Sunday, 30 August 2015

Washington County, Maine

I like to keep people out of my posts, mostly because they may not like the free publicity, but this time it's going to be hard, because this was a trip that was all about people. People and dogs.

A few years back, someone I went to college with died. It was one of those seismic-shock things, that rippled through everyone who'd known him and gave us that wake up call we all, unfortunately, get at some point: time really is finite and we may not get to spend all the time we want to with all the people we love. So, one of my oldest friends, who I'd met the first day of high school and then went on - coincidentally - to the same college with, sent out a clarion call: she was going to host a gathering of old friends at her farm in Colorado, bringing together all us (mostly college) friends, so that our times together weren't about meeting at each other's funerals, but making new memories and having fun. By then, we'd scattered not just around the country, but some of us (ahem) had even gone abroad, so it was quite a thing to get us all in one place for several days. It was a time full of emotion, laughter, amazement that, yup, here we all were again, and despite what life had thrown at us, we found we still had this deep and intense bond of love and friendship.

Well, that gathering went so well, that the following year, we met in someone else's grown-up hometown, Port Townsend, Washington; and this summer, it was the vacation home of a couple who'd met and fallen in love at our college, that's way up north about 15 miles from the Canadian border in Maine (their vacation home – not our college, which is in Ohio).

So, the upshot of all this is, that going through my photos, the best ones are stuffed with laughing, happy folks, who are just thrilled to be together once more. So, if these pictures don't show that, you'll just have to imagine that, just out of shot, there were plenty of people, but I've mostly left them out, to preserve their privacy.

Happily, there were also a few dogs. Dogs and a boat. In fact, dogs who liked boats. And, as dogs don't worry about being recognized, I've included one of them.

OK, so back to the travel side of things... My memories of Maine are of a place so far from most other places, that it's pretty empty. I guess I've been away a long time, but it seemed fuller than I remember: more summer houses, more people in general, but then, that's the way the world is going now, getting more crowded every year... However, there's still plenty of wide-open country up here, along with cute, New England towns, beautiful, sunny days in summer and, of course, seafood. Lots and lots of seafood. We're talking lobster, crab, clams, mussels, fish...

We ate ours, at a loooonnnng table out on a deck overlooking the water, in Eastport, with a view over to Canada and spent the time waiting for our food to come beachcombing.

Mostly, we spent our days kayaking. being dragged on a tube behind our hosts' motorboat or going for 'Q-Tip' tours (Q-Tips, as I now know, are what old folks are called), which meant chugging in the boat, people and dogs, at virtually walking pace around the perimeter of the lake, checking out everyone else's summer house and talking in a meandering sort of way. Stand-out times remain going to see the tide change on an inlet that's part of the greater Bay of Fundy, which has the biggest tides in the world; staying up late talking; and the night we went out on the boat with sparklers and paper lanterns, lighting their little flames and making wishes as we watched them rise up into the starry sky.

I don't know what everyone else wished for – and without giving too much away (as we all know, a wish told will never come true) – but I'm already looking forward to the next time we meet...

Wildflower meadow, Washington County, Maine

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bob's Clam Hut, Kittery, Maine, USA

Warning: If you're hungry, look away now.

For those of you still with me, Bob's Clam Hut is the best place to satisfy that lobster roll/fried clams craving you're nursing. First up, everything's made with high quality, local incredients which, as the softly spoken, heart-of-gold owner, Michael Landgarten, told us when we stopped here recently, helps to explain why everything tastes so good. Second, it's right over the Maine stateline on Route 1 as you drive up from Boston, so you don't have to wait long to feed the addiction.

Not famliar with a clam hut? Let me explain... They started out mostly as mom-and-pop roadside restaurants, where you ordered from a window and ate at a wooden picnic table right out front. And, in the old days (ie, mid-to-late 20th century) they really were huts, too, which would close down for the winter when the tourists went home and the crustaceans were breeding, but in the 21st century, they're year-round and some have indoor seating as well as having diversified from selling just fried clams and fries or lobster and crab rolls (these, by the way, are a piece of bread that looks like a high-sided hotdog roll, often griddled for a few minutes to make them slightly toasted and then stuffed with either lobster or crab meat that's been mixed with a little mayonnaise to hold it all together.... I may have to go eat something – my stomach is actually rumbling as I type this...) to now offering a long list of mouthwatering possibilities.

At Bob's, for instance, you can order fried scallops; fried clams, with a choice of two recipies – one devised by a staff member – both excellent; fried haddock or other lesser-known but more sustainable local fish; lobster, crab, shrimp, oyster or tuna roll; ordinary or sweet potato fries; onion rings; burgers; cheeseburgers; lemonade; ice tea or – and I've saved my best for last – lobster stew.

