This past weekend I had my very first visitor from home, a former coworker of mine from my early days at the ABC with whom I stayed in touch over the years.
While I do have a considerable amount of contact every day with folks back in Australia, with family and friends alike, this was really my first in-person experience with a familiar face since I left last November.
I obviously haven’t been here in Augusta all that long – a little over six months, to be precise – but I found myself quite proud to be showing off my little corner of the world to someone who clearly would never have a reason to come here otherwise.
There was definitely also an element of ego stroke about it, too. We spent the Friday here in Augusta, which gave me the opportunity to stop by some of my favorite haunts, mostly so I could bask in the first-name-basis service that comes from eating and drinking at the same place for six months.
That probably makes me a wanker, but hey. Read on for our three-day adventure…
I took my very first vacation day from work on the Friday, which happened to coincide with the end of my probationary period here at the KJ. Unfortunately the weather was kinda gross and overcast when I woke up, and it was set to get a bunch worse.
The day started off at around 10 a.m. when I picked Heidi up off her flight from Washington, D.C., at Augusta’s airport, one place I’d never set foot in until that day. It’s almost comically small, and only one commercial airline flies here, so it was a surprise to see a sectioned-off, TSA-standard security section like in every other domestic airport in the U.S.
My second surprise came when Heidi said, after only a few minutes, that I’ve already acquired something of an accent. I can’t hear it, save for the occasional word which I pronounce with a real round Australian drawl, but I guess it’s somewhat inevitable. Adapt or perish, right?
Anyway, we loaded Heidi’s suitcase into the Outback and spent a half-hour or so taking the guided tour around Augusta. Highlights included the Kennebec Journal offices, the freshly repaved Mount Vernon Avenue, Sand Hill, downtown’s Water Street, the Calumet Bridge at Old Fort Western (and its less savory, colloquial nickname), both Augusta roundabouts, the State House and Governor LePage’s mansion (from the outside, duh), my old apartment, my new apartment, and downtown Hallowell.
After absorbing so much* history and culture, and then dropping off Heidi’s luggage and meeting my mail carrier Beverly, we’d both worked up an appetite for
destruction food, so we headed to the Downtown Diner for some grub. There, Heidi got to experience what it’s like to watch three waitresses give me shit for an hour and a half, which is what I experience on a weekly basis at least. Lunch was as good as ever, so after that we hit State Route 3 headed for the coast.
My original plan for the day was to check out Vinalhaven Island, about an hour away on a ferry from Rockland, but the weather was absolutely shocking. Of course we had three straight weekends of glorious sunshine and warm weather before I have a friend in town to see the “beautiful Maine summer” that I’ve been bragging about, only to arrive and find it’s pouring rain and 60 degrees. Ugh.
It took us a good hour or so to get out to the coast, which gave us plenty of time to catch up on what’s been happening during the 18 months since we last saw each other. Once we got to Camden, after a quick detour through Belfast because I’d taken the wrong friggin’ route, we stopped and opted to wander the main street through downtown which, despite the weather, had a sizable chunk of tourist traffic on the sidewalks. Even once we got out of the car, the conditions got uglier, with a cold breeze blowing even colder rain.
I was in better shape because I was at least wearing jeans, boots and a hoodie, but Heidi revealed that all she’d packed were dresses, and nary a pair of jeans or pants. Uh oh. That’s kinda my fault, because I’d arrogantly assumed the worst of the cold weather would be over by, y’know, mid-June in Maine. NOPE.
Suffice to say our exploration of downtown Camden was pretty brief, but it’s easy to see that it’s a beautiful spot that will definitely be packed with tourists by the end of the month. Guess I’ll go back and visit sometime after Labor Day. From there, we headed down Route 1 to Rockland, finding yet another cute little coastal town being pounded by sideways rain and cold winds. With little motivation to explore on foot, we instead sought shelter inside (you guessed it, faithful reader!) a bar. It was a case of third time lucky, as our first two choices were shut. The Myrtle Street Tavern was my kinda dive – not necessarily the spot to bring a tourist new to Maine, but my kinda dive – and the bartender was good enough to help me rattle off a few sweet nicknames for Allen’s for Heidi’s benefit.
