Calling on Camden
August 10, 2020
Calling on Camden
From the time Captain John Smith first sighted the Camden Hills in 1616, mariners have been drawn inexorably to this popular spot on Maine’s Penobscot Bay. By Ken Textor
As with many other early ports in Maine, Camden at first grew principally because of the ships launched from its well-protected, easily accessed shores. Throughout the 1800s, the town thrived on shipbuilding, punctuating its reputation by launching the world’s largest five-masted schooner and the first six-masted schooner at the Holly Bean Shipyard in 1900.
Even as the days of sail waned, plucky “Down Easters” like Captain Frank Swift of nearby Orland refused to give up on his heritage of ships. Thus, in 1936, he chartered the little coasting schooner Mabel to take paying passengers out of Camden. The idea was so successful that eventually he purchased as many as 8 schooners for similar service, marking the beginning of Camden’s fame as a place where tourists by the scores could congregate and “go to sea”—or at least enjoy respite on salt water.
Old Meets New
Today, Camden is a port where timeless Maine meets modern Maine. A popular port-of-call for yacht-owning rich and famous, it’s where the known (and want-to-be-known) frolic amid a backdrop that was once oriented only to the sea and hardcore commerce. With its architectural and natural beauty still intact, Camden now dotes on visitors, and almost anything a boater wants or needs is at their fingertips.
As one approaches Camden from the south, the tall, white spire of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church still gives mariners a distinctive downtown landmark, one that’s existed for more than 150 years. To port, the blocky, tombstone-like ledges known as The Graves still can catch a boater’s eye and imagination (and keel), as they have for generations.
Inshore, an outbound, gaff-rigged schooner may pass north of Curtis Island, much as it might have when freights of plastering lathes and machined goods were aboard. Entering the inner harbor, the shore to port is at first dotted with mostly traditional old clapboard houses, with long lawns and fine landscaping.
Closer to town, faux-New England condos appear, jammed along the steep waterfront and seemingly disdainful of the red brick downtown behind them. The turn-of-the-century commercial “block” buildings on Main Street look quite industrial, particularly with the tall, white chimney of the long-defunct Knox Woolen Mill in the far background.
After flowing through the middle of town and over a set of falls, the Megunticook River empties into the head of the harbor, drowning out the road noise from U.S. Route 1 (which also passes through the middle of town).
Adjacent to the falls is a well-manicured park—a lovely stretch of greenery designed by the Olmsted Brothers—where summer concerts and plays are performed. The park continues around to the opposite side of the harbor until the Wayfarer Marine facilities take over the shoreline.
Camden naturally attracts its share of transient boaters in season, so it’s wise to reserve a mooring or slip well ahead of your intended arrival. The Lyman-Morse Camden Marina—the town’s clean-up batter in the marina business—provides launch service to and from its many moorings in the outer harbor, and also offers dock space for transients. In a pinch, the harbormaster may also be able to find you a space on one of the empty private moorings. Note that the outer harbor can be rolly at times, and makes for a long row or paddle into town, so try to secure a space in the inner harbor if possible.
Camden’s historic appeal is heightened by its large fleet of “windjammers”, which still includes two of Captain Swift’s original schooners, Grace Bailey and Mercantile. These graceful ships, ranging in size from 65 to 95 feet, bring thousands of visitors to Camden every year for weeklong cruises. Smaller, daysailing schooners and yachts add to the mix and have made schooner-watching a major Camden pastime since the attraction took over the town in the 1960’s.
Dining & Shopping Hub
Ashore, you’ll find a plethora of shops, bars, boutiques, galleries and eateries to choose from, among them the Waterfront Restaurant and the Camden Deli. Indeed, shopping and eating are major pastimes for many Camden visitors. There’s also a well-stocked grocery store in town where you can stock up on galley provisions.
Those seeking respite from the tourists and shoppers can find it at the Camden Public Library, which also serves as a social-cultural center for the town’s full-time residents. Built in 1928, it was enthusiastically expanded in 1996, creating among other things a huge children’s reading room with over 14,000 books and other materials in its collection. The expansion was built underground to keep the surrounding park grounds open. The library also has computer terminals and WiFi for wayward sailors who want to keep in touch and up to speed with the rest of the world.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs, consider the short hike (or bike ride) up Mount Battie, just outside town. Once you reach the summit, you’ll be treated to stunning views of Camden Harbor and the rest of Penobscot Bay.
Camden Names & Numbers
Camden is located inside Penobscot Bay, about halfway down the Maine coast, some 60 miles east-northeast of Portland. When approaching from offshore, look for the lighthouse on Monhegan Island to the west (43° 45.9´ N, 69° 18.9´ W) and the Matinicus Lighthouse to the east (43° 51.9´ N, 68° 52.9´ W), which together mark the bay’s western entrance. Pass about 2 miles east of Monhegan and well west of unlighted Metinic Island. Once beyond Monhegan, set a course for the big, red-and-white, lighted whistle buoy “MP” (43° 53.3´ N, 69° 10.9’ W). Once you reach the buoy, visibility and sea conditions will dictate whether you pursue the wide-open Two Bush Channel entrance or the narrow, ledge-filled Muscle Ridge Channel. Both routes require accurate chart work. Both lead you to a position just east of Owl’s Head Light (44° 05.5´ N, 69° 02.6´ W).
