A Celtic concert at Stone Mountain Arts Center and a stay at the Old Saco Inn made for a great 24-hour getaway.

George

She sings, she plays, she cooks, she inspires. Carol Noonan does it all. Eight years ago, she turned an old barn into the best place to listen to music in Maine.

We’ve been blessed to attend a couple of events a year at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, just below Fryeburg, and they are always spectacular. Our most recent visit in October featured an Irish band, Gaelic Storm, and they created a storm in that old barn, for sure.

We were all up dancing, singing and cheering wildly as the band played on and on and on. The barn was jammed with folks from youngsters to senior citizens. The lead singer was very entertaining and funny and got audience members into the act often. The musicians were amazing.

Linda was happy we were sitting up in the balcony, because she is sure I would have been up on stage at some point. And she’s probably right.

Carol has completely remodeled the smaller barn that serves as the first stop for guests. They expanded that barn this year, adding lots more tables, so it now accommodates more of the arriving guests. From 5-6 p.m., guests gather here, enjoy a cold beverage and at 6 p.m., begin to be ushered into the big barn for dinner, on a first-come-first-seated system.

The big barn seats about 200 for dinner. We’d always sat on the main floor, but we arrived late this time and the only available tables were up in the balcony. At first we were disappointed, but after getting seated we actually loved it up there. The entire place is intimate so it doesn’t really matter where you sit.

The food here is tasty and plentiful. I had one of my favorites, Jeff’s Beef Stew, chock full of beef chunks and vegetables with a hint of cinnamon in the hearty broth. I loved the cornbread. I ate for a half hour and still had so much stew left that I got two more lunches out of it.

Toward the end of the meal, I told Linda I was going to ask our server if anyone ever eats all of the stew, when she pointed to a table to our right, and I exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh. That guy ate it all!” He must have fasted for two days before he arrived here.

Linda raved about her lasagna. The menu is varied from pizza to salads to “SMAC n’ Cheese” and a corned beef dinner. The beer and wine selection is excellent, and they serve one of my favorite Maine brews, Atlantic Brewing Company’s Coal Porter.

They host a lot of weddings here. The staff is very friendly, very busy and very efficient. Our server, Muriel, has been here since the center opened eight years ago. She told us a funny story about Carol’s cooking. She cooks all the vegetables, creates the sauces and loves to use brown sugar. When the staff sees Carol grabbing the brown sugar, they ask, “Are you Carolizing that dish?”

Alison Leach, who does all sorts of jobs here from bartending to serving, came upstairs to answer some of our food questions. And Marlies, the manager, makes us feel right at home.

While we always enjoy our meals here, it’s the music in the gorgeous old barn that will draw you back to Brownfield often. My only disappointment is that Stone Mountain is not closer to home, because we’d be able to get there a whole lot more.

Old Saco Inn

I love a place where you can go to breakfast in your slippers. We slipped quietly out of our second-floor room, early on Saturday morning, to write our column in the Old Saco Inn’s lovely sitting room, just off the dining room. The sitting room features comfortable wicker chairs, a gas fireplace, gorgeous chests and nice old wooden floors.

I’d had to cancel a turkey hunt scheduled for that day, in order to do the travel column visit, and felt a bit sorry for myself until we got here. Arriving about 4:30 p.m. Friday, we were stunned as we drove up the long winding gravel driveway to enter through lighted stone gates. I spotted kayaks and canoes stored along the river, ready for use by guests, and stopped the Subaru before we passed through the stone gates to jump out and take photos. This place is beautiful!

And, as seems to happen so often to us, we discovered another couple who define hospitality in our state. Pete and Sandi MacLachlan purchased the inn two years ago, initially arriving 12 years ago from South Africa to travel the United States as software consultants. They “wanted to try something new while we still had the energy,” said Sandi, and focused their search for an inn on New England, with a specific list of attributes. They found them all at the Old Saco Inn. It was an excellent choice.

The inn is isolated in a gorgeous and quiet setting, but very close to Fryeburg, the White Mountains and the shopping destination of North Conway, N.H. It made me think of one of my favorite T-shirts at Stone Mountain Arts Center: “SMAC in the middle of nowhere. But plenty close to somewhere!”

