CAMDEN, Maine – In Maine, where a picturesque village lies around every curve in the road, Camden has some nerve dubbing itself Jewel of the Maine Coast. But after spending 24 hours here on Penobscot Bay amid stately 100-year-old homes, a fine harbor, delicious food and vast views from Mount Battie, we couldn’t help but nod: Yeah, OK. We see it. It’s a jewel.
If you’re just passing through Camden, you’ll have to pass quickly, because all parking spaces have a two-hour limit, strictly enforced. Alternatively, you can keep moving your car. Best option: Spend the night in one of those gorgeous B&Bs in historic homes that line Elm Street.
We chose the Blackberry Inn, partly for its 1849 Italianate Victorian charm and also because, oh my gosh, we could get a lovely room with a bath for just $130. That was the least expensive room in the house, and its private bathroom was a few paces down the hall. All other rooms have en suite bathrooms and cost a bit more. The beds and bedding are great, the breakfast excellent (we had a delicious berry-yogurt-granola parfait followed by a perfectly cooked omelet), and innkeeper Catherine Hobson is just as consummate a hostess as you’d expect from a Texan. She moved from Houston in 2016 with husband Bob after traveling all over the country to find just the right place.
The inn houses no ghosts that the Hobsons have noticed, but it has quite a history, serving as the site of the cast party for “Peyton Place” — the 1957 eyebrow-raising movie that preceded the eyebrow-raising TV show. Bette Davis was at that party, not because she had anything to do with the movie but because she loved the inn and often stayed there. Any inn good enough for Bette Davis is good enough for me.
Blackberry Inn is a quick walk to the shops and restaurants of downtown as well as the harbor, so you don’t have to worry about moving your car. Shops are filled with unusual antiques such as compasses. You’ll love the food in Camden, whether it’s a lobster roll or blueberry pancakes at Marriner’s (no idea why it has an extra r; maybe it’s run by pirates) or first-rate Thai and Vietnamese at Long Grain (make a reservation; it’s small and fills quickly).
RELATED: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and other ideas for a New York weekend
Every town has its controversy, and the current one in Camden has to do with a waterfall at the edge of the harbor behind Marriner’s. It’s been there for 200 years, created by a dam to feed a gristmill. The gristmill is long gone, and the waterfall has remained because it looks pretty. There’s been a recent call by some locals to remove it because it alters the flow of the Megunticook River and hampers fish migration. Two schools of thought: 1) Undam it and let the river run its course or 2) Leave it as it’s been for 200 years, an interesting water feature. Biologists are testifying. Downtown merchants are testifying. We’ll see where it goes.
If you have time to see just one place in Camden, let it be the Camden Public Library, designed by Parker Morse Hooper and Charles G. Loring and built in 1928, with rolling hillside grounds designed by Fletcher Steele along with Frederick Law and John Charles Olmsted. Relax on a bench or on the grass with a picnic and gaze at the harbor (and at locals chalking overparked cars on the streets near it). Inside, you’ll find everything from telescopes you can rent for a week to a circa-1920s diorama of the harbor and “Peyton Place” posters.
Then, get in your car and drive a couple of miles north of town to Camden Hills State Park and either hike or drive your car up 780-foot Mount Battie. The $6 out-of-state admission to this 5,710-acre park is only $2 if you’re a senior, and on the fall day we visited, everyone driving to the top seemed to qualify for the discount. There are 20 different scenic trails to hike the park. The one to the top of Mount Battie is only half a mile and is rated moderate, but it’s pretty steep in parts.
One way or the other, get to the top of that mountain. You’ll see miles and miles of the Maine coastline, Penobscot Bay and Camden below. On a clear day you can see all the way to Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor. This was the view that inspired Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Renascence.” We were there a little ahead of fall foliage, but, obviously, it’s a key leaf-peeping spot in mid-to-late autumn. Also at the top, you’ll find a stone World War I monument with a staircase you can climb if you want to get the view from 26 feet higher.
Go ahead: Stay until the sun goes down if you like. Nobody will chalk your tires.