Tag Archives: vacation

Beating the heat in Maine

Last year we made the sensible decision to spend late July/early August in Maine. DC in July and August can be unbearably humid (see my previous post: Living on a Swamp), so the idea of heading north and hanging out by the water was very appealing.

The next decisions involved where on the Maine coast we wanted to stay, and what sort of accommodation we were looking for. Maine’s tourist information website was very helpful in outlining the state’s different areas. Most famous is probably the southern part of the coast with its big sandy beaches, like Kennebunk, and beachside communities. But there are also lakes and mountains inland, and there’s the wild north coast from Penobscot Bay to New Brunswick, which includes Arcadia National Park. And then there’s the MidCoast area that we chose. An easy drive from the airport in Portland (ME, not Oregon – that’s much further away), the MidCoast is characterized by rocky peninsulas and long inlets, lighthouses, and lobster fishing. Wild in a gentle way (at least in the summer) it’s a beautiful place.

Old lighthouse at Pemaquid Point

We decided we should experience an American resort, so we booked a room in Spruce Point Inn just outside Boothbay Harbour. Many of the resorts we looked at were rather far away from bigger towns – there’s one down by the tip of a peninsula – so the fact that we would have access to the shops and restaurants of Boothbay Harbour helped us make this decision.

As soon as we drew up at the main inn building we knew we’d made the right decision. It was the perfect American inn, of white wood with long verandahs and a lawn that sloped down to the sea. A saltwater pool area – with hottub could be seen down by the inn’s dock, and Adirondack chairs were dotted about the lawn. Our room was in one of the little two-story cottages, with a verandah and a view of the gardens plus a sliver of sea.

Spruce1 Spruce3

Lovely Adirondack chairs where we had coffee most mornings (and wine/whisky in the evenings).

One of the first things we did was get down to the pool and enjoy the hot tub. It was by now evening and the sun was struggling through the clouds. My main memory of this place is the silvery light of the late evening sun on the sea, seen as I lounged warm and content by this pool.

This really was the view from the pool.

Not that we did that much lounging. The resort had tennis courts which we made great use of, and we spent quite a bit of time driving around the area, sightseeing.

One of our drives took us to Wiscasset, an old town just north of Boothbay – so on the mainland rather than the peninsula. We did the walking tour of the town, up and down its hills to the old Victorian mansions, the old prison and one of the first ever public schools. Sadly most things were shut in the morning, and the Musical Wonder House, with its collection of music boxes, had closed, it seemed, for good. Luckily Red’s Eats, with its famous ‘more than a lobster’ roll was open and made us forget our disappointments. A true lobster shack, we ate at tables set up outside in the sun with a view of the water and a sea breeze keeping us cool.

That afternoon we headed over to Pemaquid Point, to see a lighthouse and enjoy the rocky shoreline. It turned out that entry to the lighthouse also included entry to the historical site of Colonial Pemaquid – a really old fishing settlement that dated from when the English probably established seasonal fishing settlements there in the 1610s. Nothing really remains, save some old foundations, but it was still interesting, and a lovely spot in the summer. Nearby is the site of what has been various forts since 1677. Its earliest incarnation was made of wood and fell to Indian attack in 1689. Next came Fort William Henry in 1692, built by Massachusetts, which governed the area at that time. This was destroyed in 1696 by combined French and Indian forces. The final fort – Fort Frederick – was more successful but was dismantled when it came to the war of Independence, to avoid it being used by the British. Part of the second fort – William Henry – has been reconstructed so you can go up the tower, which gives great views.

View from the Fort to Pemaquid beach

It also houses an exhibition about the area between 1677 and 1761, the archaeological finds, and the complex relationships between English, French and Indian traders. Although this is not the Fort at which Paul Revere fought as an artillery officer, there was a mention of him and what they saw as his disreputable behaviour there (see my article on regional versions of American history here).

We learnt more about Maine’s part in American history when we visited Bath and Portland on our way back to the airport our final day. Bath has an excellent Maritime museum, where you can see where they built America’s first ships – and how they got them into the water after building them (harder than you might think). And in Portland we saw Longfellow’s House – the poet who immortalized Paul Revere in his (pretty awful) poem Revere’s Ride.

Mostly though, what I enjoyed about Maine was being on the water, the seafood, and the casual nature of things. One of the best things we did was to take a boat trip around the Boothbay area. When we started the morning mist hadn’t quite lifted – even further out at sea – but we still saw plenty of lighthouses, islands and wildlife. I’m a fan of birdlife, so passing close by herons and nesting ospreys was fantastic. Most excitingly, while we were looking at some seals, an American bald eagle turned up!

I probably needed a better camera for this…

I’ll write about the seafood in another post, but I can’t end this blog without mentioning at least the lobster shacks. As well as the one we enjoyed in Wiscasset, we also found two around Boothbay that we loved. There’s just something about spending the whole day enjoying the sun and the water and then walking, slightly sand and salt-crusted, to a lobster dock, where you’re welcomed with beer, shellfish and plenty of paper napkins. It’s casual, relaxed, and utterly unselfconscious, and I think eating that way in the sea air can’t help but make the lobster taste even better.



East Coast Adventures

I’ve always thought of traveling in the US as a gigantic undertaking. I imagined road trips over interminable deserts, on empty, sunbaked interstates that shimmer into the endless distance, across inhospitable mountain ranges, through dusty suspicious towns, and on and on across the continent to the ocean. Romantic, but time consuming. And as Bill Bryson has pointed out, most of the romantic roads have now been replaced with anonymous interstates, where you battle with delivery trucks driving too fast and try not to crash in the chaos of lane switching and under/over taking.

