A Toyota Tundra is riding the bumper of my Mazda 3 like a bull-mastiff trying to mate with a terrier. I glance at the rearview mirror and see the Tundra's front license plate. Yep, he's a local.
Maine residents get edgy in summer traffic. Considering the lack of coastal byways, I get it. They suffer through countless months of cold and wind, and when the sun finally appears, so do swarms of New Jersey drivers sightseeing at 29 mph in their Dodge Grand Caravans. I'd be edgy, too.
The new-generation Mazda 3, however, swings through corners and rolling roads with zippy aplomb, and I wish Mr. Tundra would just chill. With three days to kill in Vacationland, I may be a tourist, but I'm a speedy one. Besides, the Mazda is a game road hunter, sniffing out dips and twists and hungry for adventure.
Ours is the lower-volume hatchback model, with a spicy 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that's good for 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. The base 2.0-liter is available with a stick, but this car has the six-speed automatic. At about $26,000, this Mazda 3 has an utter lack of pretension that fits in nicely around Maine's working-class towns.
If you want to go north or south and avoid freeways in southern Maine, you'll be forced onto Route 1 along with every other tourist in Mainedom, all of whom believe that they're experiencing the real thing. Call it the Lobster Roll Trail -- even Citgo gas stations sell the crustacean-laced sandwich. I devise a different plan. My passenger and I spend the first night in the college-and-port town of Portland and its various bars. After all, who likes their beer better than fishermen and co-eds? The next morning, we motor northwest toward the border of New Hampshire. Eventually, we'll swing east and head back to the seashore.
We shake off the Tundra outside of Portland and then turn onto US 302 and then Route 35. Examples of old-school Americana greet us: a drive-in theater, a giant animatronic sign from the 1960s, a shop selling hubcaps. The number of places shilling lobster rolls peters out. The landscape is covered in trees and the elevation rises as we pass through towns such as Bethel and Mexico. (The latter has a droll, official-looking sign that announces: "Entering Mexico.") Inland Maine has far fewer tourists, and local drivers are friendlier. We dither on secondary roads that shadow small rivers and lead to covered bridges.
I'm digging the car. The 3's exterior is handsome. It has lost the goofy grinning grille, and the far-back cabin is reminiscent of a classic BMW M coupe's. It translates into plenty of interior space. Considering the fuel economy (27/37 mpg city/highway), the 3 is a fine road-trip ride, equal parts agreeable and fun.
The seaside calls, so I turn the steering wheel hard right. As we get closer to the salt air, we happen onto even better roads with no traffic. The 3's chassis rides over bumps and broken pavement silkily, with very little body roll. It's a Moët chassis on a Pabst Blue Ribbon budget. But the steering doesn't have the feel or precision of previous models, and the transmission is a bit lazy, pushing to higher revs with complaint -- both problems that should be rectified come the Mazdaspeed model.
We are briefly marooned on Route 1 in glacial traffic, but outside of Camden we spirit south to the very end of one of Maine's rural peninsulas, to a place called Port Clyde. The map doesn't give much indication of what we'll find, but this is the genuine Maine, with real-life fishermen and bobbing sailboats. We find a nice inn at Tenants Harbor to bunk down, with several mist-shrouded islands visible in the near distance. It's all so postcard pretty we wonder why anyone would ever stay at a hotel near the highway. Tourists!
Dinner finds us on bar stools at the Black Harpoon, where we meet Jewel Silveria, a lady of a certain age whose black-and-white high-school graduation photo hangs, among others, above the bar. Over steamed clams and killer fish tacos, Jewel tells us about her job packing sardines in Port Clyde during her youth, showing off the scars on her hands that came with it. The town has changed less than you might think, she says. "Come winter, you'll still freeze your ass off!" I ask the bartender, Sally, if she's also a local. "No," she answers, "My parents didn't grow up here, and I was raised, but not born, here." Being local means going back generations. "Tough crowd," I say, and she nods. "You better believe it."
The next morning, I stave off breakfast. It's time to give in to the siren song of a lobster roll, and there's only one place to get it, a shack called Red's Eats. It also means Route 1. We arrive plenty early -- before noon -- but there's already a line. We join it and wait. And wait. Finally, we're delivered a crazy mound of pink flesh overwhelming toasted bread. It is sweet and deliriously satisfying, worth both the line and Route 1.