In clear weather, the route to the red, unlighted bell buoy “2” at the entrance of Camden Harbor (44° 12.0´ N, 69° 2.4’ W) is simple enough. In foggy weather, however, keep a sharp lookout for the nearby lighted and gonged ledges known as The Graves. Once at entrance bell buoy “2,” pay attention to your depthsounder to stay in deep water until you reach Camden’s outer harbor.
Dockage, Moorings & Service
- Dockage is scarce in Camden, especially in summer. Boaters should call ahead to reserve space. In pinch, the Harbormaster (207-236-7969, VHF 16) may be able to find you a temporary, private mooring.
- Lyman Morse (207-354-6904; VHF 71): The only full-service marina in Camden. Wayfarer offers a wide range of services, including hauling of boats up to 100 feet, fuel, transient dockage, moorings, pump-out, marine supplies, showers and laundry.
- Willey Wharf (207) 236-3256: Can handle boats in excess of 100 feet, although they don’t offer haul-out or repairs. Fuel, showers and laundry are available.
- Camden Yacht Club at (207-236-3014, VHF 68): Private club offering reciprocity.
Anchoring anywhere near Camden is difficult because the prime spots are full of private moorings. Anchoring in the inner harbor is prohibited. Be aware that conditions can be rolly for those who anchor or moor in the outer harbor.
- Steve Pixley
- (207) 236-7969; VHF 16
- Camden Harbormaster on Facebook
A good all-tide ramp is located next to Lyman Morse Marina, just east of the inner harbor. This ramp has a good float, but limited on-street parking. Contact Lyman Morse to see about paid parking.
- French & Brawn, Inc. (207) 236-3361: Basic groceries, wine and beer close to the harbor.
Boat & Kayak Rental
- Maine Sport Outfitters (888) 236-8797: Sea and lake kayak rentals and tours.
Things to See & Do
Clothing stores, boutiques, art galleries and a Rite-Aid pharmacy are a short walk from the inner harbor. Here are some to check out:
- The Leather Bench on Main Street offers a wide variety of hide goods.
- Antiquers should find something at Schueler Antiques on High Street.
- For gifts, try the Maine Gathering on 8 Bay View Street or Once a Tree on 31 Main Street.
- The more ambitious may want to hike up nearby 800′ Mount Battie or 1,385′ Mount Megunticook in Camden Hills State Park, both offering stunning views of Penobscot Bay.
- Camden Harbor Park & Amphitheatre (207-236-3440). Testaments to the creativity of 2 of the most important landscape architects in American history are the Camden Harbor Park and the Camden Amphitheater. Designed in 1931 by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the renowned Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park in New York City and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Camden Harbor Park’s gentle hillside slopes were skillfully landscaped and sculpted to provide the best views of Camden Harbor. The Amphitheater, adjacent to Camden Harbor Park, was formed through the artful hands of Fletcher Steele, a landscape architect whose elegant masterpieces include many famous private estates across the country. The parks have hosted countless picnics, craft fairs, weddings, concerts, family strolls, festivals, theater productions, graduations and have served, most notably, as the background setting for the 1957 Hollywood movie, Peyton Place.
- Breakwater Kayak (207) 596-6895: Scenic kayak tours of the Maine coast.
- Water Walker Sea Kayaks (207) 338-6424: Coastal kayak tours.
- Maine Sport Outfitters (888) 236-8797: Kayak rental and tours.
Schooners & Windjammers:
- There are currently 10 windjammers and schooners working out of Camden, offering trips from a few hours to a week. The vessels range in size from 65 to 95 feet and take up to 31 passengers. Rockport and Rockland also have significant fleets. For an information packet and a video, contact the Maine Windjammer Association or call (800-807-9463). For additional information, call the Penboscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce at (800-223-5459) and leave your name and address to get a brochure, or call (207-236-4404) to talk to a chamber representative.
Where to Eat
Eating ashore in Camden ranges from ice cream, pizza and hotdog stands on the streets to upscale American and foreign cuisine of every description. Here are a few eateries to sample:
- Enjoy fine European-style dining in a wonderful setting at Natalie’s in the Camden Harbour Inn, a short walk from the water (207-236-4200).
- For great seafood, sandwiches and more on the harbor, head for the Waterfront Testaurant on Bayview (207-236-3747).
- For a good sandwich or wrap, try the Camden Deli, also on Main Street (207-236-8343).
Where to Stay
- Camden Harbour Inn (207) 236-4200: Comfortable, upscale, European-style accommodations with excellent service and a friendly, attentive staff. Great food, too, and views of downtown and Mt. Battie. Highly rated.
- Lord Camden Inn (800) 336-4325: One of Maine’s best moderately upscale hotels.
- Camden Windward House (877) 492-9656: Cozy B&B on High Street.
- For sorting through the many overnight options, call Camden Accommodations, (207) 236-6090.
- Penboscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce (207) 236-4404. Also, a visitor’s center is located at the Camden public dock.