Camden, Maine

UPSHOT: Coastal Camelot

Camden, its harbor, and Penobscot Bay from a high perch on Mount Battie     Photo: Walter Bibikow

DON'T BOTHER LOOKING FOR A PRETTIER TOWN; none exists. Schooners bob on Camden's glistening harbor, guarded by a tiny island with its very own lighthouse. Mapled lanes meander among rows of bright Federals, Capes, and Victorians, tricked out with enough bay windows, widow's walks, and shutters with historically correct paint jobs to launch a Ralph Lauren housewares line. The 1928 brick library overlooks a village green designed by Central Park creator Frederick Law Olmsted. Even the seagulls look coiffed. The oh-so-adorable boutiques lining Main Street and the rows of B&Bs suggest pure Vacationland—lights out after Labor Day. But looks deceive. Camden boasts a bubbling economy as well as a rich cultural landscape. The splash of the decade was the 1993 relocation of credit-card behemoth MBNA New England into a once-empty woolen mill here. So far, the company has drawn raves for its role as corporate sugar daddy, hiring thousands for decent-paying desk jobs in Camden and nearby burgs, and pumping millions into causes like the Coastal Mountains Land Trust and a new high school.

Camden draws its share of people who could live anywhere, making for a lively stew. A pod of Polarfleece-clad hardcores marks the seasons by rotating the cargo on their roof racks from bike to canoe to battered skis. Artists and other creatives flock here, following in the wake of FitzHugh Lane and the Wyeths. So do tech-industry honchos such as former Apple head John Scully and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, who back big-think events like the annual October Technology Conference and a springtime foreign-affairs powwow. (Also here, for reasons uncertain: a subculture of CIA retirees.) Somehow, though, a folksy, Our Town feel survives the highfalutin civic tone. "More people than not," says one transplant, "go home for lunch and walk the dog."
PLAYGROUNDS: More L.L. Bean genteel than highly caffeinated. Waterfolk from far and wide descend on Camden Harbor and the pine-and-birch-forested islands of Penobscot Bay in Forbes-worthy yachts, but also in dories and kayaks. Join the Maine Island Trail Association and, in exchange for helping with cleanups, you can camp on the rocky shores of dozens of privately owned islands. Cyclists fill the rosters of road, trail, and cyclocross clubs—as well as spring and fall races on nearby Ragged Mountain. The well-worn trails of Camden Hills State Park lure hikers and mountain bikers to soaring views of the harbor and Megunticook Lake, blocks from downtown. Locals ski, board, and toboggan at the town-run Snow Bowl (where you can gaze at the ocean from the chairlift), cross-country ski at Tanglewood 4-H Camp about ten miles north, and paddle and fly-cast on nearby lakes or the St. George River's affable whitewater. Taller mountains and/or more boisterous rapids await within three hours in the White Mountains, Acadia National Park, and the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

WORK: More slots than bodies to fill them, mostly thanks to MBNA. Otherwise, half the economy is hitched to tourism, but options exist: Northeast Health employs 800 or so, and nearby Rockland still has manufacturing (FMC BioPolymer extracts chemicals from seaweed; Fisher Engineering makes snowplows). Plenty of people here still get by performing any task that can be done from, on, or to a boat.

NEST: Houses don't languish on the market. Historic District Capes on Sea Street or Bayview near the harbor start at around $250,000 and head for the stars, but you can find something suitable farther from the water for $80,000 to $100,000 less. Just south, in less-manicured but up-and-coming Rockland, homes still list under $100,000.

NEIGHBORS: Native Camdenite newspaperwoman who swims in Nortons Pond every summer morning; fourth-generation boatbuilder who actually knows how to operate a lobster trap; retired Navy captain who runs a bed-and-breakfast.

HOW TO GO NATIVE: Methodically shun the summer-vacation gridlock on Route 1; rabidly follow high-school basketball; run a monthly tab at French & Brawn market.

WATERING HOLE: The Waterfront Restaurant, where locals cluster on the deck to watch the "obscene" summer yachts drift by.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE: "Camden nightlife" is an oxymoron; young singles might find Portland—that seething metropolis of 63,000 a couple hours to the south—less claustrophobic.

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