After a beer and some popcorn we opted to head back to Augusta, via Walmart for some warmer clothes (for Heidi) and Shaw’s for booze (for both of us). I gotta say, it’s a foreign concept to have enough room to have a guest over and not have to offer the choice between sitting on the bed, the computer chair or the recliner. I HAVE A COUCH NOW LIKE A REAL ADULT. I mean, I don’t own it, but still.
Heidi insisted on buying me dinner, and also insisted that we go somewhere that was a “known quantity,” so OBVIOUSLY I took her to the Liberal Cup. I also gave her another lesson in Augusta culture and history by calling Al’s Double R’s cab company for a ride to the Cup, since it was pouring rain. The “history” portion was the old-ass minivan and the “culture” part was me flirting with a 43-year-old female cab driver. CLASSY.
We had a good meal, as the Cup is wont to provide, before retiring to the bar to drink far more than is reasonable or sensible. Heidi ended up getting into a bunch of margaritas while I stuck to the “I Do Brew” until we stumbled out at some point before last call. We even managed to get the same cabbie for the ride home.
Heidi is on some form of supplement that allegedly literally eradicates hangovers (and no she wouldn’t share), so I was the one feeling like rubbish the following morning. But a shower always perks me up, and after stopping by my old place to do just that, we headed back to the Diner for a late breakfast before hitting the road for Portland.
But first, Freeport! Again, I’d planned to stop through Brunswick on the way south because it’s a pretty cool little town and there’s that big ol’ corny Maine souvenir store, Cool as a Moose, right there on Maine Street, which I figured Heidi might get a kick out of. But the weather was still fairly miserable, and we’d started the day a little later than expected, so I decided just to head to Freeport instead.
Thanks to a previous adventure with Bonnie, I knew exactly where to go (right at the fancy McDonald’s store, left at Linda Bean’s restaurant, right again after the roadside Chinese take-out place, right into the free parking garage). We got a spot nice and easily, then headed up to the L.L. Bean campus to have a wander around.
There was a fly fishing demonstration in the indoor pond (because…Maine), and plenty of things to behold in the store, although the taxidermied fighting moose were taking vacation I guess. Heidi marveled at the shotgun racks the same way I did a couple of months ago, and posed for a photo next to the big boot the same way I did a couple of months ago. We also checked out the British store, where I *cringe* bought an expensive-ass jar of Vegemite whose price shall remain unsaid, and we stopped at a couple of souvenir joints for the requisite lobster and moose fridge magnet purchases.
The weather was clearing somewhat, so we opted to head back to I-295 and make our way to Cape Elizabeth to check out the Portland Head Light – my third trip there in six months. I really oughta buy Bonnie a six-pack for teaching me the way around South Portland. We also explored Fort Williams, and found what looks like a ruined castle in some woods, before realizing we were both getting hungry and that the hotel should be our next port of call.
Some interesting Google Maps directions led us all around the turnpike, but we eventually found our digs for the night, the Clarion Hotel Portland. It’s not exactly central – it’s out by the hospital and the ballpark – but it was a sub-$10 cab ride to the Old Port and a two-bed room only ran us like $150 for the night, which was right up my broke-ass alley. We both showered and put on some more respectable attire, hopped in a cab that was considerably better equipped than the one the previous night was, and headed for the Old Port.
Where, in particular? C’mon, you’ve read this blog before. You know I was going to go straight to J’s Oyster, the divey local place that you almost definitely will have to queue up for a table at. Luckily we managed to jag a table without much of a delay, and the only problem we had was a failure to communicate.
When our waitress asked me what I wanted to drink, I ordered a beer and (being a stupid-ass wiseguy) asked for it “in a big ol’ bucket.” She laughed, left us with menus … and once she delivered the drinks, she didn’t return any time soon. When we finally got her attention again, she asked if we “just wanted the steamers, or if we were going to order something else?” I must’ve looked as confused as I felt, and said “that’s not us!”
“Uh, yeah. You asked for the large bucket, right?”
So my joke was utterly lost in translation, and instead I’d ordered a $20 bucket of steamed clams. Now don’t get me wrong: I love seafood and have no qualms about eating a bucket of it myself. But I was hankering for lobster roll, and after the first 25 or so, steamed clams start to take on a bit of a gluey texture when they’re not so hot anymore. Ulp.
Heidi, on the other hand, had surrendered on the steamers a lot earlier and was battling a full lobster dinner, one she had to crack all by herself. This daunting task is something even I haven’t bothered to attempt yet – I’m a lazy asshole – so I couldn’t even offer any advice between bites of the lobster roll that yes indeed I ordered because I’m a fat kid.