The Great American Road Trip – Death Valley http://www.cgpgrey.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
However, there are other kinds of traveling in the US, especially on the east coast where towns and attractions are relatively densely packed together. You only have to drive an hour from DC to be somewhere you might want to stop and sightsee; or the train can take you to Baltimore in under an hour, Philadelphia in about two hours, and New York in three – even Boston is less than seven hours away by train. Direct flights within the area aren’t too expensive either – you can get to Portland Maine in under two hours for about $250 (£161). So far we’ve flown to Maine for a week’s vacation driving around the MidCoast region and to Boston for a weekend. We took the train for a weekend in NYC and a daytrip to Baltimore. And I’ve traveled to Binghampton in upstate NY via a flight to Syracuse and a Greyhound bus(!) We’ve also driven from DC to Shenandoah National Park (1.5 hours), to Virginia vineyards (1 hour), and to the Historic Triangle on the Virginia peninsula (about 3 hours). We’re currently thinking about taking a long weekend to drive through West Virginia and Kentucky to Nashville (TN), and back through Georgia and the Carolinas – I don’t think this is too ambitious.

So what I’m really saying is that DC can be the perfect starting point to an East Coast American adventure. Certainly two of our family members found this to be true when they embarked from DC, in a white convertible mustang, on an autumn road-trip through upstate New York, New England and Maine. I was incredibly jealous of their itinerary, which took in the Finger Lakes, the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory, and fall foliage in Maine’s Acadia National Park before ending in Boston, where they got their flight back to the UK.

We do still think about the epic, cross-continental road trip, and might get the chance to do this when a couple of our friends get married later this year in California (and if we have enough holiday…). But in the meantime, there’s still plenty of America on our doorstep to explore.

Holidays vs Vacation

So this week saw the British media talking about Blue Monday – that day that is annually hailed as the day when post Christmas blues and the British winter weather conspire to get everyone down, and evidenced by trends in sick days and a nifty equation. Here in America, though, we have a cure for that: another public holiday!

There are a whole lot of holidays in the States that are considered important enough to merit a day off from work. The one that falls on Blue Monday is Martin Luther King day, which perhaps inspires some mood-lifting reflection on the advancements of the civil rights movement – or maybe right now some sober national soul-searching about how far the movement really has advanced – but mainly gives us all that apparently much-needed duvet day.

The holiday situation in the states is contradictory. On the one hand there are many one-day, secular holidays, which are observed nationally/ on a state by state basis/ by certain workplaces. They seem so numerous to those of us brought up on Christmas, Easter, and May and August bank holidays, that they keep catching us out – Veterans Day was an odd day off work in the middle of the week in November, while Columbus Day and Labor Day were weird but welcome bonus bank holiday Mondays in September and October. My response to these days off can seem rather ungrateful, but as a non-American (and actually I think some Americans feel this way too), I’m just not at all emotionally invested in these nationally defined holidays, and they often just interrupt the flow of what I usually see as a season in which I can get my head down and get some work done.

The large number of public holidays is also deceptive. An American’s response to my observation that we get lots of holidays here was an outraged ‘are you kidding me?!’. Because the flip side to the frequency of one-day communally observed holidays is the very small amount of discretionary holiday employees are granted by their workplaces. In the UK there’s a minimum amount of holiday allowance an employee is entitled to (28 days if they work 5 or more days a week, though the 8 national/bank holidays can be included within this) and recent changes in the law means that even contract workers or temps are entitled at least to a pro-rated holiday pay. In the US the average holiday allowance (without public holidays) is 10 days. That common goal of a British middle-class family – an annual fortnight’s holiday on the Med – would pretty much be impossible over here without maxing out your leave.

This emphasis on defined holidays rather than discretionary leave is dispiriting for a number of reasons. The first is that it’s infantilising. Rather than being able to take responsibility for your time and workload, you are essentially being told when to take a break – regardless of the missed deadlines and scheduling nightmares this might cause, and regardless of how ready or not you feel for a break. It also encourages the perception that, apart from on these specific days, you will be contactable and available. Finally – joking aside – it does make that 10/14-day vacation very difficult to take.

Personally right now that’s frustrating because, as visitors, we naturally want to do some traveling. But it’s also prompted me to think about the value of longer vacations over odd days here and there. The major value of a longer holiday is that you actually take a break. For example, if you take a week off, work gets rescheduled, delegated and otherwise put away, and you can spend the time switching off, getting over the annoyances of the day to day and clearing the clutter of your work mind to make space. This is great, and it can mean that a week’s holiday means you go back to work rested and better able to deal with people. But it’s the second week that can be really transforming. Once you have cleared your mind of the nitty-gritty, a second week of holiday allows you to think strategically, about your personal and career goals as well about the bigger picture of your work. This can lead to more creative and even blue-skies thinking. It might look like you’re simply dozing in the sun, but in reality you’re re-organizing your directorate/ planning a whole new piece of work/ coming up with the perfect way to phrase or conceptualise a complex idea.

Perhaps this is all just me wanting a fortnight of sun, sand and sea (it’s getting cold again in DC)! But it does seem to me that Americans get a raw deal when it comes to vacation.