PORTLAND, Maine — The holiday season, such as it was, is over. There’s barely any snow on the ground in southern Maine. Outdoors is a barren, frozen wasteland of crackled brown earth and dead grass waving in the lonely winter wind.
Coronavirus numbers are still soaring. The stuttering vaccine rollout is agonizingly slow. Isolation now feels like the norm. Nobody knows when life might return to normal, or if that dream is even possible.
The frigid winter blues are coming down — hard.
But take heart. There are still many options for getting out of the house for some relatively safe, cold-weather eating, drinking and merrymaking. Here are just a few.
Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Co.
It’s not hard to find Funky Bow owner Paul Lorrain. Just show up at his greenhouse tasting room in Lyman. On any given weekend, you’ll find him striding around, greeting nearly every customer by name with his booming, graveled voice.
Lorrain sees it has his duty, leaving most of the numbers and details to his trusted staff and business-partner son.
“My job is to walk around, talk to people and make sure they’re having a good time,” he said. “People have lots of options on where to spend their little dollar bills. We’re just trying to stay alive.”
Lorrain oversees a hidden, 25-acre compound snuggled among trees and bare granite ledge, up a dirt drive, near Goodwins Mills. There’s no sign on the road marking it, just two flags fluttering the words “beer” and “pizza.”
He used to be in the winter salad greens business, growing for local restaurants. Eight years ago, he switched to brewing beer. Lorrain converted one of his greenhouses into a tasting room shortly thereafter.
Now, there’s an ice skating rink, several fire pits and a full-sized disc golf course, as well. Dogs, including two of his own, have free reign over the place. Lorrain enforces a strict “no leash” rule.
There’s music, too.
Clockwise from left: Ryan Verhoven (left), Ken Goodrow (center) and Gretchen Lothrop huddle round one of the fires at Funky Bow brewery in Lyman on Jan. 24; Katy Cafaro takes her skates off at the edge of the rink; Jason Dubois pushes his daughter Maddie, 4, down the skating rink atop a couple of milk crates; musician Rob Pellerin plays and sings behind a clear, plexiglass wall inside the brewhouse loading dock; a pizza topped with fresh basil sits on a table. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
State coronavirus restrictions prevent him from hosting performers in his spacious greenhouse, but he figured out an alternative. Instead, he put up a plexiglass wall at one end of his brewery loading dock. Musicians play behind it, facing the compound, looking a little like a zoo attraction. One customer likened it to window shopping in Amsterdam.
“It’s nice, it’s warm and it’s better than not playing at all,” said Rob Pellerin, who played solo on Sunday. “I’m super-thankful for this. There’s no other places to play right now.”
A steady stream of customers came and went on Sunday. Some skated, some stood around the fires outside. Others munched pizza at well-spaced, inside picnic tables.
Lorrain said, despite the ongoing crisis, his business is holding its own.
“The 25 acres is our savior,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of room to spread out.”
The Rink at Thompson’s Point
A setting winter sun snuck just under a layer of gray clouds one afternoon last week. Our own local blazing star then shot a few dazzling rays across Portland’s Fore River, illuminating skaters at The Rink at Thompson’s Point.
Ruminative types circled the ice with their hands clasped behind their backs. Couples held hands. Teenagers laughed at top speed, their unzipped jackets flapping.
In the middle, lit up in a sudden sunbeam, a father twirled and swung his daughter on the ice. Her laughter, coupled with the unexpected burst of light, seemed to warm the frigid day — just a little, anyway.
Molly and Benn Breton opened The Rink in 2015. Since then, they’ve seen a steady increase in customers at the winter-only business. With the current coronavirus pandemic forcing people to look for more outdoor winter activities, business is up even more.
“We were very nervous going into our sixth season, but it has been one for the books,” Molly Breton said. “Even with the limitations of state curfew, max capacity and mask requirements, we have been successful.”
The Bretons are ice rink experts. They run a company that builds them all over the country — including in Boston’s Fenway Park. The Rink at Thompson’s Point is situated under a huge iron structure that used to be the train shed at the long-defunct Union Station. When the city tore down the stately granite depot in 1961, the shed was moved to the point, where it remains today.
In addition to the ice, the rink rents skates and skating aids for those just learning to glide on runners. It also offers warming fires and snack bar refreshments. Hot dogs, pretzels, hot chocolate, coffee and rotating taps of local beer fill the menu.
The Rink is open to the public five days a week and plans to close for the season Feb. 21. That’s when their annual 45-team hockey tournament begins. It’s a lot of work, and it keeps them busy.
“Many people even thank us daily just for being open, and that makes it all worth it,” Breton said.
Rising Tide Brewing Co.
The regular patio din of voices and city noises at Portland’s Rising Tide brewery is punctuated every so often by sounds of 6-foot zippers going up and down.
It’s part of the no-contact, COVID-safe dining and drinking they have going on there. Patrons sit at outdoor tables inside eight, see-through plastic bubbles. The spheres are warmed via hot air pumped in through hoses at the bottom. Servers take orders through the translucent film and then leave beer and snacks on a table just outside the dome.
Then — zip — down comes the zipper and thirsty customers reach a hand through the slit to retrieve their drinks. The process is repeated when it’s time to settle the bill.
“Although we are allowed to have guests inside, we did not feel comfortable with the elevated risk it created. Therefore, we decided we needed to come up with a solution that would make serving outdoors all-winter viable. ” said Kailey Partin, Rising Tide’s director of branding and hospitality. “The initial inspiration for our bubble tents came from the classic Maine activity of ice fishing — fishing huts.”
Clockwise from left: Patrons eat and drink inside plastic, heated bubbles at Rising Tide brewery in Portland on Jan. 22; Rianna Lincoln (left) and Will Burdick have drinks with friends by a gas faire; server Amelia Gratta takes drink orders from outside her patrons’ sealed and heated bubble. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
On a Friday night, Rising Tide’s domes were full. They’ve proven popular and reservations are required to snag one. Dogs are welcome and reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance. On the other side of the brewery’s massive parking lot-turned-patio, there’s a more traditional setup of gas fires and heaters. They’re for walk-in customers.
When customers are finished, servers fully unzip the doors and set about cleaning and wiping down surfaces inside.
Partin said the bubbles are just part of the evolving, COVID-affected hospitality environment.
“When the realities of the pandemic came to light we quickly realized we needed to change our business model so that we could continue to create a community space but follow the science to lower risk to our guests and team,” she said.
Partin added that that evolution probably isn’t over just yet.
“We are so thankful to our team,” she said, “For their incredible hard work and our community for sticking with us to — hashtag — embrace winter.”