Suppose one sunny morning you awake to find yourself in the enchanting little hamlet of Belfast, Maine , lying along the placid Passagassawakeag River, which empties into Penobscot Bay, where the Atlantic is due south, as the gull flies.
It is a town of about six thousand souls who all thank their lucky stars they live here. Lovingly preserved old homes rise up the hillside from the river; downtown is a compact three blocks of Nineteenth Century red brick buildings that slopes down Main street to the harbor, where fishermen, sailors, artists, tourists, loons, and the local folk take inspiration from the blue vista of the sea and the bracing ocean air.
Cars stop for you, teenagers are courteous, a touch of the sixties is still in the air, and Mother Earth News is sold locally, along with the New York Times and Free Press(which is free).
You end up on Main Street, your first impression- “What a sweet little town!” Your second impression-“I’m hungry!” Follow me…
Chases’s Daily-96 Main st, You walk into a high-ceiling space that was once the Oddfellows Hall, brimming with conversation and heavenly aromas of coffee, pastry and who knows what those savory smells might be? You learn that it is vegetarian fare, but not organic, and family run. If it’s summer, a load of fresh gorgeous produce is set to arrive around ten am. So you can try a real breakfast, or some just baked still warm pastries, like ginger scones or chocolate cherry cookies, with some sturdy French Roast coffee. Sit at the counter and you’ll probably meet someone you should know.It’s Belfast, no risk involved.
Back on the street. Water, bay, sea, river…there’s something blue down there, so take a moment to admire the impressive 1878 Masonic Temple building, then cross High street One block later you come to Brambles, 2 Cross St. where exotic plants on the front porch beckon you to enter this wonderful space of light, blooms, and perfumed air, full of the most interesting stuff, especially if you’re a gardener, or Martha Stewart. Cozily crowded with gifts, accents, gleaming trowels, plush towels, artisania. Go hang out by the back corners and gaze out at splendid views of the bay. The owner has infused her exuberant personality into the place and she will have a story for every item, and then some.
Now it’s just an easy slide down to the homey harbor. Yes, homey. Belfast is just…comfortable. Think of it as a really big living room. Look at those big bright red tugboats-makes you want your coloring book and crayons again, right? Check out those boats. Yachts, dinghies, and everything in between.There’s a really big shipyard not far away that attracts the in crowd, but they blend in nicely. Walk out to the end of the pier and you will catch the freshest breeze this side of Cape Cod. It’s the Belfast Great Big Air Conditioner, and it will revive you on the hottest summer afternoon. I know you want to spend some time on that inviting little green, where people are sitting on big slabs of granite and wishing they lived here. There’s a cool little maple tree perched right on the edge-a kid is liable to drop out of it without warning.
Okay, break time over. Follow the path up the green slope, past the old red barn and head toward that big green hill. The Belfast Common, Cross and Miller streets, was once the sight of a poultry processing plant, which provided many jobs, along with blood, guts, and feathers that spewed into the bay. The card giant, MBNA thoughtfully financed the transformation from poultry to park, and you get to enjoy the results. If it’s spring, you will walk up a green sloped dotted with drops of golden dandelions and upon reaching the top be treated to a splendid view of the Passagassawakeag River widening out into Penobscot Bay. Your heart should skip a beat at this point. Calm down and have a seat on by that strange circular structure-a labyrinth! You have entered a tranquility zone-labyrinths have that effect. There are no directions, just enjoy the pleasing stone work and the blue bay and let go. The entire hill is one big meditation pillow, not to mention a stargazing site, playground, excellent sledding hill, and music venue. If it’s mid-July men in kilts will appear and the sound of bagpipes will fill the air. You are not having a vision, but lucky to be a part of the Maine Celtic Festival, an entertaining weekend of games, food, fireworks, and some of the best Celtic music you’ll ever hear.
Right now we’re hearing growling, which would indicate it’s lunchtime, so stroll up Spring street, admire the charming facade of the Belfast Free Library,106 High St, established 1887, a haven of knowledge, quiet and wi fi. Take a right on High street. If you have some dirty laundry-don’t we all?-stop by the Belfast Laundromat in the blue building, where the knowledgeable and friendly ladies manage the whirling dervish machines, as oldies blast from the speakers and change flows abundantly.
Then take the shortcut next door to the Belfast Co-op, 123 High St,where the sixties, alluded to earlier, still happily resides. Check out that bulletin board-Info Central. Enter and breathe in the wholesomeness. You have a very strong urge to yell, “Far out!” Everyone here co-operates. It’s like a bunch of Musketeers-“One for all and all for one!” You are immediately seduced by smells of warm slices of pizza, hearty soups, piquant burritos and the bouquet of fresh brewed coffee. Sustenance. Joie de vivre. Place an order, take a seat and you are suddenly in on five different conversations. You’re bound to learn something useful , so relax and take it in. If someone yells your name don’t freak out-your food is ready. Bon appetit!
Better go back to your room, freshen up, do a headstand-no wait, you just ate-peruse the shiny Chamber of Commerce map and plan your next move. I’m ahead of you. Go back to Main street and find the Old Professor’s Bookshop,99 Main St, across from Chases’s. As soon as you get a glimpse of the window media display you will realize this place is different. I hate to drop names but they’re all here-Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bronte, Woolf, Darwin, Thoreau, Emerson, even Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Trust me. Enter quietly and this time inhale the aroma of well aged books. The proprietor is back there behind a desk, a most congenial guy, Dr. George Siscoe, who taught meteorology in the UCLA atmospheric sciences department for 25 years, but you can call him George. He possesses the quiet demure and ready wit of a gentleman and a scholar. Just about all the volumes in here are well cared for used books, divided into What Is (Science) and What Matters (Humanities). Clever guy, George. Easy to lose track of time in here. It’s quiet, the floor creaks, I like that. Listen…isn’t that Miles Davis on Kind of Blue? I told you.
