It’s easy to love a Maine coastal town in the summertime. Warm days, fresh ocean breezes and the sun glinting on the water go a long way toward making everyone, local and visitor alike, feel good.
But winter, with its snow, and ice, and long, dark nights, when the trees lose their leaves and Mainers are bundled up to the nose, is somehow when a community’s true warmth shines through.
Nowhere is that more true than in Belfast, a small city with a big heart and personality to spare. And even though it has reinvented itself more than once in recent memory, its spirit hasn’t changed. A couple of generations ago, Belfast was a blue-collar factory town that processed chickens and made shoes.
Locals remember when tiny Bayview Street was down-at-the-heels housing for poultry workers, and when Belfast Bay was so full of processing byproducts that no one would swim in it, except, legend had it, for the sharks drawn here by the smell of chicken.
But times have changed. An influx of back-to-the-landers in the 1970s to Waldo County helped to usher in a new era for Belfast, one that was characterized by progressive values, liberal politics and a flourishing of local businesses such as the Belfast Co-op. When credit card giant MBNA came to town in the 1990s, it helped spruce up the waterfront, tearing down industrial buildings and leaving a legacy of green space in its wake.
The city’s path to progress has had twists and turns, of course. There have been economic dips here and there and some notable battles that have left, or may leave, scars. The early 2000s fight over whether the city should allow big box stores comes to mind. So does the current debate over a Norwegian company’s plan to build a large land-based salmon farm near the city’s southern edge.
That passion, though, is a big part of what makes the city so special. So is the quirkiness and eccentricity that seem as much a part of the community as its gracious brick downtown buildings and the picturesque footbridge over the Passagassawakeag River. Where else can a person grab a drum and join city leaders in the Drum & Rabble Corps, which assembles every New Year’s Eve to march down Main Street to the bonfire by the bay? Or spend time in a place that has embraced the nickname “Moonbat City”?
Only in Belfast, which is worth the trip in all seasons.
With two popular trails built in the last decade or so, Belfast is a walking city in any season. You can stroll from the Armistice Footbridge all the way to the Belfast Boat House on the Harbor Walk. The path takes you right through the action at the Front Street Shipyard and will pass by French & Webb boatbuilders, where restorers this fall are launching a multi-year effort to bring the presidential yacht Sequoia back to its former glory.
Walkers with an eye toward nature can take the two-plus mile Belfast Rail Trail from the footbridge to the City Point Station, part of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad. Along the way, you might see an American bald eagle, osprey or just the scenic views of the Passagassawakeag River, locally known as “The Passy.”
If you think you have spotted an elephant on the downtown skyline, you’re not wrong. The city also boasts the Art Deco-style Colonial Theatre on High Street, complete with a life-size elephant, “Hawthorne,” trumpeting from its roof. The eye-catching theater shows the best of Hollywood, independent and foreign films on three screens year round. For information, visit colonialtheatre.com or call 207-338-1930.
Art lovers have a number of downtown galleries to peruse, including Parent Fine Art at 92 Main St. That’s where photographer Neal Parent and his daughter, artist Joanne Parent, showcase her luminous sea and landscapes, his fine art photographs and the work of other artists, too. For information, visit Parent Fine Art on Facebook. There’s also Waterfall Arts, the most comprehensive community art center in Waldo County, which offers art classes, exhibitions, events, performances, public art projects and more. From Dec. 6-22, the Clifford Gallery will host the center’s eighth annual Handmade show, featuring a curated collection of unique handmade goods and artwork.
Belfast is a hot spot for the farm-to-table movement and boasts not one but two weekly farmers markets. There’s the Belfast Farmers’ Market, held in the winter months from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays in the greenhouse at Aubuchon Hardware on 231 Northport Ave., which features many small local growers, bakers and craftspeople. Then there is the United Farmers Market of Maine, open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays at 18 Spring St., which features producers, craftspeople, bakers and many types of ready-to-eat food.
Eat and drink
Moonbat City Baking Co. is a small, from-scratch bakery that might mix a little magic in with the butter, eggs and flour. Chef Michelle Berry makes perhaps the best croissant this side of France, and has an equally strong game for her cookies, crostatas, pastries, tarts, muffins and more. It’s open Thursday through Monday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 137 Main St.