Somehow, after all that effort, Heidi wasn’t ready to give up on eating, so we went to grab ice cream, which is always a good foundation for a night of heavy drinking. I had something called Kentucky Derby (which wasn’t made from real horses; I asked) while Heidi went with salted caramel. Good choices all around.
I’d canvassed my Mainer friends on Facebook for good, unfancy Portland drinking suggestions, and narrowed it down to the one suggestion I got: Novare Res. The beer menu here is bigger than Cheesecake Factory’s list of food offerings (read: everything you can think of, and then some), and the staff were bad-ass and happy to make recommendations. On top of that, it was Smutfest, a night dedicated to a New Hampshire brewery called Smuttynose, and let me and my wallet tell you: they make some good beer down there in the Granite State.
Thanks to Jeff the very-well-informed (and well-inked) bartender, I managed to try a bunch of great brews I’d never had before, but certainly will again. Heidi wasn’t feeling like doing a lot of drinking, so she sipped while I quaffed. I got talking to a guy next to me who edits a craft beer industry blog called Brewbound, who just randomly happened to know Chris Owen, the guy who played “Sherminator” in the American Pie flicks, who also just happened to stroll in that night. So on top of a bunch of great food and boozing, I got to stand six feet away from a guy that was in a classic teen comedy from my adolescence. WAY TO GO, PORTLAND.
Novare Res actually had a great late-night snack menu too, so we polished off a crab rangoon grilled cheese (fkjhsfjkhdfsgdfhgsdjfkgh) and an antipasti plate with a bunch of things I can’t remember because beer. Eventually we both kinda hit the wall and decided to head out towards the hotel.
In an uncharacteristically wise move, I figured it’d be a good idea to stop for some Powerade to ease the suffering the next morning, and among the impulse purchases at the counter was a pile of presumably substandard whoopie pies. Sensing another opportunity to get Heidi to try a Maine staple, I bought it and told her she had to have it for breakfast. I’m such a good friend.
I’m too old for this “drinking both nights of a weekend” shit.
But aside from “spending a night out in Portland and not having to drive home,” the other thing on my to-do list since I moved here has been “being in Portland early enough on a weekend morning to have brunch.” And sure enough, here I was. Not only that, the weather was SENSATIONAL. Seventy-five degrees and nary a cloud in the sky.
The hotel offered a buffet breakfast, but that ended at 10:30 and we weren’t up until sometime around 9:45. Not wanting to catch the tail of a Sunday breakfast buffet, and knowing we had far better options, Heidi and I got ready, packed up and then set out up Congress Street to Bintliff’s American Cafe.
I’d read great things on Yelp about a) the lobster eggs Benedict, b) the “rocket fuel”, an over-caffeinated iced coffee and c) the tall mimosas. All of those three things sounded like the right recipe for me to move house later that afternoon, so I was ready to go all-in.
Unfortunately there was a crowd outside (who watched me reverse-parallel park the Outback extremely poorly), which of course is always a good indicator that the food is worth waiting for. But what I didn’t anticipate? FATHER’S DAY. Oops. We got our names on the list and enjoyed the warm sunshine outside, and the camaraderie when someone’s name was called up to cross the threshold.
Eventually we got invited inside, and by the time our waitress came around, my mind was made up. But of course they were out of lobster (this is Maine, you guys, c’mon) so I had to “settle” for crab cakes Benedict. WOE IS ME. A giant mimosa and an equally giant rocket fuel got me on the way to where I needed to be.
And after the meal, the weekend was all but over. I had to get Heidi to Portland International Jetport – straight back down Congress Street, conveniently – for her flight to New York, and I had to get back up 295 to Augusta to start (UGGHHHHHHHH) moving house.
But while it was over seemingly in a flash, both Heidi and I got to check out parts of the world we’d never been before. I had yet to explore more of the Maine coast, or have a night out in Portland, while she’d never been this far north at all.
All the driving, sightseeing, entertaining and drinking were definitely exhausting by the end of the weekend, and my wallet was in critical condition, but I was pretty stoked to be able to share a glimpse of my new life with someone from my old one. I have my doubts that many more of my Australian family and friends will make it up to Vacationland, but if and when they do, I know I’ll have a good time with it.