SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — On a winding rural road that leads to an Acadia National Park trail named Wonderland, Charlotte Gill greets hundreds of visitors each week at the lobster pound that bears her name.
Apologies to the Acadia landmark, but many of the guests who arrive at Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound eat and then linger for hours know another truth: The real wonderland may well be right here, in a former ice cream stand that Gill said “looked like a little urinal cake” before she began its transformation five years ago.
Charlotte’s is a smorgasbord for the senses. Want one of the tastiest lobster rolls you’ve ever eaten? Well, of course you do, and you’ll find it here. Want to hear some ’50s music and enjoy the crisp ocean breeze blowing off the nearby Atlantic Ocean? No problem.
Want to show off your hula hoop skills or play Wiffle Ball with your kids while you’re waiting for your food? Hadn’t thought of that, had you?
That’s OK. Gill thought of it for you.
Other attractions came naturally, such as the herd of deer that often wander out of the woods and onto the Wiffle Ball field to watch the goings-on — picture “Field of Dreams” meets Animal Planet.
Then, there’s Grover, the goat.
“He’s become a rock star,” said Brent Mayhew, the do-it-all handyman Gill calls “Our Boy Friday.”
Mayhew pointed toward Grover’s tether, where the Nigerian dwarf goat greeted a tiny guest.
“That’s what Grover does best — just the smiles he puts on little kids’ faces,” Mayhew said.
Gill, who grew up in Southwest Harbor before leaving after high school graduation, returned to the island a few years back. For the past five years, she has run the business on Seawall Road. At first, it was called “Sawyer’s Lobster Pound,” named after a former beau. When the relationship broke up, Gill renamed the place after herself, which she says she should have in the beginning.
“At least this wasn’t a tattoo,” she said with a laugh. “This was an easy change to make.”
Charlotte’s is a work in progress. You never know what you’ll see next, and Gill said she often comes up with new ideas in the middle of the night.
“I think [my goal] originally was to just create a place where people can come and have a really good meal and just be happy,” Gill said. “To be close to the park and do something at a reasonable price with quality food and just really offer an experience.”
Charlotte’s features the freshest of seafood — lobsters arrive every day — and she said she hasn’t seen other establishments serve their lobster rolls on brioche buns, as she does. Grilled cheese is another hit among kids and those who don’t eat seafood. And kids can cook their own hot dogs or s’mores over a nearby fire pit.
Gill is proud of the food, and she should be. She loves her employees and credits them often. But she also admits that her energetic style and constant interactions with guests are part of the Charlotte’s experience. A stop at Charlotte’s can turn into an adventure that shouldn’t be rushed. Many visitors quickly come to understand that.
“They don’t leave,” Gill said. “Six hours later, and they’re still here. Or they come back every single day of their vacation.”
The building that houses Charlotte’s is small, and after its transformation it looks like a 1950s-era diner or A&W hot dog stand. That was intentional, Gill said.
“I’ve always loved the ’50s, because I think that’s kind of the end of that era of innocence and nuclear families and all of that,” she said. “So I started playing the ’50s music … and then I started adding the features.
Ah, the features.
In a word, Charlotte’s is “busy.” Not busy like crowded — though it can be that, too. Busy like, well, nearly overwhelming. Because there’s so much to see and do, you might have to come back to more fully appreciate the magic.
Peer in through the ordering window and you might see plastic boats floating on the surface of the lobster tank.
“I put the boats in there so the lobsters can work off angst,” Gill said. “I feel they probably have a lot of anger issues with fishing boats, so they can just dive up and take the boats down.”
A lobster zipline carries crustaceans — in a bucket, thankfully — from the ordering window to the outside lobster cookers. Musicians are encouraged to stop by and “sing for their supper.” (Gill isn’t above bartering. A painting of a rooster named Hindenberg, for instance, landed the artist a piece of blueberry pie.)
On July 4, the business will turn into Charlotte Lobster Speedway — a play on the NASCAR track in North Carolina — and lobster races will be held on a track built by Mayhew. Customers can purchase a lobster to enter in the event.
The winner gains a pardon and will be released back into the ocean. The losers will be eaten.
Gill also hopes to start selling lobsters to vegans and others who might object to steaming the tasty critters alive. Those crustaceans will be packaged in small pet boxes with the label “I’m Going Home!” on them.
“If you want to adopt one, we’ll tell you where you can release it,” Gill said.
Dogs are welcome, and three water bowls are set at various heights next to the restaurant. You can’t miss it. Just look for the “Pup Hydration Station” sign.
And if you come at the right time of day, you might even see Grover, the goat, showing off his impressive trampoline skills.
Yes. A goat on a trampoline.
Gill credits Mayhew with the execution of her varied and eccentric plans such as the zipline and lobster races.
“Boy Friday over here, anything I come up with for an idea, he creates it,” Gill said with a laugh. “He gets the craziness.”
Gill’s vision for Charlotte’s is displayed on the marquee out front: “Eat. Play. Love. Turn off your phone.”
“I realize we don’t always [turn off our phones], but we’ve become so interconnected in society that we’ll have people sitting around, on their phones, with no interpersonal anything,” Gill said. “Here, [the message] is so in your face, you don’t have a choice. You’re forced into the real. And it’s good. It’s a really good place to be.”
Gill also owns a smaller version of Charlotte’s, called “The Half Shell,” which is on the waterfront in Southwest Harbor. There are no goats or ziplines there, but many of the menu items are the same.
Gill is proud to welcome people to her special little slice of Mount Desert Island. She hopes their experiences continue to resonates with travelers when they return home after visiting Acadia.
“To be able to come someplace and to fill your soul, at least for a few minutes, and take it with you [is a good thing]. And then you take it back with you to wherever you go, and then it spreads out that way,” Gill said. “And if you can do that, you really change the world. One little sandwich at a time. With a goat named Grover.”