You deserve a a treat for displaying such eclectic interests, so let’s head down Main street to the Chocolate Drop Candy Shoppe, 35 Main St. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? You go in and .Buddy Holly is crooning “Peggy Sue”…it’s 1958, another time warp. Last week it was Dion singing “Donna the Primadonna”. I see you are impressed by the long shiny soda fountain counter and red swivel stools. So have a seat and order yourself a triple chocolate butterscotch vanilla shake to show them what your made of. Why don’t you splurge on a bag of rum balls for your significant other, who’ll think you’re a real bon vivant.
That should energize you for a brisk stroll down the Belfast Rail Trail, recently finished and a true gem of inspired urban planning. Head down Main Street and bear left on the Harbor Trail by the Nautilus Restaurant. Exposed hulls of yachts, tugs, ferries, and fishing boats catch your eye in the near distance. The Front Street Shipyard seemed to appear overnight a few years ago and transformed Belfast into a major player in the East Coast marina scene. The gargantuan Travel Hoist-that thing with four huge tires- can gently lift a boat up to 450 tons out of the water for storage or repair, and they are currently the only East Coast facility that can work on superyachts indoors. Run by experienced boat people, they treat each vessel like a thoroughbred race horse Speaking of treats, you will be dazzled by the sheer variety of boats dry docked in the vast yard on any given day; check out the undersides of huge ferries alongside grizzled old fishing boats up close and imagine the tales they could tell.
The trail continues northwest, turning right at a wooden dock and crossing the attractive Armistice Footbridge, a delightful place to linger, fish, photograph, jog and contemplate. An excellent view of Belfast rising up from the river can be had here, as well as the river narrowing into its wilder version in the other direction.You may also notice the commemorative bricks underfoot with touching and humorous messages. They go for one hundred bucks apiece, which helps support the bridge and the bricks. Buy a brick!
A bit farther is the Rail Trail Trailhead, across from the large potato processing plant. It’s a 2.3 mile walk through maples and oaks, with expansive views of the river and homes on the far side, quiet little backwaters, grazing horses and an array of avian, human and canine life along the way. It follows the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad, which operated from 1871 to 2007; at trails end you can actually buy a ticket on an excursion train for a ride back into the past, at the cute little City Point Station.
If you still have energy to burn, Belfast is fortunate to have a number of nature preserves within easy driving distance. Head of Tides is a local favorite, due to a variety of habitat and a quick seven minute drive. Check the local Free Press-or our website– for nature hikes on birds, geology, map and compass, and history of the area, presented by various environmental groups, such as the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition. The well-maintained trails pass through large meadows that were once devoted to farming, then dip down toward the river through quiet forest, where you can walk down to water’s edge and enjoy the peaceful riparian environment. If you’re patient, a heron or pelican may surprise you. Rusted parts of old cars and various tools can be seen along the trail as evidence of the hardy folk that once worked this land. The trail makes a big loop, and once you come back out on the main trail, walk a little farther to the power line cut and look to your left-atop one of the poles is an osprey nest that has been occupied for some years.
Time to head back to your room, take a shower, nap, and spruce up. The sun’s going down, so let’s sample some Belfast night life. But how about some dinner? How about about some exotic dinner? Laang Xang,19 Main St is your spot. Walk back down Main and you’ll spot it across from the Chamber of Commerce, 14 Main St (Which has a plethora-I love that word-of maps and info). Salika and Dan run a Laotian and Thai take-out place, perched on a small hill, in a warm and cozy little space with outdoor seating in good weather. They serve their famous Pad Thai, along with authentic Laotian favorites using some local grown produce when available. Belfast Bay is spread out below and atmosphere is friendly and laid back. The fragrances are mouth watering and the cuisine even better.
If the stars are out, it’s time for a libation or two. Go back down the Harbor Trail and look for Three Tides, maybe fifty yards down the walk, on Marshall Wharf by the big red tugboats. If it’s summertime and the stars are out, you will notice a warm glow emanating from the top of the stairs-it’s a deck with tables and glowing lampshades strung up above like Christmas lights. The seats go fast up here, and they give priority to couples and groups. You will also have noticed people gathered at the bottom of some stairs, where there’s a small bar which serves samples of wonderful locally brewed beer, like Pemaquid Oyster Stout and Sexy Chaos(Watch out!). Tables with cushioned seats sit on a small deck just above the water and there is a semi circle of wooden benches so you can bask in the glow of the fire. The benches are made for striking up conversations with fascinating strangers. Or try your hand on the bocce ball court. Tapas are served, including some delicious oysters on the half-shell. So drink, eat, enjoy and I’ll see you in the morning…I hope.
Well hello, Night Rider. You look ready for some petit dejeuner. Follow me, this time up Main Street, and right across from the famous Belfast Family Dollar(a deal in every aisle), is Moonbat City Baking Company, 137 Main St. Yes, that is quite a mouthful and so are the pastries. They call themselves “a small batch, from scratch, community baking company.” Entre and, OMG, the aromas… shades of the Left Bank, which is a hint as to the origin of their name, but that’s all I’m gonna say. The morning light is perfect, the walls are colorful and these people are so friendly, not to mention world class pastry chefs. Both sweet and savory croissants, scones, cinnamon rolls, egg&ham croissants, sour cream cake and blueberry muffins. You better order some coffee before you get in a car.
All right, all set? Have I taken care of you or what? Is Belfast not a sweet little town with a multitude of surprises? I expect I’ll see you again. Bon voyage!