CAMDEN, Maine — Who needs Barbie’s Dreamhouse? We’ll take a dramatic stone castle over Pepto-Bismol-pink plastic any day. Reopened in May after a stunning makeover, the 11-room Norumbega Inn is now open year-round. This fairy-tale chateau is the perfect base for an autumn adventure in Camden. There’s very little pink involved, but, we promise, you won’t even miss it.
For sure, this coastal town is beloved in summer, thronged with visitors who order lobster rolls and blueberry pie and queue up for sailing excursions. Come autumn, it’s a gentler vibe — and the perfect time to hike Mount Battie to see the surrounding hillsides draped in russet and scarlet, bathed in golden light. There’s plenty of elbow room downtown, and no lines at Uncle Willy’s Candy Shop, even though it’s candy corn season.
Plus, you can easily nab a table for dinner at someplace special, like Long Grain, helmed by a repeat James Beard Award semifinalist. And there’s this: If you want to head out on one of those ‘totally Camden’ schooner cruises, it’s not too late. Some ships sail into October, offering yet another way to experience fall foliage.
“Autumn here is just magical,” says Brett Haynie, co-owner of The Norumbega Inn. “The contrast of blue water against the oranges, reds, and purples of the trees are just stunning. People come here and they don’t want to leave.”
Unless you’re sleeping on your yacht, this is the place
We admit — our motivation for a Camden visit was to check out the newly-refined Norumbega, a landmark known simply as “the castle,” set on a rise near downtown and Camden Harbor. (“Only slightly creepy, and probably haunted,” our companion declared as we entered the mansion.) Built in 1886 by Maine native and inventor Joseph Stearns, the home was designed by architect Arthur B. Jennings, known for his multi-turreted churches and homes in New York and New Jersey. For 100 years, it was a private residence, hosting American presidents and society types, and added to the National Registry of Historic Places in the 1970s. No ghosts, as far as the current team knows.
The ghost of Joseph Stearns would surely take issue with anyone who dared to destroy the original millwork, coffered oak ceilings, leaded glass windows, and inlaid wood floors. Happily, new owners Will Tims and Brett Haynie resisted. But how to create a comfortable space for 21st-century travelers, who like some “wow” with their wainscoting? By adding king-size beds, vintage Italian light fixtures, antique rugs, artwork by Maine artists, a grand piano, en suite marble baths, and a canopied terrace for outdoor dining. We fell hard for the penthouse suite, with its spiral staircase, fireplace, private deck, and views of the bay.
Breakfast is complimentary for guests, and typically includes a hot entrée, local yogurt, house-made granola, and fruit. Chef Marymarcel Densmore executes a Peruvian-inspired small-plates menu seasonally (July-October), while monthly pop-up dinners, held year-round, highlight artisan makers and local vendors. These elements, says Tims, will bring in guests during the months when the weather is daunting. (Already, bookings are coming in for January, he notes.)
Color on the coast
No worries about that in the fall, though — typical October temps are 40 to 50 degrees. That’s ideal for exploring the 30 miles of hiking trails at Camden Hills State Park (www.parksandlands.com), about 1.5 miles from The Norumbega. The park itself is typically open all year. (Mount Battie Road, the auto route to the summit, may close from November to May because of weather and staffing issues.) The auto road ends at the Stone Tower, a memorial to soldiers of WWI in 1921.
Whether you hike it (the half-mile Mount Battie Trail is a popular route) or drive it, have your phone set to Camera: The classic Maine scene revealed at the summit includes Camden Harbor, Penobscot Bay, a smattering of islets, and — on a clear day — Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park. The vista is said to have inspired Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Renascence” — who’s to doubt it?
But that’s not even the best way to see pretty leaves in Camden. The honor goes to the fall foliage chairlift ride at Camden Snow Bowl (www.camdensnowbowl.com), owned and operated by the town of Camden. From this lofty perch, you’re surrounded by autumn’s glory. And it’s cheap — just $10 per person, available on Sundays in October. We think Edna would approve.
A schooner with a bar? Yes, please
We didn’t really plan to sail aboard the 86-foot-long Schooner Appledore (day sail, $54.95 adults; www.appledore2.com), but we were wandering along the pier and there she was, ready for her 10:30 a.m. departure. It was a beautiful day, so why not? Turns out, this graceful wooden vessel (she holds 49 people but there were about a dozen of us) is a dandy way to tour Camden’s picturesque harbor and the bay, with the fiery fall hues of the Camden Hills as a backdrop. Would we like a cocktail? Why yes, we would. Cheers to magnificent Maine, and the joy of playing tourist in our very own New England.
Get-able in fall — a coveted reservation
Spontaneous types that we are, we never manage to get into Camden’s dining hot spots during summer visits. On this visit, we walked right into Long Grain (www.longgraincamden.com), for a taste of Bangkok-born Ravin Nakjaroen’s locavore Asian-fusion cookery. (They do recommend reservations, though.) For seafood, Peter Ott’s on the Water (www.peterotts.com) is reliably good, and they plan to remain open until mid- or late October. Luncheonette-style, family-owned Marriner’s Restaurant (207-236-4949) is a year-round mainstay for breakfast and lunch — snag a table on the outdoor patio if you can. We mentioned Uncle Willy’s Candy Shop (www.unclewillyscandyshoppe.com) earlier, that’s how much we love it: This super-cute spot stocks your childhood favorites, and chocolates that will excite your sophisticated sweets-loving adult palate.
“Sweet” and “super-cute” — two words that crop up when out-of-towners describe Camden itself. “This is such a lively four-season town,” says Haynie, an Oklahoma native who arrived in Maine after a spell in New York City. “I sure didn’t expect that, but I really appreciate it.”
If you go . . .
www.norumbegainn.com; fall rates from $339 per night including breakfast.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com