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Lakes Region: Do not disturb

Special to The Times

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.

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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.

You want more activity? The two giant lakes, Long and Sebago, are linked by Brandy Pond and the 19th century Songo Lock, giving you a 41-mile run to open up your speedboat, as well as access to the marinas, restaurants, seaplane charters and Songo River Queen II paddle boat in Naples.

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Summer escape

THE history of the Lakes Region as a tourist destination reaches back 100 years to the days when businessmen from Boston and New York traveled here by train and steamer to ensconce their families in grand hotels for the summer.

Camps for boys and girls sprang up (and remain) along the shores, and Mainers built “sporting camps” that they occasionally rented out to trusted family friends.

But times -- and summer travel habits -- changed. New England’s rail network all but died, the victim of the automobile, then turnpikes. Cities became air-conditioned, and residents no longer had to flee for the summer.

One by one, the huge, classic hotels disappeared. The Summit Spring Hotel, with its double-deck veranda and Maine’s first golf course, in Harrison, was demolished in the 1960s. The 19th century Poland Springs Hotel, in the town of the same name, burned down in the 1970s.

Then the number of new lakeside cabins burgeoned, until Maine decreed in the 1980s that no more could be built within 100 feet of water.

Labor Day marks the end of the Lakes Region’s bustling summer season. “People here have about 10 weeks to make a year’s worth of income to get them through the winter,” says Jon Whitney, a Realtor.

Labor Day also marks the start of the six-week autumn foliage season -- an opportune time to visit because off-peak cabin rentals drop 10% to 30%. Traffic along U.S. 302 thins, and there’s no wait for a table at Rick’s Cafe in Naples or the Black Horse Tavern in Bridgton.

The Mainers we’ve met are good people, friendly, chatty and seemingly not the least bit resentful of the tourist hordes -- who do, after all, provide their livelihood. The locals have an almost nationalistic pride in their state. The solitude of winter, the crowds of summer, the small uneventful towns -- they count all this as part of Maine’s blessings. They value substance more than style.

By mid-October, when the last leaf will have fallen from the last maple, Casco’s population will have dropped to 3,500 from 10,000. Restaurants, staffed mostly by students on summer break, will have closed. The midway of the 155-year-old Fryeburg Fair will be deserted. Owners will have drained the water from their cabins’ pipes and turned off the electricity.

Winter waits. It is a long, hard time, full of empty days and early nights, but thankfully, it always ends with the spring thaw and the return of summer.

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Down East

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, United, Northwest, Continental, Delta, US Airways and America West have connecting flights (change of plane) to Portland, Maine, about 30 miles from Casco. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $449.

FOR CABIN RENTALS:

I have dealt with two long-established, family-owned real-estate offices in the Lakes Region and found both excellent in reliability and choice of rental cabins.

Krainin Real Estate, P.O. Box 464, South Casco, ME 04077; (207) 655-3811, www.krainin.com.

Jordan Rentals, 1554 Richville Road, Standish, ME 04084; (800) 942-5547, www.sebagolakeproperties.com.

WHERE TO EAT:

The Lakes Region’s restaurants are unpretentious and pleasant and offer basic menus with seafood, steaks and pasta. Best bet is steamed lobster, a lobster roll or fried clams. Main courses generally are less than $20. The causeway in Naples has the highest concentration of restaurants.

Charlie’s on the Causeway, Route 302, Naples; (207) 693-3286. Its window tables have views of Long Lake.

Rick’s Cafe, Route 302, Naples; (207) 693-3759. Crowded, fun and informal with a large outdoor deck.

Black Horse Tavern, 8 Portland St., Bridgton; (207) 647-5300. Pub atmosphere in a charming town.

TO LEARN MORE:

Maine Office of Tourism, 59 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333; (888) 624-6345, www.visitmaine.com.

-- David Lamb


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