Sailing coastal Maine had never been in my scope for travel, but that changed after an encounter with Lara Nixon, a cocktail consultant and spirits educator, cofounder of small batch bitters company Bad Dog Bar Craft. That afternoon, she shared news of her upcoming departure for Rockland, on the coast of Maine, where she would be sailing aboard the refurbished historic Schooner Ladona, teaching passengers about craft cocktails. I immediately knew I had to sign up, and boy, was I in for an experience.
Nixon took her first trip aboard Schooner Stephen Taber in 2014 and fell in love with everything about the windjammer lifestyle, so much so that she leased a house in Rockland the following summer. Seeing the amazing potential, she proposed launching an educational cocktail program to Captains Noah Barnes and J.R. Braugh, co-owners of sister Schooner Ladona. After a couple more trips with Nixon he agreed to give the idea a try, and in 2017 the Ladona became the first of the historic Maine schooners to offer such an added value element, with the Taber following suit.
With over 20 years sailing along Penobscot Bay, Braugh knows the area like the palm of his hand. Although focused and professional, the young captain immediately instills confidence in everyone, and his sense of humor and enthusiasm for the job are impossible to hide. “Ladona is set up as a racing yacht – we’re proud of her because she’s fast but at the same time she’s wide so we can entertain on deck,” he says.
“Cruising has a different character depending on the season; it’s a whole different atmosphere,” he adds. “In summer we wear shorts and people are barefoot on deck; in the fall we have early nights, add strings of lights and wear sweaters, but we always have a nice sunset and pick good spots for the night. Ultimately, the wind and weather dictate the routes, we are opportunistic that way. But we make every effort to hit all the cool spots. We try to keep things lively.”
In general, these cruises have been associated with vacationing retirees, but that is changing under the new breed of captains who know that if they don’t bring new generations of travelers, these incredible cruises will eventually die off. Adding the cocktail program has attracted more Gen X, Gen Y and Millennial customers. “What we do is very rare,” says Braugh. “Lara looks for micro purveyors and unusual, out-of-the-way little gems that we find along the way, and plans outings that everyone can enjoy.”
On my trip, a tasting at Maine Mead Works before sailing and a stop at North Haven Brewing Co. on its small namesake island were on the menu. And a constant on every trip is a traditional lobster bake that the crew sets up on a quiet, remote beach on the last day of sailing. Going on the lobster purchasing expedition with Captain J.R. was a highlight that got me closer to understanding the Mainer way of life.
“Bar Craft was an intimidating term,” says Nixon of the name of her first cruises. “If you’re not in the know, it’s confusing.” She re-imagined them as Cocktails, Mocktails and Small Plates, working even more closely with Ladona’s executive chef Anna Miller to pair libations and farm to table food.
“I wanted to make sure non-imbibers felt included, not as an afterthought but as part of the program,” she says. “I am elevating the whole game at lunch for instance, with interesting lemonades and iced teas that go beyond the traditional.”
Nixon has a general plan for the drinks she will be serving each day throughout the day since she must keep bottles to a minimum to account for storage space, but she still coordinates with Miller and is ready to improvise on the fly. During the sail she serves refreshing afternoon concoctions, chatting with guests as we cruise past densely forested islands and small fishing towns that look straight out of a history book or a Stephen King novel.
After anchoring at night, she sets up educational demonstrations or maybe a hot toddy bar if the weather requests, while travelers stargaze.
She answers questions freely and unpretentiously even though she is a fountain of knowledge. Her breakfast and brunch drinks pair with some of Miller’s specialties such as the sublime eggs Benedict with Bloody Mary Hollandaise, made with Nixon’s bitters and lobster saved from the previous day’s bountiful bake.
Miller came to work on the boats while attending culinary school. “I needed to do an internship for summer; I had seen the schooners sailing while working previous years on an island in Maine and thought it would be something completely different,” she says. “I looked them up online and found they used wood stoves to cook for their guests three meals a day plus snacks, and I wanted to try that challenge.”
Rising to the challenge, Miller wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to light the fire and has coffee from a local roaster and freshly made pastries ready by 7 a.m. She cooks breakfast to order as guests leisurely arrive and get their morning going – her blueberry pancakes with locally cured bacon are the best I have ever had. Cookies and fruit are always available, and the afternoon happy hour spread, served al fresco on deck, is always showstopping.
“We are lucky to live in Maine with access to so much wonderful fresh food,” she says with unbridled enthusiasm and a contagious smile. “We have a local farmer deliver produce to the boat for each trip; the night before he texts with what they are harvesting and I usually say yes to it all, with no real plan for how I’m going to use it. But as each meal approaches, I am inspired by what’s in front of me, the meats I have chosen to serve, the weather, chats with guests about food, or cookbooks I am perusing.”
The food that comes out of that tiny galley is superb in every way, from a comforting enchilada casserole to a gorgeous pork roast with Hasselback eggplants stuffed with garlic and herbs, and of course, lovely fish dishes. “The ability to create my menus based on what is available is a lot of fun and gets me thinking and being creative with flavors,” says Miller.
“Lara and I are currently coordinating the drink profiles with the small plates, which will include a variety of pizzettes and flatbreads, sliders, and house made interpretations of fun foods like oven baked pretzels, different flavored popcorn, fritto misto, and of course, a variety of cured meats and cheeses.” All baked goods, including breads, are made in the galley.
During this longer than usual off season, Braugh spent extra time and money upkeeping the vessel, refurbishing the galley, and adding extra touches and safety measures to account for social distance requirements. In addition, under the newly established Keep Maine Healthy initiative effective June 26, the State will allow adults who obtain and receive a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours prior to arrival to forgo the 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
With these measures, Maine aims to be a safe place for tourists to vacation, starting this summer and beyond. Picture yourself on deck, with a fabulous cocktail in hand, as you cruise amid lands afire with Maine’s spectacular fall leaf colors.
“The coast of Maine is one of the most beautiful places to see, and the fact that this is where I live and work is great,” says Miller. “Meeting people from all over the U.S. and the world and taking them on a vacation where they can sit back and relax without a care in the world is very special. The way we as a crew welcome everyone aboard and make them feel included is such a great thing, and seeing familiar faces come sailing with us year after year, and have guests turn into friends that we can’t wait to see again, shows that we are doing the right thing.”