“Summer in New England” is so much more than a description of time and place. It’s the answer to a winter’s worth of prayers for warm weather and seasonal indulgences. It’s a time to come together as friends, neighbors, and entire communities to reconnect, reminisce, and appreciate all the good things in life. And when it comes to special events that capture the sights, sounds, smells, and spirit of summer in New England all in one place—nothing cracks The Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, Maine.
Why? Let’s start with the name. With all due respect to the Maine Potato Blossom Festival, the Yarmouth Clam Festival and the Moxie Festival, this is the MAINE LOBSTER FESTIVAL. Five glorious days at the end of July and beginning of August dedicated to Maine’s tastiest and most coveted export.
Just as lobster requires a bit of work, patience, and technique to unlock the deliciousness hidden within its iconic red shell, so does the drive to Rockland from points south. Especially if your idea of “northern Maine” is Augusta, an impression I had back when my Kennebunk-raised wife and I first started dating and a fact my Winthrop, Maine, native mother-in-law will never, ever let me forget. The meandering drive along “Old Route One” from Portland to Rockland is beautiful, but be prepared for traffic during the busy summer season. The most prolific—and in this case, ironic—source of congestion on your way to the Maine Lobster Festival is the year-round logjam at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, home of arguably the best lobster roll in Maine. Whether you agree with that statement or not, just accept the fact that Red’s is a stop sign cleverly disguised as a lobster shack. Don’t stress about it. Just tune in one of the many classic rock or country stations and be patient. Because once you’re through Wiscasset and past the Boothbay exits, it’s smooth sailing to Rockland and a festive summer atmosphere like no other.
You’ll feel the magic of the Maine Lobster Festival long before you glimpse the Ferris wheel or spot the first white and red vendor tent. The excitement of the entire community is everywhere but especially on parade day, a free event that embodies everything I love about summer in New England.
Friends, family members, and neighbors mingle in front yards behind a steady line of empty lawn chairs reserving their places along the parade route.
People of all ages, races, and organizations march in unison, ride on floats, and entertain the onlookers with smiles, waves, and fistfuls of candy tossed like bread crumbs to ducks on a pond.
There’s a very real feeling that this event is not just “for the tourists.” It’s a 5-day party that the locals embrace with the same enthusiasm as summer folk fresh off the turnpike.
As the last of the classic cars carrying aspiring sea goddesses rolls through town, the majority of the spectators fall into an orderly procession to the harbor front. Here boisterous volunteers man the turnstiles where they sell day or weekend passes, apply fluorescent wrist bands and send the paying customers down the hill to the food tents where lobster is available in the form of single, twin, and triple dinners, Maine Shore Dinners, lobster rolls and lobster Caesar salads. Festival goers who don’t like or can’t eat lobster migrate to the vendor village for dining options ranging from Thai food to fried dough and just about every culinary concoction in between.
Music from the main stage mixes with the bustle of people talking over their food, taking in the sights and enjoying every minute of a fleeting summer afternoon. When all is said done, after every tent is broken down, the sea goddess is crowned and the crate race championship is decided; the all-volunteer committee gets one month to take a little pride in the results of all their planning and hard work before starting the process for the 68th time. Each year, the Maine Lobster Festival draws close to 50,000 people who consume over 18,000 pounds of lobster and pump thousands of dollars into local businesses and community organizations alike.
According to the festival Web site: “No one gets paid for their efforts – our reward is the satisfaction of mutual involvement and the pleasure of knowing that the proceeds of our hard work and the hard work of our Volunteers helps support our community in many ways.”
Like I said, when it comes to special events that capture the very best of summer in New England—nothing cracks The Maine Lobster Festival. I dare to say, nothing even comes close.
The 2016 Maine Lobster Festival runs from August 3rd – August 7th. For more information, go to mainelobsterfestival.com.
Want more photos? Check out our Maine Lobster Festival Slideshow.
Have you ever been to the Maine Lobster Festival?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.