ONBOARD THE INDEPENDENCE –– Castine (pop. 1,400) is today a serene little village, shaded by leafy elms and lined with lovely old buildings, but it has a long and tumultuous past. Owing to its location at the tip of a cape, surrounded on three sides by water – including the entrance to the Penobscot River – it was a strategic defense point and thus the object of geopolitical squabbles among several nations, including France, Britain and Holland during the 18th and 19th centuries.
French explorers were the first Europeans on the scene, establishing a fur trading post here in the 1630s. The town was formally founded in 1796 and named after nobleman and adventurer, Baron Jean Vincent d’Abbadie de Castin.
The British held sway over this area and much of Maine during most of the 18th century but with their departure after the War of 1812, prosperity came to Castine, largely from the sea – from fish, from the salt needed to preserve them and from building the ships necessary to catch them. A great deal of wealth was created as a result – and in 1850 Castine was said to have the second highest per capita wealth of any city or town in the United States. A splendid collection of Georgian and Federalist style mansions, public buildings and churches remain to be admired by present-day visitors.
We took advantage of American Cruise Line’s guided two-hour morning walking tour (a $15 option) to have a look at the town. The first point of interest – and a major presence in Castine – is the Maine Maritime Academy, a preeminent naval college with an enrollment of about 900 students. The harbor-side portion of the Academy’s campus boasts a fleet of more than 70 vessels of various types and sizes.
We strolled up Main Street, marveling at such architectural delights as the turreted Victorian-style Pentagoet Inn, noted for its gracious hospitality and superb dining, the oldest U. S. Post Office (in continuous service since 1833), the towering 18th century Trinitarian Congregational Parish of Castine, and the 1859 Abbott School – which has been restored and retrofitted to serve as a museum and headquarters for the Castine Historical Society.
Our favorite exhibit at the volunteer-run museum is its 24-foot long Bicentennial Quilt, assembled by a group of local women for Castine’s 200th anniversary in 1996. It’s a work of art that reflects a lot of skill, love and patience.
Belfast is a quirky and somewhat eclectic port town of about 6,700 residents that, much like Castine, is a gold mine of diverse architecture with many handsome examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian styles. The downtown Belfast Commercial Historic District includes 47 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and the city has two residential historic districts (Church Street and Primrose Hill) that also are listed on the National Register.
In spite of its distinctive architectural heritage, Belfast doesn’t seem the least bit stuffy, or at all stuck on its history. In fact, Budget Travel magazine named it one of the top 10 coolest towns in the U.S. and USA Today has cited it as one of America’s most culturally cool towns.
Joining another of ACL’s guided walking tours (a $20 option) we noted a visible vibe in evidence here – things that have earned the city its nods for cultural cool – lots of hip cafes, book stores and zany boutiques and galleries, a food co-op and a green store, dance companies and community theaters. The town is a hotbed of events as well — music, dance, art, book and even poetry festivals load up a roster of summer happenings.
At this point of our cruise, we’ve become convinced how subtly different each of these Maine coastal towns is – and we love the variations. Tomorrow we visit Rockland and the famous Farnsworth Art Museum, and we’ll enjoy one of American Cruise Line’s famous Lobster Bake Lunches.
July 9, 2014
Photos by Dave G. Houser