State of Maine: Not trying too hard

Remember this? “Welcome to Maine. Now go home.” That was how tourists allegedly used to be greeted by the stereotypical, taciturn Mainer. Times have changed. Now Maine is much keener on laying out the welcome mat for visitors from around the world.

A lot of effort is put into the “visitor experience,” but what is on display for visitors is pre-packaged into a pale imitation of life in Maine. Many travelers are looking for the real deal. There is a risk in over-packaging tourism experiences; there is not much genuine in being herded around in a group with other people from away.

The most memorable travel experiences usually come from being warmly welcomed and invited to join in the local fun, rather than participating in events created just for tourists. Travelers often want to see and do what the locals do, on local terms. Mind you, this does not mean that there are not people hard at work organizing “experiences” that will cause tourist dollars to be left behind. But at the right scale, that can work, too.

When Labrador’s coastal freighter pulls into port, its few dozen passengers find three ladies behind a table on the dock, offering sampler plates of hot Labrador delicacies. There is no menu. You pay your money and you get your plate, along with a smile. That, you’ll remember.

Cape Breton hosts the Celtic Colours international music festival every fall. It has singlehandedly created a fall tourist season where there was none. Part of its success comes because some of the very best Celtic musicians are Cape Breton born and bred.

Even if you don’t play fiddle, guitar, bagpipes or piano, people down there know their way around the music. It takes no more than the opening measure to have a gymnasium full of toes tapping in perfect time. If the tune has words, they know the words, even in Gaelic. For the locals, this is far more than a performance for the tourists. It is their heritage, but the rest of us are welcome to listen in.

If you’re from away you are made to feel most welcome. You will be plied with tea and oatcakes, quizzed as to where you’re from and whether you have any roots in Cape Breton. There will be apologies for weather that is cold, wet or windy, roads that are rough or under construction.

Left your concert tickets on the table at the restaurant where you had dinner? No worries. The waitress who discovers them takes a screen shot of the tickets, emails it to a friend who’s working at the concert and tells her what you’re both wearing. When you arrive, almost before you can get a word out, you’ll be greeted by name and shown to your seat. This has nothing to do with “hospitality training.” It’s who these people are.

A representative of the Maine Arts Commission who attended this year’s Celtic Colours was interviewed in the Oran (a local newspaper). Kersten Gilg acknowledged that experiencing an event like Celtic Colours can easily lead to an enthusiastic attempt to imitate it elsewhere, but Gilg recognized that as unlikely. “In Maine, we don’t really have a sound. We have a number of merged sounds [that are] not nearly as distinct as it could be.”

Referencing the multiple small venues hosting shows over a 10-day period, Gilg said that while one big show could seem easier to manage, “it would not have the same flavor and inclusivity, or the respect for the different dialects and communities.” Doing something similar in Maine? “We just can’t,” he acknowledged. It is a performance style that emerged from a culture protected by geographic isolation, a protection that Maine once had, but no more.

We want, in small ways, to enter life in the places we visit. For this, we need not tours but unstructured time to watch and listen. When a skinny guy in jeans and a ball cap walks into a pub and a roar goes up, what does that mean? It means that guy can step dance like a bandit and when the moment is right, he’s going to show you how.

What’s up with the cars racing toward the harbor late at night? Well, Elijah has just caught a tuna and the whole family is on their way to the wharf for the ceremonial photo-op when that fish comes ashore.

Tours, historic sites and museums are popular with visitors, but what really catches the eye of tourists in Maine? A fish pier when a boat comes in. No group of tourists ever gathered to stare in fascination at a waterfront hotel or restaurant, but let a Grundens-clad lobsterman enter the scene and they’re hooked. Sometimes, for visitors, less is more.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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