Belfast: Maine’s Up-and-Coming Secret Little Spot

Every now and then things just work out, don’t they?
Belfast, MaineCase in point: when we began looking into a trip to the mid-coast of Maine last winter, we immediately gravitated toward those places that everyone talks about: Rockland, Camden, Bar Harbor, Acadia. And once you get to looking around and doing your research you’ll see exactly why those places are some of the most popular. It’s a flat-out beautiful, beautiful area – and each of those places is the very picture of postcard-perfect Maine. We spent hours upon hours going from website to website looking for places in the area to rent for a week, and our excitement continued to build with each click.

Then it happened.

We started making phone calls. And sending emails. And trying to book reservations. And our excitement quickly turned to frustration.

It was our own fault, though. And we knew it. In planning our visit we happened to pick what has to be the busiest, most popular, and most expensive week to visit Maine all summer: the first week of August. And time and time again each of our requests for reservations was met with the same response: sorry, we’re full. Nothing available. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

And this was back in February.
Belfast, MaineAfter several days of trying and countless visits to countless property rental websites we finally stumbled across a place that seemed to fit the bill. Mid-coast Maine. On the water. Away from town. Giddyup. And the $1100-per-week rental fee was a bargain compared to just about everything else we looked at. So we rushed to book it before anyone else beat us to it.

Only thing that concerned us was the house was in an area we hadn’t heard much about… still there in the thick of the mid-coast action to be sure, just a stone’s throw south of a little town called Belfast. Trouble was, we surfed the web and did some more research and looked at lots of pics, but still didn’t really get a good sense of the place. So you can imagine six months later when we finally rolled into town we were more than a little curious, and even a bit nervous.

And it didn’t take long for us to realize we’d stumbled on a gem.

Belfast: Maine’s Next Big Little Town?
Belfast, MaineCome to find out, though Belfast is relatively new to the tourism scene (at least compared with its more well-known neighbors) it’s getting noticed more and more and more with each passing year. It sits on Highway 1 on the route between two of the area’s most popular tourist towns, Camden and Bar Harbor. For many years, Belfast was little more than one of those places that you’d drive through to get from point A to point B. And historically, there’s been a good reason for that. Even the folks we talked to who have lived in Belfast for many many years told us that back in the day, Belfast wasn’t exactly the sort of place you wanted to stop in for a weekend getaway. And it certainly didn’t have a place on the same stage as its tourist-magnet neighbors.

Seems to be that’s because since it was established, Belfast was considered more a hub of industrial and corporate activity rather than a getaway destination. It thrived as a shipbuilding and fishing town in its early days, then a shoe manufacturing center, and more recently it was the site of two of Maine’s largest poultry processing facilities. So, yeah. Not exactly the kind of place you’d want to take the fam on vacation. And when the bottom fell out of the economy in the 1970s, the processing facilities shut down, folks left Belfast in droves to look  for work elsewhere, and the town fell into sharp decline.

“It was the kind of place you didn’t want to visit, unless you were looking for a bar fight,” we were told by one of the long-time locals.
Belfast, MaineBut even in the midst of its toughest, darkest days, a revolution was quietly taking place. The spaces left empty by the exodus of laborers were slowly and colorfully filled by artists, young people and folks who began to recognize the town’s potential as a tourist destination. Belfast’s economy got a new shot in the arm in the early ’90s when banking giant MBNA opened a couple of large facilities in town… and the town suddenly found itself heading in a new and exciting direction.

But even as we walked through town a few weeks ago and talked with some of the locals we definitely got the sense that the town’s transformation still isn’t quite complete. Belfast finds itself at an interesting crossroads. There are many in town – mostly long-time locals – who see the ever-growing of influx of visitors every summer and long for the good ol’ quiet days of yesteryear. But clearly those voices are being overtaken by those who see a bright future for Belfast as a destination town, and welcome visitors with big smiles and open arms.

So what does all that mean? Easy. It’s the perfect time to visit. Belfast is a great little tourist town that hasn’t yet become a tourist town, if that makes any sense. It’s what most of the area’s more popular towns must have looked and felt like before they made it big. That’s a very good thing.
Belfast, MaineAs much as anything, the best thing about Belfast is its geographic location. It’s right there on the upper northwestern reaches of Penobscot Bay so it’s ideal for many types of water-based recreation: sailing, kayaking, etc. And it’s perfectly situated among Maine’s still-more popular destination towns (like Camden and Bar Harbor) which are a quick and pretty drive away. Fewer crowds. Great location. Great vibe.