For almost 20 years, Belfast has been blessed by the presence of Chase’s Daily, a family-owned farm-to-table vegetarian restaurant, bakery, coffee shop, produce market, art gallery and more in the historic Oddfellows Hall on upper Main Street. Try the Friday night table-service dinners, Sunday brunches or anything the kitchen whips up during the rest of the week. At 96 Main St.
A visit to the city might not feel complete without a stop at Rollie’s Bar and Grill, an often-crowded, lively eatery with rib-sticking food, a full bar and friendly waitstaff. This is the place to come to watch a game on TV and relax with friends. Try the inventive burger specials and hand-cut fries. At 37 Main St.
Another place where locals love to unwind is the Front Street Pub, which boasts a game room, pub food and, occasionally, fried fiddleheads — try them if you see them. At 37 Front St.
DelVino’s Grill & Pasta House, with its brick walls, classic Italian menu and elegant lighting, is a great place for a date night or special celebration. Try the mushroom sacchetti pasta or any of the pizzettes. At 52 Main St.
Darby’s Restaurant is another local favorite, with a full bar, a from-scratch kitchen and a welcoming environment. Try the beet salad, the pad Thai and the Scottish Toffee Pudding Cake. At 155 High St.
Neighborhood has become the place to go for inventive, tasty dishes and drinks. Try the soup special, the herb-dusted fries, beef short ribs and any of the craft cocktails. At 132 High St.
Like cider? You’ll love Perennial Cider Bar, likely the first dedicated cider bars in New England. Try a flight to see what you like and augment with locally-sourced small plates, including deviled eggs and a meat and cheese board. At 84 Main St.
The Belfast Co-op is the oldest co-op in the state, is a downtown fixture. Come here for local color as well as bulk foods, deli specials, local produce, house-made sausages, organic cleaning supplies, vegan cheeses, fresh spices, dietary supplements and much more. At 123 High St.
For 30 years, Coyote Moon has been a downtown mainstay and where people come to add color and vibrancy to their wardrobe and musical chimes, bells and candles to their homes. It’s also a great resource for cards, gifts, inspirational books and more. At 54 Main St.
The Green Store, which describes itself as a general store for the 21st century, is the place to buy composting toilets, toxic-free paints and sweatshop-free clothing. And that’s just scratching the surface of the eclectic goods found within. At 71 Main St.
For those who would like to feel continental, Eat More Cheese is the place. Here, you can find cheeses, wines, cured meats, Spanish marcona almonds and other treats that seem to bring the world to Belfast. At 94 Main St.
The Nightfall Inn on the east side of town takes its name and some of its inspiration from one of the house’s previous incarnations as an inn and boarding house that opened on the then-new U.S. Route 1 in the 1920s. The small bed-and-breakfast combines old-fashioned charm with modern comforts, including beds with hybrid memory foam and spring mattresses. Homemade breakfasts include made-to-order eggs and such treats as stuffed pancakes served with real maple syrup. At 31 Searsport Ave., 207-231-2317.
With bay views, recently-renovated rooms, breakfast included and an indoor pool and fitness center, the Belfast Harbor Inn offers many amenities to travelers. At 91 Searsport Ave., 207-338-2740.
The Yankee Clipper Motel, a 1950s motel completely redesigned for the modern traveler, has newly remodeled rooms and is a great base for exploring Belfast and the midcoast. At 50 Searsport Ave., 207-338-2353.
The pet-friendly Fireside Inn & Suites features Penobscot Bay views from every room, the Ocean’s Edge restaurant, indoor heated mineral pool and hot tub and includes hot breakfasts. At 159 Searsport Ave., 207-338-2090.
Belfast is a city that knows how to celebrate the seasons. The Belfast Area High School’s annual Festival of Trees and the city’s Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony have come and gone, but there’s also the Menorah Lighting ceremony that will take place at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at Post Office Square.
Finally, New Year’s By the Bay is a beloved local tradition, with music, dance, food and more at various downtown locations. It’s capped off with a late-night parade to the harbor, where a midnight bonfire will be lit, providing the perfect festive end to one year and start to another.