change is our always having to leave eventually. Unfortunately, that's always predictable, too.

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