Maine: Almost heaven

• PHOTO SLIDESHOW: A trip to Maine: Part 1 • Part 2

By MIKE CULLITY
Golfweek contributor

A layer of fog shrouded Penobscot Bay as the Captain Neal Burgess ferried me out of Rockland Harbor on a humid September morning. Two schooners danced in the distance, and fluorescent lobster buoys bobbed in our wake during the 12-mile crossing to North Haven, a quaint summer retreat off the Maine coast. As I toted my Ping Hoofer onto the island, my anticipation trumped the uncertainty sowed by an ominously gray sky.

A 15-minute walk from the dock brought me to the nine-hole North Haven Golf Club. I’d been drawn here by the promise of a golf experience devoid of modern trappings and replete with natural beauty. A solitary round on a 1916 layout that has remained largely untouched. Ocean views. No golfing masses. What golfer could resist?

• • •

North Haven’s clubhouse is a modest red barn that houses a starter’s shack and a maintenance garage. With no one manning the store, I sought out the superintendent, who was trimming trees nearby. Hedging against the darkening sky, I asked for a key to one of the four carts parked against the barn.

After bogeying No. 1, I glimpsed the bay from the second tee. An empty fairway lay ahead. Heaven awaited.

Within minutes, however, the heavens opened up, and I took shelter in the barn with superintendent Wesley Newman. A former logger from Jackman, a remote outpost near Maine’s border with Quebec, the rugged 46-year-old has run the course for 15 years. “I used to hit a thousand balls a day,” he says. “Now I just give a few lessons and maybe play once or twice a day.”

Newman offered me the use of his pickup while I waited out the weather. I drove to the island’s grocery store for a sandwich but returned hungry, passing on three forlorn tuna wraps left in the deli case. Seasonal place, I muttered.

With the storm persisting, Newman drove me to the dock and invited me back when the weather is better. Floating toward the mainland, I lamented a slice of paradise missed.

• • •

A trek through Maine rarely leaves a golfer wanting for much, especially when fall foliage is approaching its peak. The state’s 33,000-plus square miles offer golf in wonderfully diverse surroundings, from the western mountains to the inland lakes to the Atlantic coastline. And whether you’re seeking resort amenities or small-town charm, you’ll find it here.

After driving north through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, my wife, Bethany, and I checked into the Jordan Grand Resort Hotel at Sunday River. Though Sunday River has been drawing die-hard skiers for years, the opening of Sunday River Golf Club in 2006 has given golfers a reason to visit.

After settling in at the Jordan, we ventured into nearby Bethel to sample the local flavor. Settled as a farming community in 1774, Bethel offers small-town New England appeal with a nod to the thriving tourist trade. Inns occupying stately old Colonials mix in among Main Street’s restaurants and shops. The town’s grande dame, the Bethel Inn, sits across from the village green.

At The Suds Pub, a homey refuge in the basement of the Sudbury Inn, you’ll find the largest number of beers (29) on tap west of Portland. The Suds also is home to “Hoot Nite,” a Thursday night open-mike tradition.

Our dinner companions there, Kevin and Margie Finley, have lived in Bethel since 1993. A physician at the Bethel Family Health Center, Kevin commutes on a Vespa scooter and plays cribbage on Thursday nights at The Suds. During a weekly game in 2006, he drew cribbage’s equivalent of a hole-in-one – a perfect 29-point hand.

Framed on a nearby wall, a front-page story from The Bethel Citizen commemorates Finley’s feat. “One avid cribbage player who once drew the hand made sure it was noted in his obituary,” the article reads.

When the conversation turned to golf, Finley warned me about Sunday River’s steep cart paths, which have caused mishaps among the less cautious.

“Good job security,” the doctor joked.

Leaving the second tee the next morning, my cart slalomed gingerly down a serpentine path resembling San Francisco’s Lombard Street. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road given the surroundings, a canvas of cloudless sky and fall hues dotting the majestic Mahoosuc Range.

