How times change. When I was growing up in Belfast the harbor was a slick of chicken fat at low tide, thanks to the poultry processors. Our rival town, Rockland, had an inch of fish oil on the water, courtesy of the sardine canneries and fish-processing plants. But in recent decades these two western Penobscot Bay towns have roared back. The working waterfronts have cleaned up their two harbors, embraced the “creative economy,” and learned to camp up the old-time Mainer routine for the tourists who no longer bypass them in favor of Camden. “Oh, what a pretty place!” people gush about Belfast. These days I’d have to agree. And ditto for Rockland. Here’s how the two towns stack up on a few essentials:
BEST FRESH LOBSTER
Belfast: The air smells of boiled lobster when you step out of the car at Young’s Lobster Pound (2 Fairview St., 207-338-1160) on the East Belfast shore. This no-nonsense outfit brokers and ships thousands of lobsters. But they take cooking lobster just as seriously. Crack open your crustacean on the deck overlooking the bay, or head upstairs to the covered loft if the weather’s not cooperating. Clams, crab, scallops, and shrimp are also available.
Rockland: The Lobster Shack (346 Main St., 207-596-3170, www.lobstershackrockland.com, cash only) is a cross between a sidewalk hot dog stand and a beer garden, but with lobster sandwiches and root beer. The lobster and crab rolls are made with meat fresh-picked by Denise Ames and Tim Pezanowski from the catch of Ames’s son, a Matinicus Island lobsterman. The couple makes everything except the baked beans to accompany grilled hot dogs. They’re the specialty of Ames’s dad, Alvah, also a Matinicus lobsterman. The old-fashioned pickled “dilly beans” are surprisingly good with the sweet lobster. Dining is alfresco beneath colorful umbrellas.
Advantage: Belfast. The Lobster Shack has a good whoopie pie, but Young’s serves blueberry pie.
Belfast: Its $1.6 million Harbor Walk from Steamboat Landing to the Armistice Bridge is almost complete. The path showcases the harbor’s mix of working and pleasure boats and the whimsy of the art scene. Even old pilings of long-decayed wharves are carved with faces that disappear and reappear with the tides. Take a break on a chair made from repurposed wire lobster traps or swing on a glider padded with Styrofoam boat bumpers.
Rockland: The boardwalk from the Public Landing to Sandy Beach covers a short but scenic stretch of the extensive harbor. It’s a pretty stroll and you’ll see lots of couples pushing carriages, walking hand-in-hand, or taking pictures of this pleasure-craft end of the harbor.
Advantage: Belfast. Most afternoons you can stop for a tasting at Marshall Wharf Brewing Co.
Belfast: You have to drive 6 miles north to the Penobscot Marine Museum (40 East Main St., 207-548-2529, www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org) in Searsport, the little village that gave the world more than 500 deep-ocean sea captains in the age of sail. Exhibits cover all aspects of marine endeavors, from lumbering on the rivers to the China Trade. This summer’s special exhibition on shipwrecks and rescues is a reminder that it wasn’t all running the packet trade to London or swapping furs for silks in Canton.
Rockland: Maine has always lured artists in the summer and the Farnsworth Art Museum (16 Museum St., 207-596-6457, www.farnsworthmuseum.org) focuses on Maine’s role in American art from Winslow Homer and Fitz Henry Lane to Louise Nevelson (who grew up in Rockland), and beyond. The museum’s Wyeth Center is packed with works by Andrew, Jamie, and N.C., whose illustrations on loan from the Brandywine River Museum are the focus of this summer’s special exhibition.
Advantage: Rockland. Robert Indiana’s “EAT” sculpture on the roof is an invitation to feast on art.
BEST MAINE SPIRIT ON THE WATER
Belfast: April Lawrence opened Belfast Paddle Sports (15 Front St., 207-380-7691, www.belfastpaddlesports.com) in June. She offers harbor stand-up paddle (SUP) tours with instruction, but her paddle board yoga sessions are the most popular. Floating on the board, she says, engages all the senses. “Then we all fall in and laugh about it.” Reserve now for full-moon and meteor shower paddles.
