Just when I think I’ve got a handle on all the wonders of Maine, something new pops up on my radar that begs to be explored. Frankly, that’s one of the best parts about living in Maine. There is always something new to discover. My most recent adventure took me to the northwestern mountain region of the state and the Carrabassett Valley area, about two hours west of Bangor. I had a weekend to explore with my tiny dog Chiclet in tow, along with a friend and her own tiny dog.
As a region, Maine’s northwestern mountains include small towns like Eustis, Carrabassett Valley and Kingfield. And, of course, there are the region’s mountains — including Bigelow, Saddleback and Sugarloaf, which are among the 10 mountains greater than 4,000 feet (there are only four other mountains in Maine with this distinction). The region also has hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, bicycling and ATV trails galore. Plus, it’s the only place in the country two major recreational trails intersect — the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and the Appalachian Trail.
There’s more, a lot more, too — art galleries, gift shops, museums, historical sites and cultural attractions. In fact, so much more it was impossible to see and do it all in a single weekend. So let’s break it down.
As luck would have it, we arrived in Kingfield just in time for the village’s monthly art walk, held from 5pm to 7:30pm on the first Friday of every month from November to May. The participants and entertainment lineup changes month to month, but you can be sure to experience local art, craft, music, poetry, food and beverages along Kingfield’s short Main Street and several side streets. Don’t worry if your travels are not on an art walk night since those businesses and galleries are open during the day to welcome you.
Kingfield is smack in the middle of ski country, so it makes sense it’s home to the Ski Museum of Maine (256 Main Street, www.skimuseumofmaine.org/) which pays homage to all things alpine and nordic ski-related in the state. Permanent exhibits include replicas of a ski shop featuring vintage tools used in the early days of ski manufacturing, a children’s corner with displays of early toys and ski-related items and a display devoted to the World War II’s skiing 10th Mountain division. The museum is also home to the Maine Ski Hall of Fame, founded in 2003, which to-date has inducted more than 100 men and women who have made major contributions to the state’s skiing and snowboarding culture.
The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 4pm. Private tours may also be arranged Mondays through Fridays by emailing executivedirector@skimuseumofmaine.
Learning about skiing in Maine is one thing, seeing it in practice is another. So we took the half-hour drive up Route 27 to one of the state’s premier outdoor recreation destinations — Sugarloaf Mountain (5092 Sugarloaf Access Road, https://www.sugarloaf.com/), a one-stop shop for all things outdoor recreation in Maine.
On the day we stopped in, it was overcast and a bit dreary, but that was not keeping folks from hitting the slopes. The sky might have been grey, but on the ground it was a riot of colors between the people wearing bright ski outfits and the rows of vibrantly designed skis and snowboards leaning against any solid surface that would support them.
Walking into the resort’s main lodge, we were greeted by a cheerful Sugarloaf representative asking if we needed directions or assistance. After chatting briefly with him, my friend and I — and our tiny dogs — headed up a flight of outdoor stairs to the main shopping and food center.
There we found everything a person could need for apres ski relaxation and dining as well as shops selling ski gear and winter apparel for skiing and souvenirs. In the middle of the courtyard, there were happy families of skiers and ‘boarders sitting around a blazing fire sipping cocoa or coffee. As we stood outside near the firepit, we could look up and see overhead other skiers and snowboarders gliding along on the chairlift heading out for a run down one of the mountain’s 60 trails, including the 3.5-mile Tote Road trail.
In the Downhill Supply Company Store (5092 Sugarloaf Access Road), I chatted with an employee about the newest craze to hit the mountain — Sno-Go ski biking. These full suspension rigs combine the best of cycling and downhill skiing into one awesome looking package. They have handlebars like a bicycle and skis — one in front, two in back — where the wheels would be. Instead of sitting, you stand on special foot boards as you carve your way down the mountain.
At Sugarloaf, the employee told me, you can rent and get lessons in using a ski bike before hitting the slopes. A certified guide is required to accompany everyone renting one of the ski bikes, even if you have had the lessons. This, the clerk told me, is being done to keep the skibikers on designated trails and to keep them from inadvertently riding into the paths of skiers or snowboards.
