WHY GO: With the Farnsworth Art Museum, the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and 24 independent art galleries, Rockland ME is a bona fide Mid-Coast Maine art haven, and a draw for explorers looking for something new to put on their walls. Walking down Main St., you’ll almost forget that you’re in a waterfront town save for the screeching of gulls and clanking of sailboat rigging in the marinas a block over.
To remind you further, there’s a quirky Lighthouse Museum nowhere near a lighthouse and the Audubon Puffin Project Visitor’s Center – right on Main St. and open to the public. Oh – and the hottest thing to come to Rockland lately (along with the Contemporary Art Museum)? A phenomenal boutique hotel, 250 Main, created from the remnants of old ships. So read on to discover art old and new, and then bed down on a cloud in Rockland ME.
Things to Do in Rockland ME
VISIT: Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, Owls Head. This marvelous 70,000 sq. ft museum, just 5 miles from Rockland, celebrates the pioneering era of transportation, and, though a cliché, has something for everyone. Crammed with historic airplanes (reproduction of Kitty Hawk), bikes, motorcars, racecars, and even an ornate Gypsy Wagon, it’s nirvana for vehicle geeks, with a video orientation to make your heart soar. Events, like junior model-racing competitions, truck meets and auto auctions are held outside on the museum’s vast property. And visitors can watch mechanics at work in the garage.
Yes, it’s cool, but what makes it more so is the signage and stories that accompany each gleaming, restored artifact. Incredibly, women are celebrated here: Carl Benz may have invented the world’s first gas powered automobile in 1888, but it was his wife, Bertha, who surreptitiously took it on its first long distance (60 mile) “test drive” to visit her mother.
And in 1908, Alice Ramsey was the first woman to drive an automobile (with two other gal pals) clear across the USA. It took Alice and her friends 59 days to drive the borrowed Maxwell 3,800 miles on mostly unpaved roads from New York to San Francisco. $14 adults, kids under 18 free, open year round daily 10-5.
TOUR: Olson House, Cushing. The interior of this stabilized ruin of an 1800’s farmhouse is meant to evoke an Andrew Wyeth painting, which is precisely the point, as the famous artist painted his most famous piece– Christina’s World (original owned by MoMa in NY) right here. There’s hardly any furniture and the only “art” you’ll find are prints of Wyeth paintings tacked up near the still-life objects they represent.
This was Christina’s home, where she lived with her brother, Alvaro after they inherited the property from their parents in 1929. Neither of them married. Alvaro never left the house, and Christina did only once – to see doctors about her deteriorating neurological condition (polio). Yes, Christina was “crippled,” and though dirt poor as well, managed a social life and work-arounds to keep up with cooking and chores. The house had no plumbing, and heating it, Christina once said, was “like heating a lobster trap.”
A 30-minute tour of the home is enlightening and engaging; beginning with the guide querying each visitor about his or her first reaction to Christina’s World, “probably in middle-school.” We then search for the “lies” in the picture, evident to all who see this place: the barn is actually adjacent to the house, there’s no “Nebraska-prairie-like” expanse in the back yard, and Christina was in her 50’s and heavyset when Wyeth rendered her a young girl on canvas. In addition to being a brilliant artist, Wyeth was adept at manipulating emotions.
While visiting Cushing ME in 1938, Andrew Wyeth was 22 when he met 17-year-old Betsy James, his lifelong wife – still alive today. Betsy introduced Andrew to her friend, Christina Olson, and they formed an instant rapport. Andrew found the rooms upstairs in the Olson home to be a perfect place to paint. In fact Christina’s World was prompted by a view from a second floor window of Christina pulling herself along the grass outside. Wyeth started and finished the painting here – which was rare as he generally would begin work in Maine during the summer and complete each piece at his home in Chadds Ford, PA in winter.
Alvaro died in 1968, Christina a month later – both in their 70’s. They are buried in a family cemetery within view of the farmhouse. And, what most people don’t know is that Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, is buried right next to them. $20, includes admission to Farnsworth in Rockland. Open end of May through mid-Oct, Wed-Sun Noon-5 with tours on the hour.
VISIT: The Farnsworth Art Museum. The Farnsworth is really an art complex as it’s made up of a central building (on Main St.), the Farnsworth Homestead next door, and the church down the street, now devoted solely to Wyeth family works. (The Farnsworth also owns and manages the Olson House in Cushing).
Galleries contain works that “celebrate Maine’s role in American Art,” though my favorite piece is in the tiny sculpture park outside: four Robert Indiana LOVE sculptures stacked together to form a cryptic whole. $15, kids under 16 free. Open daily 10-5 June – October. Check website for hours at other times of year.
VISIT: Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Although its brand new digs just opened in June 2016, CMCA, launched in 1952, is the longest running Contemporary Art Association in Maine. In 1967, the Center moved to a repurposed firehouse in Rockport, but was, according to board members, “too out of the way.” This location, in a renovated garage, is right in the midst of Rockland’s downtown, and with its open façade draws pedestrians from the community in.
