New England: Guess what we're having for dinner

Maine is not a good place to be a lobster. But it is an extremely good place to be if you happen to enjoy eating the king of the crustaceans

As the rain began to beat thunderously on the corrugated iron roof of the restaurant, diners in thick sweaters and anoraks abandoned all pretence of a balmy July al fresco supper, grabbed their paper plates and made a hasty dash for the covered eating area. Gazing out across the grey, rain-soaked bay, it was only too apparent why the early British settlers felt so at home when they landed on the north-eastern shores of the United States, and I wondered again why we had chosen to come half-way across the world for a holiday in Maine rather than spending a week in, say, Wales. Then the food arrived, and I remembered. We had come for the lobster.

Most American states emblazon their license plates with something which they feels encap- sulates their unique identity. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Colorado has mountains. Idaho - and they're quite serious about this - is "The Potato State". And Maine? Maine has lobsters, of which they are justifiably proud. The plates also carry a logo that pronounce the state "Vacationland", but don't let that put you off. Bar a few go- cart tracks and the odd souvenir-filled fort, there are no giant amusement parks, nor the sort of tacky Gnome Worlds that one finds on the Isle of Wight.

There aren't even the usual branches of McDonald's, standard roadside fare across the US. In Maine, thankfully, there are roadside lobster shacks instead.

It was in such a place that we were sheltering from the storm. Red and white checkered tablecloths fluttered on the tables. Geraniums hung from the awnings of the wooden porch. On arrival, diners visit the "lobster pound", where they pick out their very own beast of the sea, still quite alive, which is then weighed, priced and dropped into sunken wooden barrels bubbling with boiling water. Next, shellfish appetisers and side dishes of fresh corn-on-the-cob, coleslaw and American biscuits are ordered from the kitchen hatch, where you can expect to pay the miserly sum of around $10 for the entire meal. Once the poor lobsters have turned the desired shade of red, ticket numbers are yelled loudly by the proprietor and you return to the hatch to collect the main attraction, steaming hot in a simple paper dish.

To be honest, I had never quite understood the passion for lobster before my first visit up here. Crab, it seemed me, had a more interesting flavour, whereas lobster was always a little bland, overpriced and, so I thought, overrated. But once in Maine, producer of 90 per cent of the nation's most revered crustaceans, lobster worship became suddenly, overwhelmingly, understandable.

No complicated tableware or rich French sauces - just you, your lobster and a little hot lemony butter. And paper napkins, lots of them.

For from the minute you crack open the shell, squirting juice into the unsuspecting eye of your dining companion, the carnivore inside awakes. Diners are reduced to happy children, grin- ning hopelessly, melted butter and lobster juice dribbling down their chins as they suck ferociously on the legs, and ferret out the last bits of precious white flesh from the ruined shell of the recently deceased.

It is a messy but joyous business, and a world apart from the pricey five-star restaurants that serve this delicacy at home. Lobster in Maine is not a fancy extravagance; it's just dinner. In fact, it can be tricky to find anything else.

A vegetarian friend along for the scenic - rather than seafood - attractions, became rather tired of lunches and dinners composed of coleslaw and corn. While the tourist-oriented towns by the shore offer a wide variety of restaurants, along the roadsides it's lobster all the way. Well - there are steamers, tender local clams soaked in a buttery broth, and fresh, juicy mussels, but those are seen as little more than appetisers for the star of the show. I estimate that during our trip we quite possibly ate our own weight in lobster, and can honestly say we were none the worse for our limited diet.

Of course, shellfish is not the only reason to take your holiday in Maine, though once smitten by the delicate flavour it is tempting to simply graze along the coast from one pretty little lobster pound to the next, only varying the routine at breakfast with heaped plates of fresh blueberry pancakes. The state is the largest in New England, jutting up into the interior of Canada like a lump of earth which refuses to be flattened under the heel of the international border. Though outdoors enthusiasts are attracted inland to the vast moose-filled wilderness areas of the Appalachian Mountains, most visitors are drawn to the rocky coastline and not simply by the seafood. It is remote, yet on a scale that is accessible even to the most amateur explorer; wild, yet dotted with fishing towns graced with traditional New England charm - all wooden houses and small, spired churches, porches with rocking chairs and flower-filled yards.

We based our visit on Mount Desert Island. The name may seem like a peculiar Americanism, but is actually a fairly accurate description. Connected to the mainland by a short bridge, the small landmass does have mountains - Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on the eastern seaboard - and, despite the lack of tropical climate, is rather how one would imagine the perfect desert island to be: inland ponds teeming with wildlife, lakes in which to swim and canoe, hills to climb, forests to explore, clean beaches, rocky peninsulas and lobster pounds.

Except that the island in summer is anything but deserted, being home to Acadia National Park, the second busiest National Park in the US. Fortunately, most visitors stick to the largest town, Bar Harbor, and to the main road that loops through Acadia, rarely straying further afield. Those willing to abandon their vehicles and use their legs will find ample solitude for explorations of the hills and the rocky shore.

Half of the island is untouched National Park; the other half scattered with villages, luxurious B&Bs, sleepy boutiques and plenty of places to stop for lobster. There are several outlying islands accessible from Mount Desert by chartered boat or sea kayak, including the sweetly-named Cranberry Isles, perfect day-trip destinations. Deep-sea fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing and whale-watching tours are other popular ways to fill that time between lobster lunch and lobster dinner.

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