Friday, August 15, 2008

My favorite B&B

Every year, the Maine Lobster Festival runs from Wednesday to Sunday to include the first Sunday in August. Well, that's how I *think* it goes every year, based on the two years I've known about it.

Last year we decided to go on the spur of the moment, and we couldn't find a nearby place to stay. I finally found a room at a bed-and-breakfast located forty minutes from the festival grounds. We loved that B&B so much that we booked it again for the 2008 Festival season.

Last year we went to the Festival on a Saturday, and this year we went on a Wednesday. Next year I'm hoping to go on BOTH Wednesday and Saturday. I think those days are the best days of the Festival because Wednesday is the first day of the Festival and they allow everyone in for free. All the other days you have to pay like $8 or $10 per person to get in; that's in addition to the money you spend on lobster and other stuff inside the Festival. And then Saturday is a pretty good day because they have lots of musical performances all day long. There's some music on each day really, but Saturday it runs non-stop and you can go from stage to stage and see all kinds of different musical stuff.

The Festival isn't a huge one. It doesn't feel too crowded to me. We find that in four leisurely hours there, we eat lots of perfectly-cooked lobster (only $38 for a triple lobster dinner!), eat a few other "festival food" items (like fried candy bars!), visit all the exhibits twice, buy a couple things, watch a performance or two, and by then we're ready to grab a beverage and go home. But despite its modest size, I love it.

I also love the unique experience of staying at a B&B. My discovery of the Festival last year was also my discovery of this type of lodging. I thought all B&B's were as awesome as Maple Hill Farm. On this year's trip however, I found out that some B&B's are "just okay." We stayed at a B&B near Bar Harbor, Maine for the second half of our vacation. It was a perfectly nice place, not particularly bad. But it was lacking some of the thoughtful touches that we love about Maple Hill Farm. We thought that these touches were unique to the B&B style; we didn't realize they were unique to Maple Hill Farm!

Here is a list of things that make Maple Hill Farm special to me:
- Huge 200+ acres to explore
- Green energy: solar panels and a wind turbine and accompanying gauges that we can gawk at right onsite
- Other green decisions too, like how most food scraps get fed to the chickens, and how shower supplies are served up in bulk pumps instead of little travel-size bottles
- Large inviting common areas
- Interesting and personable innkeepers Scott & Vince
- Working farm with funny llamas
- Delicious (and consistent) breakfast choices
- Free from light pollution makes for awesome stargazing
- Full bar service
- Separate kitchen facilities for B&B guests to refrigerate things, and supplied with travel mugs, silverware, barware, cookies, and always a surprise treat to eat
- Gourmet coffee flowing hot and fresh and free all day long
- Located in Hallowell and next to the state capital Augusta: towns that are small enough to feel small, but not so small that they're boring. Perfecly sized for our tastes.

The Bar Harbor B&B didn't have any of those things above. Not one! Since I'm such a picky eater, it was tough for me to accept a surprise "innkeeper's cooking experiment" greeting me each morning. This B&B did have its good points, I'll admit, but it's hard to remember those when I'm comparing the two places.

I'm sure every B&B owner would tell me that it's not entirely fair to compare one B&B to another. Each one has its own feel and flavor, with its own unique features. I agree with that completely, but I think that every B&B, regardless of its individuality, should have an abundance of "thoughtful touches." Things that give guests a genuine home-like feeling. Otherwise it just feels like a really nice hostel!

We've already booked our 2009 dates at the Maple Hill Farm.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Great and the Good -- how I tell the difference

They say the best way to find a good auto mechanic is by asking your friends for a recommendation. That's the method I used to find my mechanic Rich. He always tried to save me money, explaining when I could repair just one part of a system instead of replacing the whole system. And fixing just what I asked him to fix. So he's not one of those mechanics who will take the car in for a tire rotation and send you away with a $400 repair bill because of "finding" all kinds of additional problems. Rich takes it as a personal offense if he discovers that I've brought my car somewhere else for service. And he is located near my place of work, so he would drive me to and from work on the days that I brought my car into his shop for service.

This week I found out the hard way that Rich has retired, and he sold his business to a new guy who calls himself Sab. I brought my car into Sab anyway, since I may as well give him a chance to prove himself worthy in my eyes. I brought the car on Friday morning, reporting that the transmission seemed to be racing. Also it needed an oil change and a brake bulb replaced. I had bought the bulb already and gave it to him. An employee drove me to my work from the repair shop, just as Rich had always done. Nice! They called me after a while, said the transmission had no problems, and since they had completed the rest of the work, I could pick up my car now. "But wait," I said, "the transmission has been slipping every day for three years." If you're telling me there are "no problems" with it, then I KNOW you didn't test drive it. "Please test drive it and call me back. Maybe the problem isn't the transmission, but SOMETHING is wrong with my car. I know it's not running right -- find it and fix it."

A little while longer, they called back and said I could come pick it up. The shop sent a person to pick me up at work and bring me to the repair shop (again, nice!). My bill was $30 for the oil change and $10 for the bulb installation. Right THEN I knew I would not be coming back. Because you've already failed to find my car's most noticeable problem (the slipping transmission) and you've NOT identified the mystery problem that brought me here in the first place, and on top of all that, you're CHARGING me to install a bulb that I've supplied you with? Rich would never have charged for that! Not when I was already there as a paying customer! But I just kept it inside, quietly and privately deciding that this shop was nothing special. Cuz it's not like they've cheated me or anything -- they're not a BAD business. They're just not especially great. I paid the $40 total and drove back to finish my workday.

At work, they called again and said the mechanic had left a pair of pliers in my trunk, and asked if I could please bring the tool back. It didn't matter when, just any convenient time today; they were very apologetic. My decision to avoid this repair shop was confirmed again now on two counts: First, a great mechanic doesn't lose his tools, and Second, a great guy like Rich would have driven to ME in a situation like this; he wouldn't have asked me to come to HIM. So again, I kept these opinions to myself and just politely dropped off the pliers at the end of my day.

From the time I first picked up the car, exactly ten miles elapsed on my odometer when -- lo and behold -- the exhaust fell off my car and onto the street. Egads! I KNEW there had been something wrong! I had been driving around for three days with the exhaust pipes just barely holding on. And I had mistaken that sputtering sound for a transmission problem. But still, even with such an advanced state of deterioration, Sab's shop couldn't detect the problem at all. Wow.

I called for a tow, and got a Punjabi driver to come get me. He was a really fun guy to talk to, and he said he considered me as part of his family since I had the same last name as his. We drove about a half an hour to the shop near my house that fixed my exhaust LAST year. Sigh. It's broken again now, and I'm back to square one, in need of a great recommendation. They'd better fix it under warranty.
Time to start asking around.