Maine’s Samoset Resort is a great jumping off spot for the state’s underrated gems

October 11, 2012

ROCKPORT, Maine – Maybe it's because we are mostly water, or because I live in a landlocked state, but I go through phases in which every molecule of my being longs to be near the ocean.

It was such a phase that compelled me to return to the Samoset Resort in central Maine for the first time in at least a dozen years. Fall is a fine time for golf and an even better season for leaf-peeping in Maine, but at the Samoset you won't be able to tear your eyes away from the water, and the slippery, seaweed-covered rocks that Robert McCloskey drew just perfectly in children's classics like One Morning in Maine.

With its sumptuous views of the Atlantic — especially on the wrap-around, par-5 fourth hole — the wide-open, eminently playable Samoset course is a great reminder of why we play golf. Far removed from the hustle of everyday life, its proximity to the untamed ocean currents — a storm blew in right after I'd completed my round — affords golfers a pleasant sense of danger, which is to say you feel like you're on the water without actually having to be on it. As such, your thoughts veer away from swing theory and toward blockbuster movies about men with beards and flannel shirts who work on rickety trawlers, miles at sea, until one day it all goes horribly wrong.

The resort's five par 3s in the first 13 holes give it a high fun factor, and its copious water views and non-stuffy coastal isolation make it positively restorative. Not that the Samoset, which is sometimes called the Pebble Beach of the East, is a pushover. The par-4 10th hole demands a 7- or 8-iron second shot over a pond with a shooting fountain — a hole I birdied, just for the record — and the dogleg-left, par-5 12th suddenly calls for you to hit a tee shot through a chute of trees. (Taken aback by the sudden premium on accuracy, I made a 6, but enjoyed a nice chat with the pro, who motored up in a cart to see how I was coming along.)

The resort has never looked better after a multimillion-dollar renovation. In addition to the golf course, Samoset features a nine-hole disc golf course; tennis courts; a new outdoor pool with splash bar; a new spa; a fitness center with yoga, Pilates and water-fitness classes (there's also an indoor pool); and a kids club, among other amenities. La Bella Vita, the resort's Italian restaurant, is very good, as is its antipasto and wood-fired pizza place, Enoteca. For some reason even the Samoset's beds are extraordinarily comfortable.

Drive up the coast to Bar Harbor and you'll find Kebo Valley Golf Club, which dates back to 1888 and borders Acadia National Park. Kebo has hosted such renowned golfers as President William Howard Taft — as legend has it, he got stuck in a bunker and enjoyed a 27 on what is now the 17th hole — and Walter Hagen, who for a time held the course record of 67. The mark was nearly obliterated by a course worker named Bill Burns, who was 8 under through 16 holes but unable to finish his round in the dark, despite the efforts of friends who tried to light his way with their car headlights. Kebo is short, 6,131 yards from the blues, with good greens and views of the park's Cadillac Mountain.

A little more than two and a half hours inland (Maine is a big place, especially for cozy New England) is 13-year-old Belgrade Lakes, a more challenging course where the holes are framed by trees and neatly stacked rock piles that kept spitting my shots back into the fairways. The expansive views of the eponymous lakes from the elevated clubhouse should have told me this is not the type of course you want to walk, but I did anyway — for nine holes before grabbing a cart and a sandwich at the turn. Bring plenty of golf balls, and don't plan on figuring it out at the range, as there isn't one. (There is a net, however.)

For the sheer zaniness of it, and because I liked the idea that, in theory anyway, I might run into Stephen King, I also played the Bangor Municipal Golf Course. Bangor is pretty far up I-95, but it boasts the world's largest statue of Paul Bunyan. Other attractions include the nearby Owls Head Transportation Museum, where if you time it right you might catch an air show, and the Common Ground fair, which if you time it right (two days in late September) you can learn how to "winter your bees." Maine — it's weird, but it's decadent.

The Samoset generally closes Nov. 1, but as with everything else around here, it's weather-dependent. The foliage is waiting.