Penobscot Bay; Maine coast: islands, charm, lobster - and fog

The fog was thick, a white-on-white vista of shifting ghostly shapes that materialized into lobster boats or bell buoys as we approached.

We were aboard the Vinalhaven ferry, on a day excursion to Vinalhaven, which is one of the offshore islands in Penobscot Bay, the largest of the island-studded bays that make up the undulating coastline of Maine.

Halfway along on the hour-and-a-half ferry ride, the sun broke through the fog bank, revealing an archipelago of tiny, rocky islands, each neatly capped with a shock of blue-green spruce trees.

We passed the Outward Bound School on Hurricane Island, and studied the summer homes along the shore. Our captain deftly wove our cumbersome craft through a slalom course of red ''nuns'' and black ''cans'' that mark the channel and brought the ferry into the wharf at Carver's Harbor (pronounced ''Cahvah's Hahbah''). It's the only town on the island, and has a population of 1,211 year-round.

Lobstermen were crating their wiggly, green catch, soon to be stuffed and baked for customers in restaurants in Boston, New York, and perhaps San Francisco.

We talked with one 12-year-old who had been lobstering for three years in his own small skiff with 50 traps; he spoke with confidence, seeming to be much older than his years.

Wandering down the one-street village, we passed a fish factory, a boatyard, several restaurants, and a stand-up ice cream and sandwich counter. A half-hour stroll beyond the town took us to an abandoned granite quarry for a picnic lunch and swim. Local boys practiced swan dives from the high cliffs, dropping down into the rain-filled waters like terns diving after fish.

Vinalhaven is a fairly large island (it takes several hours to drive around it in a car), which offers lots to explore, including a beautiful nature preserve and several quarries, no longer in commercial use. The ferry takes cars , but it is not a good idea to bring a car over for a day trip, because you might not be able to get it onto the ferry going back in the afternoon. There is often a long line of people waiting to drive off island. A bicycle is better.

It is possible to stay on Vinalhaven overnight, either in the one small motel , the Tidewater, or in private homes that take guests, but the vast majority of visitors come for the day only, returning to the mainland for the night. We took the 8:40 a.m. ferry over and returned back by 5 p.m.; round trip tickets cost $4 .

An excursion to Vinalhaven, or one of the other off-islands in Penobscot Bay (North Haven - 1 hour 10 minutes; Islesboro - 25 minutes) is but one of many delightful tours to be taken in the Camden and Rockport vicinity.

Camden is my choice for headquarters. This small village (pop. 4,584) is one of the prettiest coastal towns in Maine. Set between the harbor and a ridge of hills, Camden refers to itself as the place ''where the mountains meet the sea.'' A Westerner might scoff at the term ''mountain'' - the highest is 1,385 feet above sea level; nevertheless, the view from the top of Mt. Battie is well worth the half-hour hike from the town. (You can also drive up.)

On a summer's day, you have a panoramic view of the deep blue waters of Penobscot Bay, sprinkled liberally with sparkling crescents of sunlit sails.

Flowers bloom in pots on the lampposts in the village of Camden, where you will find a compact assortment of excellent-quality shops, inns, and restaurants. I wandered into a craft store and purchased a sculpture of a kite flyer by Gordon Brott, one of many craftspeople who work out of Camden.

Munching a lobster roll from the deck of a waterfront restaurant, you have a dockside seat on Camden's crowded inner harbor. Small children row dinghies, yachtsmen maneuver their sleek yawls into berths at the wharf, and powerboats go in and out.

Where do you spend the night? The area offers a wide variety of accommodation. Many people opt for the old-style inn, such as Whitehall Inn in Camden, built in 1903, at which Edna St. Vincent Millay read one of her early poems in 1912.

Another favorite is the Camden Harbour Inn, furnished in 19th-century style with claw-footed tubs in the bathrooms. Meals are served on a glassed-in porch, and views include the harbor and mountains.

Aubergine, a ''small, romantic inn,'' serves French cuisine (room and bath for $40 a night). More in the luxury resort line, the Samoset in Rockport offers golf, indoor and outdoor swimming and tennis, and a harbor view.

You can camp for as little as $6 a night in one of several campgrounds, such as Megunticook By-The-Sea (AAA) overlooking Penobscot Bay, or Old Massachusetts Homestead Campground, a wilderness area with nature trails leading to a swimming pond.

Bikers can rent bicycles in Camden (try Maine Sport) and cycle the five miles over to the neighboring village of Rockport, about half the size of Camden and just as attractive. The busy harbor is the scene of a free performance (daily at 4 p.m.) by Andre, the famous seal who used to swim from his winter quarters at the New England Aquarium in Boston to Rockport each summer.

You can stop at the galleries of Maine Photographic Workshop, just up the hill, or Maine Coast Artists, down the street. Or you can cycle down the dirt road leading along the rocky shore, through a pine forest to the Children's Chapel, a quiet garden retreat overlooking the water.

Another favorite tour is to visit lighthouses - at least five are within easy distance by car. At Rockland, you can walk out the 7/8-mile granite breakwater to the 1888 lighthouse at the end. On the other side of the harbor, from Owl's Head Light, you are 100 feet above the water.

Other things to do include antiquing, visiting museums (Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Historic Old Conway Homestead in Camden), blueberry picking, and attending concerts and theater.

You might plan your trip to coincide with one of the special events: North American Festival of Story Telling (Rockport, June 25-27), 100th Annual Fireman's Ball Celebration (Camden, July 9-11), Camden Garden Club ''Open House and Garden Day'' (July 15), Annual Arts and Crafts Show (Camden, July 18), Great Schooner Race (Rockland, July 23), Rockland Seafood Festival (Aug. 6-8), or Union Fair with its Blueberry Festival (Aug. 23-28).

Temperatures are apt to be in the 70s or 80s, perhaps the 60s on foggy days. Be prepared for rain or wind. Old-timers say there is more fog in June, then less as the summer progresses.

Conversing with old-timers is probably the best activity of all, a sure-fire way to mentally shift gears to Down East time. (The term Down East was coined when travel was by sailboat and going east was to sail downwind on prevailing breezes.)

You can spot these down-easters from their slow walk, their dry humor, and their kindly tolerance of the tourists that rush into town to ''do it'' in a few hours.

''Do you think the fog is going to lift?'' might do for openers.

''Eh-ya (meaning ''yes''), always has,'' begins the thoughtful response, and the door is open for a good hour's easy conversation while you quietly cross the threshold into Maine.

Practical information: The address of the Rockport-Camden-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce is PO Box 246, Camden, Maine 04843; telephone is [207] 236- 4404.

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