No, I'd never had this before either, but you know what? The sweet, rich flavour of the creamy broth, which held chunks of soft, juicy lobster, is still haunting my dreams. I only wish I was kidding because, as I'm based in London, it's going to be a long wait until I get back there for more....

I also need to say something about the ice cream, which is locally made and comes in the kind of flavours where it's really, really, REALLY hard to choose just one (including salted caramel, natch).

If you're reading this thinking how you've never had a lobster roll or fried clams, then you need to fix that and Bob's is the place to do it.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Boston, MA, in July, with a stay at The Envoy and dinner at Tavern Road

 There's been a long gap in my blogging, mainly down to lack of time. Actually, it's entirely down to not having enough time, so there's a bit to catch up on...

View from the Lookout rooftop bar
Back in July, I had the treat of staying in a brand-new hotel in Boston. In fact, it was so new, some of the final finishing touches were yet to be put in place – or so I was told. Truth is, it all looked perfect to me! It's The Envoy, which is slap bang on the harborside in an area called Seaport.

Years ago, I lived for a winter in Somerville, which is one of the neighborhoods that makes up greater Boston. Back then, Seaport didn't exist. Or, it might have, but not in anything like its current incarnation. I think it was just where ships came in and were loaded and unloaded, and maybe new cars were parked up until they could be distributed around the country to dealerships. That kind of area. Now? Well, it's full of 'destination' bars and restaurants and is where young, urban, monied and the ubiquitous hipsters hang out of an evening.

You can't really blame them. Certainly, from the Lookout rooftop bar of the Envoy, sipping a cucumber cocktail – the taste of summer 2015, as far as I'm concerned – listening to the beats and watching the sun set the water over the Boston skyline, it's hard to think of better places to be.

The hotel is less than a 10-minute taxi ride from Logan Airport, so it's incredibly handy if you're flying in, but there isn't a hint of fuel or plane noise once you get here. It's a brand-new building, so everything is fresh and clean. The lobby is vast and open, with enormous, intriging light fixtures that seem to be made up of all sorts of things dangling from the ceiling above a herd of big, wide sofas below. You can jump on one of the computers or, if you're feeling sporting, take your chances on the electronic pool table. I've never seen one before, but it can handle multiple games, so waiting your turn for a game could become a thing of the past...

Upstairs, my huge room was all sunlight and glass, with plenty to catch the eye: a huge, floor-to- -ceiling window looked out toward the harbour, the TV stand was a bicycle, the bathroom was vast, and the bathrobes thick and cuddly. Across the hall from me was the breakfast room where, come morning, I'd find the complementary selection of pastries, croissants, bagels, cereals, juice and hot drinks, with a flatscreen TV tuned to the news channel and a view out the window of the shopping mall being built next door. All I can say is, this place has the most incredible soundproofing ever, because there wasn't any street or building noise seeping in at all....

Meanwhile, it was a long, light, summer evening and, while it would have been a little too easy to get stuck into the cocktail menu for the duration, companion and I dragged ourselves away to the nearby Tavern Road restaurant – and were very glad we did.

It's a big, airy restaurant, divided nominally into a couple few zones, two for eating, one for drinking. This is how it works: you choose six or seven sharing plates from the intriguing menu and then, if you're still hungry, you order more. But, while you're choosing, why not have the Tavern Road cucumber cocktail...?

We duly ordered, along with a bottle of wine – going with our knowledgeable and jolly waitress's suggestion, which turned out to be perfect – the parsnip and potato pierogies, warm octopus salad, fish tacos, chilled shrimp salad, Peruvian roasted chicken thighs and the cioppino. If this sounds like a lot of food, that's because it is. The thing is, while I know I should be suggesting that maybe you should order five plates instead of our greedy six, the truth is, you wouldn't actually want to miss any of these, so you might as well go the whole hog. Also, here's another thing: if you're one of those people who get sharing-plate anxiety (c'mon, I know you exist, so just admit it...), worrying that you might not get enough to eat if you don't have a plate all to yourself, you can totally relax here. You will definitely lean back from the table and do one of those deep breaths and then, as you let it out, say, "I couldn't eat another mouthful."

Tavern Road sharing plates
That, I'm sad to say, is what happened to us. Why the long faces? Because it meant we had to forego dessert. Really, we were that full.

And so back into the warm Boston night we waddled – and waddled. In fact, we ended up taking a very nice stroll along the water's edge, watching the ferries ply back and forth, keeping an eye on the party boat across the way and generally enjoying the summer night.

Boston at night
Eventually, my companion went off home and I went back to my room at The Envoy, where the message light on the phone was blinking. Intrigued, I pressed it and listened – and discovered where my roommate was. No, not exploring haunts of old, as I was told they would be spending the evening doing, but sitting up at the Lookout bar, getting thoroughly trashed... Ah, well, why not? After all, it is vacation time... :)