FORTUNATE QUIRKS OF geography have saved both the region of western Maine from Bethel to Fryeburg and the area from the New Hampshire border to the Waterfords from condo developers and the tourism industry. Most travelers passing through, usually on Routes 2 or 302, are hustling from the tourist meccas of coastal Maine to those […]
FORTUNATE QUIRKS OF geography have saved both the region of western Maine from Bethel to Fryeburg and the area from the New Hampshire border to the Waterfords from condo developers and the tourism industry. Most travelers passing through, usually on Routes 2 or 302, are hustling from the tourist meccas of coastal Maine to those near North Conway. They barely slow down to enjoy the scenery. Too bad: Rolling hills, granite balds, cold and deep lakes, and unassuming villages give the Oxford Hills a magical, remote feel.
Seeing the region doesn’t require extended car travel — it’s more a matter of getting there, then staying put or traveling about by foot. Try to visit during the world-famous (well, nearly) Fryeburg Fair in early October, a quintessential country fair of the highest order. If your timing doesn’t work out, don’t worry. The region’s quiet attractions still hold plenty of allure.
This trip begins in Gray and concentrates on the Oxford Hills and Lakes region. We guarantee lots of vistas, a spectacular drive through Evans Notch, and the easiest hike with a real payoff at the top.
From the Maine Turnpike (I-95), take exit 63 (formerly exit 11) to Gray and pick up Route 26, the sometimes scenic, sometimes not, traffic backbone of the area. If you are an animal lover or are traveling with children, don’t miss the Maine Wildlife Park. What started in 1931 as a farm to raise pheasants for release during bird-hunting season has evolved into a haven for orphaned and injured wildlife.
Managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a group of devoted volunteers, the park maintains both natural habitats for the animals as well as several nature trails, offers education programs, and has a gift shop run by the Maine Audubon Society. On our visit we saw bears, a big-antlered moose tucked safely in his hut, fishers, coyotes, peacocks, wild turkeys, a mountain lion, raccoons, and a wonderful selection of birds of prey, including barred and great horned owls, bald eagles, and kestrels. Many picnic tables are available under the shade of tall pines, and snacks are sold in the little shop.
The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community and Museum is just eight miles north of Gray. At this, the last active Shaker community, harvest is the ideal time to visit. The air is filled with the sweet smell of their famous herbs drying in the autumn sun. Tours of the 17 white-clapboard buildings are available. You’ll learn about the history of the Shakers and the Englishwoman Ann Lee who founded this religious sect in 1775. We got a start on holiday shopping in the store that sells Shaker crafts (we doubt you’ll be able to pass up the lovely oval boxes), furniture, herbs, baked goods, and fudge.
As you drive along Route 26 north, you’ll see stretches dotted with mobile and modular homes, some rural poverty, and stunning views of foliage in the Oxford Hills. Agriculture is vital to this part of Maine, and the countryside reflects it with working farms and farm stands, where you’ll find maple syrup, homemade ice cream, baked goods, cheeses, jams, and even bison meat.
If you’re hungry, drive north into West Paris and stop in at Hungry Hollow Country Store (on the right, six miles from Market Square). Well worth the drive. Here homemade goodies abound: soups, sandwiches (lobster rolls always available through foliage season), baked beans, and Indian pudding are favorites. Eat in the six-seat store, at tables outside, or head up the road about one-half mile to the Snow Falls rest area on the left for a picnic.
One last great view before calling it a (full) day: Paris Hill. Backtrack on 26 to South Paris and look for the sign to Paris Hill, a road that climbs to a ridge top. In the distance to the west, enjoy views of the White Mountains. Up close there are beautiful 19th-century buildings and the old stone Oxford County Jail, which now houses the Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum.
Some options for tonight’s lodging in Waterford follow. The Maine experience is writ large at the Center Lovell Inn, from the rustle of the white pines in the morning breeze to the call of the loon in the evening. In 1993, the former owners of the inn ran an essay contest, and out of 5,000 entries, Janice Cox won the contest and the inn. With the help of Janice’s mom, Harriett Sage, and Harriett’s husband, Earle, Janice has received great reviews for her innkeeping and dinners. Some guest rooms are in the main house, and five are in the adjacent Harmon House. Dinner at the Center Lovell Inn is available to the public by reservation only, so be sure to call ahead if you’re interested in stopping there for a bite to eat.
