I was born and raised in Freedom, Maine, and spent a lot of my life trying to get away from it. My mother urged me to see what else was out there and so I escaped to the big city – Boston – for college. Then, through a series of events, I was thrown back to my home town – population 711 – and realised that this was the place that had shaped me and where I wanted to put down roots.

It takes a bit of spirit and ruggedness – not to mention humour – to survive a Maine winter, which can be long, cold and desolate. But there is always the hope of spring, and summer here is just magnificent. What I have learned is that people here are pivoters; be it a pandemic or the ever-changing weather, we’re adaptable. And people appreciate the rural beauty and quiet here – from the ocean to the mountains to the fields and forests, you have all you could want within the state lines.

Monhegan Island, just off the coast of Maine
Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine © Greta Rybus
French on the Hardy Boat ferry to Monhegan island
French on the Hardy Boat ferry to Monhegan island © Greta Rybus

Everything is 45 minutes – at least – from everything else in Maine. I highly recommend heading north along the 3,500 miles of coastline up to the beautiful islands. We like to take a ferry out to rocky Monhegan Island and spend the day hiking, followed by eating fish tacos on the beach at The Fish House. The Monhegan Brewing Company is a great family-owned place for a local beer at the end of the day. Two tiny islands – Allen and Benner – just off the coast are also beautiful and are where the painter Andrew Wyeth and his family once lived and worked. 

French at the Island Inn
French at the Island Inn © Greta Rybus

Further north in mid-coast Maine, off the coast of Rockland, is Vinalhaven, an island that’s great for exploring on foot or by bike, kayak or canoe – all of which can be rented on the island. It’s a rustic place and the thousands of lobster pots everywhere add to its charm. Just next door is North Haven, a small island with spectacular views of Penobscot Bay and the Camden Hills. We like to stay at the magical Island Inn or at Nebo Lodge, where they have just nine guest rooms. Be sure to book ahead as there aren’t many places to stay on the island and the ferries don’t run back to the mainland at night. The restaurant there is excellent as well, with homemade breads and fresh-from-the-ocean oysters and scallops.

The Monhegan Museum is located in the island’s lighthouse
The Monhegan Museum is located in the island’s lighthouse © Greta Rybus
Fish tacos from The Fish House
Fish tacos from The Fish House © Greta Rybus

Deer Isle is another place that has that magical Maine feel, and it’s reachable by a bridge that connects the Blue Hill Peninsula of Downeast Maine with the island. In Brooksville, on the peninsula, we love Tinder Hearth where you can sit out in the back garden and eat wood-fired pizza. This whole part of the state is gorgeous; there is very little traffic, just winding roads that are off the beaten path from the busy Route 1. I head here regularly to pick up the coffee that’s roasted for us by 44 North. The woman who founded the company started the year before I opened my restaurant The Lost Kitchen and I have been loyal ever since. Closer to home – literally by a path from our restaurant – is Villageside Farm where we source a lot of our produce. Crooked Face Creamery in nearby Skowhegan makes the best batches of smoky ricotta – they have a little storefront, too.

French at the Monhegan Museum
French at the Monhegan Museum © Greta Rybus
The cliffs of Monhegan Island
The cliffs of Monhegan Island © Greta Rybus

One place I seem to visit weekly is the town of Waterville. Colby College has completely reinvigorated this area and the Colby Art Museum is truly world-class; its collection includes works by Alex Katz, Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keeffe. Head from there to Hathaway Mill Antiques for a bit of antiquing before a meal at Jewel of India – the lamb rogan josh is outstanding.

French and her husband Michael Dutton at the Island Inn
French and her husband Michael Dutton at the Island Inn © Greta Rybus
French on the cliffs of Monhegan Island
French on the cliffs of Monhegan Island © Greta Rybus

FT Weekend Festival

FT Weekend Festival returns on Saturday September 2 at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Book your tickets to enjoy a day of debates, tastings, Q&As and more . . . Speakers include Rebecca Stephens, Don McCullin, Ben Saunders and many others, plus all your favourite FT writers and editors. Register now at ft.com/festival.

If you head south to Portland you need never eat at the same place twice. This is a real foodie town, and one of my favourite new finds is Crispy Gai, which serves excellent fried chicken and cheeky cocktails. Leeward is the place for exceptional pasta dishes and the grandaddy of them all, Fore Street, still sets the bar for farm-to-table cuisine. If we stay the night, I like The Press Hotel because it’s right downtown and within walking distance of favourite shops including Print: A Bookstore and Blanche + Mimi for homeware.

The coastal towns of Maine are certainly popping, but inland, so much is unchanged. The dirt roads remain unpaved, and the farmers are still farming. More and more people are appreciating simplicity, and in Maine, that’s long been a way of life. 

Big Heart Little Stove, by Erin French, is published by Celadon Books on 31 October

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