A baker’s dozen Maine learning vacations: Combine vacation with learning a new skill


Want to add some value to your Maine vacation dollar? Instead of simply lazing away a summer holiday, plan a learning vacation. Conquer nature-deficit disorder with a family immersion into the great outdoors on an island. Learn to paddle a sea kayak, craft furniture by hand, build a boat, play an instrument, even build a surfboard. Perhaps discover the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness or maybe bone up on aviation history. These learning adventures, based in some of Maine’s most scenic areas, allow participants to bring home not only memories, but also souvenir skills and knowledge.

Updated Sept. 3, 2017

Home, Sweet Home

In 1974, enterprising entrepreneurs Pat and Patsy Hennin jumped on the do-it-yourself bandwagon and established the Shelter Institute to train neophytes in energy-efficient home design and construction techniques. Since then, thousands of students have taken courses here, and enthusiastic alumni (and their building projects) span the globe. Students range in age from late teens to early 80s. Courses take place on the school’s 68-acre campus in Woolwich, five miles north of Bath. Visitors are welcome any time, and anyone who appreciates fine woodworking tools must visit the institute’s Woodbutcher Tools retail shop and bookstore.

Contemplative Skiff Building

Word of mouth seems to be the best marketing tool for The Carpenter’s Boatshop. Founded in 1979 by Bobby Ives, an engaging Congregational minister, and his late wife, Ruth, the boatshop accepts interested applicants of any denomination to join a community dedicated to both spirituality and boatbuilding.

This is no laid-back, contemplative religious retreat; serious boatbuilding supports the Pemaquid-based community. Apprenticeships run mid-September–mid-June, and there’s no tuition. Room and board are provided. The diverse group of 6–8 students all become part of the boatbuilding crew, working at least 40 hours a week in the huge shingled barn/boatshop. Each student builds a 9.5-foot Monhegan skiff, contributes to the construction of three types of stock wooden boats, helps with all the daily chores, and spends Saturday morning doing valuable community service on the Pemaquid Peninsula. During daily prayer gatherings, students can participate or use the time for reading or other reflective pursuits.

Summer program offers courses in basic boat building, woodworking, furniture making, and related skills, with fees varying by course.

Creating a Smaller World

Begun in 1986 to provide language classes for adults, Rockland’s  Penobscot School has become a multicultural clearinghouse with ties around the globe. In fall, winter, and spring, the school offers day and evening courses in nearly a dozen languages. It also sponsors ethnic dinners and festivals, organizes language-immersion weekends, and puts on international study programs in local schools. July–September, international students (ages 18–65) arrive at the school for intensive three-week English-language courses. On summer weekdays, visitors are often invited for lunch at the school to interact with students practicing their English.

Furnish You Future

Alumni of the one-, two-, and 12-week workshops at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, established in 1993, can’t say enough about their experiences.

In the Basic Woodworking course, students get a detailed intro to making furniture, while using mostly traditional hand skills to build a small bench or similar project. In the process, you’ll learn how to sharpen tune and use hand tools and safely use power tools, as well as how to select lumber and mill, join, scrape, sand, assemble and finish your project.

If you know the basics, consider more intense workshops such as twig tables, sculptural furniture, chair design or box making. Other possibilities include specialized courses in carving, veneer and marquetry, wood turning and finishing.

Classes take place on the school’s Rockport campus, with easy access to Camden and Rockland. Social activities include potluck suppers, faculty slide shows and openings at the on-campus Messler Gallery. The wide-ranging courses develop various skill levels, from beginner to pro. The center can help arrange for lodging and meals. It’s open all year.

Musical Interlude

If you’ve always regretted either never taking or quitting music lessons, it’s not too late to learn. SummerKeys, in the way, way Down East coastal village of Lubec, offers instruction in instruments including piano, guitar, trumpet, cello, clarinet, flute, oboe, violin/viola, celtic harp, and even voice.

You don’t need any previous experience, nor are there any admission requirements. The school invites potential students to “Come as you are to enjoy the study, the work and the beauty of the Maine Coast.”  Most sessions include three to five private lessons, practice times, group classes and optional performance. Class members usually socialize at concerts and perhaps meals.  Accommodations and meals are on your own, although area lodging discounts are available.

Build, Build, Build Your Boat

Tiny Brooklin proclaims itself the “wooden boatbuilding capital of the world.” Them’s big words from a town with a year-round population numbering fewer than 900 souls, but Brooklin is home to perhaps a dozen small boat shops, WoodenBoat magazine and the WoodenBoat School.