At Sunday River, No. 1 on the Golfweek’s Best state list, architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. created a layout that is easy to fall for, if unrelenting. Sporting a 75.2 rating and 146 slope, the 7,130-yard tips are not for the faint of heart, particularly with sloping greens that run at NASCAR speeds.

I found plenty of challenge from the 6,558-yard blues.

Later, I lunched with Bethany in the club’s Mahoosuc Bar & Grill, which has a hunting-lodge ambience, then savored a final gaze across the mountains from the club’s porch.

• • •

A 70-mile ride eastward along secondary roads brought us to the village of Belgrade Lakes. A tranquil vacation spot, the region has been attracting golfers since the 1999 opening of Belgrade Lakes Golf Club, No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best state list and the first American design by former PGA European Tour player Clive Clark.

I had arranged accommodations at the Village Inn, situated on a ribbon of land between Great Pond and Long Pond.

At first underwhelmed by its rustic, middle-of-the-road appearance, I quickly warmed to the place. Our room was comfortable and tastefully decorated, and our dinner at the inn’s restaurant was excellent.

As we feasted, inn owner Charlie Grover worked the room. A former corporate turnaround specialist whose career took him to cities across North America, the 59-year-old native of nearby Gardiner retired to his roots, buying the inn in 2003 with his wife, Susan, who serves as its executive chef. When I told him I’d be playing Belgrade Lakes the next morning, he offered some advice: “Always, always go below the hole.”

To borrow from Hollywood, the course had me at hello. The view from its hilltop clubhouse is simply spectacular. Five of the region’s seven lakes stretch across the landscape, with acres of unspoiled forest providing backdrop.

Refreshingly, Belgrade’s prevailing ethos is no-frills golf. The simple, cedar-shingled clubhouse contains no locker rooms or bar and just a small pro shop. There’s a driving net for warming up, and local kids play for free.

The lakes are visible from just a few holes, as most of the layout winds through woods. Boulders line several fairways and gave me at least two favorable kicks. And as Grover advised me, it is prudent to stay below the hole here; after my approach went long on 18, my downhill chip ran clear off the front of the green.

After golf, I joined Bethany at the Lazy Lab Café, a contemporary village eatery and bookstore, where we thumbed through popular titles while eating.

• • •

A couple of hours Down East, as Mainers refer to the northeast coast, we reached our next port. Nestled along Frenchman Bay on the eastern shore of Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor draws scores of tourists with its seaside charm and breathtaking Acadia National Park.

A 19th-century playground for America’s social elite, Bar Harbor also is home to Kebo Valley Golf Club, where golf has been played since the 1890s.

After settling in at the waterfront Harborside Hotel and Marina, we dined on seafood risotto and seared salmon in the outdoor garden at McKay’s Public House, named for George McKay, a Prohibition-era bootlegger who lived in the home the restaurant now occupies.

In the morning, we walked to Jordan’s Restaurant, an all-day breakfast joint where owner David Paine – a lifelong Bar Harbor resident and eight-time Kebo Valley club champion – was busy flipping his famous wild blueberry pancakes. Later, I hiked the scenic Shore Path, a mile-long trail along the ocean’s edge near town, and poked around Main Street’s Acadia Country Store.

It was 85 and sunny when I arrived for my afternoon round at Kebo Valley, No. 5 on Golfweek’s Best state list. The current Kebo layout grew from a nine-hole design architect Herbert Leeds finished in 1896; over several ensuing years, club member Waldron Bates and head pro Shirley Liscomb helped Leeds expand the course to 18 holes.

Though only 6,131 yards from the tips, Kebo is long on entertainment. Its small greens require precise approaches, and its rolling terrain creates a number of blind shots. Its fairways were burnt out in spots, but the immaculately conditioned greens rolled fast and true. Views of Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain and surrounding peaks make Kebo an especially pleasant walk in the park.

At the 358-yard 17th, I visited Kebo’s famed Taft Bunker, from which President William Howard Taft is reputed to have made a 27 during a 1911 round. Fortunately, I fared better from the mammoth gravel bank that spans the entire slope guarding the elevated green. After two explosions and a chip, I slid home an 8-footer for 6.