Adding to the artsy allure of Rockland, this stunning, glass building, designed by Maine local, Starchitect Toshiko Mori (who also designed the Darwin Martin House Visitor’s Center in Buffalo NY, and dozens of other private and public structures around the world), the “non-collecting” CMCA works well with the Farnsworth, but does not overlap. Cutting edge, experimental and “out there” works are exhibited in three sunlit galleries with polished concrete floors to ease the movement of exhibitions that will change four times a year. Open June-Oct. Tues-Sat. 10-6, Sun 1-6, First Fridays 10-8. Nov-May Wed-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5. $6 adults, kids under 12 free.
VISIT: Puffin Project Visitors Center. A Main St. storefront Audubon outpost, the Puffin Project center summons visitors in to learn about the steps taken to reintroduce Puffins to the coast of Maine where they once thrived and then disappeared. It’s a heartwarming story told in a 20 minute video, which all are invited to watch.
Puffins were once prevalent in the Gulf of Maine until women’s desires turned toward hats with large feathers in the late 1800’s. Over five million birds a year were killed for the fashion trade. But in 1981, scientists hatched a plan to bring Puffins back after 100 years, using decoys and audio recordings. Though the Puffin’s natural predator, Herring Gulls , still snap up Puffin eggs and chicks, the Puffin Project has been successful in bringing these bouncy, black and white bodied, colorful-beaked cutie pies back to the Gulf Of Maine. There are now three rookeries – the largest with 500 nesting pairs – off the coast. And you can watch those on Seal Island in real time HERE. $5 donation, Open daily June-October 10-5 (till 7pm on Wed),
VISIT: Maine Lighthouse Museum. Inside the Chamber of Commerce building, this glass case museum honors the Life Savers, Coast Guard and heroes who guard our shores and help mariners in trouble. Yes, it’s a bit hokey, with plastic mannequins and all, but it’s a real tribute to the people we don’t give much thought to, when we Instagram lighthouses and snap our photos. It’s also got a huge collection of Fresnel (pronounce fre-nel) lens. Open Memorial Day through October, Mon-Fri 10-5, Sat, Sun 10-4. $8 adults, kids under 12 free.
SHOP: Art Galleries. There are 24 art galleries in downtown Rockland – an incredible number for the size of the town – and each worth consideration. You may just find a painting for that annoyingly empty wall.
Where to Eat in Rockland ME
EAT: Primo. To be considered “The Best Restaurant in Maine,” one has to overtake the density of distinguished eateries in the foodiest of Maine towns, Portland. In many minds, Primo has done just that. Though many also say that Rockland is becoming the new Portland, comestible-wise. In a home just outside of downtown, chickens and pigs out back, Chef Melissa Kelly has presided over her cozy backyard-to-table Italian restaurant for nearly 20 years. I tasted what the fuss is about, and can honestly say I’ve never scarfed up a dish of Cavatelli & Parm with Marinated Chicken Thighs and Pea Shoots with such ecstasy and abandon.
EAT: Café Miranda. Fun and funky, this pink-walled dining room draws an eclectic crowd, from young couples to white haired lovers, to multi-generational groups. The menu is as large as the dining room is small, and eminently fun to read: “General Sam’s Honky-Tonk Eggrolls” ($14), “50 MPH Tomatoes” ($11.50) – Miranda’s great version of fried green tomatoes – and larger Asian-Southern-Italian Comfort Food dishes in the $19-$29 range. It’s boisterous, and the food is good, to boot.
EAT: Locals recommend Fog Bar for live music, Duck Wings, and “great beer;” Ada’s Kitchen for traditional Italian, especially the Spaghetti All Carbonara; Sammy’s Deluxe for House Made Smoked Haddock; North Beacon Oyster for oysters and “great Crispy Chicken Sandwich;” Suzuki’s Sushi Bar; In Good Company for innovative tapas and extensive wine list; and seasonal outdoor lobster roll shack, Claws.
Where to Stay in Rockland ME
STAY: 250 Main. Ever since it opened in May 2016, 250 Main has won raves from guests, and it’s no wonder. Like any great boutique hotel, design elements are not only pleasing to the eye, but to the body and heart as well. The hotel’s owners, Cabot and Heidi Lyman, also own Lyman Morse Boatbuilding, and employed workers from their boatyard to construct the hotel. Evidence of yacht design, building and structural elements can be seen throughout each of five floors. 250 Main is, in all respects, a fabulous place, and the reason it’s a Maven Favorite. Read the complete write-up HERE.
WINDJAMMER CRUISE: Schooner Stephen Taber. Both the Stephen Taber and Schooner Ladona cruise out of Rockland ME. For an authentic sailing experience with 5-star meals and wine, book a Windjamming trip on either one. This is another Maven Favorite – read all about it here.