North of Portland, the coast of Maine is a line drawn by a jittery hand. It jerks suddenly east or south when its business should be an upward sweep toward Canada. These geographical spasms lend it a happy plenitude of nooks and coves, as well as islets sprayed like inkblots across Penobscot Bay. Land and sea clash in sudden peninsulas and headlands, and mountains jut at scenic points so you can take excellent selfies.
In summer, the slate coast assumes a coat of green velvet, and towns nestle in it like ivory buttons. Camden is the most polished of these. While the drive from Boston can be an intimidating haul, the first glimpse of Camden’s harbor dispels any lingering misery you’re trailing from the tarmac of I-95. Scooped from the foot of Mount Battie, Camden looks like a watercolor seascape framed with evergreens. From Main Street, a park unrolls to waters dense with schooners. A wooded island guards the harbor entrance, while chowder houses and patios crowd up against the shore. The town is a hothouse for art galleries and stores that smell like potpourri and sell artisanal corkscrews, and if the atmosphere isn’t quite drowsy, it’s on the cusp of a satisfied yawn.
There is, however, a powerful awakening in store if you walk down Bay View Street to a gracious white mansion on a hill—the Camden Harbour Inn. This is the town’s Relais & Châteaux property, its finest lodging, home to the most innovative lobster tasting menu in Maine.
Every destination property in New England ought to have verandas overlooking water and flowers, and the Camden Harbour answers well. Stepping inside, the modernity of the design belies the Victorian exterior. You feel like you’ve wandered onto the set of a recent episode of House Hunters International. Lines are clean, the palette has a toothpaste brightness, and there’s a Euro modernity to the furnishings. Indeed, the owners are Dutch. Lots of New England inns boast rooms with colonial names, but the ones here are from a different imperial memory: Surinam, Malacca, Curacao, New Amsterdam, Dutch Brazil. Instead of Rembrandt prints, many of the suites boast Asian touches, as well as sunken baths. The Taiwan suite, for instance, sports a statuette of a Mandarin on the mantel above the gas fireplace, while Siam has Buddha heads and lotuses.
But the inn would hardly merit a visit on account of its side tables. The reason to come here is Natalie’s, the house restaurant helmed by engaged chefs Chris Long and Shelby Stevens. Designed to feel like a Left Bank bistro from the Belle Epoque, it’s a room of red velvet, bright marble and golden light. The contents of the plates, however, are purest Maine, from the local oyster with smoked potato and crème fraiche to the tarragon cannelloni with rabbit confit and fiddleheads.
There are decent, God-fearing people who believe that the lobster’s apotheosis happens with a rapid boil and a dip in a hot cup of Land o’ Lakes. These people are morons, or at least, they haven’t been to Natalie’s. Here is proof, in five courses, that the purest raw ingredient can profit from a little judicious tweaking. Although the lobster tasting menu changes daily, on a summer evening it might begin with a piece of ivory meat on buttermilk panna cotta with cucumber, pancetta, chive and melon, all calculated for contrast, depth and balance. Next, a simple lobster consommé with fresh herbs and corn, followed by grilled claws in a miso glaze with local squash. The culminating tail appears on a plume of red pepper puree and salsa verde. Which is to say, this menu takes the common crustacean and opens up its world.
Desserts, too, play with local flavors in cheese, fruit and even pea shoots, but take particular note of the wine program. Micah Wells, the sommelier, has a genius for creative pairings and conversation. His enthusiasm for his subject isn’t only contagious; it’s an excellent reason to linger over a glass of fragrant yuzu wine after dinner.
As you toddle upstairs to your room, your senses satiated and fuzzy with the experience, you may feel a pang at leaving. Don’t. Natalie’s serves breakfast.
– You can see an eagle’s view of Penobscot Bay from the top of Mount Battie. Drive up for a quick picnic, or hike the trails of the Camden Hills State Park and earn your snapshot.
– The Waterfront has a cheerful patio on the harbor, and its unfussy dining is popular with both tourists and locals.
Camden Harbour Inn, 83 Bayview St., Camden, Maine, (207-236-4200) camdenharbourinn.com