That was the question posed by the Sunday Boston Globe travel section, advising tourists to choose carefully between the two highly rejuvenated coastal cities. As Globe writer David Lyon remarked, you had to be there, when the two cities were competing for the worst places in Maine.
“When I was growing up in Belfast, the harbor was a slick of chicken fat at low tide, thanks to the poultry processors. Our rival town, Rockland, had an inch of fish oil on the water, courtesy of the sardine canneries and fish-processing plants. But in recent decades these two western Penobscot Bay towns have roared back,” Lyon said.
As a reporter in the area for 30-odd years I got to cover the closing of the chicken, sardine and fish rendering plants. Now Rockland (if you can believe it) has become a home to the schooner fleet and an art mecca and the Belfast restaurants are routinely reviewed in the New York Times, thank you. It has been a shocking change. When I tell people about the bad old days, I sound like a Civil War veteran talking about Shiloh. I don’t think they believe any of it.
It used to be a question of which city was worse, chicken guts or fish guts? Now Lyons asks, which one is better?
Fresh lobster? Lyons compares Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast with The Lobster Shack on Rockland’s Main Street, next to the Farnsworth Museum. I have never eaten a lobster (Can’t stand to hear their death rattles), but I will take his decision for Young’s on the grounds of a good blueberry pie, of all things. But The Shack does serve a notable Whoopie Pie, he noted.
It might seem inconceivable but both former polluters now celebrate their fabulous waterfronts with harbor walks. Which is better? Lyons again chooses Belfast (he grew up there) on the basis of the “tastings” at Marshall Wharf Brewery and the carvings on the harbor pilings.
Rockland appeared to be headed for a shutout until Lyons considered competing museums. Now few, if any, small cities could compare with Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum, with more Wyeth works (N.C., Andrew and Jamie) than you can imagine. It was the mighty Farnsworth that helped establish the art colony (I still can’t believe it) that is Rockland. Lyons had to cheat a little and include Searsport in his competition, to pull in the Penobscot Marine Museum. Yes, Searsport sent 500 sailing captains to sea and the museum. Yes the museum has a summer exhibit on shipwrecks and rescues, but it ain’t no Farnsworth. Plus, the Farnsworth has Robert Indiana’s “EAT” sculpture, on a rooftop high above The Lobster Shack on Main Street. Talk about advertising.
The most brutal, yet tasty, Belfast-Rockland competition was in classy, high end restaurants. Lyons had to choose Rockland’s Primo Restaurant (everyone does) where award-winning chef Melissa Kelly grows most of her own produce, even her own pigs for her signature “charcuterie,” whatever that is. But the competition was fierce from Belfast’s Chase’s Daily. The Chase Family started their own “back to the earth” movement 40 years ago and supplies its own produce for their vegetarian menu. I had to make my own decisions years ago when Primo’s hung sides of meat to “age” in the lounge. Blue Eyes is a vegetarian. She will never set foot in Primo’s again. Lyon’s decision was made, too, but apparently because Chase’s is only open for evening dining on Fridays. (When Blue Eyes leaves town I shall sneak to Primo’s for the pork scaloppini.)
Best art galleries?
I still find it hard to believe, but both cities boast a wide array of galleries. Lyons gave up and called it a tie, a wise move. Yes Belfast does have the “gritty, real and modestly heroic” Neil Parent’s Gallery. No word on whether Lyons was talking about the art works or the owner. But Rockland has Cynthia Hyde’s Caldbeck Gallery which she opened in a condemned building more than 30 years ago. Hyde represents more than 30 area artists. Since both cities have more than 20 galleries, Lyons wisely called it a draw.
Best short sail?
Talk about a great assignment. Lyons chose Belfast’s Amity, a Friendship Sloop and Captain Patrick Reilly over Rockland’s Morning in Maine and Captain Bob Pratt, but “only by the slightest puff of wind.”
Both cities celebrate their questionable past with annual festivals. Belfast will conduct its annual Broilerfest on Aug. 10. Rockland will have its Lobster Festival on the first weekend in August. Advantage Rockland and the mighty lobster. After all, as Lyons said “Maine will never put a chicken on its license plate.”
After reading the Lyons piece, I am ambiguous about the Rockland-Belfast competition. After all I live in Camden, the best of them all.