Portland, Maine - I love America.
Not, of course, its current foreign policy, nor the lessons in consumerism it seems so good at extending to every corner of the globe. None of that. It's the history I love - the whispers of steam engines and shadows of wagon ruts criss-crossing miles of varied terrain. All of this is on my mind as my plane bumps onto the runway of the Portland, Maine, airport. By the time I'm done with customs and walking past a giant billboard featuring five grim-faced youths in military uniforms, I'm already imagining the lives once lived in this ocean-side state.
Two hours later, I find myself freshening up in my first-floor room at the Londonderry Inn, a 200-year-old fully restored Maine farmhouse.
A bill of sale from 1824 hangs on the wall, the beds are covered in quilts, and the friendly proprietor's willing to talk about the spirits who still hang about the place.
I'm in my glory and soon ready to explore the nearby town of Belfast.
The main street of Belfast, in Waldo County, which includes Maine's mid-coast region, slopes down to busy Penobscot Bay, a working harbour seasonally full of sailing vessels and boats hauling boxy traps full of black lobsters.
One of the county's biggest towns, Belfast has managed to retain some of its insular qualities, but new tourist-friendly businesses now indulge visitors "from away." Jumble shops bump against red-brick bookstores, and small art galleries lean against New Age stores. Trendy Chase's Daily serves vegetarian cuisine and is a wild sea itself on weekend mornings.
Nice, but not exactly what I'm looking for. Ordering a mezze plate at Chase's, I imagine the earth creaking with the sound of old sailors turning over in their land-locked graves.
Long ago, this coastal region was aglow with lamps burning whale blubber. Belfast and its northern neighbour, Searsport, saw the busy comings and goings of clipper ships and schooners. The blows of hammers could be heard in over a dozen shipyards, and large boats pulling out on trade missions to faraway ports rippled the waters of Penobscot Bay.
In Searsport, evidence of these adventures fills the Penobscot Bay Marine Museum, one of some two dozen marine museums in the state.
I wander through its 12 historical buildings, examining paintings, china, sea charts and an amazing collection of scrimshaw, carved whales' teeth featuring images of women and battles and patriotic emblems like eagles and the American flag.
Some of the buildings are restored houses, furnished as they were when their sea captain owners brought home wooden furniture from faraway places.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Searsport and Belfast boasted 10 per cent of the total number of ships' captains on the planet, and both towns are full of captain's homes, many on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. Some of these have opened their doors to overnight guests as bed-and-breakfasts. In one, the huge Homeport Inn, circa 1861, I feel like a little kid in an eccentric aunt's house, wandering the astonishing maze of ornately decorated hallways between its 10 beautiful guest rooms.
Guided by a Belfast Chamber of Commerce brochure, I seek out more architecture and imagine the stories that unfolded behind the fancy Greek Revival homes' rippled glass. I take a break to pop into the co-op to buy some all-natural Tom's of Maine Gingermint toothpaste.
In the morning, while innkeeper Marsha tells me about the Londonderry's original owners, a couple who died in a fire on a steamship heading out of Boston, I enjoy a full breakfast of coffee, freshly baked muffins and steak and eggs.
A hearty meal will keep me going through another day's exploration of earlier eras by the sea.
For more info on the area, go to www.waldocountymaine.com.