We watched as Andy Rogers, an oyster-shucking champion, grilled fresh, plump, just-opened oysters. We were sitting in a pair of Adirondack chairs on a deck overlooking the Damariscotta River, surrounded by the working accoutrements of an oyster farmer: tangles of ropes, stacks of wire cages and buoys, hoses and buckets. A flat-bottom boat was tied to the dock below. The “river of many fishes,” named by the Abenakis and now famous for its oysters, stretched out before us, a wide, dark, tidal waterway reaching for the Atlantic Ocean. Rogers had the oysters, touched with a simple lemon-garlic-thyme butter, ready in minutes. We slurped; they were warm, firm, sweet — a mouthful of sea.
This was our first stop along the recently launched Maine Oyster Trail, showcasing a variety of oyster experiences, including farm tours, shucking lessons, raw bars, restaurants, and retail outlets serving and selling locally harvested Maine oysters (www.maineoystertrail.com). An interactive online trip planner allows you to customize your itinerary based on what region of Maine you want to explore and what type of experiences you’d like to have. Even if you’re not an oyster lover, it’s a great way to learn about a growing $8 million industry (Maine has more than 100 farms) and get to meet some innovative, hardworking farmers. It can also take you down backroads to off-the-beaten-track destinations along Maine’s coastline.
We chose the midcoast region of Maine and checked off farm tours, shuck trucks, raw bars, and boat and kayak tours as our preferred experiences and the program directed us to 20 locales. Yikes! Obviously, these were way too many places to visit on our two-day trip; we narrowed them down to three farms, two raw bars, and one boat tour, with an overnight stay at the Sebasco Harbor resort in Phippsburg, Maine.
The Jolie Rogers Traveling Raw Bar, our first stop, is the brainchild of Ryan Jolie and Andy Rogers (www.jolierogersrawbar.com). They’ve teamed up with oyster farmer Barbara Scully, one of the pioneers of oyster farming in Maine (www.scullyseaproducts.com). Scully, who founded and later sold the Glidden Point Oyster Farms, now one of the largest in the state, has been farming for more than 30 years.
“We tasted oysters from all over New England and the world, and Barb’s were the best,” Rogers told us.
There’s a small retail shop, where you can purchase Scully’s prized Appledore oysters, along with other Maine oysters and seafood products. Jolie and Rogers are also happy to give visitors shucking lessons and tastings, and even grill a few bivalves for you to sample dockside.
Scully’s farm lease is located along the Edgecomb Shore of the Damariscotta River. We walked with her down a dirt road to the river while she explained how her oysters differ from others. While most Maine farmers use seed (known as spat) from two main hatcheries in the state, Scully uses only wild seed stock. She grows her oysters intertidally, where they are often exposed at low tide. They’re grown slowly in the current of the river, away from land, which she says produces a firmer, cleaner oyster. “The closer you can stay with Mother Nature, the better,” she said. Her Appledores were some of our favorites, crisp and firm, redolent of the sea.
Our next stop, Glidden Point Oyster Farms, is right up the street (www.gliddenpoint.com). We arrived in time for the daily tour of the farm. “Let’s head down to the docks,” our guide, Kelsey Turcotte, said to the small group of visitors. “It’s a lot more fun down there and a prettier view!” She told us that Glidden Point has some 30 acres of farming area under lease producing 750,000 oysters a year. We followed her to the docks and cages, where oysters “are hanging out, doing what they’d do if they were out in the water.” She talked spat and bags and cages and lifted a jumbo oyster out of the water for us to see. “This is probably five years old,” she said. “Chefs love these.”
After the tour, we ordered a sampling of oysters from the take-out food counter. Our favorites were the Glidden Point Topsiders, grown near the top of the surface where the water is warmer. They were rich and buttery.
Up next: a trip with Damariscotta River Cruises (www.damariscottarivercruises.com).
“The Coast Guard would like me to tell you that the bar is open,” said the captain of the boat, as we left the dock. “And there are life jackets under the seats.”
He’s a fun-loving guy with a fountain of new information on oysters. They start out male and then turn to female, he told us, and some of them return to male. He showed us a gallon jug of oyster seeds, containing 1½ million seeds worth about $15,000.
We saw seals sunning on Goose Ledges and a juvenile bald eagle take off from its nest, set high in a towering pine tree. The river is filled with oyster farms; we motored past strings of cages, and farmers tumbling and sorting and re-bagging oysters. The captain reminded us that they were serving the freshest oysters around, and most passengers, ourselves included, got a dozen to enjoy onboard. We went for a mix of Glidden Point cocktails, grown deep near the bottom of the river, and Wild Dams, harvested from the banks of the river where they grow wild.
By now, we’d had our fill of bivalves, so we scratched the Shuck Station Raw Bar and Damariscotta River Grill and headed straight for Sebasco Harbor Resort (www.sebasco.com). The sprawling property sits on 450 acres of prime oceanfront real estate. It’s been open since 1930 and we can’t believe we haven’t stayed at this gem before. It has everything you need and then some, including a golf course, full-service spa, tennis courts, saltwater pool, even an old-fashioned candlepin bowling alley. There’s a slew of daily activities, including kayak tours and scenic boat rides, and a variety of accommodations, from rooms in the Main Lodge to deluxe one-bedroom to 10-bedroom cottages. There are even rooms in a lighthouse with sweeping water views. The vibe is laidback, relaxed and unpretentious, and the setting on Casco Bay is gorgeous. That evening, we dined outside at the resort’s Ledges Pub & Patio with water views, opting for lobster rolls and burgers, with cups of creamy clam chowder.
The next morning is a beauty, with clear skies and abundant sunshine, something we never take for granted along the Maine coastline. We headed to the Maine Oyster Company Basecamp (www.themaineoystercompany.com), located in a former general store nestled on a spit of rocky land in a tiny seaside village, where everyone knows everyone. It is quintessential postcard pretty Maine, with an unfussy cluster of homes, well-worked lobster boats and scuffed wooden docks, and views across a snug cove into Casco Bay. The Maine Oyster Company, started by John Herrigel who used to summer here as a kid, is an oyster farm, an event space, a community hub and coffee shop, a research center, and a co-op promoting and selling locally farmed Maine oysters. “It’s all about sustaining the community and preserving a brand and lifestyle for the next generation,” Herrigel, an enthusiastic ambassador for the Maine oyster industry, told us.
At Basecamp, you can sign up for farm tours, take a shucking class, sample oysters, and help yourself at a grab-and-go cooler that has the day’s selection of bivalves. We were content to simply stand on the dock, listening to the distant purr of a lobster boat, and breathing in the salty, seaside air.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com