Another good choice is the Waterford Inne, a classic country inn. Waterford, and especially the National Historic District known as Waterford Flat, is a pretty 19th-century period piece that shouldn’t be missed. The Waterford Inne, a farmhouse complete with red barn and pond, is tucked away on a country lane surrounded by fields and woods. The atmosphere is warm and comfortable with a hint of elegance. The best part of all is that you don’t have to leave for dinner — as long as you give them advance notice — and you’ll find the meal delicious.
If you’re staying elsewhere, but want to visit Waterford, consider dining at the Lake House. The food is elegant, and white linen and fresh flowers grace the tables. Don’t hurry this experience, because chefs and owners Allyson and Donald Johnson are going to prepare your gourmet meal to order. They have seven rooms in the nicely restored inn, which was built in 1797 as the first tavern in Waterford.
Not far, at the junction of Routes 5 and 35, travelers encounter one of New England’s most famous road signs. Arrows indicate mileage to some exotic-sounding Maine towns: Denmark, Naples, Sweden, Paris, Mexico, Norway, and a few others. Nearby Melby’s Market and Eatery serves up local gossip and good food.
Head north on Routes 5 and 35 to Bethel, the well-known ski town that is home to Sunday River. The views include Evans Notch, one of the region’s most dramatic mountain passes. If you’re getting anxious for a covered bridge, continue driving north about five miles toward Newry. Bear left on Sunday River Road, and right onto Skiway Road. Spanning the Sunday River is Artist’s Covered Bridge, so named because of its attractiveness to many 19th-century landscape painters.
From Bethel, drive west on Route 2 to Gilead. We stopped at G&T Country Store for inexpensive sandwiches: egg salad, grilled cheese, and tuna. We passed up the freshly made lemon meringue pie and regretted it all afternoon. They also sell homemade biscuits. This local lunch counter is the spot to stock up on sandwiches, water, snacks, and juice before heading into the White Mountain National Forest.
Today is devoted to a hike in the White Mountain foothills. Hikes can range from a half-hour stroll along a river to a demanding nine-hour march up and across rugged granite ridges. If you are not in the mood for a strenuous day, just find a pull-off, safe from logging trucks, and pick your way along the big rocks along the Wild River. (We could have spent all day in the shallow riverbed.)
The region’s best hiking is along the northern stretch of Route 113, which bisects the Evans Notch area of the White Mountain National Forest (a narrow two-lane road, closed during the winter). These leafy woodlands along the valley floor are uncommonly well-endowed with streams and tumbling waterfalls. The ridges, which run to about 3,000 feet (less than half Mount Washington’s height), afford remarkable views stretching from Lake Sebago to the towering Presidential Range, which is often dusted with snow by early autumn.
One terrific hiking trip of medium difficulty, suitable for both novices and experienced hikers, is East Royce Mountain. The round-trip requires two to three hours, depending on your vigor and inclination to dawdle streamside along the way.
Heading south on 113, the East Royce trailhead will be on your right (marked with a small U.S. Forest Service sign fronting an unpaved 20-car parking lot). The 1.5-mile hike (one-way) begins with a gentle ramble along Royce Brook then heads upward, becoming more strenuous as you approach the summit. The trail is well-marked but rugged in spots. The best views of the notch — and the entire eastern range of the White Mountains — open up on a series of ledges about a quarter mile below the summit. Enjoy a picnic lunch, then retrace your steps back to your car.
Several other excellent hikes, including those in the wild Caribou-Speckled Wilderness Area, are easily accessible from Route 113. They’re detailed in a free list of area hikes published by the White Mountain National Forest. Revive yourself with ice cream and baked goods at the Stow Corner Store & Bakery in Stow.
Prepare to slow way down as you drive through North Fryeburg. Pretty farms give way to rolling hills in a land that reveals why this area was settled long before other parts of Maine. Known to locals as “the intervale,” rich soil in this floodplain produces bountiful crops of potatoes, sweet and field corn, beans, and squash. Now it makes sense that the state’s largest agricultural fair is held in Fryeburg.
