(Coastal Living) -- Penobscot Bay may be one of the world's great cruising grounds for sailors, but you don't need a mast to fall under its watery spell. Kayakers love it, too. Ancient glaciers sculpted the big bay's granite coast, creating countless inlets and coves to explore. The setting offers snug harbor towns and inviting inns, many an easy paddle apart. Throw in the world's tastiest lobster and you have all the ingredients for a self-propelled trip that's more relaxing than taxing.
Maine's Penobscot Bay is a scenic spot for kayaking.
To chart a course with comfortable distances, sheltered passages and seaside inns where one can walk to dinner, I consulted Hot Showers!, a lodging guide for Maine's water-borne travelers. The result? An appealing route northward from Tenants Harbor to South Thomaston. Hard-core kayakers might scoff at my four-night/three-day itinerary, which requires only two to four hours of paddling per day. But it allows plenty of time for additional meandering on the water and lounging ashore. And I'm traveling with my girlfriend, a woman who looks at the ribbed skirt kayakers use to seal the cockpit and immediately thinks of French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Mindful that they call tandem kayaks "divorce boats," I aim to avoid mutiny.
But tandems do offer physical stability -- a key factor given the bay's frigid water. Not complete novices, we embark equipped with life jackets, spare paddle, chart and compass, a hand pump for bailing, rain gear and layers of quick-drying clothing (synthetics trump cotton). And we meet a friendly group of local paddlers who offer guidance. "Our tides are strong," explains one. "In good weather, 3 miles per hour is considered normal speed, but going against the tide can cut that by half."
So "time and tide wait for no man" becomes our motto. We hit the water an hour or two after low tide (not terribly early, as it happens) to catch the rising waters that -- along with the prevailing winds from the southwest -- will aid our progress. Early on we get a lesson on the Zen of paddling from Beezie Clarke, an avid kayaker in her 70s. "Think in terms of pushing the water past the boat," she says. "I used to try to paddle fast, then I realized it's better to keep up a slow and steady rhythm." CoastalLiving.com: Buying the right kayak
Besides, hurrying means less time to chat with fellow paddlers and admire the unspooling backdrop of evergreen forest, picturesque ports and vintage houses. We encounter plenty of other vessels -- graceful sailboats, weathered runabouts, and, of course, lobster boats. With their spacious, low-slung sterns and bows that sweep up to plow the swells, these broad-beamed craft are functional and intimidating. "You know what lobstermen call kayakers?" asks Bob MacLaughlin, a seasoned Penobscot paddler. "'Speedbumps.' I always figure they can't see us, so I give them the right of way."
Kayaking's sea-level intimacy and relative quiet (especially when we pause our paddles) bring nature into sharper focus. Harbor seals stick their heads up to check us out. Cormorants perch on seaweed-draped boulders, drying their wings in the breeze. We also spot many species of lobster buoys, each marking the owner of the trap below with a colorful pattern, a waterman's semaphore.
Inspired, we take advantage of several paddle-up restaurants -- we call them "float-ins" -- where you can beach or tie up your boat and moments later dig into a lobster just plucked from the bay. We lunch or dine at Cod End, Miller's Lobster Company and Waterman's Beach Lobster, which has won a James Beard "Classics" award. All three supply a definitive Maine experience. Everything's made fresh daily, including the pies. (Take my advice: Order the blueberry for lunch, because it'll be gone by dinnertime.) CoastalLiving.com: Maine seafood dives
At the end of each day's paddling we haul our boat above the high-tide line and head for one of those hot showers. After dressing in clothes pulled from our watertight bags, we go to dinner. At the East Wind Inn and the Craignair Inn, that means simply walking downstairs to a hotel dining room. The next night, at the Blue Lupin B&B, it's an easy stroll to Waterman's Beach Lobster (I scheduled the trip to avoid their Monday and Tuesday closing). And our last lodging, the Weskeag Inn, is only steps from a general store/diner with homestyle food, a good place to hear banter with a Downeast accent. The accommodations are cozy but not fancy, and all serve breakfast.
The Weskeag Inn overlooks the Weskeag River -- really more of a long tidal basin whose water funnels forcefully under a bridge. The only way to paddle through is on a rising tide (ideally, within three hours of high tide), when the usual outflow ebbs and reverses. We do just that, managing the still-tricky current with a flurry of fast, strong strokes that thrusts our boat past the rapids and into a calm side eddy.
It's a spirited finale to our journey. Far from sowing conflict, our shared adventure fosters conversation, teamwork and a sense of well-being. Gray Smith, our host at the Weskeag Inn, gives us a ride back to our car. We're surprised at how little time it takes to retrace our steps from South Thomaston to Tenants Harbor, a distance of about 10 miles. But as our kayaking voyage proves, the best way from point A to point B is not always the shortest.
Kayaks and other gear can be rented from Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport; 888/236-8797. This close-to-shore itinerary doesn't require much experience, but you should know basic kayaking safety practices. To schedule the route, check the tides and plan to be at Waterman's Beach Lobster when it's open (Wednesday to Sunday).
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