The school teaches hands-on courses ranging from boatbuilding to seamanship to related crafts, such as marine photography, painting, knots and ropework. Of more than three-dozen boatbuilding courses, the granddaddy is Fundamentals of Boatbuilding. During this two-week course, you’ll likely start one boat, work at planking another and finish a third. Other courses let you actually build your own surfboard, Skerry daysailer, skiff, sea kayak, canoe or pond-yacht. Courses take place on the school’s 60-acre waterfront campus. Lodging and meals packages are available.

B.A. in Family Fun

“Awesome!” “Cool!” “Excellent!” No, we’re not talking the latest video game, but a week at the College of the Atlantic’s Family Nature Camp. Instead of simply packing the kids off to camp, join them on Mt. Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park. One week here, where the policy is no child left inside, helps cure nature-deficit disorder.

Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic opens its doors to families each summer, offering multiple sessions of its Family Nature Camp. This hands-on, participatory, naturalist-led learning vacation provides plenty of fodder for those “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays. Minimum age is five; extended family is welcome. Camp includes campus lodging, meals, field trips, and some boat tours.

Fiddling Around

Learn to play the fiddle by ear at the Maine Fiddle Camp, held on the grounds of Camp NEOFA in Montville. Campers stay in rustic cabins or tent and enjoy communal meals outdoors. There’s plenty of time to swim or hang out in the afternoon, before the evening concerts, dances, and jams. A weekend camp is usually held in June, with week-long sessions offered at other times during the summer.

Going Whole Hog for Birds

Here’s something to tweet about: The Puffin Project sponsors residential ornithology programs at Hog Island Audubon Camp. The one-week sessions take place on the 330-acre island in Muscongus Bay, off Pemaquid Point, and are led by prominent naturalists and environmental educators, are intensive. Lodging is rustic, with shared baths and family -style meals.

Does the name Sikorski ring a Bell?

Here’s a learning vacation for aviation buffs: Bradford Camps’ Sikorsky Seminar. Bradford Camps is a traditional Maine sporting camp on the shores of undeveloped Munsungun Lake. Stretching along the shoreline are log cabins and a central lodge, where all meals are served. Popular with anglers and hunters in spring and fall, it caters to families in the summer months, with endless opportunities for hiking, swimming, boating and wildlife watching.

Every July, one special weekend is dedicated to the grandfather of Igor I. Sikorsky III, who operates the camps with his wife, Karen. Igor’s grandfather is best known for his work in developing the helicopter, but he also built the world’s first multi-engine aircraft, designed and built the largest aircraft used in World War I, and later worked with large amphibians, which paved the way for commercial aviation.

The Sikorsky Weekend is an opportunity to learn more about the aviation pioneer and talk shop with flight buffs while perusing books, artifacts, videos and photos. Saturday features seaplane rides with as well as a guest speaker. Cost covers all meals, private lodging and use of facilities, including boats, motors and kayaks. Do yourself a favor and splurge on floatplane transportation from either Bangor or Millinocket, otherwise it’s 60 miles over bone-chattering backwoods roads from the nearest blacktop.

Surf’s Up!

York’s Grain Surfboards is renowned for its handcrafted wooden surfboards, but it also offers surfboard-building classes, including a Surfboard Builder’s Fantasy Camp. The former are group programs; the latter is a one-on-one, week-long program during which you’ll work with a personal board builder to craft the perfect board: any board, any time, your own builder.

Woods-wise ways

For more than a decade, The Maine Outdoor Learning Center has been preparing wanna-bes to become registered Maine Guides or simply learn wilderness survival skills. These  hands-on learning vacations cover everything a guide must know to pass the state exams.

You’ll be schooled in canoeing and river reading, fishing, outdoor cooking, map and compass skills, search-and-rescue techniques, and flora and fauna identification. In the process, you’ll learn the specifics of hunting, fishing, and recreational guiding. You’ll pole a canoe, cook over an open fire, practice map-and-compass skills. Sessions, limited to six to 10 students, mix classroom and practical sessions and are held in various locations.

Be a sport

No prior experience is necessary to participate in L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discover School’s programs. Learning vacation options include: archery, canoeing, kayaking, fly fishing, clay shooting, bicycling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and paddleboarding. Each program is participatory, so you’ll learn by doing. Programs include equipment and instruction, and range from a few hours to multiple days.


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