BELFAST, Maine — I was an industrious child, delivering papers, selling greeting cards and ribbon candy door-to-door, mowing lawns, and generally hustling odd jobs to make a dollar. By my teens, I spent my summer daylight hours hauling lobster traps aboard the boat I built with my father and grandfather or crewing on older fishermen’s boats. Except perhaps when I rowed my dinghy out to my mooring just before dawn, I rarely reflected on the beauty and serenity of this safe harbor at the head of Penobscot Bay. I had other fish to fry, so to speak.
Of course, that harbor was not nearly so sweet back then. Two poultry processors between the tugboat docks and the bridge over the Passagassawakeag River made Belfast the self-proclaimed ‶broiler capital of the world.″ They also made the whole town reek at low tide, since all the waste products were simply dumped into the ocean. Eventually, the Clean Water Act sounded the death knell for the local chicken industry and a few years of relentless tides flushed the harbor clean. Tourism returned as people began to appreciate the harbor, the rocky shores, and the light.
The light has always been there, of course. Belfast sits at 44 degrees north latitude and 69 degrees west longitude — roughly 130 miles north and more than 100 miles east from Boston. I offer this geography lesson because it explains why, in summer, the light rises earlier off the ocean and lingers longer over the western hills. In late June, the heavens begin to glow before 3 a.m. and the sky’s last glimmer flickers out well after 10 p.m. The infinite gradations of light in the course of that very long day constitute a palette that could leave any painter breathless.
I haven’t lived in Belfast since I left for college in Orono, but in recent years I have found myself drawn back for those transitional days around the solstice when astronomical spring pivots into astronomical summer. Even before COVID sent us all outdoors and as far as we could get from other people, my wife and I began spending several nights in late June at an old-fashioned tourist cabin in East Belfast. For those days, I do what I never did as a kid.
Which is to say, nothing.
Part of the beauty of Colonial Gables Oceanfront Village is the sheer lack of distractions. The property boasts a scattering of picnic tables, all of them precariously askew on the tilt of the long grassy incline running from Route 1 down to the rocky shore. I’m sure some guests use the volleyball net and the shuffleboard court, but I’ve never personally witnessed such activities. Someone does light the firepit on the shore and bring out marshmallows nearly every night.
Only a few things truly matter at Colonial Gables. The 40 or so studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom cottages are fresh but minimal. (OK, not really minimal. When I was growing up, no one on the Maine coast had air conditioning, certainly not rock-solid Wi-Fi service.) Despite the television, which carries NESN for Red Sox broadcasts, my wife and I spend many of those long daylight hours on the porch. We chat with the dogwalkers making their rounds on the gravel road and watch one woodchuck scamper across the nearby lawn before diving into a hole. Sometimes we see two woodchucks gamboling together in a game of tag like the summer courting ritual of teenagers.
And sometimes we just sip our coffee or tea and look down across the green slope to the ocean, emulating Otis Redding: ‶watching the ships roll in / Then I watch ‘em roll away again...″ OK, calling them ‶ships″ is a bit of license. ‶Small boats″ is more like it. Sometimes my muscle memory surfaces and I feel the strain in my arms and back as I watch a lobsterman pulling traps.
With some amusement, we watch kayakers, some of whom are staying in other cabins, pull up on the stony beach with a grating crunch that echoes up the hillside. They only make that mistake once, learning to hop out in the shallows to avoid dinging their hulls on the shore.
To be honest, the shore is much of what makes Colonial Gables special. The incline of the beach is too gradual for serious swimming, even when high tide reduces the shore to the rack line of sea-rounded pebbles, dried up rockweed, and broken mussel shells. To wade out deep enough to swim seems like going halfway to ‶the monument,″ a decommissioned light marking a ledge in the middle of the Belfast harbor channel. Besides, the water is too cold for anyone except children born with antifreeze in their veins.
The beach comes into its own when the tide goes out. I prefer walking it in a pair of water shoes, since the footing includes a lot of very sharp barnacles and the occasional spiny sea urchin. Flip-flops would suffice, I suppose, and seem a lot less pretentious. I find wet shore captivating. It changes moment by moment like a child’s kaleidoscope. The half sand, half mud pudding underfoot is studded with smallish stones that display an infinite variation of black and white speckles, interrupted by lumps of gleaming white quartz, matte black basalt, and rusty veins of iron. I have to limit my stone collecting to a single pants pocket. The flats are always the same, yet different every time the sea withdraws and the ocean floor comes up for breath.
Which is twice in every 24-hour period. Belfast is not far enough north to experience the ‶white nights″ for which Scandinavia is famed. Mind you, at times it rains and fog enshrouds the landscape, which has a snug, almost Scandinavian mystery of its own. But the skies are usually clear in late June, and there is enough sunlight, moonlight, or starlight to walk the beach at both low tides. The best time to be there is on the full moon. Colonial Gables faces east, and the full moon rises at sunset while light still lingers in the western sky. The moon creeps up through distant clouds on the horizon and suddenly bursts out against the lushly blue sky, glinting over the rhythmic peaks of lapping waves.
As a kid, I was too distracted to notice any of this. But I seem to have outgrown my childhood obliviousness. I’m happy to just stand on the beach in the moonlight and be. Nothing really happens, and that’s the point. There will be other occasions for adventure. For now, just give me a cabin by the sea.
Colonial Gables Oceanfront Village 7 Eagle Ave. (off Route 1), Belfast, Maine; 800-937-6246 or 207-338-4000, colonialgables.com. Motel rooms from $110, cottages from $140.
David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.