In summer, Route 1, the tourist road that winds along the coast of Maine, can look like the world's longest yard sale. But just 10 or 15 miles off the highway are country lanes that follow river valleys and curve around tidy settlements that were already ancient when the Civil War was fought. Sturdy old wood-frame houses called Capes, built low to the ground with their backs to the north wind, sit on hillsides facing the water, while in the villages, handsome mansions in the local Greek Revival style, built by long-dead sea captains and other nineteenth-century community fathers, bespeak the rewards of righteous living.
The glorious elms that used to arch over village streets are gone, but there are still green lawns, rambling rose bushes and back gardens where zucchini flourish next to struggling tomato plants. Small children still fish from bridges over tidal streams and the ladies of the parish still gather for their annual Strawberry Festival. This world remains defined by the whine of a boat-builder's saw, the lap of waves on the incoming tide and the smell of the sea.
Until recently, travelers off the beaten path in Maine had to be content with sights, sounds and smells. Tastes were something else. Coastal hotels might boast drop-dead views, but the food was often plain, to say the least, and kitchens frequently closed at 7:30 p.m. with nothing but that Maine standby crackers and milk thereafter. "Fine dining" usually meant baked stuffed lobster and blueberry pie. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but even the most avid lobsterphile starts to long for variety; as for the food connoisseur, a sauce or two that didn't originate in a bottle begins to seem like a reasonable request.