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DESTINATION: MAINE

Lakes Region: Do not disturb

A cabin by the water and a week or two of doing what the `real' Mainers do. What could be more relaxing?

September 10, 2006|David Lamb | Special to The Times

Casco, Maine — WHEN it comes time to make vacation plans, I offer no apology for choosing luxury over quaintness. That a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons beats a country inn is a no-brainer. I shun B&Bs because they make me feel like an intruder in someone else's home. And I've done my best to avoid camping since the day I was discharged from the Army more than 40 years ago.

So what am I doing here in Casco in a decidedly rustic cabin on Pleasant Lake, with no dishwasher or air-conditioning, idling away two weeks?

Well, I'm sitting on a screened-in porch with hand-me-down furniture. A pile of books is nearby. I can hear the shrill, lonely call of a loon.

The lake is almost within reach; it is vast and still -- there's not a boat in sight. The pines on the far shore, half a mile away, obscure other cabins like ours, and for the moment it seems as though this splendid chunk of New England belongs exclusively to my wife and me.

Pleasant Lake is one of scores of lakes and large ponds in what is known as Maine's Lakes Region, at its nearest point 25 miles from Exit 48 on the Maine Turnpike, west of Portland, the state's largest city, and 125 miles north of Boston. It is among Maine's most popular tourist destinations in the summer and during the autumn foliage season, which starts after Labor Day.

For the pleasure of coming here for a week or two each of the last eight years, I have suspended my penchant for superfluity, content to do the cooking and housekeeping chores that come with a rental cabin in return for finding an utterly peaceful respite.

Unlike the coast of Maine from Kennebunk to Bar Harbor, the Lakes Region has no grand hotels with sweeping verandas, no chain motels, no chic restaurants, no fancy boutiques with branch offices in Beverly Hills or Palm Springs.

This is the "other" Maine, which in many ways is the "real" Maine: quieter, unpretentious, a jeans and flip-flops kind of place where you hike along country roads, canoe, bike, fish and, from time to time, venture into town for a lobster dinner or a heaping plate of fried clams.

Back home, outside Washington, D.C., friends always have two responses when I mention I've spent two weeks in a Maine cabin. First, they say, "Gee, aren't you lucky." Then they ask, "What did you do?"

I'm hard-pressed to find an answer. On a typical day, my wife, Sandy, and I might play a set of tennis on the public court in Casco, row across the lake -- I'm hopelessly inept with a paddle -- make BLTs for lunch, swim, read, nap and take a walk. A game of Scrabble and a steamed lobster make a great evening.

It's not quite as exciting as a trip to Paris, but that's precisely the point.

Our modest lakeside cabin -- two small bedrooms, an antiquated bathroom, a loft that can sleep eight, and a canoe and a rowboat -- is the ideal fit in such a setting. It costs $1,000 a week.

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Finding a cabin

THERE are thousands of cabins nestled along the 267 Maine lakes that are a square mile or larger, and many of the places are for rent, at least for a few weeks a year. The trick is to find the one that's right for you.

First take a virtual tour of available properties on a real estate agent's website and decide what your minimum requirements are.

For Sandy and me, it's a cabin with a view facing east (to catch the morning sun); a gradual ascent from land to water (to accommodate our young great-nieces, who usually come for a visit); a dock or a swimming platform; a screened-in porch; a telephone; a coffee maker and microwave; and at least the illusion of privacy, even if there's another cottage hidden in the woods 50 yards away. Everything else is a bonus.

I dropped into the Raymond, Maine, office of our Realtor, Maggie Krainin, last month to ask what kind of properties are in demand these days.

She had 315 rental listings, from $700 a week for fairly primitive cabins to $6,000 a week for a house that will sleep 24 in luxury. Her average rental is $1,500.

"If you're used to hotels, a cabin is a very different experience," Krainin said. "Some renters still want to replicate the summer camp experience they had on a Maine lake as children, living simply, walking in the woods, sitting around a campfire in the evening."

But if there's a trend, it's that "increasingly, people are looking for more than an old fishing house," she said. "They want a dock, a dishwasher, a hot tub and other amenities."

One consideration in finding a cabin, Krainin tells clients, is the body of water itself. Each has a personality.

Kezar Lake, where author Stephen King has a summer home, is the most upscale and undeveloped, with only one small marina. Pleasant and Thompson lakes are among the quietest, with little boat traffic. Thomas Pond is noted for good fishing -- salmon, trout, smallmouth bass.

You want to be near a charming small town? Try Highland Lake in Bridgton.

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