Monday, September 19, 2016

Harvest Dinner at Maine Huts & Trails

Fall is my camping season, the time of year when boating season is ending/winding down and there's some time before the dreaded s-word flies. I haven't done much (any?) backpacking in Maine—my camping adventures have lately become more of the car camping and day hiking variety. 

But I've found the perfect compromise between experiencing secluded wilderness spots and the comfort of staying at a campground: the Maine Huts & Trails system. I spent the weekend mountain biking in Western Maine, relaxing in a beautiful lodge, admiring vistas of the Bigelow Preserve, and stuffing myself with a gourmet meal complete with wine pairings. 

Maine Huts & Trails is a system of 4 eco-huts connected by over 80 miles of multiuse trails. That means you can hike, bike, snowshoe, or ski into the woods and there will be beer, a shower, and a heated bunkroom waiting for you. Pretty awesome.

And before you dismiss this experience based on the word "eco-hut," just know that the level of comfort provided while creating a low environmental footprint is impressive. The only indicator that you're "eco"-ing at all is the composting toilets, which fortunately are like regular toilets that flush with special foamy soap instead of water. No smell, no ick factor. There's running water, electricity, and even heat. At Maine Huts & Trails, you can have your hiking and your creature comforts too. 

A. and I spent the night at Stratton Brook hut, the newest hut in the MH&T family. All of the huts are within a few miles of each other in Western Maine, near Sugarloaf ski resort. Stratton Brook is best for mountain bikers and hikers (you can see the hut overview and best activities from each hut in the hut overview). 

Stratton Brook hut is a 3 to 4 mile ride in, depending on which trailhead you leave from, and there are several trails great for mountain biking that are accessible from the hut. A. and I rode in on the Maine Hut Trail, which wasn't the best trail to come in on, apparently, as it's a long, gradual ascent to the hut. It would have been a pleasant hike. The better option would have been to take the Gauge Trail, which parallels a river (thus flatter) and then take a steeper trail with lots of switchbacks up to the hut. 

We arrived at the top of the knoll on which Stratton Brook hut is located mid-afternoon, gasping and sweaty. We sort of staggered into the hut in a post-exertion haze. The staff was very friendly while they checked us in, told us where everything was located, and encouraged us to relax and enjoy ourselves before dinner that evening. We were there for a special event, Harvest at the Hut, an annual celebration of local food prepared by hut staff and guest chefs. 

Above, you can see the lodge on the left, with a dining room, armchairs and a wood stove, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. The huts are on the right, 10 bunkrooms in total, some shared and some private. They consist of platform bunk beds (ours had a double bed on the bottom and a twin up top), with dorm-style mattresses and pillows. The floors are heated and the room is lit with a single overhead light. It's spartan, but certainly all you need for a good night's sleep after a day of biking or hiking. 

When we arrived, there were some guests who had spent the night before and several people stopping by on a hike or a bike. Lunch is served at the huts and some people were making a pit stop on a day trip. 

We spent the afternoon settling in: we took showers, strolled up to the overlook nearby with a spectacular view of the entire Bigelow Preserve, and then read and rested in our room until dinner time. 

Dinner was served in the lodge at 5:30 PM, so we rousted ourselves from our cozy nook and prepared to dive into the more extroverted experience of dinner with 50 people. We ordered a beer from the kitchen to help ease the transition. 

We found available seats at a table with some very nice folks—a couple who comes to the Harvest every year and 4 men from around the country who went to grad school together and now make an annual men's trip in the fall. 

We started to get to know our tablemates while enjoying appetizers like the fall harvest samosas, filled with butternut squash and cranberries, and topped with a blueberry chutney, and lobster nori rolls, served with local horseradish. 

Our menu for the evening had an international flare, but made with Maine ingredients. Our appetizers were even paired with a local wine, the junmai sake from Blue Current Brewery in Kittery. 

Next came a shared board of with rye toast, bread and butter pickles, Crooked Face creamery cheeses, smoked salmon, sliced apples, housemade tater tots, and beet and chevre raviolis. We passed the boards family-style, and enjoyed our next pouring of wine: the Winterport Winery Taxi Cab. 

Courses two and three were a wild-foraged Maine take on pho—Vietnamese noodle soup. The vegetables may not have been traditional (but local instead!) and the broth was what you would expect, rich with anise spice notes. 

The "wild woman" salad was spicy greens with local tomatoes, pickled red onions, and ricotta. We enjoyed a Nuda Pinot Grigio with this course, and I was feeling pretty good about my ability to pace myself—no overstuffed feelings yet. 

My resolve weakened with the entree, a Korean barbecue-inspired beef in lettuce wraps with peppers, onions, and ssamjang. The wheat berry salad and a tangy slaw were great accompaniments. Beef with salad veggies is one of my favorite things, so it was no surprise I loved this course. 

Dessert also wowed with an apple tatin, surrounded by a pool of creme anglaise and served with two slices of Cabot cheddar. The richness of the dessert was cut by the sharp cheese and lightened by the Winterport Winery apple wine topped with Prosecco. 

Everyone was full and a little tipsy by this point, so after a few enthusiastic rounds of applause for the chefs and the staff, we made our way to tuck ourselves into our cabin. I read a bit from a book borrowed from the communal bookshelves and drifted into a dreamless sleep. Others stayed up and enjoyed a fire in the campfire ring. When I woke a few hours later, the trip to the bathroom was far less fear-inducing than the much-dreaded one while camping in the woods! 

The next morning, we woke early to pack our bags to have them ready for the gear shuttle (much recommended when mountain biking) and to enjoy breakfast. The fresh eggs with herbs and tomatoes, blueberry pecan muffins, sausages, and copious cups of coffee fueled us up for another day of biking. 

Because were were up and out so early, we spent the day exploring a longer trail through the Bigelow Preserve, with a great connecting trial built specifically for biking. We then biked over to a beautiful (if not sparse due to the drought) waterfall very close to the Poplar Hut, which has an easier hike in than the Stratton Brook hut. 

Maine Huts & Trails are open year round, and a one-night stay includes dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch the following day. Check the website for special events like the Harvest at the Hut or Brews & Views, a dinner with craft beer pairings, held in August.

Based on what I experienced, the food at the hut will be delicious, especially after a day of hiking or snowshoeing, and craft beer and wine are always available for purchase. Add a stay at Maine Huts & Trails to your Maine bucket list—I know I'll be back.

Disclosure: I received tickets to this event free of charge, but the opinions and words expressed in this post are my own. 

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