Heading back down the mountain, you can hang a left onto Route 27 for one of the state’s most scenic drives. For about 40 miles, the road weaves through pine forests with the Carrabassett River on your right. Along the way, you see the peaks of Maine’s tallest mountains, lakes and quite likely the state’s largest mammal — a moose. In fact, the large critters are considered a hazard along this particular stretch of road, so keep your eyes peeled and use caution.
The route ends in Coburn Gore, a tiny community on the Maine-Quebec border. It has one store with a gas station, a few houses and a port of entry between the United States and Canada.
Be sure to also check out the Stanley Museum (40 School Street, Kingfield) which showcases the lives and heritage of the Stanley family. Twin brothers Francis Edger Stanley and Freelan Oscar Stanley were the inventors and manufacturers of the famous Stanley Steamers, the original steam-operated motor vehicle, from 1902 to 1924. Carlton Stanley was a violin maker, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons and her daughter Dorthoy Emmons were accomplished photographers and painters.
The museum houses original examples of all their works, including four vintage Stanley Steamer automobiles.
My mother always said breakfast was the most important meal of the day. In the Carrabassett Valley region, one can heed her advice at the numerous spots to grab everything from a quick cup of coffee on the fly to a full scale hot breakfast featuring a menu heavy on locally sourced ingredients.
That’s exactly what we found at Orange Cat Cafe (329 Main Street, Kingfield). It’s a glorious mix of the region’s aforementioned eclectic, upcycling and locally sourced goods. Open daily, the cafe features freshly baked pastries, quiche, sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. Since I believe in doing my travel research, I tried both a cinnamon roll and the quiche-of-the day — cheese, tomatoes, spinach, sausage and asparagus — for breakfast. Both were outstanding as was the spiced hot chocolate made with rich, dark cocoa infused with cinnamon and cayenne pepper.
You can take out or eat in, and trust me, you want to eat in. You can relax on a couch or sit on upcycled hair salon seats — complete with the old fashioned hair dryers still attached — around a table. More often than not, the owner or her mom will come out and chat with customers. It’s colorful, quirky and among my new favorite places in Maine.
Speaking of local food, you want to try out Rolling Fatties (268 Main Street, Kingfield). Located in an old house, the atmosphere is casual and the vibe is funky. When we were there it was packed with locals, tourists and winter sports enthusiasts all enjoying the plump burritos, local craft beer and live music. We found two seats together at the bar and were immediately involved in lively conversations with the other people sitting nearby. It’s the kind of place in which you feel like a regular on your first visit.
I went for a flight of four Maine craft beers and a falafel fatty — locally made falafel, fresh lettuce, pickled onion, seasonal veggies and tzatziki sauce rolled up in a handmade burrito. My friend opted for the fish fatty with fried fresh Maine haddock, groats, black beans, fresh salsa and seasonal veggies. Both were massive and outstanding. Though, I will admit to being a bit taken aback when mine showed up oozing purple liquid — compliments of the beets inside.
If not for food allergies and a certain aversion to some possible ingredients, I would have gone for the Freedom Fatty — a burrito loaded with whatever strikes the chef’s fancy at that particular moment.
For a more formal, but equally welcoming atmosphere there is Longfellow’s Restaurant (247 Main Street, Kingfield). The menu has something for everyone, from wild mushroom ravioli scampi to bistro beef filet served with caramelized onions and a balsamic glaze to three-cheese haddock.
We went for an early dinner, opting to order from the appetizer menu since our appetites were light. We ended up getting the hot spinach dip served with fried tortilla chips and the AuCoin’s Appetizer — a platter of traditional Lebanese tabouli served with grilled naan flatbread and hummus. Portions were generous and more than enough to share and satisfy.
Looking for a quick, sweet treat? Check out the Eighty 8 Donut Cafe at Sugarloaf. The small cafe tucked into a corner near that blazing fire pit mentioned above has made-to-order mini donuts in just about any flavor combination you can think of. Maple glazed, chocolate glazed, vanilla glazed, topped with candies, cereals, fruit or nuts. If you can imagine it, Eighty 8 can create it with a donut.