We spent several peaceful, restful days in and around Belfast and honestly didn’t get out to experience a fraction of what there is to do and see in the area. But we did manage to break away from our waterfront rental house long enough to hit a few of the local hotspots. So with that in mind, here’s our list of five things to check out when you’ve got a day to spend:


Belfast, MaineDowntown Belfast:
The heart of the city is definitely beating to an upbeat, vibrant tune. Certainly a far cry from those dark days of not-so-long-ago. It’s easy to spend hours walking through the dozens of colorful shops in the downtown area, from its cafes to its bookstores to its art galleries to its dry goods stores. It’s also home to the oldest  shoe store in the United States, Colburn Shoe Store, which has been operated by the same family since it was founded in 1832(!) and has been operating in its present location there at 79 Main Street since 1905. Crazy. As much a museum as it is a shoe store. And the overall shopping experience is complimented by a regular stream of artsy-cool events, like Belfast’s Friday Night Art Walk, and funky pieces made by local artists that are scattered among the sidewalks for everyone to enjoy. Neat stuff.

Rollies: Rollies is a local sports bar/dive restaurant where you can really soak up the local flavor as you, well, soak up the local flavors. From what we’re told it used to be one of those rough-and-tumble places that outsiders didn’t necessarily want to stumble in to – and it’s still very much a local hangout – but these days anyone is welcome, and they cater to locals, tourists, families, everybody. The atmosphere is laid back, the TVs are big and plentiful, the beer is cold and the grub is tasty. Two things to keep in mind though: the service is  painfully sssssllllllooooooooowwww, and don’t call it “Rollies” as in “RAWL-lees.” It’s pronounced Roll-ees. As in “let the good times roll.” We made that mistake, and they pegged us for outsiders from the get-go.


Belfast, MaineYoung’s Lobster:
Yep. Face it. You’re not gonna visit the great state of Maine without diving into its signature dish. And nowhere – we mean nowhere – is the lobster more fresh and plentiful than Young’s Lobster Pound, which is just a quick drive across the river to East Belfast. Here you can literally watch the lobster boats pull right up to the dock, talk to the fishermen as they unload and weigh their catch, and order your meal pretty much right off the boat. We at first thought it might be one of those touristy lobster spots (which are plentiful up and down the coast), but we spoke with several Mainers – including a group who made the drive down from Bangor – who told us that Young’s is indeed the real deal when it comes to Maine lobster. And clams. And scallops. And crab. And halibut. And the list goes on and on. It’s very no-frills and very, very tasty. Don’t pass up a chance to nosh here.


Belfast, MaineBelfast Harbor and Harborwalk:
 We’re from Central Texas – hours from the coast – so go ahead and call us landlubbers. We won’t mind. And because we’re landlubbers, we “lub” exploring these little places by the sea (sorry, couldn’t resist). And Belfast has a colorful little harbor that is sure to charm. You can walk along the docks and admire the sailboats and lobsterboats and all other manner of boats and ships and dinghys, or you can just sit on the shore and admire the view. Lucky for us, when we were in town Belfast was playing host to the tall ship HMS Bounty – a replica of the actual Bounty of mutiny fame, built for the 1962 flick starring Marlon Brando. We even got to go on board and take a tour and see how those hearty sailors lived and worked in days of yore. Cool stuff. And it seems they’ve got cool stuff happening in and around the harbor all season long (we missed the big Belfast Harborfest celebration by a few days unfortunately). And no stroll along the harbor would be complete without a stroll along the still-being-developed Harborwalk, which takes you to the recently-restored footbridge across the Passaagassawaukeag River (which we still dont’ know how to pronounce). There you can lean against the railing, watch the water and the fish go by beneath you, and soak in some picture-perfect views of town.

The Drive: As we mentioned, Belfast is perfectly situated to be your base camp for exploring the gorgeous mid-coast of Maine. So go ahead, take a day, get in the car, and go exploring. From Rockland to Camden to Belfast, all the way around to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. It’s all within an hour or two’s drive and the scenery is just beautiful (though the roads are narrow and can get a bit crowded). Check out the amazing Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory in Bucksport. Very cool. Go for a hike in Camden Hills State Park. Or stop and pick yourself some fresh blueberries at any one of a number of farms and fruit stands.
Belfast, MaineAgain, there’s so much more to do and see in and around Belfast… but to be perfectly honest, the best thing… our most favorite thing… the reason we wanted to visit the coast of Maine more than any other… was the peace of sitting on the porch of our waterfront rental house doing absolutely nothing for a few days. Sitting there quietly, watching through binoculars at the sailboats going by, or the lobstermen checking their traps. Walking along the rocky coast in front of the house at low tide as the morning fog quietly lifted each day. Laying on the porch, reading a book and listening to the waves roll in. Sleeping with the windows open at night and letting that cool breeze fill the house.

Bliss.

They call Maine “Vacationland.” And that, friends, is exactly what we found it to be.

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One Comment

  1. I was there, but it seems like a lovely, lazy dream. Thank you for letting us tag along!

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