Rockland:Steve Hale of Captain Jack Lobster Boat Adventures (Middle Pier, 207-542-6852, www.captainjacklobstertours.com) fishes 300 traps and takes up to six people along with him “so they can pay to watch me work.” Hale has been fishing for close to 40 years and has a way with a tale that will leave you laughing — and much better informed about lobsters, coastal Maine, and the lot of a fisherman.
Advantage: Belfast. Maine’s always been partial to contemplative activities, and Lawrence links that impulse to the coolest new way to get on the water.
BEST FARM-TO-TABLE DINING
Belfast: The downtown storefront restaurant Chase’s Daily (96 Main St., 207-338-0555, pictured) makes so little fuss about serving only vegetarian and vegan fare that most people don’t miss the bacon with their breakfast pancakes or the chicken in their lunchtime banh mi bowls. Part of the back-to-the-land movement, the Chases started farming the thin soils in inland Waldo County more than 40 years ago. Their organic produce was so beautiful and bountiful that the restaurant — which displays vegetable paintings and sells vegetables in the back — was the logical next step.
Rockland: Melissa Kelly of Primo (2 South Main St., 207-596-0770, www.primorestaurant.com) was named 2013 James Beard Best Chef Northeast for good reason. Her restaurant occupies a century-old home on a hilltop setting just south of town, where she can grow most of her produce and raise the pigs that end up in the charcuterie and the poultry for her egg and chicken dishes. She’s an omnivore who wastes nothing and feels no dilemma.
Advantage: Rockland. Chase’s only serves dinner on Fridays.
BEST FISHING SPOT NOT ON A BOAT
Belfast: The Armistice Bridge hasn’t carried auto traffic for a generation, but the low span at the mouth of the Passagassawa-keag River is a convenient place to fish for mackerel with red-and-white lures or stripers with plugs that mimic the herring they chase up the river.
Rockland: The Rockland breakwater was built of granite blocks in the final two decades of the 19th century to protect the mooring field of Rockland’s commercial harbor. It’s proven to be perfect habitat for rock-loving species, and a great spot to cast for stripers and bluefish chasing mackerel.
Advantage: Rockland. The breakwater has been nominated as the eighth wonder of the world on www.virtualtourist.com.
BEST ART GALLERIES
Belfast: Neal Parent’s black and white photos escape the visual clichés about Maine to render a coastline and its people as gritty, real, and modestly heroic as they really are. The Parent Gallery (92 Main St., 207-338-1553, www.nealparent.com, pictured) concentrates on his work, but also represents a few other artists.
Rockland: Cynthia Hyde was a pioneer when she opened Caldbeck Gallery (12 Elm St., 207-594-5935, www.caldbeck.com) in a condemned tenement more than 30 years ago. She represents more than 30 extraordinary artists, all with some connection to Maine, including stone sculptor Lise Bécu and painter Alan Bray.
Advantage: Tie. Both towns have around 20 art galleries and First Friday gallery walks.
BEST SHORT SAIL
Belfast: The Amity (Town Pier, 207-323-1443, www.belfastbaycompany.com) is a historic Friendship sloop, constructed in 1901 for inshore lobstering and restored in the 1970s. Captain Patrick Reilly runs two-hour trips around the bay, heeling over until the rail is in the water and the sails are filled with wind.
Rockland: Marine biologist Captain Bob Pratt sails the 55-foot wooden ketch Morning in Maine (Middle Pier, 207-691-SAIL, www.amorninginmaine.com) on two-hour sightseeing trips. “Penobscot Bay is the best place to sail in the world, with deep water, good wind, and nothing to run into,” says Pratt. The trip through the working harbor out into the bay depends on the wind: “We follow the bow.”
Advantage: Belfast by the slightest puff of wind, though only if you’re comfortable in a boat that sits low in the water and slops a bit over the rail.
Belfast: In a revival from its chicken-processing days, Belfast will have the seventh annual Broilerfest (www.belfastmaine.org) on Aug. 10 at Belfast City Park.
Rockland: The world comes to Rockland for the annual Maine Lobster Festival (www.mainelobsterfestival.com), held July 31-Aug. 4 at Harbor Park.
Advantage:Rockland.The State of Maine will never put a chicken on the license plate.