The main street through town drops steeply into the sea, escorted by shops and restaurants that celebrate the best of Maine arts, books, food, fun, hospitality and service. Belfast is where it’s at!
The revitalization of Belfast is uplifting. It used to be rather run-down, and not a lot was happening. Today, the downtown is a high priority, attracting creative people who have opened eateries, galleries and other businesses.
Belfast reflects that creative energy in a beautiful coastal setting on Penobscot Bay. Main Street heads down a hill that looks like you might be driving right into the ocean. We visited in January and found it charming. Many shops were open on that snowy weekend. I’ve picked a few places that seemed unique to tell you about.
The Waterfall Arts Center is located outside of the downtown district. David Estey, who moved back to Belfast in 2002, gave us a wonderful tour of this old school-building-turned-creative-arts wonderland. The Old Crosby School now holds artist spaces with a wide variety of art. We peeked in the studio windows to see amazing sculptures and paintings. Classes are held on Saturdays for the young and the old. I found spaces for dance, singing, music and even a paper art class that morning. The Bay Area Fiddlers play here Sunday nights.
Belfast’s Colonial Theatre has been restored to its grand elegance (carpeted with gold banisters) and if you have time, you really should see it. This historical building sprawls and you can wind your way up and down to any of the three theaters here. Fascinating! This would be a pretty special space to see a movie.
Belfast and nearby towns have attracted self-sufficient, back-to-the-land people who grow their own food or buy local. The Belfast COOP, a food store owned by its members, is well known and has been in business for a long time. It’s no surprise that the COOP is thriving. It’s a natural foods mecca, carrying an astonishing variety of dry goods. I counted 19 varieties of flour alone. There’s also a huge selection of ingredients for making dishes from various cuisines. Oh, if only I lived just a little closer. I can tell you that any time I’m near Belfast I will be shopping at the COOP.
We’d heard about Chase’s Daily, and made a point to stop in for lunch. This may be the best vegetarian restaurant in Maine. There was a waiting line the entire time we were there. They make their own breads and pastries, and offer very imaginative dishes here.
I ordered the spicy grilled tofu sandwich. It was extremely spicy but I loved it, as did George. (He said he’s ordering it the next time we go.) For George to be excited about tofu, you know they have great food. The décor includes beautiful old chairs, large windows looking out onto the street and a busy service area where you can watch as everybody hustles by. This is a really fun place to visit. Belfast even has its own downtown candy store. The Chocolate Drop carries a Haven’s Chocolates mix-and-match selection and has an old-fashioned soda fountain. There’s an amazing assortment of candies and we couldn’t resist temptation.
The flowers in the window display drew us into Brambles, where you will find rock vases, plants and more. The owner, Lisa DuHamel, who opened this store six years ago, has a great personality. “What brings you to Belfast?” she asks. It’s a question we were asked more than once. The residents are great ambassadors for their town.
I loved the artistic feeling of the area. Kimberly Callas, of Belfast Creative Coalition, is an artist herself and gave us an incredible list of places to visit. She thought we really should look up Daniel Anselmi, located in an upstairs gallery at 75 Main St. He welcomed us into his studio where we found art collages of paper he cuts and paints for texture. He uses old maps and blueprints for paper, and was chosen as one of 35 artists by the University of Maine to be featured in its Bangor art gallery.
Belfast is an artistic, creative, vibrant place to discover. What are you waiting for? It’s a half-hour drive from Augusta, and makes a great day-trip adventure.
Belfast was a revelation to us. My childhood memory of the town consists of a single U.S. Route 1 business, Perry’s Nut House, a must-stop place for my family enroute to Lubec. Today, Belfast offers the best of Maine: a cultural center that attracts artists and creative people from all over the world, a splendid array of eateries, shopping to die for, some of the friendliest folks in our state and a nonstop array of events.
Consider this: While many Maine downtowns are dying, 45 businesses opened here in just one year! Bre Babb and her Our Town Belfast Main Street program are doing an outstanding job.
A town with this many bookstores always draws my interest. Linda knows I could have spent all day checking out the new, used and antique books. Bella Bookstore is now a personal favorite, because Nanette Gionfriddo hosts many Maine authors, offers comfortable seats and even has a Rock City Roasters espresso bar.
At Beyond the Sea bookstore, retired teacher Diane Horton was so enthusiastic that we spent a long time there. She even followed up by emailing us an image of her painting of the beautiful old building that now houses Lost Kitchen, for use in our review of that restaurant.
As Linda and I were dividing up the businesses to write about, I grabbed Eat More Cheese. The sidewalk sign pulled me in: “Keep Calm and Eat Cheese.” The store features gorgeous breads from Montville’s Offshore Baking at Claddagh Farm (yes, breads can be gorgeous), an amazing and aromatic array of cheeses, delicious meats including Olli Wild Boar salami and a surprisingly impressive selection of beer. Let’s see now — cheese, salami, bread and beer — the four staples of my favorite picnic.
I loved the Parent Gallery where the exquisite pastels of Neal Parent’s daughter Joanne drew us inside. Neal’s stories of our mutual friend Jim Robbins, of Searsmont, entertained me while we marveled at Neal’s stunning black and white photos. Neal is one of many enthusiastic and friendly Belfast business people, eager to answer questions and encourage your visit.
Normally, you would not find me eating at a vegetarian restaurant — even though many of Linda’s meals at home are sans meat. But so many readers and friends recommended Chase’s Daily that we lunched there. Now I’m ready to be a vegetarian!
My Andrew’s English Pale Ale, brewed in nearby Lincolnville, paired superbly with my spicy Mexican torta on ciabatta bread — crispy on the outside, lots of avocado and two wonderful sauces on the side. This is a very popular item — I got the last one that day.
While the food would draw me back, the wooden tables and chairs and the awesome display of wooden fishing lures made me feel right at home. The place was packed, for good reason.
We had planned a short visit to a curling tournament, just for the novelty of it and to cheer on Jack Cromart and Ellen Schneider from this area. However, the clubhouse and fans were so welcoming and the competition so fascinating, that we stayed two hours.
And here’s proof of just how amazing this town is. At the top of my must-visit list was Marshall Wharf Brewing Company and Three Tides, a highly-rated, award-winning microbrewery and restaurant. And we didn’t get there. That’s just one of the excuses we now have to visit Belfast again soon. There’s always something happening in Belfast!
Visit George’s website: www.georgesmithmaine.com for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.