• • •

That evening, I forgot my Taft Bunker blues upon tasting the succulent Maine crab cakes at In Good Company, a Rockland wine bar. About two hours southwest of Bar Harbor along Penobscot Bay, Rockland attracts thousands each summer for its North Atlantic Blues Festival and Maine Lobster Festival. My reason for visiting: the oceanfront course at the Samoset Resort in neighboring Rockport.

With the resort sold out, I arranged lodging at Rockland’s Captain Lindsey House Inn, where the spacious quarters and warm evening cookies made us feel at home. After an afternoon browsing Main Street’s shops and art galleries, I drove to the nearby Thomaston headquarters of Brooks Trap Mill, one of New England’s leading lobster-trap suppliers.

Fresh off a nine-hole round, co-owner Stephen Brooks gave me a tour and taught me the basics of trap-building. Most lobstermen nowadays eschew traditional wooden traps in favor of a PVC-coated wire mesh variety, I learned.

“It was awful hahd to switch ’em from wood to wire,” Frank Smith, an independent trap builder, explained in a distinctive New England brogue. Smith was one of a motley cast of characters gathered at Brooks for an after-hours bull session.

A blustery Thomaston native with a handshake that could strangle a rottweiler, the 54-year-old Smith is a veteran of the maritime trades. In addition to producing “the best damn lobster trap in the state of Maine,” as he advertises on his company’s voice-mail recording, he supplies Brooks with oak runners that enable traps to slide easily across boat decks.

After an overnight deluge, I arrived at Samoset, which has been likened to Pebble Beach for its spectacular ocean vistas. Despite its setting, the 1902 Robert Elder design long had been considered pedestrian. But recent enhancements by architect Brad Booth have added teeth to the layout.

“It was your typical resort track, nothing special,” said Samoset head professional Gary Soule, a Bar Harbor native who came to the resort in 2006 after working several years in Florida.

“I got back, and they’d made a pretty darn good golf course out of it.”

Postcard moments arrive early here. On No. 3, an uphill par 3 along the coastline, a lone lobster boat floated in the distance as I teed up my 7-iron. And on No. 4, a dogleg par 5 reminiscent of Pebble Beach’s 18th, a breakwater extends beyond the green to a humble lighthouse.

Standing in Samoset’s 14th fairway after a long, center-cut drive, I savored the moment. Downhill through a narrow chute, the green awaited my approach. Stretching for miles beyond it, the bay shimmered. Here it was: my slice of paradise.

After slicing my 6-iron into the woods, I realized paradise is all too fleeting.

– Mike Cullity is a freelance writer from Manchester, N.H.

Maine menu

Where to stay

Captain Lindsey House Inn
Rockland
800-523-2145
www.lindseyhouse.com

Harborside Hotel & Marina
Bar Harbor
800-328-5033
www.theharborsidehotel.com

Jordan Grand Resort Hotel at Sunday River
Newry
800-543-2754
www.sundayriver.com

The Village Inn
Belgrade Lakes
207-495-3553
www.villageinnducks.com

Where to play

Belgrade Lakes Golf Club
Belgrade Lakes
207-495-4653
www.belgradelakesgolf.com

Kebo Valley Club
Bar Harbor
207-288-3000
www.kebovalleyclub.com

North Haven Golf Club
North Haven
207-867-2054

Samoset Resort
Rockport
800-341-1650
www.samoset.com

Sugarloaf Golf Club
Carrabassett Valley
800-843-5623
www.sugarloaf.com

Sunday River Golf Club
Newry
207-824-4653
www.sundayrivergolf.com

Waterville Country Club
Oakland
207-465-9861
www.watervillecountryclub.com

When to visit

Consider combining a golf trip to Maine with two of the summer’s biggest events, the North Atlantic Blues Festival and Maine Lobster Festival, both of which are held in the midcoastal town of Rockland. This year the blues festival (northatlanticbluesfestival.com) is July 12-13, followed by the lobster festival (mainelobsterfestival.com) July 30-Aug. 3.

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