BELFAST, Maine -- Around here, there are two kinds of people: those who live in Belfast and those "from away." If you're one of the latter, the former won't mind if you stop and stay a spell. In fact, they'll be as welcoming and gracious as any visitor might hope. But compared with its better-known neighbors Bangor, Camden, and Rockland, Belfast is a quiet town, and people here, including the many artists who have made the little port their home for the past few decades, like it that way.
"We're real artists, and we're real Mainers," says Charles Laurier Dufour , a photographer who owns the Indigo Gallery on Main Street. "We're here year-round. Belfast is a real community."
In other words, you won't find shops stacked with lighthouse-embroidered T-shirts or "galleries" cluttered with scented candles and suncatchers. And that, of course, is Belfast's appeal.
Settled by Scotch-Irish in the 18th century as a merchant port and shipbuilding center, the town by the 1960s had a blue-collar economy built around the railroad and the poultry, sardine, and potato processing plants that kept the freight trains coming. When the factories began closing in the 1970s and early '80s, depressed real-estate prices drew recent college graduates from Boston and other cities, as well as painters and sculptors who, for $20,000, could pick up a house with a barn just waiting to be converted to a studio. Two now-defunct high-end galleries moved in, but a collective called Artfellows set the tone, according to historian Megan Pinette , with "wild openings, the cheapest wine they could get their hands on, and a front door that wasn't even locked in the daytime." Those days are gone, but the creative spirit that engendered them has remained.
The heart of Belfast is its quarter-mile-long Main Street, which is set on a hillside and lined with densely packed Federal-style and High Victorian brick storefronts. Some boutiques , such as Colburn's , the uncontested oldest shoe store in America, and The Chocolate Drop Candy Shoppe, are of the old-fashioned variety, while others recall the town's more recent hippie past. Coyote Moon , for example, features natural-fiber clothing, while The Green Store goes it one better with everything from fair-trade crafts to tree-free stationery and even composting toilets. We loved the Celtic-inspired jewelry at the Shamrock, Thistle, and Rose , and the bottle-cap belts, wallets sewn of laminated old books and magazines, and handbags plastered with photographs of Hong Kong tenements at Yo Mamma's Home . And no stroll along Main Street would be complete without stops at the many galleries offering everything from Dufour's inventive nudes to traditional Maine seascapes.
At the bottom of the hill, Main Street opens up to an expansive waterfront with views of Penobscot Bay to the right and the Passagassawakeag River to the left. Grassy Heritage Park is a great place for a picnic lunch (pick up something portable at the Bay Wrap ) and, if you stay long enough, the water itself will yield its treasures. We didn't have much luck, but we're told observant beachcombers often find brachiopod fossils and wave-worn blue-glass shards from the old Dana's Sarsaparilla factory. And keep your eye on those pilings just offshore. At high tide they look like nothing more than kelp-draped seagull perches, but we were surprised when the ebbing water slowly revealed the "harbor muses," the carved faces of a city-owned installation called "The Long Breath" by local artist Ron Cowan , whose "people" also congregate on the front lawn of nearby Sarah Johnson Quilts .
To the left at the bottom of Main Street is the first panel of the Museum in the Streets , a series of 30 laminated signs that bear a historic photo and a paragraph describing the site's importance. Though most of the stops on this self-guided walking tour -- including the First Church , the "great conflagration" of 1865, and the five-masted Jennie Flood Kreger , built in Belfast -- are in the downtown area, a complete circuit is about a 2 1/2-mile walk. We didn't stop at every checkpoint, but we combined the museum walk with an architectural walking tour of Church Street, since one of the delights of Belfast is its stunning Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic architecture. "Back in the '60s and '70s there was no money to tear them down and build something else," says Dufour.
Even after all that walking there's one more stroll that's worth the effort, if only for the sunset views: over the footbridge that takes you to the town's east side, across the bay. There you'll find several more gift shops and two Belfast institutions: Perry's Nut House, which, though it declined after being auctioned off in 1997, has reopened under new owners who understand the value of a good amaretto fudge, and Young's Lobster Pound , where you can get a lunchtime lobster roll for $12.95 or a sauteed lobster dinner for $21.95 (bring your own beer or wine). Our other dining favorites are on the downtown side of the water, and include Chase's Daily , with the best breakfast in town, and the Three Tides , which offers a modestly priced bar menu and amazing water views.
On this trip we splurged and stayed at the Inn at Ocean's Edge in Camden, about a 20-minute drive south on Route 1. Opened just a few years ago, it has bay views from almost every room, in-room Jacuzzis and fireplaces, and an upscale restaurant with desserts like warm blackberry and rosemary shortbread with ginger ice cream and fried peach. The inn is the ultimate in lux tranquillity. On a previous trip we stayed at the homey Jeweled Turret Inn , a turn-of-the-century Victorian in downtown Belfast whose owners, Carl and Cathy Heffentrager , make you feel as if you're "from here" even when you're not.
Elizabeth Gehrman, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at email@example.com.