There are three rooms in the main building that also houses their restaurant, library and sitting room, and six suites in a separate building. We’d had trouble finding a room at the places we usually stay in this area because it was Columbus Day weekend, and Carol at Stone Mountain recommended we try the Old Saco Inn. We were very lucky to get the last room that night, a small bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. Next time we’ll plan well ahead and try one of their suites, which are spacious and beautiful.

Pete has a wonderful sense of humor and Sandi is an energetic and very friendly host as well. They do it all here, from mowing the lawn to cleaning the rooms. Sandi cooks breakfasts while Pete does the serving. Sandi also cooked all the meals for the inn’s dinner service for the first year until they got so busy they hired a chef, Mark Kunick.

They serve dinner on Friday and Saturday nights year-round, with a very interesting approach: one appetizer, two entrees and one dessert, all of which change every weekend. They always have options for vegetarians and others with specific dietary needs, including gluten-free dishes, and draw lots of locals who have come to appreciate this special place in their midst.

Linda

We just happened to have had the perfect fall afternoon for our drive to western Maine, passing through Sweden and Lovell. The bright blue sky put the brilliant foliage in its best light. The closer we got to New Hampshire’s mountains the more intense the colors got.

But we got our biggest surprise when we started up the Old Saco Inn driveway. It’s long winding road passed by stately trees until we came to the opening, where we saw the impressive lodge and stone carriage house. Manicured lawns, fruit trees and a gated entrance were set off by a white fence. It’s a dramatic entrance to the property, and I’m sure most guests feel as transported to a peaceful place as we did.

Entering the inn, incredible aromas wafted from the kitchen as they prepared for Friday night’s dinner service. Both George and I regretted not having made a reservation for dinner.

The two story open dining room was both charming and inviting. There is a screened-in porch for dining in the summertime, but in the fall they move the tables in to accommodate 40 people for Friday and Saturday night dinners.

Chatting with owners Sandi and Pete was such a pleasure, not only to hear their story but also to listen to their wonderful South African accent. Pete took time from setting up the bar to give us a quick tour. They did a lot of painting and freshening up of the rooms and have redecorated the inn with stunning pieces of furniture and art they brought with them from South Africa.

We did some writing before breakfast Saturday morning and met a couple up from Texas on their first visit to Maine. They were touring New England for a foliage tour and were clearly impressed with its beauty. Shortly after, while I was getting coffee, a woman started talking to me and said she was from Texas. I asked her if she’d met the other people from Texas staying here. It turns out that they were all from Houston! I introduced them and a great connections were made.

I awoke to the smell of bacon around 6:30 that morning, and that is not a bad way to start the day. Sandi stated that the morning’s breakfast was Apple Pie Stuffed French Toast, sausage, bacon and fresh fruit. Talk about being pampered. I have to say that was the best French toast I have ever eaten!

The inn is a short 20 minutes from the Stone Mountain Arts Center and even closer to North Conway. What a gem this inn is!

Conclusion

At breakfast, we heard one guest tell Pete, “Man, traffic in North Conway was wicked last night.” Pete replied, “Well, there are some big hotels there.” To which the guest replied, “Well, we like it here.” Of course!

At the next table, a young lady told her husband, “I wish we could stay here another night.” Us, too!

Celtic music

We have had quite a year being entertained by Celtic music. And what I have learned from this is that there is a great variety in the styles of Celtic music. At the Bangor Folk Festival, Skye Theater, the Old Train Station in Phillips, the Waterville Opera House and Stone Mountain, we’ve encountered some amazingly talented people.

Groups from Ireland introduced us to the sounds of tin whistles and Irish Pipes. Acadian groups ranged from more mellow folk tunes (sung in both French and English), to rock- style fiddler. French-Canadian Maine groups are holding onto their heritage through beautiful music as well.

All of these groups have unbelievably gifted musicians from drummers and fiddlers to double bass, mandolin and bagpipe players. We hope you will look for an opportunity to experience this music for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

A nice surprise on the way home was the Pietree Orchard in Sweden. We stopped to pick some apples and were astonished by the store featuring everything from wood-fired pizzas to greeting cards. We ended up with several bags of apples, focaccia bread and, of course, George had to have one of their pumpkin whoopee pies.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.


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