Drop me down in a major metropolitan shopping center and I will likely leave empty handed and my credit cards intact. But plunk me down in any of Maine’s small towns where local goods line the shelves? Just take my money. I ended up leaving the region with hand painted towels, books, jewelry, clothing and several other hand-made items. I was struck by the opportunities to purchase “upcycled” goods at local art galleries and shops.
In the Red Barn Upcycled Market (253 Main Street, Kingfield), there were baskets with handles made from old ice tongs and vintage hand-operated drills, old wooden shipping crates turned into storage bins, vintage furniture with hand painted, whimsical designs, old bottles, handmade soaps and jewelry.
I also have to give a shout-out to owner Barbara Wiencek, who was three-for-three with her recommendations on where to grab a bite to eat in the area.
Across Main Street from Wiencek’s shop is the High Peaks Artisan Guild (245 Main Street, Kingfield) home to an array of locally created paintings, prints, photographs, glassware, pottery, carvings, jewelry and textiles in addition to a good selection of used books and antiques.
I was struck by the original paintings done on vintage wooden skis by local artist Patty Thomas, who creates unique nature scenes that can cover up to a half dozen of the old skis.
I had intended to just pop in and out of the shop to get an idea of what they offered, but an hour later I was still inside perusing the shelves and chatting with Thomas about the local art scene in the region.
While exploring the area we stayed at the Herbert Grand Hotel (246 Main Street, Kingfield). This is a hotel with a lot of history behind it. Built in the early part of the last century, it allegedly became a gathering place for somewhat nefarious politicians during the days of prohibition. These same politicians would entice their rivals with promises of alcohol and women and then threaten blackmail if they gave in to temptation.
Today there are no nefarious goings on at The Herbert Grand, which underwent a complete renovation in 2016. The rooms are large, clean, comfortable and — best of all — pet friendly. There is a pool table in the lobby free to play on across from the fireplace and large screen television. For better or for worse, it’s worth noting that it is the only TV in the entire building. I, for one, did not miss having a television in our room at all. There is plenty of off-street parking, too. There is also, allegedly, a resident ghost and the hotel is the only “certified haunted” hotel in the area. I am happy to report that my easily frightened self did not see any spectral shenanigans.
At Sugarloaf there are an array of lodging options including the signature Mountain Hotel and hundreds of condos for rent up and down the mountain. Sugarloaf’s website has a link to check availability and to book lodging.
For an intimate experience, check out The Inn on Winter’s Hill (38 Winter Hill Street, Kingfield). This romantic, Victorian inn is on the property of the original Winter mansion which at one time was the area’s medical clinic. In fact, many of today’s residents of the region were born there! It has since been converted into a 16-room inn.
You can enjoy high tea in the afternoon or order a cocktail featuring the inn’s signature “shrubs,” a vinegar-based drink using their own raw, organic apple cider vinegar infused with local honey. The inn also has a dining room featuring a full menu of locally sourced creations.
It’s a funky, fun, friendly and eclectic scene in Carrabassett Valley. So don’t miss checking out the local galleries that have made a true art out of upcycling or using local materials in their creations. Likewise, be sure to explore the locally-sourced food inspired menus in these small towns,
The region packs in a ton of things to do and see, and I can’t wait to go back with Chiclet to experience more of it. And to get one of those Orange Cat Cafe cinnamon rolls.
We left Bangor late on a Friday afternoon, with just enough daylight left to enjoy the scenery along US Route 2 after turning off Exit 150 in Interstate 95 toward Pittsfield and Skowhegan. In Madison we turned on to US201-A for a few miles before hitting 16W to our final destination of Kingfield, named after Maine’s first governor William King.
Kingfield, population 1,000, was our homebase for the next two days of exploration and is a great spot from which to access the area’s recreational, historical, cultural and culinary offerings. Located in a river valley created by the Carrabassett and West Branch of the Carrabassett Rivers that cut through the Longfellow mountain range, it’s hard to imagine a more scenic location, regardless of the time of year, whether those rivers and streams are snow and ice capped, bordered by the deep greens of the pine and spruce or decked out in vibrant fall foliage.