Apart from the fair, Fryeburg doesn’t wear its attractions on its sleeve. This town of 3,000 boasts a few small stores and a well-regarded preparatory school but hasn’t gussied itself up much. Although Fryeburgers drive to the malls of North Conway, New Hampshire, for groceries and supplies (avoiding Maine’s 5 percent general sales tax — lodging and restaurants are taxed at 7 percent), the town still has the brisk, prosperous feel of a former center of commerce that has aged with dignity.
If you can manage, plan your trip to include the Fryeburg Fair (it is always held Sunday to Sunday and includes the first Wednesday in October). The fairgrounds are on Route 5 North, but don’t worry about finding it; just follow the traffic. The fair, with 300,000 in annual attendance, is an unvarnished New England classic. It’s held by and for people who take livestock, vegetables, and fresh-baked pies seriously. Very seriously.
Take plenty of time to wander the fairgrounds. Small arenas, both indoors and out, are typically filled with Mainers who wear their best American Gothic expressions when watching the goat judging and horse pulls. About the only sign of gentrification is the presence of llamas, which, like pigs and cattle, are judged with a critical eye.
Permanent expo halls are arrayed with produce and baked goods, all awaiting the sharp eye of the judges. Zucchinis the size of a leg occupy some tables; jars of pickles and extraordinary pies bedeck others. For city dwellers, the most intriguing exhibit may be the poultry, which come in an exotic variety of remarkable plumages.
For lunch: fried dough, of course, dusted with powdered sugar. For just this one day, forget everything your doctor told you about fats.
If your tolerance for crowds is thin or you’re visiting when the fairgrounds are vacant, consider an afternoon canoe trip on the Saco River. The Saco winds lazily through farmlands and pine forests from the White Mountains to the Maine coast. The segment from just west of Fryeburg to northeast of town — a peaceful stretch with prominent sandbars for picnicking — is among the most crowded on midsummer weekends. By fall, however, the hordes (and the insects) have departed and views of vibrant distant hills are unrivaled. Saco River Canoe & Kayak, Inc., rents out canoes, kayaks, and river tubes and can arrange a shuttle back to your car. Reservations are essential during the foliage season.
Ready to call it a day? Depending on your budget and inclination, choose accommodations in Fryeburg, or for lake views, Bridgton or Naples.
In Fryeburg, the Oxford House Inn on Main Street offers four rooms in a 1913 Edwardian. The gardens are lovely, and the mountain view from the breakfast room can’t be beat. Dine (on what might be called “country haute cuisine”) at their popular restaurant, which is open to the public. The Morrises know food, and it shows. We had a delicious breakfast prepared by Phyllis: fresh-from-the-oven scones, pancakes with wild Maine blueberries, eggs, crisp bacon, and very good coffee.
In Bridgton, the Noble House B&B, run by Cindi Hooper, has nine guest rooms furnished with antiques. Across the road they have a private beach on Highland Lake, where a canoe awaits. If you are an antiques buff, don’t miss Bridgton. In the past few years, the town has attracted numerous shops. If antiques aren’t what you’re looking for, try one of our favorite shops, Craftworks, in the Upper Village. Their extensive inventory (pottery, clothes, books, toys, and local crafts) fills a former church and two other buildings.
In Naples, the Augustus Bove House is an 1820 Colonial that was Hotel Naples from 1850 to 1939. The guest register includes opera star Enrico Caruso, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Howard Hughes. Here you’ll find nice views of Long Lake.
Another fine B&B is Lamb’s Mill Inn, an 1890s farmhouse on 20 acres; fields, woods, and perennial gardens surround this treasure.
Next the tour moves into New Hampshire, but before leaving the area, get your blood moving with a short hike up Jockey Cap. This climb to the top takes about 10 minutes and affords breathtaking views of the White Mountains and local lakes. Look for the Jockey Cap Motel on Route 302; tucked between this and a small general store, there is a little white wooden arch. This is the entrance to the path; take the right fork, then left. If children are with you, be sure to leave time to scramble on the huge boulders at the head of the trail. At the rocky summit, a bronze marker designed by Arctic explorer Admiral Peary identifies the view.
If you are continuing our foliage bonanza, head west on Route 302 into New Hampshire.